Parish Eucharist 29th April 2018
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
Don't you long to know what it was that Philip told the Ethiopian Official as they rattled along through the desert road? Specifically, what is the answer to the Ethiopian's question- one of the enigmas of the Old Testament- is the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah's poems Isaiah himself, or someone else and if so, who?
The readings from Acts that we hear on these Sundays after Easter are in a way a continuation of the Easter accounts and especially Luke's accounts of the Resurrection. Those stories are varied and even contradictory. Did the disciples, for example stay in Jerusalem (as in Luke) or return to Galilee (as in Matthew and John)- they cannot have done both. These variations are, obviously, in part because the stories were written down long after the events described. More interestingly, they describe very strange events, which were doubtless experienced by their witnesses in different ways and then used by the evangelists to fit the story they were telling. Thus Mark's darkly hurried gospel ends on a note of frightened confusion; Matthew and Luke in their different ways set the events in quite different historical and scriptural traditions, the one fantastic and dramatic, and the other more gentle and literary; and John winds the stories round his themes of knowledge, light and love.
One common feature, however, of the resurrection stories is that they end in a sending out. The basic pattern tends to be dismay and depression at Jesus death and apparent failure; followed by alarm and perplexity at the empty tomb; then an explanation from Angels and/or Jesus himself; and last, instruction to go and tell others about it. Internal dismay is turned to externalised joy and the imperative to spread it abroad.
Sometimes the means of recognition is very personal; for Mary Magdalene, it is hearing a voice say her own name. It is often tactile and the stories are quite touchy feely in a way that I admit to finding a bit creepy. Sometimes it is a gesture, of blessing or the breaking of a loaf of bread, that reveals the risen Christ.
There is, however, a more intellectual level of revelation, as Jesus explains how his death and resurrection were predicted- by him- and by "the Scriptures" which these events are said to fulfil. This is the story told by the stranger walking to Emmaus and, I suppose, by Philip to the Ethiopian grandee.
What was that story? There really is not any directly relevant prediction on the Old Testament of anyone, let alone a messiah, dying or being killed and then returning from the dead. What there is, retold or alluded to in different forms again and again, is a story of salvation achieved through a frightening or deadly experience. The most obvious occurrence of this is the crossing of the Red Sea, which brings the Israelites out of slavery and eventually, as a nation, to the Promised Land. It's a theme closely associated with promise and covenant and it starts with the story of Noah's Ark; God intervenes in human affairs in a personal way to save the human race – or rather a little bit of it, but with promises of exponential population growth. One can recognise these themes in the fundamental narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection. The crucifixion is the culmination of God's intervention in human affairs but unlike a pillar of fire or the eagle's wing, it is not a conventionally mighty act. On the contrary, it is a miserable example of human humiliation and unnecessary suffering at its worst. Although for Matthew, the resurrection is a seismic event like God's appearances in the Old Testament, for Mark, Luke and John the triumph that comes out of that misery is of an intimate and personal kind. The salvation that Jesus brings in his resurrection, as in his more ordinary life, is personal. It is not the resurrection of an army of bones as in Ezekiel's vision. It is one individual recognised by one or a few others, which transforms their lives.
The recognition in the gospel accounts ends, however, as I have suggested, with a sending out; the initial experience is personal but the consequences are communal; the Ethiopian will return to evangelise his people and Philip goes on to bring the good news to the coastal cities.
Do any of these stories help us to experience the resurrection and feel its effects in our lives? We will not touch Jesus or hear his voice; we do it's true experience his presence in breaking bread, but when it comes to destiny; we do not I think have the same feeling of historic nationhood, or national purpose or promise that the scriptures pre-suppose. There have perhaps been times when we have. The Victorians are supposed to have seen ruling an empire as their destiny. I was born just close enough to the end of the Second World War to have experienced at a safe second hand, the national feeling of threat, which that war brought. History does not, however, press on us in the way it did and I think still does for many Jews. More likely, I suggest we can empathise with Isaiah's suffering servant (and the sufferings of the Jews in the holocaust may well feed that empathy). That is perhaps why we have many more images of the crucifixion in our churches than we do of the resurrection.
I suspect that what Philip explained to the Ethiopian in the chariot was similar to what Jesus himself explained to the two disciples walking to Emmaus. It was that the salvation, expressed in crucifixion and resurrection, was not the saving of a nation, and certainly not the expulsion of the Romans, but something that each individual may come to know personally. Its consequences, however, and the response that it demands are public, communal and sometimes national and international. It will always, however, be based in individual experience and response. This was the message of the Gospel: salvation moves towards a promised Land or the Kingdom of Heaven, but it starts in the kindness of one individual to another.
This I think is why the Passion narratives echo the miseries of the suffering servant. The Ethiopian assumes, reasonably enough that Isaiah must be talking either about himself or about someone else. The most telling explanation, however, is that Isaiah intends the servant to represent the nation of Israel (and in fact all humanity), which through personal suffering arrives eventually at national atonement and salvation.
That is what I like to think Philip may have explained; it is what I want to understand in the story of Jesus' death and rising again. It is that understanding which gives meaning to life and pushes us to try to express the same experience in our own lives, and those of our fellow creatures around us. Amen
Print This Page