4/28/2024

“The Living Body of Christ: Go Where I Send Thee”

The Living Body of Christ: Go Where I Send Thee

First Baptist Richmond, April 28, 2024

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he got up and went.

We didn’t read it this morning, but the text for today’s sermon is Acts 8:26-40. It’s the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, which is one of my favorites. With your permission I’d like to retell it with a little explanation and a little application, but mostly just appreciation for the story of this groundbreaking moment in the life of the early church.

It begins with Philip, not the one who was a disciple of Jesus but the one who was numbered among the “seven men of good repute” you may remember from Acts, chapter 6. We often read that passage when we’re ordaining deacons, because these seven were chosen by the congregation (just as we do it here), but then they were prayed over by the apostles, who laid hands on them and set them apart for special service. In some ways these seven were the first deacons, but their job wasn’t nearly as important: they were simply supposed to make sure that the Greek widows weren’t neglected in the daily distribution of food. As the apostles put it, they were set apart to “wait on tables” (vs. 2). That was it; that was all.

But then one of the seven, Stephen, was stoned to death because he wouldn’t stop preaching (some deacons are like that). In Acts, chapter 8, Luke writes: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and

all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Those who were scattered went from place to place proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them” (vss. 1, 4-5). And this is one of the reasons I love this story, and one of the reasons I love Philip. The Samaritans were despised by the Jews. They thought of them as half-breeds. They wouldn’t have anything to do with them. But Philip was full of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit doesn’t care: it has no prejudice, it makes no distinctions. When Philip was driven out of Jerusalem he went to Samaria, and started preaching to the despised Samaritans, telling them the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah.

When I was looking at the Book of Acts last week I remembered what Frank Stagg said about it. Dr. Stagg was a brilliant New Testament scholar who finished up his teaching career at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, my alma mater. He was retired by the time I got there, but Christy and I once hosted him at the seminary guest house and I remember him sipping Coca-Cola from one of those little six-and-a-half-ounce bottles and telling us stories from his native Louisiana, some of them sprinkled with a Cajun accent that was simply part of his heritage.

Dr. Stagg had this theory that the last word in the Book of Acts explained what Luke was trying to do when he wrote it. The last word is akolutos, an adverb, which Dr. Stagg translated as “unhinderedly.” He said not many books end with adverbs. They don’t make for a strong ending. But this one, he claimed, is what the Book of Acts is all about: it’s the story of how the gospel broke through one barrier after another until, in the end, Paul was in Rome, preaching the gospel “quite openly and unhinderedly” (Acts 28:31).i

So, when Philip started preaching to the Samaritans he was breaking through a barrier, through one of those “hindrances” to the gospel that Dr. Stagg talked about. And the Samaritans responded. They lined up to be baptized. Peter and John came down from Jerusalem to investigate but when they saw what Philip was doing they gave it their blessing. They prayed for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit and they did, and in the early church that was all the evidence you needed to prove that someone was “in.” Prejudice said one thing about the Samaritans, but the Spirit said another. Prejudice said they had no place among God’s people, but the Spirit said they did. The Spirit broke down the walls and kicked down the doors that kept others out. It removed those hindrances to the gospel Dr. Stagg talked about, so that it could be proclaimed among the Samaritans “quite openly and unhinderedly.” That’s what Philip was doing, and maybe that’s why God chose him to preach to the Ethiopian Eunuch.

In Acts 8:26 an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Luke explains that this is a wilderness road, which means that it’s in the middle of nowhere. In other words an angel told Philip to get up and go to the middle of nowhere and Philip went. It’s not the kind of thing you or I might do but it’s almost exactly what you would expect the living body of Christ to do, and that’s the name of this series, remember? You and I are part of the living body of Christ, and we can learn something from Philip’s example. An angel of the Lord told him to get up and go to the middle of nowhere and Philip…got up and went. Would that we all were so obedient!

Who knows how long he stood there, waiting by the side of the road, but eventually an Ethiopian Eunuch came along riding in a chariot, reading from the

Book of Isaiah. In a sermon on this same passage Presbyterian preacher Andrew Connors says, “Chances are good that this Greek-speaking Jew from the Holy Land had never before encountered an upper-crust member of the African elite. That’s how Ethiopian would be understood in the culture of New Testament times: not a person from what we know today as the nation of Ethiopia, but an exotic stranger from the African continent with skin like polished mahogany. Not a person to be despised,” Connors insists, “but a leading member of a wealthy court—a person most Greeks would have admired.”ii

So when the Spirit told Philip to go over and join this chariot Philip ran. And when he heard what the eunuch was reading he asked him if he understood it. The eunuch said, “How can I, when there’s no one to explain it to me?” He invited Philip to come up and sit beside him and Philip did. The passage he was reading was from Isaiah 53, where it says, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (vss. 7-8). The eunuch asked Philip, “Who is the prophet talking about? Himself, or someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. This scripture, Luke says: the one from Isaiah 53, the one about the suffering servant.

Do you remember that episode from Luke 24, when the risen Jesus was walking along the road to Emmaus with two disciples who hadn’t yet figured out who he was? He asked them what they were talking about and they wondered if he was the only stranger in Jerusalem who hadn’t heard about Jesus, a prophet mighty in word and deed. They had thought that he would be the one to redeem

Israel, but then he had been arrested and crucified and now they didn’t know what to think. Jesus said, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” And then beginning with Moses and all the prophets he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures and showed them how it was necessary that the Messiah should suffer and then enter into his glory. That’s not the way they had understood it. They had thought that we are the ones who suffer and die, while the Messiah is the one who conquers and rules. Because Jesus had suffered and died they had decided that he wasn’t the Messiah, but there, on the road to Emmaus, the risen Jesus helped them see things another way, and as they did their hearts “burned” within them.

I’ve always wondered which scriptures Jesus shared with those disciples on the road. Luke doesn’t tell us, not in his Gospel anyway. But here in Acts 8 it seems clear that at least one of them was this passage from Isaiah 53, the one about the suffering servant. Philip, who had been taught by the apostles (who had been taught by Jesus), was able to say to this Ethiopian Eunuch, “The prophet wasn’t talking about himself. He was talking about Jesus, the Messiah, who suffered and died but then rose from the dead to reign forever!” And Philip was just getting started. By the time he finished preaching the Ethiopian Eunuch was ready to join the church, and when they got to a certain point on the journey he said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And maybe it’s because I’m not a Greek-speaking Jew from the First Century, maybe it’s because I’m from this part of the world, where Africans have not always been treated with such respect and admiration, but when I’ve preached on this passage before I’ve said, “What was to prevent him from being

baptized? Everything!” In the first place he was a eunuch, and according to Deuteronomy 23:1 no one like him was permitted to enter the assembly of the Lord. But in the second place he was an Ethiopian. If you’ve read our church history you may recall that on the first Sunday of January, 1965, two Nigerians who were students at Virginia Union University came down the aisle requesting membership. Dr. Adams was the pastor in those days, and he had been the President of the Baptist World Alliance. He had traveled all over the world, including the part of the world these two young men had come from. Their fathers were pastors who had told them that while they were in Richmond they should visit the church of the famous Dr. Adams. They did, and at the end of the service they came forward to join the church.

The congregation was all white in those days, and if those Africans had thought to ask anyone before coming down the aisle what was to prevent them from joining they might have been told that it was the color of their skin. But they didn’t ask. They couldn’t imagine that a church so clearly led by the Holy Spirit would make such distinctions. But when Dr. Adams introduced them he explained that the deacons would have to meet and the church would have to vote before their membership became official.

The sanctuary was packed on that Wednesday night a few weeks later, and the meeting ran long. Some 50 or 60 people stood to speak either for or against the motion to welcome the Nigerians. It wasn’t pretty. But when the vote was taken it was in their favor, and the door of the church was opened a little wider. In the context of this sermon series I might say it’s just what you would expect the living body of Christ to do.

This church learned from that experience. It learned that welcoming

diversity into our membership makes things better, not worse. It makes our fellowship richer and sweeter. I’ve come to the place where I couldn’t imagine First Baptist without its members and friends of African descent. And don’t get me started on those people who have found their way here from places like India, Korea, China, Brazil, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. The title of this sermon is, “Go Where I Send Thee,” and through the years this church has sent missionaries to every part of the world, led by the same spirit that sent Philip to preach to an Ethiopian eunuch. But these days it seems that God is sending the world to us, and the only question is how it will be received. When we talk about our values in the newcomers class one of them is “the beauty of our diversity.” Yes. When I look out over the growing diversity in our congregation it’s beautiful. It looks more and more like the Kingdom of God and I believe it’s one of the ways we are bringing heaven to earth.

But back to Philip and that Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip must have explained to him that anyone who wanted to follow Jesus, the Messiah, would need to be baptized. And if the eunuch wasn’t familiar with that Philip may have had to explain to him how baptism works. But apparently that didn’t put the eunuch off, because when they got to a certain point on that journey he said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” If Philip had been to seminary he might have known that the Law forbids a eunuch to enter the assembly of the Lord. He might have assumed the church had the same standards. But Philip hadn’t been to seminary. He wasn’t a pastor, he was a deacon. He didn’t follow the letter of the Law but the leadership of the Spirit, and he couldn’t think of one good reason to say no. It’s what I love about Philip. But what I love about this eunuch is that he couldn’t think of one good reason either. He laid aside his

expensive copy of the Book of Isaiah. He got down out of his fancy chariot. He shucked off his opulent robes and waded out into the water with Philip, this dusty itinerant evangelist who had shown him the way of life. And then, in an act of absolute humility, he professed his faith in Jesus as Lord and was dipped down under the water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Luke says that when they came up out of the water the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. His work there was done. But the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. I picture him getting dressed, getting back into the chariot, slapping the reins, and going down the road singing old hymns and shouting, “Hallelujah!” And what do you think he did when he got home? Don’t you think he told somebody what had happened to him on the way? Don’t you think he began to share the Good News about Jesus, the Messiah?

What about you? I don’t know how many things might have prevented you from being baptized but if you were, if you were bold enough to ask and someone was bold enough to do it, shouldn’t you be telling everyone? And if you haven’t been baptized wouldn’t this be a good day to come down the aisle and ask for it? Because at the moment, I can’t think of one good reason to say no.

—Jim Somerville © 2024