(by Rev Paul Graham)
Read Acts 8:26-40
Just over two years ago, I was delighted to take part in a baptism here at the church. One of our young people wanted to make public his commitment to follow Christ and was followed into the water by two other teenagers who took the opportunity to do the same. A lot of wet clothes and damp eyes all round.
The Bible passage chosen by the intended for the baptismal service was the one for today: Philip and his meeting with the Ethiopian official. At its conclusion, we hear that the carriage is near a handy roadside water feature and the official is welcomed into the family of faith by literally taking the plunge. A good example of following Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). At least Ethiopia can be ticked off the list of countries…
This passage is indeed a great one for a baptism, though it does beg the question why we make our prospective candidates attend classes before we allow them into the water. Something for another time, perhaps.
But for today, let’s spend time looking at other aspects of the story. Philip is the focal point for the narrative, having been prominent in the action from the beginning of the chapter. We know that he was moving around Samaria, visiting unnamed cities to proclaim the Good News with a high degree of success. We even hear that the effects of his preaching meant that Peter and John paid a follow up visit to the area (Acts 8:14-17).
Of course, animosity between Jews and Samaritans was legendary (hence the shock value of the parable of the Good Samaritan), so there would have been risks associated with the time they all spent in the area. But such is the power of God’s gospel of grace, the danger is not even worthy of Luke’s mention. From the cities to the villages, to the highways and byways, the Good News is met with a receptive audience.
Such is the context for the story we hear today. Philip is finished with the urban sprawl for the time being, as God leads him in a southerly direction to see what transpires. While on his way, and note this carefully, Philip encounters the Ethiopian official reading aloud from the book of Isaiah. Whether this was a memento from his trip to Jerusalem (“Dear Queen, I saw this and thought of you…”) or some reading material for the journey is probably not that important; suffice to say that it was causing him a bit of a headache.
Philip approaches and the conversation takes place as you can read at your leisure.
But what are the important lessons that we can glean from this encounter that will help us today in this time of changing circumstance, as lockdown eases and face masks become the must have fashion accessory of 2020?
Well, there are a few things that we can take away with us from this passage before we even get to the watery bit.
For a start, if we ever feel like emulating Philip, be prepared for the journey as well as the destination. Philip may have thought that the direction from the Lord was to head to a certain place; after all, the road was one that led from metropolis to the coast. Maybe he thought that he was on his way abroad with the chance to start a new life in one of the Roman colonies, or to sail, Jonah-esque, for far off shores.
Either way, Philip was obedient. And it was while he was on his way (remember) that he met the unnamed official. In a way, he was enacting another part of Jesus’ command, one which we usually don’t translate properly. The Great Commission, as referenced earlier, contains (according to the NIV) the instruction by Jesus to “go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), but this should properly be rendered as “go, and as you are going make disciples”. Jesus wanted to remind his followers, and by extension remind us, that disciple-making is to happen on the way.
A quick scan through the Gospels shows us that Jesus had the same mindset. Have a look through Luke’s Gospel and see how many episodes of Jesus life start with a similar phrase to “while he was on his way…”. Even once he had set his sights on Jerusalem as his final destination (Luke 9:51), he encountered many who needed him en route. Jesus knew the value of the journey as much as the destination. Philip was following in his footsteps.
At the moment we still don’t know when this pandemic is going to end, or when life will return to those heady February days of not having to work out how far 2 metres measures between us. Or even if life should return to how we lived it. But the risk is to put everything on hold until we reach this destination.
Philip was attentive to God while on his way, while he was on the road, even as he didn’t know what was waiting for him at his destination. We too have the opportunity to continue to be attentive to God while we are on our way, while we are living in these troubling times, even as we don’t know what is waiting for us at our destination.
I’ll finish with a prayer; you are welcome to make it your prayer, adapt it for your circumstances or write one of your own.
Whose Son lived the journey as well as the destination,
encountering many who needed him, delayed him, and caused him to pause.
May we too be attentive to those we encounter
on our way into your future.
We do not know where our journey will take us,
or who will be drawn into our way.
But give us the faith of Philip,
to hear their appeal
and share the hope of your Good News
with all who need you.