Holy God, no one is excluded from your love, and your truth transforms the minds of all who seek you: As your servant Philip was led to embrace the fullness of your salvation and to bring the stranger to Baptism, so give us all the grace to be heralds of the Gospel, proclaiming your love in Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today is the Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist. The Roman Church celebrates his feast on June 6, but the Eastern Church and the Episcopal Church celebrate his feast today.
Philip was one of the first deacons of the church. He was in that group of seven, with Stephen. We call him “evangelist” because he traveled around preaching the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of God’s reign. We know he was a married man and had four daughters who were prophetesses. Esebius writes in his History of the Church:
“And in the Dialogue of Caius which we mentioned a little above, Proclus, against whom he directed his disputation, in agreement with what has been quoted, speaks thus concerning the death of Philip and his daughters: ‘After him there were four prophetesses, the daughters of Philip, at Hierapolis in Asia. Their tomb is there and the tomb of their father.’ Such is his state-merit. But Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, mentions the daughters of Philip who were at that time at Caesarea in Judea with their father, and were honored with the gift of prophecy. His words are as follows: ‘We came unto Caesarea; and entering into the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we abode with him. Now this man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.’”
I served as “Interum Curate” at St. Philip’s Church in San José, California, when I was a deacon, so I am fond of this saint. Instead of writing a history of St. Philip, I offer the sermon I preached on the fifth Sunday of Easter in 2006.
The reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the first Gentile to follow the Way. “Followers of the Way” was what the very first disciples of Jesus called themselves. Several years later, in the city of Antioch, in Syria, the Followers of the Way began to be called Christians. The Followers of the Way were Jews and they worshipped at the temple and in the synagogues, but they were different from other Jews because they believed that the Messiah had come, and that the Messiah was Yeshua ben Yusef of Nazareth. The proclaimed the Good News to other Jews, preaching in the synagogues. Even when they went to cities in other countries, such as Damascus or Antioch, they only preached to other Jews. But one of the deacons, Philip, met a person from Ethiopia, and the gospel message became a universal message. I believe this was an important event in the Church because the conversation between the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip made it possible for all of us to be here in church in Parque Lefevre. Philip was able to make this important move because he loved Jesus and he obeyed the movement of the Holy Spirit in his life.
In the passage we heard from John's gospel, Jesus was talking with the Twelve at what we call the Last Supper. He said, "If you love me, you will obey my instructions." And what were Jesus' instructions? This is not a complete list, but these are good instructions for us all:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." Mark 12:30
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Mark 12:31
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you." Matthew 5:44
Love one another as I have loved you." John 13:34
"Whatever you wish that someone would do to you, do so to them." Matthew 7:12
"Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:16
"Seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness." Matthew 6:3
"Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful." Luke6:36
As I have said before, if we love Jesus and obey these instructions, if we love our neighbor as our selves, we will want to share the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Reign of God with everyone. Jesus also told the Twelve that night that he would not abandon them like orphans, that at his request the Father would send them an advocate, the authentic spirit who would be with them forever. This advocate, this authentic spirit, the Holy Spirit, would give them the strength and courage to go and preach the Good News in Israel first, and then throughout the world.
Philip wasn't one of the Twelve Apostles, but he may have been one of the seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out two-by-two throughout Galilee. He was one of the original seven deacons. He must have been very open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, because an angel of the Lord came to him and gave him instructions to go to the south road which leads out of Jerusalem to Gaza. And while he was there on the road, an Ethiopian, who was a minister of the Queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her treasury, a person who was an educated person and a eunuch, a man who was considered a "God Fearer," a gentile convert to Judaism, came by, reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. In those days everyone read out loud, very few people read silently like we do nowadays, so Philip had no problem hearing this man read. It may be difficult for us to understand how different this encounter was for a person like Philip, but the Ethiopian represented much which was outside of Philip's experience. From the point of view of those in Jerusalem, Ethiopia was at the edge of the known world. At that time Ethiopia covered the wester third of what is now Sudan, all of Eritrea, Yemen, Ethiopia, and most of Somalia. The court official who Philip met also represented the end of the earth in a cultural context. While he was a convert to Judaism, he was a Gentile and culturally removed from those born into Judaism. As the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia, he also represented another "end of the earth:" he represented those in power. This is the first time the gospel touches the lives of those with wealth and power outside of those in Jerusalem. This was not a person whom Philip would normally approach, but the Spirit told him "Go up and join his chariot," so he did. Philip gathered up his courage and asked this stranger, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The eunuch responded, "How can I unless someone guides me?" Then he took a step outside of his normal comfort zone and invited Philip to sit beside him in his chariot. And Philip took another step outside of his normal comfort zone and climbed up into the chariot. The eunuch had been reading this passage: As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is mute, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth. The eunuch asked Philip "Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?" And Philip opened his mouth and the Spirit spoke through him, and, starting with scripture, he told him of the Good News of Jesus, the Christ. Remember, they were out on a desert road, where it was dry and dusty. Atone point they came upon some water and the eunuch asked, "What is to present me from being baptized?" We live in a multicultural society, so we may forget that the answer to this question was "everything!" The Ethiopian eunuch was not simply a stranger from far away with no connection to any of the recent events in Jerusalem surrounding Jesus, crucified and risen. He was also a eunuch, which according to the scriptures he was reading, would have been labeled unclean and unfit for entry into the Temple for prayer and sacrifice. It is amazing how quickly his conversion takes place, but what is really amazing is how quickly Philip was ready to welcome him into the fellowship of the baptized. They stopped the chariot, went down into the water and Philip baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit took Philip away and the eunuch went on his way back home to Ethiopia, rejoicing in his salvation. According to tradition, he helped found the Church in Africa, and the Church in Ethiopia still exists and has ancient liturgical traditions. This was the first event which helped spread the gospel to the ends of the earth as Jesus had instructed, and that is why we can be gathered together here in Panama, rejoicing and hearing the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.
The eunuch asked, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" This is not a problem nowadays. We baptize babies how have no say in the decision, and the padrinos agree to follow Christ on behalf of the baby. Nothing, not one's culture or race or physical status, will prevent one from being baptized in our day. Since most of us were baptized as babies we don't even remember being baptized. There really is to prevent us from being baptized. I think the questions for us are: What prevents me from living out my baptismal covenant? What prevents me from loving Jesus and obeying his instructions? How often does our culture demand we be something other than a child of God? In the world of economics, we are consumers, employees, and employers. In the world of politics we are citizens, voters, taxpayers. In our communities we have various responsibilities and privileges that require us to keep up, to prove ourselves. When we are honest about all the barriers that tend to make us forget who we truly are, when we are honest about our shortcomings, when we are honest about how we tend to forget to obey Jesus' instructions, when we realize that we don't always love the Lord with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, then we can repent and ask Jesus to help us live up to our promises, we can ask for help to obey his instructions. That is why the Holy Spirit is here, to guide us and give us strength to proclaim the Good News and obey Jesus' instructions, his commandments. Then we can remind others that, they, too, are children of God, and they will learn that this truth, this knowledge, can set them free. If we love Jesus we will obey his instructions, but these instructions are not easy to obey. It can be very difficult to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us. It ban be difficult to treat others in the same way want to be treated. We all know that it can be difficult to be merciful as God our Father is merciful; it goes against our fallen, human nature. But if we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us like Philip did, when we take that bold step to move outside of our comfort zone and follow the Holy Spirit's guidance, we will be obeying Jesus' instructions, proving our love for Jesus and we will experience the love and power of God in our lives.