Sermons That Work

Philip the Deacon Was…, Easter 5 (B) – 2009

May 10, 2009

Philip the Deacon was one of the seven appointed deacons Luke mentions in the sixth chapter of Acts, and he is perhaps more properly thought of as Philip the Evangelist. His preaching mission in Samaria not only brought the followers of Simon Magus to be baptized as followers of Jesus, but also converted the magician himself, who was amazed at the signs and miracles that were taking place around Philip’s preaching. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Philip is nudged by an angel of the Lord to put himself in the way of meeting a very powerful person indeed: the chief treasurer, who was also a eunuch, from the court of the Candace of Ethiopia.

This ancient Chief Financial Officer had been up to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home down the wilderness road to Gaza on the coast. Philip saw the great chariot and the man in it, reading aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. After the Spirit tells Philip to join the eunuch in his chariot, the two men began reading Isaiah together, and Philip explained what we would call one of the “Suffering Servant” songs as a reference to Jesus. After further conversation, the man was baptized and Philip moved on again, as it says in verse 38, “snatched away by the Spirit of the Lord.”

The section is part of Luke’s careful literary composition. It shows in the first few chapters of Acts, before Paul’s conversion and travels, that the Good News of Jesus Christ crossed several boundaries in a rapid and Spirit-filled expansion of apostolic witness – as it says in verse 8, “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Like the people of Samaria, who were considered only half-Jews, the Ethiopian convert is beyond the social boundary of Temple Judaism in Jerusalem. He is presumably still a gentile, but given his interest in Isaiah, he might well have been one of the God-fearers who clustered around synagogues at this time. At any rate, when he is baptized by Deacon Philip, the unnamed foreigner of wealth, power, and influence becomes a representative of the spread of the gospel to gentiles.

The epistle reading for today is one of those ecstatic pieces of John on the subject of love. Its thrust echoes the gospel reading in which Jesus holds forth about uniting together in him and with him like branches on a grapevine. Only with such uniting love, and with such persistent steadiness of “abiding” can we be sure of bearing the fruits of the Spirit. As we move through the Easter season, the thrust of the Holy Spirit in the workings of new life in Christ comes more to the forefront.

Deacon Philip’s evangelism is not usually equated with the work of love, but he embodies the commandment to love our neighbors, especially when those neighbors are strangers, people who are entirely “other.” Practicing evangelism is often no more and no less than learning how to encounter strangers with the openness and readiness of Jesus himself. And Philip shows us how there is a whole lot of love that needs to be expressed on the way to conversion and baptism.

Deacon Philip seized the opportunity to join the Ethiopian on the man’s own terms, reading what he was reading, answering the man’s questions, bringing the conversation around to Jesus. To proclaim our faith in the risen Jesus as a work of love among all our neighbors needs the gentle nudges as well as the motivating powers of the Holy Spirit. And we had best abide firmly and deeply rooted, planted in the ways of Jesus himself.

Recall the Jesus portrayed in Luke’s gospel, the Jesus who encountered strangers and loved them as if they were his kinfolk – whether they were lepers who needed to be touched to be healed, a nameless woman bleeding to death, a young girl who was deaf, a Roman centurion. The list in Luke and in the other gospels goes on and on.

The work of the Holy Spirit that brings us deeper into new life in the risen Christ is the same work of the Holy Spirit that teaches us to love the strangers we encounter, and how to honor and respect the dignity and integrity of the “other,” the “different” and the “alien” among us.

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Christopher Sikkema


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