Do Not Underestimate the Good News
May 02, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Text: Acts 8:26-40
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
It is still the Easter season, as amazing as that seems. During this season, the first lessons are from the book of Acts, and often they have been the focus on these Sundays after Easter. That has not been the case these past three Sundays, though; I am not sure why. But what I can say is that I did not want to pass by the interesting account we read today from Acts 8.
While the title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles, it might be more accurate to call it the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Today's unusual story is just one of many illustrating the Holy Spirit's work in growing the new church; God is moving on, and God is moving out.
We have not read from the first chapter of Acts yet; that will happen on Ascension Sunday. It is then that Jesus proclaims that his followers will be Spirit-filled witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea, and Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Besides the Holy Spirit, the main character in today's account is Phillip. He was not an Apostle, but a Deacon, one of seven people described as being full of the Spirit and wisdom, appointed to oversee the daily distribution of food to widows.
Interestingly, when Christians' persecution began in Jerusalem, led by a young man named Saul, the faithful scattered into Judea and Samaria. According to Acts 8:4, those who scattered preached the word wherever they went. (Isn't it a bit odd that the Apostles are still in Jerusalem?)
Phillip went to Samaria; the people there were outcasts as far as the Jews were concerned, which could have been an excuse not to interact with them. But, these Jesus-followers remembered their Lord's teaching. They proclaimed the Good News so that Samaritans were baptized in the name of Jesus and the new Christian church flourished there. So, Judea and Samaria were being reached, but what about the ends of the earth?
That is where the Gospel went next; Phillip follows the Holy Spirit's directive, even though it is to what is known as the wilderness road. There he encounters the Ethiopian eunuch, returning from Jerusalem, who just happens to be reading the prophet Isaiah. Did you know that the Greeks and Romans considered Ethiopia (modern-day Sudan) to be the ends of the earth?
This is what seems to be true about this individual: He was an important African man in charge of the Queen's treasury. His skin was dark since "burnt" or "black" is the meaning of the word Ethiopia. He was a devotee of the Jewish religion, a "God fearer," who had come to Jerusalem to worship. Yet, because he was a eunuch, he was legally excluded from the Temple. So, despite his piety, he was an outcast of Israel. And, as far as we know, he was the first non-Jews to hear the Gospel.
Led by the Holy Spirit, Philip approaches the chariot and hears the visitor reading the prophet's words. He greets the visitor by asking, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The response is humble: "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And, so, Phillip does just that, using Isaiah 53 to tell the Good News of Jesus. Remember…Phillip is not an Apostle; he did not spend three years with Jesus; still, God uses him to preach to those who were considered outsiders. The Holy Spirit acts, and the Ethiopian asks to be baptized with those memorable words: "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
I may have told you previously that this happened to me once. A young man who had never attended a worship service came to the church I served one Sunday after attending a funeral there the previous week. I do not remember if Acts 8 was the day's text, but I'll never forget how he came up to me after worship and asked to be baptized – and he meant right now.
I told him that I would baptize him "right now," and I would have since baptism is a gift of grace, but I wondered if he might want to learn something about baptism and Jesus first. He decided that was a good idea. So for a few weeks, he, a member of the Church Council, and I met so he could meet Jesus. When he was baptized, that Council member was his sponsor. I do not know if I ever got teary during a baptism, but I did that time. It was the eunuch's questions lived out: "How can I, unless someone guides me? and "What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
Getting back to the Biblical account … it ends with the eunuch's departure, rejoicing, and no doubt sharing his story "to the ends of the earth." Now that is a story that makes me smile, an account of those considered outsiders being welcomed and included and of the Holy Spirit using people in unexpected ways.
Commentator Richard Jensen offers this comment about it: "Talk about barriers being broken down! It is incredible that Phillip would baptize such a person and wash him into the world of Jesus Christ, the One who was like a lamb led to the slaughter. This is sheer miracle – a miracle full of the grace of God in the person of Philip and the waters of renewal. The impossibility of this event is made possible by the unbelievable reach of God's grace." (1)
This account challenges us to welcome all – that is, to live out our recently adopted Welcome Statement – and trust the Holy Spirit to use us and lead us. In other words, be like Philip, who when the Spirit said to get up and go, got up and went.
Another commentator, Matt Skinner, points out just how ambiguous the eunuch was, not conforming to rules set by standard boundaries. I'll quote him, "The Eunuch reminds us that the good news will not travel to the ends of the earth primarily because of focus groups, strategic plans and demographic analyses. It will do so because individuals will gladly carry it there, because they recognize that it speaks to them no matter who they are or how others measure them. Those individuals recognize that the good news acknowledges their worth and dignity. The good news thwarts the prejudices that religions and societies keep falling into." So it is that Dr. Skinner asks whether we "might be inclined to expect too little from the good news or underestimate its capacity to bless and include others." (2)
I think the answer to that question is, "probably"; thankfully, the Holy Spirit does not expect too little from the good news or from us. AMEN
(1) "Commentary on Acts 8:26-40: Fifth Sunday of Easter" by Richard Jensen, www.workingpreacher.com
(2) "Commentary on Acts 8:26-40: Fifth Sunday of Easter" by Matt Skinner, www.workingpreacher.com