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Acts 8:26-40 - Philip Baptises the Ethiopian
I was flying somewhere. It had been one of those 4:00 am starts and I was tucked quietly in my window seat avoiding the world but reading from my small New Testament that, as I have said before, I used to take and still do everywhere. Pausing for a moment, the Chinese lady sitting next to me said “I have never seen anyone reading a Bible on a plane before” and so began a conversation that occupied the whole trip and which led to an exploration of where she was on her journey with God rather than in the world. We parted at the luggage carousel and I never saw her again.
Now this morning’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian is less than twenty verses but is so vivid and rich that it goes to the heart of the spread of Christianity in the world both then and now. There are a number of fascinating elements, firstly there is the Spirit’s prompting. God always puts us in the right place, even though at first sight we might not understand or see the merit of where we are going. It is worth looking at a map to see how Philip responded; he started far north of Jerusalem and while he was happy there and making lots of converts and while Peter and John went home to the comforts of the city, Philip was led far south to the desert road in what is today’s Gaza strip. In Luke’s account, an “angel of the Lord spoke to Philip.” Now Gospel writers have a certain style and I cannot say that I have ever heard any angel’s voices but I do believe in the slow drip, drip of promptings and in God’s mysterious workings.
So, who is to say that on that morning my choice of airline, airport and seat were not simple chance but had been combined somehow to bring about this meeting. And a meeting with whom? Well a Chinese lady, not an obvious candidate for airplane evangelism and not even, perhaps considering the various social barriers, a likely candidate for a conversation. Nor too was our Ethiopian official. In the first place, Ethiopia was considered to be “at the end of the earth, indeed one of the most mean and despicable nations” and almost certainly given his high rank our Ethiopian was black (a Nubian) so, to Luke’s readers, an title ogether more remarkable contact for Philip.
Nevertheless, he was questioning and searching. He was returning from a visit to Jerusalem, where he had been worshipping. We do not know if was already a follower of Judaism or if he was exploring and had simply added one more God to his pantheon but I do like to imagine him stopping, as I always do, browsing in the second hand bookshop and picking up a copy of the Isaiah scroll, which he was now eagerly reading on the homeward journey. As he was busy with that, Philip was prompted once more by the Spirit to go close to the chariot and begin a conversation.
In my case of course it was the other way round, I was reading and she was prompted to start talking. Like the Ethiopian, she was searching and wanted to know more. This is important, we should as modern Christians follow the example of Philip and the Ethiopian and be prepared and happy to both learn and teach, sometimes we find ourselves in one role, sometimes in the other and in the best encounters we are able to do both.
But let us return for a moment to “starting a conversation”. How appropriate this is for our modern society. Our Ethiopian was in his chariot, not moving very quickly perhaps but somehow enclosed, in his own private space and deep in thought. Then Philip came along. It is rather like being on the M25 and the driver in the next car rolling down his window for a chat. I have never done that but otherwise, in earlier times, I would talk to all sorts of people. Nowadays, it is more difficult, we guard our privacy closely, we have iPods in our ears, mobile phones in our hands and so we listen to things and talk to people we already know and we are now wary of strangers, perhaps more especially of talkative ones.
Yet as we have heard, God opens the doors of opportunity in unlikely places and we need to take these chance moments: For the thing is, we never know. We never know what the result will be; what it is that God intends.
Philip did not see the Ethiopian again. Was it this very Eunuch maybe who became the founder of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church that flourishes today? Is my Chinese lady now a thriving member of a church somewhere? Only God knows the answers but still this story of a long lost African and a Missionary has a vitality and a relevance; a relevance that should encourage us so that we should listen for the promptings of the Spirit. We should always be ready to learn and to teach and please. Let us be not too shy of strangers, for whatever else may be true, the one thing we surely know is that they have souls and that souls thirst for God.