As most readers of the book of Acts learn very early on, any perception of this document as a utopian vision of a pristine church is severely misguided. While it is clear that the Christian community in those earliest days and months and years following Christ’s resurrection experienced triumphant and powerful highs the likes of which it has rarely seen in the centuries since, those early followers of Jesus also experienced crushing defeats. For every day of Pentecost there was a trial before the Sanhedrin. For every healing, there was an imprisonment. For every Barnabas, deemed the “Son of Encouragement,” there is an Ananias or Sapphira, trying to pull a fast one not only on the Christian community, but on the Holy Spirit.
The story that we encounter in the later part of Acts chapter 8, the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, unfolds within the context of great trial, difficult testing, and discouraging persecution. We read at the beginning of the chapter that, in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom, where a young man named Saul, among others, looked on approvingly while an angry mob stoned to death one of the church’s young, dynamic leaders, a great persecution broke out. The persecution was so intense—involving believers being dragged out of their homes and thrown in jail—that all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. In other words, some of the most excited, most capable, and most committed servants of the Body of Christ were forced to leave Jerusalem, the epicenter of the church’s activity up to that time, the place where they had received the Holy Spirit and rejoiced over that Spirit’s work.
In order to wrap our minds around just how difficult such an uprooting might be, we might look to our own lives, and the setbacks we experience on a daily basis. Some of these are inconveniences—hiccups in our schedule, hitches in our plans—while others are far more serious, shaking us at the level of our most important relationships, our calling, even our identity. As long as we are in this world, and as long as we take our vocation to live and to serve in this world seriously, we will experience a vast range of burdens and misfortunes that can ruin our day or wreck our lives. For the church in Acts chapter 8, just as things seemed to be going according to plan, as their devotion to the Kingdom of God began to bear real fruit in their community and beyond, the martyrdom of Stephen and the subsequent persecution must have been devastating.
As we pick up the story near the end of Acts chapter 8, we encounter one of those faithful servants of the church, displaced by this latest hardship and set loose to work in the larger world. He has been to Samaria, where he has done the good work of proclamation and healing, and drawing a number of Samarians into fellowship with Christ and with the church. But in verse 26, he hears a word from the Spirit, prompting him to leave the city and head into the wilderness, to the road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Unsettled and uncertain, Philip obeys.
What follows is a story of transformation. As Philip goes along, he meets a man who, in the eyes of those early Christians, must have seemed like a bit of an outsider. An Ethiopian. A eunuch. A servant of an African queen. But he is also one who is seeking Jesus, whether he knows it or not. He reads a puzzling passage from the book of Isaiah, about a lamb being led to the slaughter. He asks who this passage is about, and Philip, stepping into every evangelist’s dream, is invited to help this man interpret God’s message of powerful grace, culminating in the man’s request to be baptized. The Ethiopian eunuch is transformed that day, but so is Philip. So is the church.
In Philip’s story, starting from the moment that he is forced to leave Jerusalem one step ahead of the persecutor’s sword, and reaching its powerful conclusion in this moment of baptism, is a story about a new way of seeing, a new way of listening, a new way of being open to what God is doing. As Philip abides in the will of God, like those branches clinging to the vine that Jesus talked about, as Philip hears and obeys, it becomes clear that the force driving the action here is not the hatred of those who would wish to silence the church. It’s not the strength of empire or institution that sees the community of the Gospel as a threat. No, the force that is driving the action here is God’s love. God’s love for the people he has called to himself. God’s love for those on the margins. God’s love not just for those in Jerusalem, but also for those in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The love that God calls us to share with our neighbors, our enemies, with all those who need to hear a word and see a display of God’s goodness and truth and grace.
It’s hard to predict exactly when or how the good news about Jesus Christ would have traveled beyond the confines of Jerusalem under other circumstances. What we do know is that, during a time of great hardship, during a time when the enemies of the church thought that they were gaining ground in their assault on the Kingdom, God’s purposes were being fulfilled. God’s love was pushing the story forward. And those who were willing to abide in that love, like Philip and so many other faithful men and women like him, became instruments of a mission of transformation for all the world.