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We Are Each Unique, Other and All One

Hilary Wenzel - April 28, 2024

Scripture reading: Acts 8: 26-40 The Conversion of the Ethiopian Official

We are in the lectionary season of Easter, and the Book of Acts describes the early spread of Post-Easter Good News beyond Jerusalem. The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian tells the first conversion and baptism of an individual foreigner.

I was drawn to it because it happened on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Today this region is of grave consequence. What was it like at the dawn of Christianity?

Who was Phillip? What moved him to act as he did? Earlier in Acts, he was among those chosen with Stephen, to make sure charity was given fairly among the Hebrew-Jewish and Greek-Jewish widows. Phillip is a Greek name. We’re told these were men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and wisdom…the first Church Deacons.

As background, Stephen is accused of religious treason and is brought before the Sanhedrin, the religious Supreme Court. His sermon enrages them. He is stoned to death. and Saul starts a great persecution of Jesus followers in Jerusalem.

Phillip escapes to a city in Samaria, preaching, performing signs, and baptizing. He is well received. Was he from this sanctuary city? Samaria stretched from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean, and separated Galilee to the north from Judea/Jerusalem in the south. Much of old Samaria today is called the West Bank.

Samaritans claimed their origins among the original Hebrew tribes, yet they were of multicultural descent. They also claimed the location of the true Temple. They followed only the 1st 5 books of the OT. They were not exiled from their land, as were Israel and Judah. For these reasons, they were looked down on and avoided.

Jesus broke a cultural religious travel ban when he traveled through Samaria on his way to Galilee. He met and spoke with the woman at the well, breaking even more taboos. He told the parable of the Good Samaritan. In the opening passages of Acts, he told his apostles they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

So there were likely Jesus followers in Samaria since Jesus first traveled through there. Perhaps Phillip was one of them. Later in Acts (21:8) he is called Phillip the Evangelist. After his encounter with the Ethiopian, he traveled north along the seaside, proclaiming the Good News. He eventually settled in Caesarea, on Samaria’s northern coast. There, we’re told, he had 4 daughters who were prophets.

Being full of the Spirit and wisdom, and aware of the commission to spread the Good News, Phillip left the relative safety of Samaria behind…to walk the road that went southwest from Jerusalem to Gaza. (Sometimes I think an angel is someone who tells us something uncomfortable, so we can grow). He is open to the Spirit urging him to approach a foreigner in a parked chariot…perhaps to offer roadside assistance.

We don’t know where the Ethiopian was on the road. All we do know about him is from this passage in Acts. We can infer that his appearance was foreign - from clothing, hair, facial features, skin tone, even chariot design. He didn’t have, nor was he part of someone’s retinue, which suggests he was on personal business. He could read and had a sacred text, probably in a language not his own. On first impression, he is someone of high status.

Phillip runs closer and hears what the man is reading. They probably introduce themselves in some customary way. Phillip learns that he is the top financial official of the Ethiopian Queen, far to the south….And he is a spiritual seeker! (The Holy Spirit does work in awesome and mysterious ways sometimes).

The man could take time and resources for a religious pilgrimage. He could do this because of his uniqueness, his eunuch status. Did his position automatically identify him as a eunuch? In some ancient royal courts it was a way to ensure the lineage of power. By some means, he was made un-whole. Was this the way he was born, or did it occur with or without his consent? Did he telegraph his difference in speech or manners? Or did he matter-of-factly include this information with his Title?

He had every right to be proud of his position, but was he proud of himself? Was he oppressed, despite his privilege? Was he subject to microaggressions at Court or more overt discrimination abroad? He went to Jerusalem to worship. How was he received there?

Phillip found him reading aloud from Isaiah. Did people only read aloud from sacred texts? Was God more likely to hear him on this desert road?

What he was reading is part of Isaiah’s suffering servant songs. Isaiah was an important prophet to Jews and Jesus followers alike. It told of Jerusalem’s judgment through exile and captivity, and its restoration to centrality in the world. This would come about through a royal Savior who would be rejected by the people, but who would be rewarded in the end. In contemporary Judaism, the suffering servant is often a reference for the Jewish Nation.

For Jesus, it may have been a roadmap for his chosen path. It became foundational for his followers and much of Christianity, foretelling his destiny as Messiah. In some Bibles, this account of evangelism, conversion and baptism in Acts is emphasized with an added verse, the Ethiopian’s statement of faith. Phillip shared the Good News about Jesus starting from it.

I think the Ethiopian troubled over this passage because he also was a suffering servant. Listen to verse 33 of Acts. “In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who will describe his generation? For his life is taken from the earth”. This stranger was alone. He had no family to tell of his life after he died. This weekend I was at a memorial service for a beloved uncle. His adult children recited the Kaddish Yatom, a prayer said nightly for a year after a parent dies, and then annually on the anniversary of this death. The Ethiopian would never have this kind of remembrance and love. Phillip understood his pain and told him that through Jesus, God’s Love was for him too. They went into the water, and he came out rejoicing, a new man…still unique, but now included.

Each of us is unique. We have characteristics and beliefs that identify us with, or separate us from others. The Good News is that we are all One in the love of God. Our job, our commission, is to live out that Good News.




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