Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 3, 2015
Acts 8:26-40 Commentary
May I just ask a rather simple, straightforward question: Where in the whole wide world did this Ethiopian fellow get a copy of Isaiah??
I mean, it’s not like he had downloaded it onto his Kindle. It’s not as though while he was in Jerusalem he found it on the “remaindered scrolls” table at the local Flea Market nor in the “Used Scrolls” section of the Jerusalem Barnes & Noble.
These things just were not floating around, readily available for rental or purchase. In fact, from what little I know about the world before Guttenberg invented the printing press, all print matter materials were rare. Even most synaogogues would be expected to have perhaps at most a single copy of the Scriptures. Nothing in print existed that had not been carefully done by hand as original copies only—carbon sheets and papyrus were notoriously ineffective!—and that just was not that common.
So where did this man—a high official in a foreign court, I will grant you—lay his hands on a copy of sacred Scripture? You don’t suppose he stole the thing, do you? Or did he manage to use his wealth to buy it off some Roman occupier who had lifted it from a synagogue? But why would he do that? Was the Queen of Ethiopia a collector of rare manuscripts such that this particular courtier was thinking he’d curry favor with her Majesty by bringing back a new item for her collection?
However it happened that he got a hold of this thing, it seems fair to say that his acquiring a copy of Isaiah was rare. Probably it was not done for any spiritual or particularly noble purpose. Possibly it represents an odd—albeit perhaps not completely unheard of—collision of circumstances, the holy “coincidence” of which is only enhanced when at just about precisely the exact correct moment, Philip finds this guy reading Isaiah’s words with a decidedly quizzical and confused look on his face.
In other words, lots of things had to go exactly right for this story to have happened the way it did.
Does it strike you as maybe a lot of divine providential fuss to get at just this one eunuch (himself an unlikely candidate for divine favor according to other parts of the very Hebrew Scriptures the man was reading)? And is this perhaps all the more strange given that we have no idea whatsoever as to whatever became of this eunuch? We are told that he went on his way rejoicing, which is a positive thing, but did the man have a ministry beyond that? Did the Gospel come to Ethiopia and to the royal court there on account of this man’s new baptismal identity in Christ?
We don’t know. As with the fate and future of just about every person whom Jesus ever healed in the four gospels, we just don’t know what became of this eunuch. The New Testament is chockfull of nameless, faceless folks who got touched by Jesus and, later, by his apostles, but who then disappear into the narrative ether. Yet at the heart of this well-known story we do indeed see a most marvelous portrait of grace. To God, apparently, and to his incessantly active Holy Spirit, it was not too much effort to get all the game pieces on this particular chessboard moving so as to make everything happen in just the right sequence to save just one lone man. Even as Philip must have been utilized in a spectacular way to get this man from puzzlement over Isaiah to a joy-drenched baptism in a river in a very brief span of time, so the Spirit did all kinds of quietly spectacular things to make this come together.
Commentators think this little narrative is inserted into this section of Acts as a kind of “Meanwhile” scene. Sometimes you see this on a TV series or in a movie: the main action of the film is happening in Moscow perhaps or in London but then the screen fades to black and a narrator may say “Meanwhile, on a small farm somewhere outside Tulsa . . .” and then we cut to a whole new out-of-the-way scene that reveals something really important to the plot. In this case, this little “Meanwhile” scene is meant to convey to us that whatever else was happening in the still-forming early church, the gospel was indeed spreading far and wide. The believers had been forced to scatter after the shocking event of Stephen’s dreadful martyrdom—and a certain man who will be called the Apostle Paul has not yet arrived on the scene to bring Jesus to the Gentiles—but nevertheless and “Meanwhile . . .” things were on the move in a global sense.
It’s not different today. Because among other things, this little story from Acts 8 should remind us that at any given moment—and I do indeed mean at ANY and EVERY given moment—there is always a “Meanwhile . . .” scene to which we could cut and in which we’d witness a stunning work of the Holy Spirit taking place in all kinds of unexpected ways and places and involving all kinds of unexpected folks.
The Spirit of Jesus never stops. Thanks be to God!
Perhaps one of the best World War II movies ever made was Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In the story, a squadron of soldiers is dispatched across France right after D-Day to locate Private James Francis Ryan. All four of his brothers had already been killed in the war, and so General Marshall decides that the last remaining son was going to go home to his bereft mother before she loses him, too.
In the course of saving this one man, most of the original squad is killed in various skirmishes along the way. At the end of the film, as the squad’s leader, Captain Miller, is also dying, he looks Private Ryan full in the face and says, “Earn this! Earn this!” But how can a person earn what has already been given to him? He can’t. It was a gift that he could not earn before he got it and certainly it makes little sense to talk about earning something after you already get it. That’s why we generally don’t give people paychecks until after the work is done and the hours are put in. You earn it first. You can’t earn it if you already have it in the bank.
But the idea there was that Ryan needed to lead a changed life because of what he had been given. The experience of others’ sacrificing themselves for the good of Ryan and his mother (whom they never even met) was to be so great as to alter his life’s course so that, in a sense, he could earn it, be worthy of it, in retrospect after all.
The sacrifice of Jesus that we encounter in baptism—and that those of us who were baptized long ago remember each time we see someone get baptized—is like that. The person who gets baptized, be that person an infant, a child, or an adult, does not get baptized because he or she earned it or attained a sufficient level of understanding of the gospel as to make it OK to be baptized. Baptism is not the end result of a process but a free gift that begins a process. After baptism everything we do should demonstrate that we, in some way, understand, we “get it.” We don’t really “earn” our baptisms but we live in such a way that we demonstrate that we know full well what the man who did earn our salvation went through in order to allow us to share in his death and resurrection. It’s already been earned for us. We now live to show our praise for that glorious gospel fact as each of us goes on his or her way rejoicing.
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