< May 03, 2015 >

Commentary on Acts 8:26-40

 

The narrative assigned for the fifth Sunday after Easter represents a critical moment in the emerging church as it moves beyond Judaism and Judea.

To fully appreciate the importance of this episode, let us consider it in context.

The first seven chapters of Acts (up to 8:1a), the narrative has focused exclusively on the nascent Christ movement in Jerusalem (1:12-8:1a), including an early conflict within the group along ethnic lines (6:1). It is in this section that we learn of two subgroups within the Jerusalem Christ community, the “Hellenists” (likely Greek-speaking Jews) and the “Hebrews” (likely Hebrew/Aramaic speaking Jews). While the major difference identified between these two groups is their ethnicity, and thus language, cultural differences cannot be absent. To refer to a Jew as a “Hellenist” was one way of identifying someone who accepted and participated in Greek culture, some aspects of which were offensive to more traditional Jews. It has been suggested that these two groups may have represented two distinct liturgical groups, each worshipping with the language with which they were most comfortable.

Suggesting a historical reality such as this on the basis of such a brief mention, though, is skating on thin ice. But, the selection of Greek-speaking leaders for the “Hellenist” group of Jewish Jesus followers may represent an attempt to create a distinct Greek-speaking (sub)group within the larger Jerusalem Christ group. Two of these leaders, Stephen and Philip, will play an important role as the narrative tells the story of the Christ movement growing beyond Jerusalem and Judea into the wider Roman world. Stephen’s episode (Acts 6:8-7:60) will focus on the intensification of conflict within Judaism in Jerusalem and will end with his death. Then, after a brief reference to Saul’s persecution of the church (8:1-3), the narrative shifts to Philip and his preaching ministry in Samaria (8:4-13) and the apostolic verification of his ministry there (8:14-25).

The acceptance (and apostolic verification) of the message about Jesus among the Samaritans marks another crucial step in the expansion of boundaries for the early Christ movement. Readers of Luke’s Gospel will recall that Samaritans have been presented as one who (1) would seem least likely to care for a needy Judean traveler (Luke 10:33), (2) rightly thanks Jesus for healing (Luke 17:12-19), and (3) who did not receive Jesus on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:52-3). Luke likely assumes that the reader knows not only who the Samaritans are, but also of the tension/distrust that have existed between Jews and Samaritans since the post-exilic period. For Luke, the gospel transcends ethnic, racial, and cultural boundaries constructed by hate, fear, and tradition.

The transcending power of the gospel continues in the episode for this Sunday’s reading. Philip is instructed by an angel to go to the road the runs from Jerusalem to the southwest toward Gaza, an important city on the Mediterranean coast. There he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who was returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem, where he had been to worship, presumably in the Temple (Acts 8:27). Luke’s readers know, though, that the Ethiopian official would not have been permitted to worship in the Temple, not because of his race, nationality, or status, but because of his sexual identity. A eunuch typically refers to a person who has been castrated, often early enough in life to have significant hormonal impacts, though it may also refer to a man who is not castrated but is impotent, celibate, or otherwise unlikely to pro-create.

The Ethiopian was reading from the book of Isaiah, a passage from associated with the suffering servant passages in Isaiah 53, and recognizes his need for help understanding the passage. While it is unlikely that the prophet who wrote those words was imagining a future messianic figure, when Philip heard those words, his first thought must have been, that sounds a lot like Jesus. This gave Philip the opportunity to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus. The eunuch immediately recognizes the importance of what he has heard and expresses interest in becoming part of the Christ movement, something he could not have formally done within Judaism. Philip doesn’t seem to hesitate. The race, nationality, or sexual identity of the person did not seem to matter to him. Here was a human being who heard the good news about Jesus, was compelled to become part of the group, and requested baptism. Who was Philip to stand in the way?