May 4, 2012

Car Talk

Filed under: Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 8:48 pm

This week’s reading from Acts calls to mind the diner scene in When Harry Met Sally—a person hears the Good News for the first time, finds Philip’s zeal contagious, and wants in. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from baptized?” Right now. He sees the truth, the way, and the life. He wants what Philip’s having.

Philip is in a tough place. Despite persecution, even the martyrdom of Stephen, he has taken Jesus’ final instructions seriously, leaving Judea to preach the Gospel to the people of Samaria.

So even though he was back in Jerusalem, he was nonetheless already out of his comfort zone. And then an angel of the Lord instructed him to strike up a conversation with a random stranger, a high-ranking official of the Ethiopian court no less. In a moment when I’m pretty sure I would have said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” Philip walked right up to the chariot and hopped in.

Now comes the part I can relate to—I know just how incredibly energizing it is when these spontaneous moments of fellow-journeying emerge, when we explore scripture, share our understandings, and grow together in Christ. This is stewardship of the Gospel and evangelism at its best:  Just when Philip thought he had been called to the Ends of the Earth, he found that he was exactly where he was meant to be.

But who is this other guy? Why is Luke so careful with the details of the host’s identity? The story would still work if Luke had written, “Philip was inspired to catch a ride southward and took the first chariot that had a space. It turned out to be a great conversation and led to a baptism.”

He is introduced as an Ethiopian, probably from the region of modern-day Sudan. He is really far from home. He can afford to make the 1000 mile journey by private chariot to worship in Jerusalem. He is thus not only wealthy, but a devout Jew. That he studies scripture and seeks understanding through the wisdom of others reinforces his intellectual and spiritual maturity, his readiness to consider Philip’s message.

As a eunuch, his power and influence would come through his standing at court. To his further, and paradoxical, advantage, he is unencumbered by strictures of patriarchal society. Having no family of which he is head, he is free to give the court his full attention, excel in his career, and attain the status that allows him the freedom to read and study.

From a church planting and congregational growth perspective, he’s a real catch.

Luke takes such care with this story because it is the first account we see of an individual conversion, as opposed to a mass conversion or the conversion of a household. The Ethiopian’s status as a eunuch would have carried an additional meaning in the early church—in the culture of the day, where the family unit was the fundamental unit of the society, those whose circumstances rendered them as individuals were typically people at the margins: widows, spinsters, eunuchs, and slaves, few of whom embodied their condition by choice.[i] That the eunuch is free to claim the Good News and that he insists that Philip baptize him immediately illustrates just how radically life-giving the Gospel of Jesus Christ is.

And then it’s over. Philip vanishes, turning up in Azotus and making his way along the Mediterranean coastline to Caesarea, a span of about 60 miles. The Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing.” Presumably he returned to the court of Queen Candace, but somehow I choose to believe that he returned home different.[ii]

William Countryman describes baptism as “the transition into (a) sacred status and the fact that one could receive it only once meant that, unlike other sacral washings, it was an irreversible as well as an unrepeatable act. The threshold of (Christian community as God’s temple) could be crossed only in one direction.”[iii]

What amazing good news! No wonder the eunuch rejoiced!

And we must rejoice as well. This one act, of one apostle, is so much more than a story of the early church. For we, too, have crossed that threshold. Now we are the ones called to ride along, to make the most of that car time with our fellow travelers on the wilderness roads of our lives. Now we get to tell our story to people who want what we’re having.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia, alleluia.

[i] Countryman, L. William. Dirt, Greed & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007. p.269

[ii]Konigsburg, E.L. From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. New York, NY: Alladin Paperbacks, 2007.

[iii] Countryman, p. 189.


1 Comment »

  1. Lisa,

    How do I get in touch with you? I can’t find your email address on the website or even your name in the alphabetical listing?


    Comment by Patricia Robertson — May 10, 2012 @ 1:24 pm |Reply

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