Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
It was a dark, cold, and snowy night in March of 2009.I had missed the highly erratic number 86 Bus by 5 minutes. The walk from the Sullivan Square train station in Somerville to my apartment was about 1.5 miles, a twenty minute schlep in my snow boots. Though I didn’t relish the prospect of a poorly lit walk through a fairly unpleasant neighborhood at that hour, my feet seemed to make the decision for me. My hand groped in my coat pocket for my prayer rope, as my mind groped for the familiar repetition, Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
It was a difficult period in my life. There were many moments when the anxiety of daily existence felt overwhelming. I was only partially employed; a number of friends had recently moved away; my apartment was cold and dilapidated; I was searching for direction and purpose. Beneath the surface of it all, in my quiet moments, the anxiety of existence itself stared back at me, sharp and real. Most days, prayer preserved my sanity. But on days like this one, brow furrowed, teeth clenched, heels pounding the frosty pavement, prayer felt like firing a nail gun into an empty sky. Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Three-hundred nails, on average, from the train station to my doorstep.
As I came within a block of home, I noticed someone behind me – walking uncomfortably close. I quickened my stride as I drew closer to a well-lit bus stop. I rounded the corner — and slipped on some black ice. Dazed and struggling to my feet, I barely noticed the outstretched hand in front of me. A thin young man with disheveled hair and wide eyes stood there, shivering slightly. “I just need you to know,” he began, a thick Brazilian accent quavering nervously. I was cold and tired and at my wit’s end. I did not feel like talking to a stranger. “What?” I said, flatly. “I need you to know: Trust Jesus. Jesus loves you.” I stared at him, stunned, for what seemed like an eternity. He did not try to give me any pamphlets or propaganda. He did not attempt to win me over to a particular church. He seemed to have said all that he needed to say. My frozen brow unfurrowed. Tears that had eluded me for weeks welled to the surface, and I choked, “Yes…thank you. For the reminder.” His face broke into a smile and he held out his hand. I remember the contrast of my cold, pale hand in his warm, brown one. Just as suddenly as he appeared, he hopped on the newly arrived number 86 bus, and was lost in a sea of stoic passengers.
A journey interrupted by a stranger on the road. A personal encounter too deep with meaning to be mere coincidence – if such a thing as “coincidence” even exists. A sudden and abrupt ending. Had it even happened? Did it happenin the way I remember it now, in the way I am telling you this moment? If it hadn’t, would the story be any less True?
We are always reading the past through the lens of our deepest Truth in the present. The earliest Christians read the prophet Isaiah in that way, hearing references to a Servant of God whose suffering brought healing and life as veiled portraits of their Master and Messiah. Luke tells us that Jesus himself read Isaiah through the lens of his own deepest experience:
He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’[i]
The author of Luke and Acts threads the remembrance of Jesus Christ onto his narrative loom, weaving a story from disparate sources that reframes the history of God’s people and traces the contagious, unpredictable movement of the Holy Spirit. Philip and the nameless, Ethiopian eunuch are but two such threads, crossing in a dramatic and unexpected way. The memory of such encounters, and the ways that the passage of time weaves them into our personal history with each re-telling, become the gospel of our Life. They make meaning of our past, even as they draw us into an uncertain future brimming with God’s hope and promise.
Where’s the water of life for you, personally, in this intimate, interpersonal passage? Is there a place you can point to and say, “Look, there is water”? Two questions may open a door: Philip’s question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the Eunuch’s question: “Is there anything to prevent my being baptized?’
“Do you understand what you are reading?” This story from Acts vibrates with fantastical elements, like an echo from a children’s fable or a fragment of a dream. Objects, characters and setting dance together in a web of symbolic resonance: an angel of the Lord; a road through the desert; a prophetic scroll; a magnificent chariot; the servant of a powerful queen from a distant kingdom; an evangelist who converses with the Spirit and is swept along in its undertow. But here, too, are traces of poignant, personal suffering: a silent lamb in a slaughterhouse; a castrated, foreign slave. Philip, though made a powerful instrument of God, had only recently witnessed his fellow deacon, Stephen, stoned to death by an angry mob. It is not in spite of, but in the midst of such trauma that God is working the mystery of salvation into our fragile, finite world. There is much in the text, in its subtext, and in its context that is hard to read, hard to understand. But what if we understand understanding itself differently? One theory about the word understand in English is that its meaning derives not from our modernunder, meaning “beneath,” but the Old English under, meaning “between or among.”Understand then means “to stand in the midst of” something, to be immersed in it, enfolded in it or intimate with it. Instead of struggling to find an entry point, we might let something we seek to understand flow over and around us, patiently waiting for it to find its own way in. We have only to pay attention to the road.
This Ethiopian was a eunuch, a man who had been castrated at birth or perhaps later as a prisoner, and almost certainly a slave. That he has been entrusted with great authority by a royal court isa bitter irony of his status, as childless and unwedded eunuchs could be trusted as neutral functionaries. If he had been to Jerusalem, he likely would have been barred from entering the Temple on the basis of his physical deformity and gender ambiguity. Reading in Isaiah of the suffering servant– deprived of descendants, humiliated and judged unjustly—the eunuch certainlystood in the midst of what he was reading about. He was neck-deep in such circumstances every day.But he needed an entry point through which his suffering could find redemptive meaning, entry into a community of radical inclusion and healing. Philip opens such a doorway by immersing him in the deep subtext and context of what he is reading, the suffering servanthood of Jesus. When the eunuch later asks “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?” he has probably already intuited the answer. No barriers defend this Gospel, and he is free to enter the family of God. His baptism by water is the ritual completion of an inner conversion which has come full circle, and which needs only the timely word and helping hand of a fellow pilgrim.
In passages such as this, the impression made on our hearts can be subtle. The Spirit’s meanings may be more felt than seen, like the water that makes up most of our bodies. There’s a connection from the inside out with a God whose mercy is wider than the ocean, but it’s hard to tell just where river and ocean meet. At other times, it’s impossible to ignore. It’s a hard fall on black ice, a journey interrupted by a stranger on the road, a personal encounter too deep with meaning to be mere coincidence. God’s prophets splash us in the face like cold water. We may sputter in disbelief, we may fail to understand, but we are definitely left more awake, called to attention in a new way, made to see with a deeper gaze, from a wider angle. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, we are baptized once, and life is forever changed. But we are also baptized again and again by these living confrontations with angels, with the living Word who pierces our hearts before disappearing on the number 86.
[i] Luke 4:16-21.
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