Church in the western world has enjoyed an elevated status for many years. That status, as we are painfully aware, is no more. And so we mourn the loss of what once was. But how intently do we look for what will be? Like the exiles in Babylon, do we hang our “harps” on our trees, refusing to sing songs of praise to God (Psalm 137)? Or, like Jeremiah, do we seek the welfare of the city where we find ourselves planted, no matter the circumstances (Jeremiah 29:7)? Perhaps what’s lost on we who have had the fortune of growing up nurtured by Christian culture is the notion that God’s spirit is not absent, even when we feel it is. When the Holy Spirit finds welcome and space to work, there is still no holding it back. Which means many churches need to do some soul searching. Because culture has shifted away from the institutional church, will we become paralyzed and thus unreceptive to the Holy Spirit? Or, might this be just the time when God is prepared to do something new among those who are looking for God’s Spirit, loosed among the people? With this in mind, Acts 8 and its surrounding context is instructive.
Throughout the gospels, we see God at work in a new way through Jesus. Jesus is not against the purpose of the law, the function of the temple, and the role of those who serve it. Jesus’ growing concern is that the law and the temple have become a means unto themselves rather than something that points participants to someone far greater. But the Jewish religion had become an institution that conferred power and prestige back on those who served in its system – giving priests, pharisees, sadducees and the ruling class meaning and clout. Citizens of Israel identified with the Temple, too. It was the most important monument and the most significant national and religious institution for Jews of the first century. Over time, the function of the temple as a place to worship God had morphed from a dynamic, formative act to an institutional checklist.
Jesus’ challenge to the temple institution, to rediscover and implement true worship, is much of what sends him to the cross. And the story continues as the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to those who follow the Spirit into places and to people that the temple doesn’t touch or allow. This movement of the Spirit is acutely evident during pentecost, when the Spirit enters people who are able to see God working in new and even unexpected places. And it doesn’t stop there. As those among the ranks of Christ followers grow, so does the anxiety of those institutionalized places of power and privilege. In earlier chapters in Acts, we read of the growing power of the apostles who can’t help but continue to proclaim Jesus as Messiah, who call for repentance in order to receive forgiveness, who heal all sorts of sickness and mental illness, and in doing so expose the failings of the current temple culture. The Sanhedrin’s response to each episode is to react defensively, with fear that this new movement could mean a diminished place of power at best and at worst lead to a change in the people’s traditional view of the temple and God’s unique work in it.
Before completely dismissing the Sanhedrin as selfish men who tried to stand in the way of God’s new Spirit work, can those of us nurtured by the traditions of Christendom try to relate? In the Temple system, people practiced thousands of years of tradition that, in its best practice, pointed them to the saving work of a God who called them to live committed lives for God’s sake and the sake of the world. It did have meaning and power. But its meaning and power had shifted over the centuries from an empowering movement to an institutional power that was controlled at all costs. The deliberations of the Sanhedrin in Acts show shrewd planning on how to handle the growing Jesus movement but no active discernment of God.
“What are we going to do with these men?” they asked. “Everyone living in Jerusalem knows they have performed a notable sign, and we cannot deny it. But to stop this thing from spreading any further among the people, we must warn them to speak no linger to anyone in this name” (Acts 4:16-17).
However, what marked the Apostles growing movement was prayer and discernment. What were the apostles response after the threatening words of the Sanhedrin?
“On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God… After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:23-31).
So, as we approach our focal scripture in Acts 8, we see tension mounting between the temple tradition and the apostles who demonstrate a new power and authority found outside of the temple. The apostles continue to gain an audience and larger numbers of followers until things come to a head when Stephen is seized and stoned to death. This, according to Acts 8:1, marks the beginning of a persecution against the Jerusalem church which leads to its scattering throughout Judea and Samaria. But instead of having a cooling effect on these new believers, it galvanized them more as they continued to preach the word, wherever they went. It is as if the Spirit, not being welcomed in the temple or the holy city, went wherever it was given room and welcome.
This seems to mirror a similar scene in the gospels of Mark 6:8-11, Matthew 10:9-15 and Luke 9:1-6 where Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs with authority to cast out demons and cure diseases and to proclaim the Kingdom of God. He instructed them to taking nothing with them for the journey but to depend on the hospitality of strangers. Further, he told them if no one is welcoming of them, to shake the dust off their feet as they leave the town. Here, it seems striking that the very city that hosted God’s presence in the temple is the same city that cannot contain the new movements of the Holy Spirit. And so they scatter to the outcast places, like Samaria, where people receive them and are eager to hear their message.
Enter Philip, one of the deacons chosen in Acts chapter seven. He makes his way to the place where devout Jews would never want to be found – Samaria. Yet it is the Samaritans who are enthusiastically responding to the gospel message; who are being healed and cured. What is most striking is the free way in which the apostles share the Holy Spirit with these new believers. Rightly recognizing that they cannot contain the Holy Spirit, Peter and John pray for the Samaritan believers to receive the Holy Spirit. The alternative, of course, would be to try to withhold the Spirit from these new converts. What would be the outcome of such a decision other than a repeat of the disaster unfolding in Jerusalem? But the Holy Spirit cannot be bridled. It cannot be controlled. It moves where God directs it, in unlikely places, among unsuspecting people and in unpredictable ways. Either we get on board with following the Spirit or get out of the way. The apostles chose to follow.
Which makes Philip the perfect candidate to follow the Spirit further, into more unexpected and unchartered waters. Our focal scripture tells of an angel instructing to Philip to “go south to the road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a unique set of instructions. So much so, many Bibles footnote it. Check it out. The Greek word is used as both a location (south) and a reference of time (noon). In this case, the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza is a southward direction. But the timing may also be important. After all, who sets out by foot down a barren road at the noon hour? Traveling habits of the day incorporated morning and evening travel. In other words, no one travels when the sun is at its highest and hottest. And who else would be out on such a road? Yet, Philip obeys and who does he find but an Ethiopian eunuch on his way back to his home country from Jerusalem.
This Ethiopian traveled in style, shaded by the heat and sun by a chariot and all that came with such travel. I take that to mean he had at least a driver. Maybe an attendant, too (8:38). He had to have someone else driving the chariot; after all, he was reading from the Isaiah scroll. This Ethiopian is a fascinating character study. He was wealthy and in charge of an even larger wealth as the queen’s treasurer. He was a foreigner, and is described as an Ethiopian. If he had dark skin, he was not looked down upon because of his color. Rather, Ethiopians were idealized in ancient classical writings as people of great piety and beauty. Herodotus extolled the ‘burnt-skinned’ Ethiopians as the tallest and most handsome of all humankind; and Diodorus of Sicily commented that ‘it is generally held that the sacrifices practiced among the Ethiopians are those which are most pleasing to heaven.’” Further, the Jewish scriptures speak highly of Ethiopians for their upper-class status as powerful people economically and militarily.
The Ethiopians high standing, however, does not get in the way of his humbly seeking and accepting the instruction of divinely-directed wisdom from the prophet Isaiah and the interpretation of a fellow traveler on this wilderness road at such a strange hour. In fact, it is humility that has intrigued the Ethiopian as he reads the scripture of the suffering servant found in Isaiah 53. Perhaps it was not just humility in the positive sense of the word that attracted him to this scripture. Of course, I haven’t mentioned his other descriptive quality that was certainly humiliating; his identity as a eunuch. It is likely that his role as treasurer to the queen, which brought wealth and prestige, also brought with it the necessity to be castrated in order to serve in her court. For the Jews, whom he had been worshiping among in Jerusalem, his state as a castrated male would have placed him in a position of dishonor and impurity. Deuteronomy 23:1 states that no male in his situation should be admitted into the assembly of the Lord. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, regarded eunuchs as unnatural monstrosities who must be shunned on account of their gross effeminacy and impotence. Philo considered eunuchs as ‘worthless persons.’ Whatever economic and political worth he possessed in some circles and whatever value he attached to the Jewish faith, the Ethiopian eunuch was regarded as socially and religiously worthless among leading segments of Israelite society.
Yet, the Jewish prophetic scriptures also offers more hopeful prospects for eunuchs. Isaiah foresees a day when pious eunuchs and foreigners, which this man was both, would be welcome into the temple and given a permanent place in the household of God (Isaiah 56:1-8). In fact, one cannot escape the imagery here: eunuchs will be given a monument and name better than sons and daughters (which they cannot have) and a name that cannot be cut off (well, you know how that works for eunuchs).
So the eunuch is certainly intrigued by this suffering servant Isaiah describes. But there has been no one to help him understand who Isaiah is speaking about. “How can I (understand what I am reading) unless someone guides me?” he asks. And how could he know? While he was in Jerusalem to worship, his status prevented his acceptance in the temple courts. As he was heading back to his home, there must have been a mix of confusion and frustration as he continued to wrestle with the scripture in front of him. He identified with the situation of the man described in the scroll. But what became of him? What did it mean? And Philip was there, as directed by the Holy Spirit, to help him understand the scripture in light of Jesus.
The scene ends with the eunuch’s simple question: “what is to keep me from baptized?” The answer seems so clear to us: nothing! There is water, there is his confession that Jesus is Lord. But for the Ethiopian eunuch, the question also points to more than function and pragmatism. What lingers in his question quite possibly is the rejection he has felt among the temple in Jerusalem. There, as the law made clear, he was not allowed such privileges. Would the Jesus way be any different? Philip’s response gave a clear indication. And since Philip was directed to this desolate desert road by the Holy Spirit, his purpose was to continue the kingdom building Christ had started in Jerusalem by replying to the eunuch’s question in the affirmative. Nothing is to keep you from being baptized! Nothing is to keep you from being given a name that cannot be cut off.
The work of Jesus has opened up to the outcast, foreigners and the unclean what once appeared to be off limits. The early Christians sensitivity to the stirrings of the Holy Spirit provided them the joy of participating in God’s growing mission in the world. For Christ followers today, What traditions in the current church may keep us from sensing the movement of the Holy Spirit? What practices can we foster so that we can recognize and be responsive to God’s mission and movement in our culture?