Phillip and the prompting of the Holy Spirit
I once listened to a radio programme describing the life of Terry Wogan. Near the end of his life he was awarded an honouree degree by Leicester University. He spoke to the students and said that in his life he had been incredibly lucky and he hoped that they in turn would have more good luck than bad.
In the church sometimes there can be unease with the idea of luck as it suggests chance and uncertainty, whereas we are encouraged to see life as providential or meant to be. Yet that can suggest that everything is already mapped out for us and we just have to accept whatever situation comes along.
Jesus encourages his followers in the Gospels not to be afraid and to trust, even in times of great difficulty and uncertainty. Likewise there is a promise that Jesus makes “never to leave us alone.”
Whether things happen by luck or providential timing I think it is fair to say that you can’t go forward on the basis that you just sit back and do nothing and God will sort everything out.
The Christian life is a calling to live in a distinctive way: “love God and love your neighbour as yourself,” and the nature of that love, as the parables make clear, is indiscriminate and universal in scope.
If we are encouraged to see faith in terms of what you can call divine companionship and trusting in God’s presence with us, then it does raise a question of how does God speak to people.
I am instinctively cautious whenever I hear someone with 100% certainty says that God told me to do something or has given an answer to a difficult question.
Yet, in the Gospels there are stories where people have visions, or dreams or messages from other people or maybe they are able to see what is going to happen.
It is possible we may have had those experiences when we think of someone and we get in contact and the timing seems right or something can happen that is a surprise but at the same time not a surprise.
To some this might be an example of God co-incidences or maybe the luck of being in the right place at the right time.
Likewise, with Phillip in the story from Acts who we are told is sent by an angel to the road down from Jerusalem to Gaza that is described as “a wilderness road.”
Acts can be seen as a working out of the words of Jesus in chapter one: “You will receive the power of the Holy Spirit and “you will be my witnesses...to the ends of the earth.”
There is a universal scope to the mission of the church and the subtext is inclusion and welcome.
So Phillip ends up meeting an Ethiopian Eunuch, who has gone to Jerusalem to worship but would have been on the edges looking in as an outsider.
Deuteronomy 23.1 is very clear on the principle that eunuchs are not allowed in the temple.
He would always be on the outside looking in.
He is a prominent person, important job, connections to royalty and is riding in a chariot and has got hold of the scroll of Isaiah. He is searching and looking for answers and for the truth.
Phillip is again prompted by the Spirit to run up to the chariot and initiate a conversation about the meaning of what he is reading.
He is invited onto the chariot for what is in fact a Bible Study on the move.
He does not understand and Phillip interprets the passage for him in a similar way to how Jesus explains the scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.
Then the story becomes one of inclusion:
“What would keep me from being baptized?” asks the Ethiopian. There’s plenty to hold him back: he is not a Jew; he is an Ethiopian, a eunuch, all the way from the end of the earth. Of course he is, in Philip’s mind, prevented from baptism. He is not a Jew. He has had no instruction in the faith. He is of another race and nationality. He is a eunuch.
Then the story moves in an unexpected direction.
Water appears in the desert and Phillip and the Ethiopian enter the water and he is baptised.
Phillip departs almost instantaneously and the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing. Philip baptizes the Ethiopian—a new family, a new nation is being constructed here by the expansive work of the Holy Spirit, and nothing keeps anyone out.
Tradition says that the Ethiopian left Philip and went back home and founded the church of Ethiopia, the church that has endured through centuries of persecution, that is spreading into all the world through the migration of Christians from Ethiopia.
There are other observations. What would have happened if if Philip had stayed home in Jerusalem and refused to go to the desert?
What if he had responded to the Ethiopian’s questions with, “Sorry, I just can’t explain what those words mean. They are meant for Jews like me, not for outsiders like you”?
What if Philip had responded to the Ethiopian’s request for baptism by saying, “I’m sorry. I’ll have to check with the bigwigs up at the head office and see if you are a worthy recipient of our rite of Christian initiation”?
He didn’t do any of these things but rather was open to the mysterious promptings of the Holy Spirit and ended up in the right places at the right time. He baptises as faith is awakened and the time is right and the time is now.
He comes with the message that in the church all are included and can find a home.
Part of the message of all of this is that the church should be a safe place where everyone, irrespective of age and background can feel at home.
Exclusion is hurtful and damaging, whilst inclusion is healing and liberating. Yet, as you read through Acts you keep seeing a continual theme of an inclusive church being shaped by men and woman in the church who are attentive to the nudges, promptings and pushes of the Holy Spirit.
We can all pray that we might just find ourselves in the right place at the right time.