If the Holy Spirit is a bit like a stone dropped into the middle of a pond, then Acts 8:26-40’s story is like one of the concentric rings that ripples out from it and across God’s world. But it’s only one of the first of a series of rings that continues to spread to this very day.
In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If the Spirit is “the stone” to which I alluded earlier, its first landing spot is on the first Pentecost in Jerusalem. Acts 2:4, after all, reports, “All of [those who’d gathered there] were filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 2-8 focuses on the Jerusalem on which God first “drops” the Spirit. It describes how the Spirit moves into thousands of converts and through the apostles into people with various physical disabilities. While Jesus’ Spirit-filled followers encounter growing hostility, not even that hostility to the gospel and those who proclaim it can stop the Spirit from spreading into more and more people.
Acts 6 recounts how Jesus’ first followers include seven Grecian Jews whom the apostles appoint to minister to Grecian Jewish widows. Those new deacons include Stephen and Philip whom the Spirit graciously uses to continue to spread God’s Word (Acts 6:7).
With their election, however, hostility to the gospel turns deadly. After all, religious leaders seize Stephen, try him in religious court and sentence him to death. His subsequent execution (8:1) triggers further hostility that takes the form of “persecution.” The Spirit, however, turns that persecution into a kind of second concentric ring of the Spirit’s movement. Persecution, after all, sends the apostles out from Jerusalem through Judea and into Samaria.
Those who are aware of the historic tension between the Jews and Samaritans may be surprised by Philip’s proclamation of the gospel in a Samaritan city. They’re probably even more startled by the positive effect his, as well as Peter and John’s proclamation has in Samaria. That witness, after all, fills that city with “great joy” (8:8).
Yet while Acts 8:25 suggests that the Spirit then sends Peter and John from Samaria back to Jerusalem, verse 26 reports that the Spirit sends Philip even farther into the Samaritan “hinterlands.” In fact, it’s so far “out there” that Martin Marty compares the end of its highway to one of those gas stations at the edge of a desert whose sign reads: “Last gas for 150 miles …” To paraphrase an old cliché, if where the Spirit sends Philip isn’t the end of the world, you can almost see it from there.
The man whom Philip meets out in the middle of nowhere may be almost as far “out there” as their meeting place. Acts 8:16 reports, after all, that the man is Ethiopian. Will Willimon suggests that the term “Ethiopian” in the Greco-Roman world usually connoted black skin. So he’s what Willimon calls “a person from an exotic land, the edge of the world, timbuktu, someone whose dark skin makes him an object of wonder and admiration among Jews and Romans” (Acts: John Knox Press, p. 72).
Acts 8:16 reports, however, that the Ethiopian man is also a “eunuch.” Martin Marty (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts, Eerdmans, p. 556) notes that most Ethiopian officials in his time were castrated. That, of course, would have kept the man to whom the Spirit sent Philip out of the heart of Jerusalem’s temple. Yet as Marty also notes, “eunuch was often also [simply] a title for people who served in the court.” So we’re not completely sure just what it means that the man from Ethiopia was a “eunuch.”
So perhaps Luke is saying little more than that the man to whom the Spirit sends Philip is quite “other.” After all, this man who’s riding home through “other” Samaria likely has dark skin. The gentile whom Philip meets near the edge of the world may also be emasculated. Clearly, then, the Spirit is stretching out farther than most of Jesus’ first followers would have expected. Or than where they’d have expected the Spirit to send them.
Yet some elements of Acts 8 seem less “out there.” The Ethiopian eunuch’s devotions include Isaiah 53’s well-known but haunting words about a suffering servant whom people unjustly torture and slaughter. While most Christians have come to see this as a prophecy about Jesus the Christ, the Ethiopian hasn’t. He recognizes that he needs help if he’s to understand what he’s reading. This member of the queen’s cabinet asks a member of King Jesus’ court if Isaiah is talking about himself or someone else.
Ironically, of course, the prophet may, in fact, be talking about both himself and someone else. Philip, however, chooses to focus on the way Isaiah points ahead to Jesus. He uses Isaiah 53 as a stepping-stone to a gospel presentation about the good news of God’s grace received through faith in Jesus Christ.
Yet many of Philip’s Jewish contemporaries have a hard time believing that Isaiah was talking about anyone but himself or one of his own contemporaries. So in the eyes of some of them, even a Christo-centric understanding of Isaiah 53 is something of a “reach” for the Spirit.
Yet nothing may be more of a reach than the story’s next element. After all, Philip and his new Ethiopian friend are traveling on “the desert road.” Near the edge of the world. Yet what do they just “happen” (Marty) to ride past once they finish their Bible study? “Some water” (36).
When Isaiah talks about God’s coming kingdom, he refers to “streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:19). And when the psalmist talks about God’s redeeming work, he looks forward to “streams in the Negev” (Psalm 126:4). So we can imagine that Acts’ biblically literate first audience heard something very hopeful when they heard about the desert water Philip and the Ethiopian find.
Yet in the baptism that the Ethiopian receives there, we may also find a bit of a “stretch.” How, after all, do Christians usually prepare adults to be baptized? Often with extensive preparation in biblical, confessional and ecclesiastical studies. Yet how does Philip prepare the Ethiopian for baptism? With what may be a Cliff’s Notes version of the Scriptures.
The next scattering happens after Philip baptizes the Ethiopian government official. Since the Spirit won’t stay in the desert, the Spirit won’t let the Spirit’s messengers stay there either. So the Spirit whisks Philip away to Azotus on his way to Caesarea. The Spirit, the gospel and the apostles are, after all, on the move towards the ends of the earth.
That movement also perhaps helps explain legends about the Ethiopian whom God graciously converts. Acts merely reports that he goes “on his way rejoicing” (39). Yet Eusebius is among those who report that when the Ethiopian returns home, he becomes an evangelist. As Willimon writes, “While our text says nothing of this, we can understand how this lively story of an Ethiopian who appears from nowhere, responds to the gospel, and joyfully goes his way elicited an imaginative response from the church, for in his story we can what the good news can do” (72).
However, the good news, through the power of the Holy Spirit, does an even more shocking thing than convert an Ethiopian God-fearer in the text that follows the one the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday. Acts 9, after all, describes God’s conversion of God, Jesus’ followers and his Church’s perhaps greatest enemy of his day: Saul. He hadn’t just publicly approved of Stephen’s martyrdom. Saul also began Acts 9 “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples (1). Yet the Lord knocks him off his high horse and into the kingdom of God. God even transforms Saul’s name into Paul. The Spirit of Acts is, after all, on the loose, refusing to be limited by geography, nationality, sexuality or religion.
The Spirit continues to stretch out towards the ends of the earth that God so deeply loves. Even into places of deep division, hostility and violence.
I have a colleague who, as I write this, is conducting a workshop on healing the wounds caused by ethnic conflict. He’s leading that conference in one of the most tense and violent places on earth. It’s on the frontline of a war in a town that has changed hands several times in just the past few years. In fact, each night my colleague is being whisked away from the sight of the conference to a safer location.
Yet in and through his colleagues and him, the Spirit isn’t just reaching out to a dangerous place. The Spirit is also reaching out to people who stand firmly entrenched on both sides of a bitter conflict that has raged for more than 100 years. Many of us are at least a bit skeptical that even the Spirit can heal their old, deep and painful wounds. So we may need to spend more time reading about Acts’ amazingly effective work of the Spirit.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 29, 2018
Acts 8:26-40 Commentary