Reflection for May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday after Easter
1 John 4:7-21
My grandchildren love the Tales from the Arabian Nights. And I do too. If one can fall in love with a fictional character, I am entranced by Scheherazade who tells every one of the Tales. As you know, she invented and spun out her stories and stories inside of stories to delay, night after night, the possibility that she’d be killed in the morning. Yet, she was always so calm and self possessed — for one thousand and one nights! And what stories! Bright-colored wonders – caves filled with jewels, the dry valleys of serpents and diamonds, genies in lamps and jars, flying horses, magic carpets, brave men and brave and clever women. My grandchildren are spellbound.
Today’s passage from Acts has some of the same trappings. A wild place. An exotic Ethiopian man, rich and important, probably with great clothes. His carriage with a smooth enough ride to allow him to read. There have to be great horses. A stranger joins him, and changes his life. The stranger is whisked away. It is almost as if God would like the message of the Kingdom to entertain and entrance us.
But there is a big difference between the Tales from the Arabian Nights and today’s passage from Acts. In her own story, Scheherazade won through to a good life. She reached her Sabbath. The Ethiopian man has not. And neither have we because, like the Ethiopian man, we are living in a “time between” – the time between the Resurrection and the time before we feel the impact of the full Kingdom. For me, the challenge of the story from Acts is how to live in this in-between time with its mixture of joy, sorrow, hope and death.
Let’s look at the characters in the story.
The first is Philip. This Philip is not the Apostle Philip. Rather, he is a man whom the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem designated to “serve at table”. In this way, the Apostles could share the workload and spend their energies in prayer and preaching. One of Philip’s colleagues was Stephen, the first martyr. (Acts 6:1-6)
After Stephen was stoned to death, Philip ran away to Samaria because a persecution started. That is where Philip seems to have discovered his golden tongue. Because of him, many, many people in Samaria accepted baptism and, as Acts says, were filled with joy. Philip’s converts even included a famous magician named Simon. (Acts 8:1-24)
An angel told Philip to leave Samaria and go to a wilderness road where he meets the Ethiopian. In their encounter, Philip spreads joy to this receptive man. Spreading joy seems to be Philip’s gift.
While the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing, Philip is magically whisked away to a town called Azotus, which used to be Ashdod, one of the big towns of the old-time Philistine enemies of Israel. From there he goes all the way up the coast to Caesarea, the headquarters of Roman government. I think he may be the evangelist whom St. Paul visited in Caesarea. (Acts 21:8). So, it’s evident that Philip continued to spread joy.
The second character is the Ethiopian. He holds a high position as royal treasurer in his home country. He’s on leave to go up to Jerusalem, and he meets Philip on his way home. He is an open-hearted and courteous man. Although he is a real person, he is also a stand-in for people who are outsiders. He is not a Hebrew. He is a gentile. He is a searcher, but he is a stranger from a land far away. In a way, because he is a eunuch, he has no gender. As a eunuch, he belongs to a class whom the Law of Moses values as less (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1). He is an outsider. Luke values outsiders, witness the Good Samaritan, the Samartian leper who was the only one of ten who turned back to thank Jesus for his healing, witness Zacchaeus the rich tax collector, the short guy who climbed a tree so he could see Jesus.
Although he doesn’t appear in person, there is a third character. He is the Prophet Isaiah. Isaiah saw a great deal of sorrow and suffering. He saw the “ten lost tribes” disappear when Assyria conquered the north of Israel. He was present when the Assyrians attacked Jerusalem in the southern part of Israel. Isaiah himself may have been executed.
Isaiah wrote a song of intense hope combined with intense sorrow. It is called The Song of the Suffering Servant. The Ethiopian was reading from this song when he and Philip met. Philip, with the sense that prophecies were being fulfilled, explained the passage as referring to Jesus. The delighted Ethiopian descends to some pond or puddle to be baptized immediately and goes on his way rejoicing. (Maybe, he founds the church in Ethiopia that Barbara Metcalf talked about in a reflection she gave us a while ago.)
What do I learn from this story and these characters?
First, the example of Philip tells me to recognize the universalism and diversity of the Kingdom. Philip has an affinity for outsiders – Samaritans, Ethiopians, eunuchs, pagans who might have lived in Ashdod, and certainly Romans in Caesarea. No one is excluded from the Gospel message – Ethiopian, rich, poor, of color, white, Episcopalian, or evangelical. Part of being an evangelist like Philip is simply being aware that nobody’s heart can be ignored because every heart can flower.
The Ethiopian tells me how the Gospel liberates and rejoices us. This is a man with many cares on a long journey. He is reading an intensely tragic portion of scripture. Yet, he goes on his way rejoicing. How could he do that after reading the sad passage from Isaiah? It’s simple. As Philip tells him, this sad Scripture has been fulfilled. And he accepts this. We are exactly in the same place.
But Isaiah reminds me of the question “what next?” I mean, Creation is not fully in the Kingdom, and we have not reached our final Sabbath. The rejoicing Ethiopian will still have to go home and read the equivalent of all the emails that have piled up in his absence. And there is worse. Sorrow and tears and fear are obviously not banished from our world. The passage from Isaiah is still living prophecy, a poetry that speaks over and over of the same thing. For example, I read in the papers that an immigrant alliance held a memorial in honor of the martyred Archbishop Romero. And another part of the Song of the Suffering Servant was recited. “He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was on him.”
Ultimately, the story of the Ethiopian speaks to me about the virtue of Hope. Hope and rejoicing do go together. But so do Hope and suffering. We live in a climate of Hope. We’re not like Scheherazade who reached her Sabbath. We still live in the earlier part of the Tales of the Arabian nights. Hope is what gives us the strength and refreshment to read the papers and not despair. It makes us pray “Thy Kingdom come.” It makes us grab for the essence of the Kingdom to come. We bring out our neighbor’s garbage cans. We assist the homeless. We instruct ourselves about justice. We turn the world upside-down and make the effort to love our neighbor and our enemy. And that’s it. It’s just what the Ethiopian had to do.