Fifth Sunday of Easter — April 28, 2024

Who are the people who showed you the gospel? Each one of those relationships is the church, just like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch are the church, writes Tara Bulger.

Acts 8:26-40
Year B

I came to faith as an adult. I had grown up going to my grandparents’ church when we visited with them, so I had some familiarity with the Bible, but not much. Through personal growth and searching, I came to believe in Jesus Christ. I found a church and joined as an adult. And I began to read the Bible by myself. I started at Genesis and read each day.

Within a month, I found myself thinking, “If I have to read about one more animal sacrifice, I’m gonna lose it!” I did not understand much of what I read, and the love of Christ I had experienced in my life was hard to find in the words I read. The Bible can be very hard to read and understand, especially on one’s own.

In the lectionary passage from Acts 8:26-40, we find someone who had trouble reading the Word of God, too.

The story begins, as all of the stories in the book of Acts do, with the Holy Spirit. The story of Acts is the story of the Holy Spirit in the world, guiding and creating the new church. Philip, led by the Holy Spirit, has been in Samaria — offering grace and salvation to that community amid persecution. And again, through the leading of “an angel of the Lord,” Philip is now led south to Gaza. It is a deserted wilderness road, hardly where one would expect to encounter God’s purposes.

But it is there that Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch. The Ethiopian eunuch is a man of high status in his community and the treasurer for Candace, Ethiopia’s queen. However, in terms of the people of God, the Ethiopian eunuch would have been considered marginalized. Isaiah 11:11 declares that the people of Ethiopia will be recovered one day; until then, they exist as outsiders.

In addition, the man’s status as a eunuch would have meant he was partly, but not fully welcome. Deuteronomic Law barred eunuchs from entry into the Temple. The Ethiopian eunuch had been able to worship in Jerusalem, but likely couldn’t gain entrance into the Temple’s inner courts.

Yet, even if the Ethiopian eunuch is an outsider, he is faithful still. Can we take a moment to marvel at that — at the faithful response of a man who was excluded? What experience of God must this man have had to be faithful under those conditions? Maybe that alone makes this a miracle story.

And maybe it is further a miracle story because the Holy Spirit leads Philip — and he follows! He follows the Spirit onto a wilderness road, into a stranger’s chariot, and through the gospel story. Physical proximity to the “other” is at the heart of this Scripture, and Philip is faithful to the Spirit’s leading.

This text is a model for so many things in the Christian life. The story shows us what it looks like to be courageous in following the Spirit and how important it is to physically come alongside people, even if we are afraid and unsure. The story is a model of what coming to faith and especially baptism should look like — a sharing of the Word, a telling of the good news, a profession of faith, and the sacrament of baptism.

But most of all, it is a model of what Christian friendship can be: one believer helping another hear and understand the Word of God, crossing barriers for the sake of the gospel and for the love of humanity. It does not matter that the man is Ethiopian, a eunuch, rich or poor; he is still a beloved child of God, and Philip treats him as such.

For all the talk about the decline of the church in our country, there are so many people walking around who can name those who have helped them grow in their faith. There are still relationships forged each day, guided by the Holy Spirit, where one person graciously shares the good news with another in Word and deed. Each one of those relationships is the church, just like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch are the church.

I am grateful to every person who told me and showed me the gospel. It took me a long time to learn how to read the Bible, but it did not take long at all for other believers to come alongside me, share the good news, and encourage me. And I think the Holy Spirit was in all of it, just like it was in every part of the early church. Thanks be to God for Christian friendship, for faithful disciples and outsiders alike.

Questions for reflection

  1. Who are the people in your life who have shown and told you the gospel?
  2. What miracles do you see happening in this story? What can we learn from them?
  3. Take a moment to be quiet and still. Breathe. Listen. Is the Spirit calling you to love someone, to leap, to step out of socially constructed boundaries?

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