Sermon on Acts 8:26-40 offered on Sunday, May 6 to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.
“Space… the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
In the early 1960s, these words kindled the imaginations of millions of young people and captured the spirit of an age when human beings were no longer confined to the earth’s surface and had the ability to travel through the heavens. With the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 outer space had come to represent the next stage of human exploration. Writers and filmmakers began to imagine colonies on the moon, shuttles that could transport people from Earth to Mars, and the imminent possibility of encountering extraterrestrial intelligence. In some ways these flights of fancy were simply a product of the heady time that was the 1960s, but on a deeper level, this interest in space exploration was borne out of a very human and very ancient impulse. Human history has always been shaped by frontiers. From the moment that the first cave dweller emerged from his shelter and wondered what was over the next hill, human beings have been explorers. Our awareness of the frontier and our collective need for exploration have driven some of the most significant events in history, including the founding of the Republic of Texas. In fact, when it was announced that the United States no longer had a frontier in 1893, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner concluded that our national identity had been changed forever. The frontier, the belief that there is always more to discover, has always shaped us as Americans, as human beings, and, I would suggest, as Christians.
In some ways, our reading from Acts this morning embodies the Christian interest in the frontier. Remember that in the very first chapter of Acts, Jesus charges the disciples to proclaim the good news that Jesus died for us and rose from the dead. He then tells them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This verse sets the agenda for the Acts of the Apostles. And so on the day of Pentecost, the first public event that takes place in Acts, Peter bears witness to the truth of the gospel in Jerusalem. In the following chapters, the apostles travel through Judea, proclaiming the good news of God in Christ. And in chapter eight, just before the passage we read today, Philip the Evangelist proclaims the gospel in Samaria. We can see Jesus’ prophecy coming true: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria.” All that’s left is the ends of the earth; all that’s left is the frontier.
And so we come to this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. On one level, this story doesn’t fit particularly well into the narrative. Immediately before we have the story of Philip’s gospel proclamation in Samaria, which is north of Jerusalem. Immediately after this passage, we hear the account of Saul’s miraculous conversion on the road to Damascus, also north of Jerusalem. The story we hear today, however, takes place in the south. Thus, it doesn’t fit geographically into the arc of the Acts of the Apostles. Moreover, the author reminds that the road to Gaza is a wilderness road. In Scripture, the wilderness is the place where the Spirit of God is most active, where one can be most attuned to God’s will and God’s purpose. So in some ways, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is meant to be a spiritual interlude, a moment when we pause and reflect on what the Holy Spirit has been doing through the apostles and what the Holy Spirit will continue to do. Notice that throughout this story, the Holy Spirit is the actor. It’s an angel of the Lord who directs Philip to travel on the deserted road from Jerusalem to Gaza. It’s the Holy Spirit who instructs Philip to join the chariot. And it’s the Holy Spirit who snatches Philip away when he and the new Christian emerge from the water. Philip’s role is purely incidental; he is quite simply the hands and feet of the Holy Spirit. In many ways, this story isn’t meant to be part of the narrative; it’s supposed to reveal a spiritual truth to us, a spiritual truth that will shape our understanding of how the Church was founded and how we are called to proclaim the gospel.
You’re probably asking what this spiritual truth might be. To answer that, we need to think a little more deeply about this Ethiopian eunuch. To the people of Israel in the first century, Ethiopia was the most exotic place that any of them could possibly imagine. It was not unlike El Dorado in their minds: a mysterious and legendary utopia characterized by untold wealth. Even this eunuch, who represents Ethiopia in this story, is an exotic figure: not only has he been castrated, making him unclean in the eyes of the Jewish law, he is in charge of the Ethiopian queen’s entire treasury. This man is an enormously powerful official of an exotic and mysterious court, the most foreign of foreigners, the first-century equivalent of an extraterrestrial, and yet coincidentally we find him reading from the prophet Isaiah on a road where a disciple of Jesus Christ just happens to be. What is most remarkable about this encounter is that when the Ethiopian eunuch, when this most foreign of foreigners asks what would prevent him from being baptized, Philip’s response is to stop the chariot and baptize this new Christian. Philip doesn’t say, “Well, first you need to go to catechism,” or “Unless you confess with your lips and believe in your heart that Jesus is Lord, you cannot be baptized.” Instead, Philip welcomes this foreigner into the fellowship of Jesus Christ, proving to us that the gospel can and will be carried to the very ends of the earth. This Ethiopian eunuch represented the very limit, the very frontier of human existence, and the gospel was made known even to him. This story is a powerful reminder that the gospel transcends and transforms boundaries, that the gospel will eventually reach to the ends of the earth, that someday the gospel will no longer have a frontier.
It’s easy for us to imagine that we are already there. After all, with the rise of technology, the gospel has at least been preached to the ends of the earth many times over. We might think that it is safe for us to assume that everyone has at least heard name of Jesus Christ. But is this the substance of our gospel proclamation? Are we called merely to shout from the rooftops that Jesus died and rose for us and leave it at that? I don’t think so. Part of what we are called do as Christians is to allow the gospel to transform our own lives. Part of our gospel proclamation is to allow the good news of God in Christ to break forth from our actions and our interactions with our fellow human beings. We are not only called to preach the gospel, we are called to live out the gospel. As Saint Francis of Assisi famously put it, we are called to preach the gospel, and use words only if necessary. Our very lives should testify to the truth that God has redeemed the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the essence of true evangelism. At our baptism, we promise that we will proclaim by “word and example” the good news of God in Christ, which means that we are called to a very deep kind of evangelism. In order for the gospel truly to be proclaimed “to the ends of the earth,” we must allow our very selves to be transformed by the gospel.
Earlier this week I was talking to a pastor of another denomination. When I made the suggestion that the gospel had already been proclaimed to the ends of the earth, he questioned me, saying “I don’t know if anyone’s ever proclaimed the gospel to me.” This is a shocking thing to hear from a pastor, but it is a reminder that we cannot be complacent. We cannot simply assume that people know the story of redemption that we proclaim every week. We cannot simply assume that our children understand why we gather together for worship together on a regular basis. We cannot simply assume that we ourselves will always be aware of our need for God’s grace. The work we are called to as Christians is never finished, and it begins with what Saint Benedict called a “conversion of the heart.” We are called examine our own lives, to examine the life of our church and ask whether we are living out the gospel proclamation. Can our friends and neighbors and even our enemies look at us and see the gospel through the way that we live our lives? Can they see our concern for others, our willingness to forgive those who hurt us, and our insistence that God’s love is more wondrous than any of us can imagine? It is appropriate that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah that has traditionally been associated with the suffering of Jesus. It is Jesus Christ himself who shows us how to live out the gospel in our lives. Just as Jesus Christ gave up his own life for the world, we are also called to live our lives with a spirit of self-sacrifice, thinking of other before we look after ourselves. We are called to give of ourselves (our time, our ability, and our money) to help those we encounter believe in the promises of God’s kingdom. We are called to make the gospel an integral part of our lives, something that informs everything that we do. We are called to look at the world as a new gospel frontier, to re-proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth, and to begin with our own hearts.