Scripture: Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 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. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
This is the word of God for us the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Beginning: Recap and Intro.
We’re now at the third and final week of our sermon series on Ordinary Times and ordinary practices. We’ve been trying to allow the liturgical season of Ordinary Time to be our guide as we’ve learned some simple tasks that every Christian can adopt to become a more faithful follower of Jesus. We started with the ordinary practice of prayer. In prayer we connect with the extraordinary presence of God. Prayer is our line of communication to the divine, and it is the bridge that connects the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Last week, we looked at the ordinary practice of fellowship. From the prayer of Jesus offered to his Father at the Last Supper, we heard that Jesus wanted us to be one in unity. When we take on the challenge of unity and are willing to err on the side of grace, our fellowship demonstrates the love that God has for this broken world.
Today, we end our series by focusing on the ordinary practice of spending time in scripture. Growing up in the church, I was constantly told that reading the bible is important. And that’s very true. However, growing up I don’t think anybody ever really explained to me why that practice is important. I think it’s a very important question. Why should Christians read the Bible? Perhaps a legitimate answer might inspire us to pick it up and read it a little more. There are many answers to this question. We should read the Bible because it is the word of God… because the Bible is a beautiful gift that has been handed down to us from past generations…Because it can help us gain a better understanding of who our God is and what our God is like. And likewise, it can tell us a story about humanity and how we’ve struggled and strived throughout history to accept God’s forgiving love.
However, these answers have never been enough for me. It wasn’t until I was in seminary that I truly learned of the the transformative power of scripture – how maintaining this ordinary practice of reading scripture could shape the way I viewed and acted in this world. We read the bible as Christians because by doing so, we begin to learn how to live a little bit less like the world, and a little bit more like Jesus. For example, where the world says hate your enemies to the point of violence, in living like Jesus we learn to love our enemies to the point of praying for them. However, in order to be transformed by scripture in this way, we must first learn to read with a scriptural imagination.
Now, you’re probably thinking, “What in the world is a scriptural imagination?” It’s not a common phrase, but I hope that this can become an idea that we as a church can unite behind.
“Scriptural Imagination” is a concept that was introduced to me in seminary. It’s the ability to act in the world in light of what we have learned from the Bible. My dean, Richard Hays, and other professors spoke frequently on this concept. This is how Dean Hays described it, “Scriptural imagination, I think, is the capacity to see the world through the lenses given to us in scripture. But when we see the world through such lenses, it doesn’t just change the way we see the contemporary world, but it also changes the way that we see scripture.”
If you notice, the whole idea is kind of circular in nature. When we read scripture properly, we can see the world rightly. And in seeing the world rightly, we also start to read scripture better. This is much harder to understand theoretically than it is practically. So, I want to turn back to our passage for today with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch because in it, Philip shows us what a scriptural imagination looks like in practice.
Introduction to Text:
Perhaps you’re familiar with this story. It’s one of the church’s best stories about the radical inclusivity of Jesus’ message of love. However, what you might not recall is how we get to the point of Philip meeting this foreigner on the wilderness road.
Let’s start with Philip. Now, this Philip isn’t one of the original twelve disciples. In fact, he’s not even a Hebrew, meaning he wasn’t born in Israel or Judea. Philip is what was called a Hellenist. That means he was a Greek-speaking Jew. He’s referred to later in Acts as Philip the evangelist. Philip was elected to leadership in the first Christian community along with six other people when it became known that Hellenist widows weren’t being treated as well as Hebrew widows. The seven were appointed to distribute resources evenly. Another one of those seven was Stephen, the first Christian martyr. After Stephen was martyred, a great persecution of the church began which forced many Christians in Jerusalem to flee. Philip was one such Christian. And in his fleeing, Philip began to preach the gospel in Samaria. After finishing there, the Spirit led him to move south towards Gaza by way of a wilderness road. That is where he meets the Ethiopian eunuch, and shares the gospel with him, too.
Philip the evangelist is incredibly important to Christianity because he is the first recorded Christian – before Peter and before Paul – to understand that Christ’s message wasn’t solely meant for the nation of Israel. Philip is the first person to realize the truth of Jesus’ last words on earth. Just before his ascension into heaven in chapter one of Acts, Jesus said, “But 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.” Philip got this, and he acted on it in spite of some serious cultural and religious reasons not to. That’s why I think that his example in his interaction with the Ethiopian eunuch is one we should be following in order to grasp the transformational power of scripture.
Tools for Reading:
So, let’s use Philip’s story as our guide in learning some tools for developing a scriptural imagination. The story demonstrates four things: empowerment by the Holy Spirit, humility, connection with other people, and Christology – a term that i’ll define more, shortly.
First, the Holy Spirit. We hear from our passage in Acts: “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.” The Holy Spirit is the empowering presence of God. The Spirit gives us our direction. We must be in connection with the Holy Spirit if we want to know how to read well, and thus begin developing a scriptural imagination. We connect to this extraordinary presence and power of God through the ordinary practice of prayer. I hope you heard that. Prayer is the first step in learning how to read the Bible well. By praying that the Holy Spirit would guide you in your reading and that the Spirit will empower you to respond to his lead, you’ve begun your journey towards a spiritual imagination.
Second, we must display humility. Philip asks the eunuch, “‘Do you understand what you are reading?’” And the eunuch replied, “‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” A present-day New Testament Scholar named Kavin Rowe, says about this passage, “We can read all day long – even the right passages – and, without instruction in how to understand what we’re reading, miss what we most need to see.” We can’t approach the Bible with arrogance. What I mean by that is that we can’t come to the text assuming we know exactly what it says and what it means. When we assume we have this knowledge, this power over the text, we are approaching it with arrogance. We don’t have power over scripture, scripture has power for us. At least that’s the case when we’re striving to have a scriptural imagination. In humility, we learn to ask questions, to search for nuance and context, and to look beyond our presumed knowledge of the text to seek a more transformational answer to scripture’s questions.
And perhaps the easiest way to make sure we’re reading with humility is to read and interpret in community. That’s our third lesson from Philip and the eunuch. Let me be clear. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be reading your Bibles at home.You definitely should. However, trying to interpret scripture solely in isolation is unwise. Philip’s conversation with the eunuch teaches us that a more profound understanding can be attained together. By discussing this passage from Isaiah together, Philip was able to come to the conclusion that all are welcome into the fellowship of believers because of Christ’s love. The eunuch was able to understand that nothing stood in the way of his baptism. Even he, an outcast, could join with Christ. Hear this church – together, we can have a broader and richer understanding of scripture than we could ever gain through individual interpretations, alone. When you read your Bibles and bring your thoughts with you to share with others, you give others a chance to grow from your insights, and even transform your insights into something more profound than you could’ve ever imagined. Likewise, sharing what you’ve learned can help correct misguided interpretations. Interpreting together and with others in mind helps us to see beyond our own biases and prejudices. It helps us see things about scripture and about ourselves that we could otherwise never see. And it keeps us from developing beliefs that can be destructive to those living in the world around us. And you have so many ways to read in community. You have each other in Sunday school classes and Bible studies, you have pastors eager to listen, and you even have the cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us and left us with page after page of insights in books. Together, we can understand scripture better. In fellowship, we can develop a scriptural imagination that is open to hearing the deeper truths that the Bible wants to reveal to us.
Finally, a scriptural imagination requires a proper understanding of Christology – the branch of theology pertaining to Jesus Christ. Notice again which passage the eunuch is reading – it comes from Isaiah 53:7-8. It says, ““Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” “The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”
It’s easy for us, now, as Christians to hear this passage and understand that it’s talking about Jesus. However, Philip didn’t have the benefits of 2,000 years of interpretation. He didn’t have the four gospels in front of him or even Paul’s letters. Paul was still persecuting the Christians at this time, and there was no such thing as the New Testament. Because Philip was a Jew, all he had was the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) and the stories about Jesus that had been passed down to him by others. Despite these disadvantages, Philip shows he has the proper lenses on with which to read scripture well. He has a scriptural imagination. And because he does, he can see the presence of Christ in the text where no one has before him.
It’s All about Jesus:
Philip understood this, the most important part of reading scripture well – that it was all about Jesus. Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, said it like this: “If you want to interpret well and confidently, set Christ before you, for He is the man to whom it all applies, every bit of it.” For Christians, it is all about Jesus. That doesn’t mean that every single verse in the bible is literally a word about Jesus. What I’m saying is that if we are going to form a proper scriptural imagination, we have to read the text and view the world in light of Jesus’ powerful work of love and reconciliation on the cross. Scriptural imagination is about resurrection. Because of our understanding of Christ in scripture, we are able to see resurrection and hope in the world around us. In death, we see the potential for life. In despair, we see the power of joy. And in tragedy, we proclaim a message of hope.
Philip demonstrates this transformative power of viewing both scripture and the world in light of Christ’s resurrection. After Philip shares with the eunuch that this passage was about Jesus Christ, the eunuch responds in an amazing way. He proclaims, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” In hearing the story of Christ, the eunuch immediately responds in faith, and wants to be initiated into this Christian movement. Which, we need to keep in mind, is still a part of Judaism. So, up until now, it’s still living according to Jewish law.
That fact makes his question much more complicated than it might at first appear. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” – Philip could’ve given many reasons not to baptize him. Not the least of which was that he was a eunuch. This is extremely problematic because on the one hand, Deuteronomy 23:1 – part of the law to which Jews were compelled to follow – strictly forbids sexually mutilated men from joining into the fellowship of Israel. It goes so far as to say that anyone like that “shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” That doesn’t leave much room for interpretation, and Philip would know that as a Jew.
However, in Isaiah 56:4-5, we hear something different: “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
In light of two contrasting pieces of scripture, Philip is faced with a choice. Which scripture will I follow: The law – the most important part of the Old Testament for the Jewish faith; or the prophet Isaiah – who is proclaiming a message of hope for the future? Philip could’ve easily said “no.” He could have said to the eunuch, “Your physical problems won’t allow you in.” But Philip has scriptural imagination. He sees this person who believes – who has faith; he has read the scripture in light of Christ’s story of redemption and reconciliation; and so he makes the only choice that is right. It’s not right by word of the law. But it is right by the Spirit of Christ. Philip’s scriptural imagination has allowed him to see the world and scripture not in absolutes, but in accord with Christ’s message of reconciliation for the world. Philip just says, “Yes. You are welcome. You are beloved by Jesus just the way you are.” To borrow a phrase from my sermon last week, Philip is willing to err on the side of grace because that’s what love does – that’s what Jesus did. When we develop our own scriptural imagination, we too will find ourselves saying “yes” – yes to grace, yes to love, yes to reconciliation – far more often than we find ourselves saying “no.”
These four things – the Holy Spirit, humility, community, and Christology – are four of our most important tools we should employ as we read scripture. With them, we can make Bible study about more than learning words on a page. We can make it into an exercise for transforming ourselves into a church who can see people and places in need of Christ’s reconciliation. This is why we should read scripture. In this ordinary practice of spending time in scripture, we can reimagine ourselves and our world in light of the extraordinary power of scripture. We can be the peacemakers, the justice seekers, and the reconcilers.
So, here’s my challenge – Start reading. Developing a scriptural imagination starts by reading scripture. Read it, and read it well. Allow it to transform you and everyone who’s reading with you – to have your minds and your hearts and even your lives radically transformed by the power of this book.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.