Wilderness Road Trip
I love road trips. I always have. When I was a kid, it was trips to see Grandparents down the country roads in Illinois. When we got married, Kimberly and I would drive across the country to B&B’s in small towns or out in the country. When we had kids of our own, we would strap them in the car seats and head to Kentucky or Arkansas, or one big Clark Griswold trip out to South Dakota and Montana and Nevada. Of course the mother of all road trips was our sabbatical a couple of summers ago, when we put several thousand miles on the minivan in one summer! And over the years in ministry, I remember fondly youth trips to Green Lake or Colorado or down to Georgia to camp. Veteran youth leaders will tell you that ABY and GaGa ball and the like are great, but there is nothing like the bonding experience of a road trip. I would suggest that Luke must have been a big fan of road trips, too. Remember how he reported in Chapter 9 that Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem.” The teaching and healing ministry of the Gospel takes place on the road, as he and the disciples travelled from Galilee to Jerusalem. And now, in the short few chapters since Jesus’ Resurrection, we have all of these road trip stories. Easter evening, Jesus meets travelers on the Road to Emmaus…it is in the journey that Christ appears to them. Stephen doesn’t take a road trip, but his famous sermon—the one that makes everyone mad enough to kill him—is all about how God never really wanted the Temple and was fine in the tabernacle, wandering from place to place on a holy road trip. And—spoiler-alert!—in the next chapter we are going to read about a guy named Saul who is once again on the road, this time the road to Damascus, where some things might happen. For Luke, there is power in the road trip, in the energy and relationship built on the journey. The ministry of Jesus and the Church of Jesus takes place in the dynamism and motion of the journey. And so there should be no surprise when we read today about Phillip, a master of the road trip. After Stephen’s death, he started on the road north to Samaria where he preached to Simon Magus and the Samaritans. And now he is on the road south out of Jerusalem, on yet another road trip. As I read it, it may not feel like a long trip, but remember that the Bible and especially the book of Acts collapses time, so that while this story only lasts a few verses, Justo Gonzalez suggests that it might have taken hours or even days. The Two Way folks loved playing around with the road trip in this story a little bit, talking about the Ethiopian must have stopped at the gas station in South Jerusalem on the way out of town. It must have been a Phillips 66 (get it?) and he probably picked up a Slim Jim and a pocket copy of the book of Isaiah to read on the way home to Ethiopia. There really is something for us to discern about our journey of faith, our walk of faith, from what we see in this story. What can this story teach us about our faith? There are three different characters, if you will, that make up this story. Let’s look at what each one teaches us. The first character to look at more closely is the Ethiopian Eunuch, who I think has something to teach us about the experience of the outsider. Now, we have to be careful assuming too much about this man. Luke doesn’t give us much backstory, or too many details. But it seems to me that part of why he is included in this narrative is his outsider status: • Whether it was the fact that he was an Ethiopian, kind of a catch-all category for all non-Egyptian Africans or simply those with dark skin, which would have made him a racial minority in Palestine. • Or perhaps it was the fact that he was a eunuch, a sexual minority, potentially naturally-castrated and thus considered safe enough to put into position of authority around the Queen, or potentially forcible castrated in order to make him “safe.” • Or perhaps even his role as a government official, which made him a kind of unpopular cultural minority, like the hated tax collectors who had authority over the people. • Or some scholars think that he is what some call a “god-fearer,” someone who believed in Yahweh, but didn’t take part in religious practice, perhaps for some of these other reasons; today we might call him “spiritual but not religious” potentially even inviting scorn. • Or perhaps even all four of these categories were relevant, meaning that he was quadruply an outsider! To me, it feels like he saw himself as an outsider because as he read this passage from Isaiah, and engaged in Philip in conversation about it, he asks a fascinating question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” From being included. He somehow knew that there were reasons, and likely he had heard them his whole life. Philip must have known them, too. He could have given this man a valid Bible study, based on the book of Deuteronomy, that told him exactly why he couldn’t be included. Why he couldn’t be baptized as a eunuch and non-Israelite and an outsider. What is to prevent me? The Bible says so! Which is a question that a lot of Christians ask, even today? The figure of the Ethiopian eunuch is one that many identify with, especially those who see themselves as outsiders. Racial minorities connect with the fact that he is from Ethiopia. LGBTQI persons connect with the eunuch’s sexual minority status. Or anyone who feels outside of the accepted norm of the church: as single parents or divorced persons or those choosing or not able to have children or choosing or not able to get married. So many have read this story and heard the reasons why they must be excluded, including “the Bible says so.” But look at Philip’s response here. Take a look at Character Number Two in the story. Again, Philip could have come at the Ethiopian with some hard-core Bible study. But instead of an aggressive stance, Philip seems to follow the rule of “listen first; talk second.” He gets this feeling, this prompting to walk along that road, and then another feeling/prompting to walk up next to the man’s chariot, and so he does, and hears him reading out loud the book of Isaiah. He doesn’t walk right in with an agenda of conversion, or a script to read out loud. Phillip simply shows up and listens first. And then, he talks. But even then, he begins with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the dialogue begins! For Philip, the good news does not come as a pre-packaged speech to deliver to this man, in order to convert him and put him in the win column. It is the beginning of a conversation. To help him understand his truth, and eventually for Philip to share his understanding of the truth. Notice that Philip doesn’t listen first and listen second, simply idling until the Ethiopian figures it out for himself. Philip has something to say. But he doesn’t unload a Roman Road or Four Spiritual Laws or anything learned in a Tuesday night training session. He listens to the man and his questions. And when the time is right, he speaks. Remember that like Stephen, Philip is one of the Seven, one of the Hellenistic, outsider Jewish Christ-followers, who was put in charge of the food pantry and followed the food pantry right out the door. As an outsider himself, he was able to understand and speak truth to the outsider Ethiopian. Because it became a dialogue, he was able to understand and be understood. A helpful word for those of us 2,000 years later that feel like we want to share the good news of Jesus, but aren’t sure how to do it. Listen first and speak second. The Evangelism committee talked about this just this last week, asking how we can encourage those conversations. You know, we live in a world that is hurting and angry and afraid and not sure what to do next. A lot of folks are feeling left out. If we approach these conversations with a willingness to listen and learn, then maybe, the Spirit of God can use us. We can speak our truth, and listen as other speak theirs. Philip teaches us that for the good news to take root, it takes dialogue, patience, and a willingness to listen. So, we have talked about two of the three main characters of the story, but there is a third. Besides the Ethiopian and Philip, the third voice we hear is the voice of the Spirit of God. You know, I don’t think it is an accident that all these big moments take place on road trips in Luke and Acts. Because I think that Luke is making a theological point about how God works. In short, these stories remind us that God is on the road. Journey to Jerusalem. The Road to Emmaus. The Wilderness Road. The Damascus Road. This is more than a literary device. The God of the tabernacle in Stephen’s sermon is still a God on the move. God is dynamic and active and on the road. This theology of dynamism is crucial for us to remember today. Especially out of a pandemic, when we have yearned so deeply to return to a physical space. Let us remember that the Church has always been scattered and sent! The theology of God throughout Scripture is that God is on the move. The life of faith is a never-ending road trip. This physical space is always meant to be a rest stop to the real work of the Gospel, in the workplaces, and classrooms, and ballfields and coffeehouses of God’s world. And let us now add the social networks and virtual spaces and Zoom Rooms. Like Philip, we are called to be responsive and dialogical open to how God is at work out there. Like Philip, we are called to be on the move!