Friday verse: Acts 8:36 the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?
As we began to discuss yesterday, this weeks story from Acts has historically been interpreted as an illustration of the evangelization of the gentiles around the world. Another way of saying this is that Simeon is ‘converted’ to Christianity. Conversion language may or may not be something that you are familiar with. It certainly was common-place in the church I was raised in. You may be more familiar with the phrase ‘born-again.’ Conversion is just a fancier word for the same concept.
I know that some of you may be reading this and turning your nose up at the phrase ‘born-again.’ Believe me, I understand why. There is a self-righteous superiority among many who claim the title ‘born-again’ that I too find distasteful. Not to mention a biblical literalism that I just cannot accept. But I first want to say that we should not reject outright the concept of conversion or being born-again. The core of Jesus’s own message was repentance. Now repentance too is a word that has been used as a weapon. But in it’s best and truest usage it reminds us that we are able as human being to grow and to change. That our past mistakes and current faults need not define who we are or who we will become. And let’s admit it, even if we do not live in constant regret and shame (and I hope you do not) we all at times grow frustrated and even discouraged with our own character flaws. Repentance promises that we can grow and change. And that is what conversion and born-again really mean. That we accept that we are loved as we are, and that we open ourselves to allow God’s love to shape us, change us, nurture our growth as human beings.
Having said all that, I think that traditionally, this story has focused on the conversion of Simeon, the Ethiopian Eunuch. He was converted from Gentile (or Jew) to Christian. But what if it wasn’t Simeon who was converted at all? What if it was Philip? What if it was Philip who was challenged and empowered to grow to accept not only a gentile, but a dark-skinned gentile whose gender was unclear? What if his own preconceived notions about who would be welcome in God’s kingdom were challenged to change in this story? It is entirely possible that he had assumed that the gospel was only for Jews or for Heterosexual Jews up to this point. In this case, it is not the other who needs conversion, but Philip. If that is so, what does that say about us?
How has your experience of faith challenged your preconceived notions? How have you been empowered to change and to grow as a result of your baptism?
Thursday verse: Acts 8: 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch.
Today I want to review briefly a bit of what was the primary focus of Sunday’s sermon.
For the long history of this story, Philip’s ‘conversion’ of Simeon the Ethiopian Eunuch, has focused on the fact that broadly, Simeon is a Gentile. Luke’s gospel proclaimed in various ways that the good news would go out from Jerusalem into the world, to the Gentiles. So this story has been interpreted as a fulfillment of Luke’s promise of world-wide evangelization. And this is where interpreters have largely stayed. This is a story about evangelization of the gentiles.
Recently however, scholars have focused on the details that we know about Simeon. He was Ethiopian. Specifically, he was a black man. By simply making him a ‘gentile,’ the church has ignored the baptism (full inclusion) of a dark-skinned man. By acknowledging the ethnicity of Simeon, new vistas in interpreting and applying the gospel to racial divide and injustice open up. Was this Luke’s intention? I am not sure that Ethiopians were subject to bigotry by Romans or Jews. I do know that they were a people both far away and very different from Philip’s own culture. And so Luke did want the church to understand that the gospel was meant to bridge the gaps that divide cultures that are different from one another.
Simeon is also described as a Eunuch. As we discussed on Sunday, Eunuch was not just a term describing those who had been forcibly subjected to genital mutilation. It was also a term that was used to describe those who were born with various type of hermaphroditism. And some suggest it could be used to describe those who were same gender loving. Eunuch largely reflected all those who did not fit neatly into clear gender binaries. Historically they were mistrusted, abused, maligned and hated even as they were used by wealthy elites to manage the king’s harem or other house-hold affairs. The point however is clear. Philip welcomes one into the church who is not only very different of culture and skin tone, but who is also often rejected and mistreated because their gender identity was uncommon and outside the norm.
The fact of the matter is that for the most part, throughout the long history of this story, Simeon's race and gender identity have been ignored. They were not considered important details in discerning the meaning of the passage (despite the fact that Luke mentions that Simeon is a Eunuch five times!!!) The history of what has been ignored in this weeks story is just as important as the story itself. It is too easy to miss or ignore those who live on the margins. Luke brought the marginalized to the center of this story and still, for centuries, we've looked past Simeon's racial and gender identity. Which leaves me wondering why for so long, the implications of Simeon's race and gender identity have been largely ignored in the interpretation of this story? It leaves me wondering who it is that I/we ignore? Who is it that I do not see or hear in society today? Perhaps even most importantly, whom do we exclude because of our own discomfort with those whose lives do not conform to our own concepts of what is normal or familiar?
Wednesday Verse: Acts 8: 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch. Psalm 68:31 Messengers will come from Egypt. The people of Cush will be quick to bring gifts to you.
Today we ponder prayerfully an aspect of this weeks story that is not immediately obvious to us, which is prophecy fulfillment. Unless one has an eidetic memory and has read all of the Psalms, it is easy to miss the fact that Luke tells the story of Simeon in order to proclaim that ancient prophecies are being fulfilled. In Psalm 68:31, the writer describes the coming of God’s Reign on earth in terms of the people of Cush (Ethiopians) bringing gifts. In other words, part of God’s mission is not just to restore Israel but to gather people from all over the world to worship. It is a prophecy in which all the world is rescued from sin and injustice and made one, unified and peaceful people. Luke seems to suggest that in the baptism of Simeon, we see the beginning of the fulfillment of this prophecy.
You may recall that I am not a proponent of understanding prophecy as the ability to predict the future. What was radical and important about the prophets such as Isaiah, Micah, and Joel was their wisdom in applying God’s will to current events of the day and courage to speak uncomfortable truth to powerful elites. I stand by that interpretation of prophecy. But in this weeks story, Luke’s prophecy more closely conforms to the prediction of the future.
The problem with understanding prophecy as future prediction is that in practice this does not inspire the believer to acts of justice or compassion. Instead, we become fixated upon who is right and who is wrong and begin judging one another as we argue about correctness. It also can lead to the creation of cult of personality in which one teacher proclaims to have the correct interpretation. None of this happens in Luke’s usage of prophecy as future prediction and fulfillment. Instead, Luke uses the fulfillment of prophecy to open the hearts and minds of the believer so as to see that God is working to bring about the Kingdom. It serves as a proclamation. What God has promised to do, dwell among us, liberate us, gather us together in unity, is indeed happening. And it also invites us into that mission. What God has said God would do, we are invited to participate in.
In this way, Luke uses prophecy to remind us that following Christ is the acceptance of a mission. We do not have faith for our own benefit, but faith is given to us so that God reign of justice and peace will be brought to the earth.
Tuesday Verse: Acts 8:35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
Another of Luke’s themes that we find in this weeks story is witness. Philip takes the passage from Isaiah that Simeon, the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading, and tells him ‘the good news about Jesus.’
Two weeks ago I wrote about the challenge of the idea of witness. We so often assume that to witness, to evangelize means to knock on doors, pass out pamphlets, or convince people of their sin, that we avoid the whole idea of being a witness altogether. But this weeks story brings us back once again to the assumption that those who follow Christ will indeed tell others about Christ. But how exactly do we do that?
There are a couple of aspects of being a witness for Christ in this story that are potentially challenging or us. Simeon connects to a passage in Isaiah, but doesn’t understand it. Philip arrives and helps him to understand cognitively why he connected to the passage intuitively. But some if not many of us, may not feel qualified to explain the scriptures to folks. It is difficult for adults to try to lean a new skill. We find experiencing a deficiency of skill unpleasant and so avoid it. Still, interpreting and applying scripture to life is a skill that we can learn and develop and it was a key aspect of Philip’s connection to Simeon. Another aspect of this story is that Philip could tell the story of Jesus to Simeon. Even those of us who have attended church all our lives may find summarizing the life of Jesus and its importance to us difficult, for many of the same reasons I have already mentioned. As I read this, I hear Philip simply sharing with Simeon what it is about Jesus that impacts Philip’s life and may impact positively Simeon’s. What is is that is important to you about the life of Jesus? How might his life connect to the experiences of people that you know?
Finally, and this is actually where I think we need to begin learning how to be witnesses, Philip listens to Simeon. As Simeon asks about the passage from Isaiah, in which God’s chosen is described as humiliated, I believe that Philip heard Simeon sharing his own experience. We have for so long focused on witnessing to others about Christ as telling the story of Jesus and explaining the Bible, that we have forgotten the importance of listening. Philip is able to tell Simeon about Jesus and explain the Bible to him, because first he listened. And that just may be a way for us to gain confidence in our ability to share the good news with others. Start by listening to the hopes and dreams, the discouragements and defeats, the doubts and fears of others. Just listen and let them know you care.
(To understand a bit better why I think Philip begins by listening to Simeon and also why Simeon identifies with the scripture passage from Isaiah, follow this link to Sunday's Sermon)
Monday Verses- Acts 8:29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
One of the continual themes in Luke/Acts is the activity of the Holy Spirit.
We see the Holy Spirit present in the ‘angel’ that tells Philip to rise up and go down to meet the Ethiopian Eunuch at the beginning of this weeks story and again at the end, taking Philip to Azotus.
Luke takes the Holy Spirit very seriously. And I would suggest that we should too. When we look closely at what Luke tells us about the Holy Spirit, it is a bit wild and risky. In Acts, the Holy Spirit empowers the apostles and the disciples that follow them, to continue the mission of Jesus in the world. In this weeks story, for instance, the Holy Spirit interrupts the life of Philip urging him to rise up and to go down. And these two actions, rise up and go down are wild and risky things.
After all, to rise up, is to shake off apathy and engage the injustice, cruelty and pain that we see in the world. It is the Holy Spirit that challenged Philip (I imagine) and which continues to challenge us when we feel that we are not adequately prepared to act decisively in the world and this is what it means to rise up. The Holy Spirit calls us and empowers us to allow dissatisfaction with the status quo to compel us to action in the world And to go down means to leave the comfort of that apathy or the feeling of inadequacy in order to join in the struggle for peace and justice. The Holy Spirit urges Philip to leave Jerusalem and go south, in other words to leave the comfortable pattern of his life, in order to experience the life of another. To go down is to open ourselves to the struggles and sufferings of others, perhaps even without the guarantee that we can do anything other than be present with them.
In other words, Luke teaches us that the Holy Spirit compels us to go into the world, especially among the marginalized and the suffering to offer comfort, support and healing presence. The Holy Spirit is that which empowers us to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today. It reminds us that we are not left alone to confront the powers of poverty, cruelty, bigotry and violence, but that we are accompanied by the very life-giving power that was present at creation and incarnated in Jesus Christ.
Have you heard a call lately to rise up, to act? Or to go down, to open yourself to the experience of another? How can your Berean family support you in your rising up and your going down?
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.