Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
‘Hey! Do you go to church? Why?’ ‘Are you a Christian? Why? Just tell me in a few words.’ What would you say? If you only had 30 seconds, a kind of ‘elevator speech’, what would you say? ‘I go to church because…’ If you don’t say anything, you may have lost an opportunity. St Peter in this first letter tells us, ‘Always be ready to give an account for the hope that is in you.’ So, what would your 30 second account be?
Today we give thanks for a man who was always ready to give such an account. His name was Philip, and along with Stephen and five others, he was chosen by the apostles to be one of the first deacons in the church. Each of the seven men chosen exercised their vocation in different ways, but Philip was above all, an evangelist. And he must have been a wonderful evangelist because in the whole of the New Testament, filled with apostles and teachers and prophets, Philip is the only person to be called an evangelist. In Acts chapter 21, St Paul writes that, ‘When we came to Caesarea, we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him,’
Hearing is one of those central and recurring themes in the Bible. Jewish tradition still marks this theme’s centrality. In the round of daily prayers in the morning and evening, the ancient practice of reciting a bit of text drawn from the sixth chapter of the book Deuteronomy (6:4-5) continues across centuries and continents. We know it as the Shema. Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohainu, Adonai echod, “Hear,” or, “Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”
Our own Episcopal strain of Anglicanism in the United States acknowledges this tradition (if you know where to look). When I was a chorister at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, the Sunday Eucharist would always include the singing of number 818 in Wonder, Love, and Praise before the Liturgy of the Word.
The centrality of this theme of hearing or listening to the people of God is at the forefront of my imagination as I hear this scene from the Gospel According to Mark. The psalm we just prayed front-loads our imagination with this theme. There are references to hearing all over the place. (Hear, O my people… O Israel, if you would but listen to me… and yet my people did not hear my voice… O, that my people would listen to me.)
St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
In the calendar of the church we remember today one of Jesus’ early followers named Philip, traditionally referred to as a Deacon and Evangelist. Most likely this Philip is not Philip the apostle, but rather a namesake, one of seven appointed by the apostles to distribute bread and alms to the widows and the poor in Jerusalem. We hear in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Philip travels south of Jerusalem to Gaza, and en route encounters an Ethiopian who is trying to make sense of the prophecy of Isaiah. Philip was obviously prepared and ready to give witness to how Isaiah was pointing to Jesus.
The church has remembered this story about Philip; however it’s less to do with the conversion of this Ethiopian. After Jesus’ resurrection, multitudes of people were converting to Christ. The importance of this story is more about Philip. He was prepared. Jesus had talked almost endlessly about being prepared almost endlessly in his teachings and parables. “Be prepared.” “Keep awake.” “Be ready.” Be ready for an encounter that awaits you. We read in the First Letter of Peter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”[i] Be ready. If you claim to be Christian, why? Not why did you become a Christian, but why have you remained a Christian? What is the good news – what is it of Jesus’ “good news” – that keeps you a follower of Jesus today?
These are the end times. I said that to be provocative, though for some people, today, it may hit a little too close to home;[i] but it really is an end time. It’s the end of the liturgical year. In two weeks it will be Advent. Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year – a time of expectant waiting for the Savior to come into the world for the first time. But that’s in two weeks. Now, it’s the end of the liturgical year, and so our readings are apocalyptic in tone in anticipation of Christ’s Second Coming. When will the Second Coming take place? Jesus said, “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first….Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.”[ii]