May 10, 2009 Fifth of Easter (RCL B) Acts 8:26-40; John 15: 1-8
There are so many great things about this story of St. Philip as he meets the diplomatic caravan carrying the Ethiopian diplomat and his entourage just as they are just beginning the long journey home after their state visit to the Court at Jerusalem and apparently a religious pilgrimage to the Temple.
There is of course a lot we don’t know. Who this Ethiopian was. Perhaps a Jew, as we know there have been Jews living and working in Africa at least from the time of Solomon. Or a gentile, but one who is drawn to Judaism. What in the New Testament are called “proselytes.” Non-Jewish seekers after God who haven’t yet completed the rituals of conversion. He has come to Jerusalem to worship, in any case. He’s studying the scriptures with an open mind and an open heart.
And then, what to make of Philip’s call by way of the Angel of the Lord, and the continuing guidance of the Spirit each step along the way, a kind of celestial GPS, “turn left, here, then right, now down this road”—and this sense that these things are happening in accordance with some divinely ordained plan.
And finally all that great exchange and conversation that leads to the conversion of the Eunuch and his decision to be baptized right at that moment—right there in a stream by the side of the road.
Despite the message of the Angel that brought him here, Philip seems almost surprised. That the Word itself could have this kind of impact. A sudden about-face.
Why not right here, right now? What is there to prevent it? Isn’t that why you were sent to me?
And then as soon as this work is done, Philip doesn’t even stay around for Coffee Hour. Away in the blink of an eye. More work to be done.
As I read through this rich and fascinating story again and again this past week, one sentence really just kept catching at me, the question Philip asks the Eunuch when he first approaches the carriage, as he hears him reading aloud from Isaiah as the carriage is rolling along.
Asking this great question: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
Do you understand what you are reading? Meant obviously not in the most literal sense. The Eunuch clearly understands the Hebrew of the text, or perhaps the Greek Septuagint translation. He is reading it aloud. But understand in a deeper way. Not what the text says, but what it means—what it can mean for you, for your life. Not "do you understand it?" But: Do you get it?
This perhaps along the same trajectory as the strikingly similar story and parallel passage In Luke 24, when the Mysterious Stranger walks alongside Cleopas and his companion on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus: “’O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them, in all the scriptures, the things concerning himself.”
To see now as for the first time, our eyes opened as for the first time—to see the one who is hiding before us in plain sight?
Thinking as well of Mary in the Garden in the Easter story from St. John. Not recognizing him, until that life-changing moment when she hears him speak her name. This the pattern over and over again, at the heart of Easter—at the heart of Easter for the disciples, and generation after generation, and for us. The heart of Easter.
The true meaning of the Word of God, no longer simply letters on a page, but now alive, one with us, Jesus himself.
Do you understand what you are reading? Is it a story in a book, an academic exercise, or a living, life-giving reality? A personal encounter.
And then we can hear the question rolling around behind this wonderful and poetic section of John 15, this deep imagery of communion, that we in Christ and he in us are to share the same life force, that our life comes about through his life, and in that living there is a new creation, a new creature. As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.
We catch our breath, as we stand before the mystery of Easter. The Empty Tomb. The Risen Lord. Invited to enter into his life now. O sons and daughters, let us sing, the King of heaven, the glorious king, o’er death and hell rose triumphing. Alleluia.
The question, as we would open our minds and our hearts and our lives to him: Do you understand, what you are reading, hearing, seeing? Do I? Who this is? Do we see him, know him, receive him?
Come, Lord Jesus.
That he would this day be as present for us and real to us as he was there on that afternoon, alongside the Gaza Road.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.