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"I was seated next to a young Muslim," he wrote, a diplomat from one of the Middle Eastern embassies. In our brief conversation, I asked him how long he had been in Washington. 'Less than a year,' was his answer. I asked him what it was like for him to live and work in our nation's capital. He smiled. 'We're not supposed to say this kind of thing, but this is a wonderful place to be.' And then he added a comment, gesturing toward the platform as he said it: 'Washington is the center of the universe.'"
I suspect that is the way our Ethiopian friend whom we met in the lesson felt about Jerusalem. Apparently he was what was called a "God-fearer" - the designation given by Jews to those who were not Jewish but who had expressed faith in their God. No matter how devout this fellow might have been, he would never have been welcomed as a convert - he was a eunuch. Hebrew law was explicit: "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD." (2) Very graphic. Very explicit. Very harsh, and especially since such a situation would not normally be of an individual's own choosing. A male, but not quite a man. A sexual misfit. The issue in the Jewish mind was family - a eunuch could not have one, so, they were thought of as under some sort of divine curse, an obvious disqualification for participation in temple observances.
I give credit to this fellow. He could have thumbed his nose at the Jews and their God for treating him so shabbily, for excluding him based on a sexuality that was thrust on him, not out of some perversion, but may well have been since his childhood to qualify him for service in the royal court. He was apparently most intelligent, skilled and talented, because he had risen to become one of the queen's highest officials - cabinet rank... Secretary of the Treasury and Chairman of the Federal Reserve all rolled into one. Why would someone who has achieved such a station in life be willing to accept the insults of another religion when he could have avoided such shame by sticking with the beliefs of Ethiopia? SOMETHING must have convinced him that the God of the Jews was no ordinary god, that THIS god was GOD.
That is why he had been in Jerusalem, a city thought of by people of faith as God's home town. God-fearers, then and now, look forward to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem just as devout Muslims dream of a Hajj to Mecca. For a man who took his faith as seriously as this man did, it would have been like being in the center of the universe.
Now, he was going home. As he rode, he read - the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Interesting choice...for a eunuch. Isaiah had some words of hope for men in our friend's condition. In the prophet's vision of the age to come was a picture of the eunuch no longer excluded, no longer complaining of being "a dry tree," one without hope of descendants, because God would reward the faithful eunuch with a lasting monument and name in the Temple - yes, actually IN the Temple (where this man was not now allowed even to set foot) which would be far better than sons or daughters. (3) At the moment he is struggling with the passage we have come to know as Isaiah 53: "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people." (4)
Future? What future? This man has been "cut off." He will have no future, no posterity, no descendants. He is like the eunuch. No children, no family. It is almost as if the eunuch is reading his own story. No wonder he wonders.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, our friend meets another traveler on this desert road. We who are familiar with the story know that it is not an accidental encounter - God had sent Philip there to help this seeker in his search.
A wonderful (and perhaps disquieting) lesson there, I think. These opportunities are not accidental. God PUTS us in places where we can witness. God provides those who are willing the occasion to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Just as I want to credit the eunuch with keeping the faith in spite of obvious obstacles, let me credit Philip here for his willingness to follow the Lord's lead. By way of background, Philip was one of the church's first deacons, the seven individuals who were chosen to assist the apostles with the social ministry of assisting those in need. (5) However, within a short time, the deacons' job description had expanded to preaching and teaching as well. Just prior to this encounter on the Gaza road, this willing worker had led a successful preaching mission to Samaria. Philip might well have said, "Gee Lord, I'd rather stay right where I am - the city with all its people and activities and great needs. This has been a good ministry here in Samaria; let me keep on keeping on. But, to his eternal credit, Philip was willing to get up and get going...even to down to a dry, dusty (and dangerous) wilderness road, to a lone figure in the desert.
As the story goes, Philip comes running up to our swarthy friend. He chases down this chariot and talks to this guy while jogging along side. He finds him struggling over scripture, and asks (between attempts at catching his breath), "Do you understand what you are reading?"
"How can I, unless someone guides me? Can you help? Climb on in here. I would LOVE to understand." Once Philip was in the chariot, the eunuch asks, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this - sheep to slaughter, a lamb before its shearer, justice denied, life taken away - about himself or about someone else?"
And how did Philip respond? Why as we might expect: he put his arm around the man's shoulder, looked earnestly, even piercingly, into his eyes and asked, "Friend, have you been born again?"
"Are you saved?"
"Friend, if you were to die tonight, do you know if you would go to heaven?"
Of course not. Philip started where this seeker was. He had heard the questions, and answered them. That simple. He did not try to talk theology to the man. There were no creeds to be followed, no doctrines to be affirmed. There was just the story of Philip's special friend, Jesus. For those who care about reaching others for Christ, and want a truly biblical model for evangelism, this is it - one person telling another about someone very special: Jesus. Some might like the flashy Elmer Gantry-style crusade. The Bible seems to like Philip's way. Did we not say earlier that we are first introduced to this man as Philip the Deacon? Within a few more chapters, he has begun to be called Philip the Evangelist. (6)
A little boy returned home after his first Sunday school class. His mother asked who his teacher was, and the little boy answered, "I don't remember her name, but she must have been Jesus' grandmother because she didn't talk about anyone else." (7) Good for her.
Do you want to be as winsome a witness as Philip? Then just tell the story. Tell about Jesus, not as some sort of ultimate fire insurance, but tell about him as YOU have come to know him...in your own life, in your family, in your church. No need to theologize. If a specific question is asked, answer it. Other than that, tell your story.
By the way, if we ever hope to have an opportunity to share our own experience of faith with a friend, it would be a good idea if we have thought about it some beforehand. What you would answer if someone came up to you and asked you point-blank about why you became a Christian and what being a Christian and a member of Christ's church has meant to you? Perhaps you had an experience like Paul on the road to Damascus that utterly changed the direction of your life. Or perhaps you grew up in a Christian home and, one day, just very naturally, you realized that you did indeed trust Christ as your Lord and Savior...a conscious decision on your part, but a relatively easy one. Then think of what that decision has done in your life...the comfort in times of trial, the happy fellowship in times of joy. Try to put that into words so that, when the time seems right, you can share it with someone who wants to hear.
Something Philip said made a profound impression on the Ethiopian. "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" he asked. Something Philip had shared gave this man the idea that, where religion had excluded him before, now he would be welcomed. "What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
There is something wonderfully instructive here if you happen to have an old King James Version of the Bible handy to compare it to a more modern translation. In the King James, Philip's response to the eunuch's question is, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And the eunuch answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." All RIGHT! But the newer Bibles, that had the benefit of better manuscripts for their source material, leave this verse out all together. The flow is, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him." Hmm.
The scriptural account gives no indication that Philip hesitated, but well he might have. "What is to prevent you? Well, for starters you are a different race - Gentile. Color - that could be a problem. Then, there is this sexuality thing - you are different, and, as far as some folks think, that would disqualify you. Of course, you have not jumped through the theological hoops - making a profession of faith in just the right way, using just the right words. (This is the problem that the King James editors were trying to fix to make the story more theologically correct.) I mean, have you prayed the sinner's prayer? No? Well. What is to prevent you from being baptized? Lots of things. And if you will give me a bit of time, I will think of even more."
But to Philip's eternal credit - and to the church's eternal edification - there was no objection, no pre-condition. This Ethiopian eunuch, so long an outsider in the household of faith, was now welcomed as a member of the family. It was a rare and wonderful moment.
like the wideness of the sea;
There's a kindness in God's justice,
which is more than liberty.
Grand old hymn. But there is more to it than just those first few lines. There is a little known verse that, for some reason, is not included in our Presbyterian Hymnal (I have no idea why). It goes this way:
by false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
with a zeal he will not own.
The hymn concludes with the verse that begins:
than the measures of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
is most wonderfully kind. (8)
We are convicted by that missing middle verse. We make God's love too narrow by false limits that are ours, not God's. We do it all the time. One way or another we say, "You do not belong here, you are too old, too young, too poor, too wealthy..." (9)
It intrigues me that this story of Philip and the eunuch are joined in the Lectionary with the passage from 1st John: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love." Philip shared the good news of Jesus Christ out of a heart of love. The eunuch was accepted in God's great love. WE are accepted because of God's love. We share the message out of love.
How does the story end? Suddenly, this winsome witness by the name of Philip is gone, as miraculously as he had appeared. The eunuch "went on his way rejoicing," and tradition says became the first Christian missionary in Africa. Praise God!
Now, with whom can I share the story?
1. Quoted by C. Thomas Hilton, "Living at the Center of the Universe," Preaching Magazine, via Internet
2. Deuteronomy 23:1
3. Isaiah 56:3-5
4. Isaiah 53:7-8
5. Read the story in Acts 6:1-6
6. Acts 21:8
7. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 490.
8. F. W. Faber, 1854
9. Rob Elder, via PresbyNet, "Sermonshop 1997 04 27," #48