Sunday’s sermon: Stay With It

Text used – Acts 8:26-39

  • There’s a scene at the very end J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring[1] – the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – that’s been running through my head this week. I had planned on reading the short passage to you, but when I looked at it again, I realized (with a bit of chagrin) that the part that’s been running through my head is one of those parts that they altered when Peter Jackson made The Fellowship of the Ring into a movie 20 yrs. ago in 2001.[2] So let me tell you about this scene:
    • Basic story of the Lord of the Rings
      • Frodo, a Hobbit from the Shire, finds and evil, master ring sought after by the dark Lord Sauron → if Sauron gains possession of the ring, it will mean the end of freedom for the entire world → Frodo is tasked with traveling into the heart of enemy territory and destroying the ring → 9 traveling companions that accompany him (make up the fellowship): Gimli, the dwarf; Legolas, the elf; 2 men: Boromir and Aragorn; Gandalf, the wizard; and 3 other hobbits: Pippin, Merry, and Samwise Gamgee (Frodo’s gardener and the one who is by far the least excited to be so far from home caught up in all the danger and drama of such an adventure)
    • So as I said, the scene that has been occupying my mind this week comes at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring when things for this fellowship have gone from bad to worse. Their company has already started to splinter, and Frodo realizes that in order to keep both his companions and the ring safe, he must continue on alone. So while the others are all occupied with yet another battle, Frodo steals back to their boats, and sets out on his own. Or at least … he tries to.
      • Paddling away from the shore all alone
      • Sam, who has figured out what Frodo is doing, comes running through the forest → reaches the edge of the water just as Frodo is paddling away (maybe 30 ft. out from shore, clearly already in deeper water) → cries out, “No, no, no! Frodo! Mr. Frodo!”
      • Frodo says to himself as he continues paddling, “No, Sam.”
      • Sam hesitates a moment → begins wading deeper and deeper in the water
      • Frodo hollers at Sam to go back: “I’m going to Mordor alone!”
      • Sam’s response (all the while wading deeper and deeper): “Of course you are … and I’m coming with you!”
    • The dedication and devotion, the unconditional and inescapable love in this scene is palpable. It’s what drives the scene, and it’s what imprints it on your memory when you see it. Despite Frodo’s intention and concerted effort to strike out on his own, despite his belief that his friends and companions are better off without him, Sam comes after him. Sam follows him. Sam stays with him which, in the end, makes all the difference.
      • Journey that changes both Frodo and Sam → changes that would never have been possible – changes they never would have made it through – if they hadn’t been together
  • Scripture reading this morning = story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – story of another profoundly transformative journey that wouldn’t have happened had any of the participants not been present → So let’s talk about these main players a bit.
    • Philip, the Evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the Apostle) → This is not the Philip called by Jesus to be a disciple along with Andrew, Peter, and Nathanael in John 1.[3] This is a different Philip.
      • Back in Acts 2, we have the story of Pentecost and the birth of the early church, and after that early church started, we read that the community of believers grew exponentially – text: The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. … They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.[4]
      • By Acts 6, the size of the faith community had grown so large that the original apostles decided to appoint 7 leaders to help ensure the fair distribution of resources to everyone → one of these 7 was Philip, the Evangelist[5]
        • Beginning of Acts 8 makes it clear that it’s this Philip – Philip, the Evangelist – who’s involved in our story today, not Philip, the Apostle
    • Okay, so what about the Ethiopian eunuch? What do we know about him? – a bit of a juxtaposition → Let me read you a description by Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, professor of New Testament studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary: a man, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official over the treasury of the [Ethiopian queen], a pilgrim coming from Jerusalem, a reader of the prophet Isaiah. Luke’s list illuminates the power and the marginality of the unnamed chariot-rider. His wealth and literacy are signified by his chariot and the scroll of Isaiah. He is an Ethiopian, a descriptor likely referring to the color of his skin, and possibly also to traditional items of clothing. As Jews were exiled to Ethiopia after the Babylonian conquest (Zephaniah 3:10), and as he has just made a pilgrimage to the Temple, he may well be a Jew. Five times over the entire narrative, Luke calls this person a eunuch—a castrated man. Eunuchs were easily spotted, being shorter and softer than their peers, and usually beardless. Enslaved boys and men working in positions of power were often castrated to render them infertile and ensure the purity of the royal line. Being a eunuch would have restricted his access to the portion of the Temple reserved for Jewish men, even if he were born a Jewish male (Deuteronomy 23:1)[6] → So this man was a man of power and position, of wealth and privilege … but only up to a point. He’s someone who was essential to the royal household, but excluded from the house of God. He’s someone who held great power and great knowledge but was only trust with those things because of the physical alterations that had most likely been forced on him when he was jus a boy. He was different. He was Other. And yet it was to him that the Holy Spirit directed Philip.
  • So let’s dig into the heart of our story a bit: Angel directs Philip to a specific place and time: travel the road from Jerusalem to Gaza at noon → as Philip is traveling, we’re also told that this Ethiopian eunuch is making a similar journey in his chariot (an incredible luxury at the time) while reading a scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah (another incredible luxury) → text: The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.” Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how can I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.[7] → Acts relays a particular passage out of Is 53[8] which the eunuch had been reading → Philip starts with that passage and “proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him”[9] → results in the Ethiopian eunuch being so moved that the minute he spies some water along this desert road that they’re traveling, he orders the carriage to halt so Philip can baptize him on the spot
    • I mean, we have to admit that this is quite the powerful, dramatic, inspiring story, is it not? There’s action. There’s heart. There’s the mysterious but purposeful movement of the Holy Spirit. There’s a sensational, life-changing ending. There’s even a bit of a cliffhanger because after the impromptu baptism, we’re told “the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away.” Whoosh! Gone! It’s like a scene straight out of some epic movie, right?
    • Because it’s so epic – because it’s such an enthralling story – there are a lot of important elements of this story that we could focus on today:
      • Could focus on the passage from Is that Philip uses as his jumping-off point → passage about how Jesus would suffer humiliation and injustice despite his innocence
      • Could focus on how Philip proclaimed the good news from Scripture → Gr. = literally “evangelize”
      • Could focus on the powerful pull of Philip’s testimony in that it inspired the eunuch to immediately ask to be baptized into this new life and this new faith
      • Could even focus on the dramatic nature of the Holy Spirit, first directing Philip to this mysterious time-and-place-but-no-clear-purpose meeting, then whisking him away out of nowhere after he had completed the baptism
        • Our text this morning: When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.[10]
        • Other versions even more dramatic (believe it or not): When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing.[11] (NRSV)
  • But there’s another part of this story that really captured my attention and my heart this week. Let me read that part to you again: The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.” Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how can I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.[12] → It’s the moment when the Holy Spirit directs Philip to the chariot in the first place – the moment when Philip is given his mission. And it’s this part that’s stayed with me because of one seemingly-simple phrase: “Approach this carriage and stay with it.Stay with it.
    • As I said, phrase seems to be a simple one but, in actuality, is far from simple → Gr. “stay with it” = powerful word, indeed
      • Join closely together
      • Unite with
      • Cling to
      • Even “become a follower”
      • Gr. for “glue”
      • Connotations of intimacy, of a connection that is not fleeting but has staying power → word often used when referring to marriage
    • The second he heard this word – this command – Philip would have understood that this was no quick and simple task the Holy Spirit was calling him to.
      • In truth, we have no idea how long this task actually took! → All that our passage tells us is that somewhere along the way from Jerusalem to Gaza, after hearing Philip’s testimony about the good news of Jesus Christ, the eunuch chooses to be baptized.
        • Jerusalem to Gaza = roughly 76 mile journey (by today’s roads, anyway) → more than a day’s journey by horse and carriage, possibly even more than two days
    • When he heard the Holy Spirit’s direction, there’s no way Philip could have known how long this mission would take – how long he would be required to stay with this man … this man whom he didn’t even know, whose life story was a mystery to him. And yet, when Philip heard the Holy Spirit direct him to “approach this carriage and stay with it,” he didn’t even hesitate. Not for a moment. – text: Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah.[13] → Running up to the carriage” … running up to it! Philip embraced this call – this directive to the unknown, to the new, to the different – wholeheartedly and literally at a run.
      • Reminds me of the end of that scene from The Fellowship of the Ring: despite his inability to swim, Sam tries to swim out to Frodo in the boat, but weighed down by his things and his lack of experience, Sam sinks → at the last moment, Frodo reaches down in the water and grasps Sam by the hand, pulling him to safety → Sam reminds Frodo of a promise that he made to Gandalf: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo – a promise. ‘Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.”

 

        • Wherever the road led
        • Whatever trials and challenges lay ahead
        • Whoever else they were going to encounter along the way
        • Sam had no idea about any of those things – any of what lay in store for them – but he knew that whatever it was, staying with Frodo was where he was meant to be.
    • Philip had no idea what God had in store for him, but he knew it would require him to cultivate intimacy and connection with someone wholly unlike himself. He had no idea what God had in store for him, but he knew that it wasn’t going to be a change encounter – a quick in-and-out gospel blast on his way to somewhere else. At that point – as his arms and legs were pumping, as his feet were pounding the hard and packed dirt of the roadbed – he didn’t even know anything about what awaited him in that carriage. It was only after he approached it that he heard the eunuch reading Scripture and offered his interpretation. But God said to Philip, “Stay with it,” and so he ran, not away from the uncertain, but straight toward it. Amen.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin), 1954.

[2] The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (New Line Cinema, 2001), DVD (New Line Cinema, 2001).

[3] Jn 1:43-51.

[4] Acts 2:42, 47.

[5] Acts 6:1-7.

[6] Margaret Aymer. “Commentary on Acts 8:26-39” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/ethiopian-eunuch-baptized/commentary-on-acts-826-39-3. Accessed Apr. 25, 2021.

[7] Acts 8:29-31.

[8] Is 53:7b-8a.

[9] Acts 8:35.

[10] Acts 8:39 (CEB).

[11] Acts 8:39 (NRSV).

[12] Acts 8:29-31.

[13] Acts 8:30a.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s