At the start of the chapter from which today’s reading is taken, Stephen had been violently martyred and the followers of Jesus fled in fear for their lives. They might perhaps have kept quiet for their own safety but they still spoke of the good news of his resurrection with them and word began to spread far beyond Jerusalem. Philip went to Samaria, a country beyond Israel whose people were traditionally seen as hostile by Orthodox Jews, but he had a huge impact there and a large number of Samaritans had become believers.
However, he was then told to go on the desert road to Gaza – but what if Philip had wanted to stay where he was being so well received and where so many lives were being changed? Nevertheless, Philip did as directed and there he found an Ethiopian eunuch, a man returning from Jerusalem where he was not allowed to worship in the Temple because of what had been physically done to him. This spiritually hungry man would have travelled about 2,500 miles from Ethiopia on his journey but, despite his high status as a Treasury official, he is nameless, marginalised and excluded, although he probably had guards or servants with him. However, the eunuch was reading the above words from Isaiah that must have resonated with him, given his rejection from the Temple and his inability to have children.
This is a passage now traditionally read on Good Friday and Philip begins to explain Isaiah’s words to the eunuch, who responds wholeheartedly to the Good News he then hears about Jesus. When he asks to be baptised, Philip responds and both men go into the water there and then, after which Philip is taken away and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. The immediate response of them both leads to the inclusion of one so isolated and excluded from the Temple but now brought into the fold because of this encounter with the One who is called the Lamb of God, as well as being the Good Shepherd seeking the lost and stragglers in the flock.
I see this in a different way this year following my experience with Baahney, the newborn lamb of which I wrote last week. At first he couldn’t hold up his head or walk but, after colostrum, was trying to stand up and, in Melangell’s valley, seemed to deserve a chance. Baahney was such a brave creature, learning how to hold his head up properly and stand unaided, walking a few steps and beginning to make progress. However, on his fourth night, he became unwell and eventually died – roughly 10% of lambs don’t survive and the struggle for life is sometimes too much. In his short life, Baahney taught me a lot and a photo of him standing up for himself is below.
Jesus, the Lamb of God, didn’t stand up for himself in that he didn’t resist going to his death for the sake of the flock whose care he then entrusted to those early followers like Philip. Their response meant that, being originally dispersed for fear of their lives, the Good News spread from Jerusalem to Samaria, to the Ethiopian eunuch and then further afield on the missionary journeys of Paul, Barnabas and others. Hearts were touched, the excluded enfolded and the humiliated restored through those followers of Jesus seeking the lost and marginalised in his name. Ironically, the church today is not always known for welcoming those seeking God’s love or for acting promptly like Philip in such an unusual situation. However, one of the hopeful things about the pandemic is that barriers are being broken down, new ways of worshipping online being established and the word is now also bring spread electronically through Zoom, the media and the unity sought in enforced separation. Mindful of the terrible suffering in India and elsewhere, may that also help to raise awareness and resources for those still fighting the pandemic with so few resources and such overwhelming cases.
An Ethiopian eunuch reading aloud from Isaiah on the desert road to Gaza sounds an unlikely scenario – but then who would ever have thought that Jesus would be born in a cattle shed? Through the Magi, whose travels to Bethlehem and back may have taken them as long as two years, it was already clear then that God’s love is for all people, Gentiles as well as Jews. On a journey without being sure where he was going, Philip had the courage to reach out in God’s name to the eunuch who, ethnically, physically and geographically, represents those who are far off and very different to himself as he travels in his carriage along the desert road to Gaza. A wonderful thing then happened as death, fear and isolation gave way to a new way of life, inclusion and greater understanding.
That can be our hope too as the UK now emerges from restriction without being sure of the way ahead. May Philip’s example of reaching out in God’s name to the eunuch enable us to do the same to those we encounter or become aware of. When we do, may we also discover like the eunuch that we can begin to go on our way rejoicing too!