As you may or may not know, my first seminary was in Texas, and though I only spent four years there, it was a deeply transformational time in my life. It was the first time that I really lived outside of the Southeast and got to experience some engrained culture shock. And I would often take praying drives; for the most part, I would take off, drive without much of goal or direction as I prayed my prayers. It’s also important to know that I actually have a terrible sense of direction and would very often get lost on these drives. One time, when I was prayerfully lost, I noticed that the road that I was on had signs saying FM 1750, and I couldn’t actually figure out what the road was called. Later, I would come to learn that this part of Texas, there isn’t actually a need to name many of the roads because they are so infrequently traveled on, and that “FM” stood for Farm to Market Road. I learned a lot of lessons in Texas, and it was there that I became very familiar with these sorts of wilderness roads.
Though I am sure that the road down from Jerusalem to Gaza that our lesson from Acts takes place on looked different than FM 1750 in Potosi, Texas, this is where I see this exchange between Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch playing out. Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that an angel of the Lord directed Phillip to this wilderness road. The eunuch, who goes unnamed and has been written about extensively in Biblical commentaries, is a person of high status, likely wealthy as he has his own chariot, holds the queen’s monies, and has his own copy of Isaiah, which he can read on his own account, but nonetheless is an outsider, someone who may have status, but can never fully belong because of their body. The Spirit leads Phillip to join them and inquire about their understanding; once invited into the chariot to help the eunuch understand the scripture, he begins to share the Good News of God in Christ.
I love this story of the exchange between Phillip and the unnamed eunuch; I love it because of the simplicity of it, and I love it because it no doubt takes some unexpected turns. This passage is one that is often used in talking about evangelism, because after Phillip shared the Good News, it was the eunuch who stopped and asked, “Here is water, what is to keep me from being baptized?” And I wonder if Phillip was surprised at how this Good News was received; I wonder if he felt like he needed to give the hard sell on why being a follower of Christ is worth the cost. I love this story when thinking about what evangelism means because it’s so clearly not an example of what evangelism is often thought to be. Evangelism is sometimes used synonymously with proselytizing, but I think the two could not be further apart. The first literally means to share the Good News; it is to follow the Spirit’s leading, to engage in honest conversation with those who are on the outside of the bounds of society, and to share why it matters that you follow the Christ. In contrast, proselytizing is to shame others into believing the way you do; it’s to spread the fear of what is to come if you don’t do things right.
What we see here on this wilderness road is not just a great example of evangelism, it’s a story of conversion. And let’s not get it wrong, both people in this story are converted. A common trap when we think about evangelism is to think that it’s one-sided; but as anyone who has followed the Spirit’s leading like Phillip did will tell you, it will change you. Anyone who has engaged honestly and faithfully with someone who is different than them in every way imaginable will tell you that it changes you; anyone who has seen the impact of sharing the Good News will tell you it’s a conversion experience in its own right. Being a part of the Spirit’s work in this world, being a part of bringing about God’s kingdom on earth is a humbling experience, it is a reminder that we are not the gate keepers of the God’s salvation. It was not Phillip who stopped the eunuch’s chariot and asked him what was stopping him from being baptized, but it was the choice of the eunuch; it is powerful to see the effect of the Gospel so quickly and fully.
In the days leading up to Pentecost, we hear these stories from the book of Acts on Sunday mornings, because the church was in its early stages. The glory of the resurrection still feels like a live wire, and there is a hunger not just for the Good News, but also to share that Good News as well. For us here at Christ Church, there is an energy that feels similar to what I imagine that early church felt, as we spend the weeks leading to Pentecost working our way back to in-person worship and communion. The joy is palpable. The joy is so palpable, but I think it would be honest to say that it feels a bit like a wilderness road, too.
I’ve thought a lot about Phillip’s willingness to follow the Spirit’s leading down that wilderness road this week; I’ve thought a lot about how hard it is to openly engage in conversation with someone who is different than you, and I’ve thought a lot about what it means to share the Good News of God in Christ not mere days after the resurrection, but two millennia after the fact. I’ve thought a lot about the eunuch who somehow sits both inside and outside of societies norms; I’ve thought about their eagerness to hear and to learn, and how when the opportunity to follow Christ presented itself, they took it with gusto.
I’ve thought about what it means for us, on our own wilderness road. I’ve wondered what it looks like to openly and honestly name that all are welcome in the kingdom of God, even those we would typically put beyond salvation. I’ve thought a lot about the ways in which we can succumb to the pressure to feel like we are guardians of God’s kingdom, when in reality, we are called to be proclaimers of it. And in all of this, I can’t help but hope that we will be changed by this wilderness road; that we will have our own conversion as we hold not just the resurrection of Christ near to our hearts, but also the stories of the early church as well.
This week, I invite you to get prayerfully lost on the wilderness road; pray that you may hear the Spirit’s calling upon your lives. Pray that you may have ears to hear and eyes to see opportunities to share the Good News of God in Christ; the Good News that we don’t get to decide who gets to experience God’s salvation. Pray that you may have the courage and faith of Phillip and pray that you may have the openness and the conviction of the eunuch on this wilderness road in the walk to Pentecost. Because the truth is, the question that the eunuch asked can be applied to us today as well, what is preventing us from living out our faith? What is preventing us to live fully into our baptized lives? Because just like the eunuch, even on the wilderness road there is nothing preventing us from sharing the Good News of God in Christ. Thanks be to God.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Acts 8:26-40 for Easter 5B on May 2, 2021.