St. Mary Orthodox Church

Cambridge, MA

On the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle

by S. Michael Phillips

In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!

“Philip ran to [the Ethiopian eunuch], and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him.” [1]

Introduction

Before it was a Church of those whose parents raised them as Christians, or a Church that welcomed those who found their way to it by reading Timothy Ware or Anthony Bloom, the Orthodox Church was a missionary Church, confident that the message of salvation was intended for all people, in every place, throughout all time.

Did the early Christians preach hellfire and damnation on the street corners of Antioch, Rome, or Alexandria? No, of course they didn’t: it was too dangerous! Then how did they evangelize? By opening their minds and hearts to the questions, the needs, the hopes of their fellow human beings and, when opportunity arose, freely sharing what they knew from their own experience to be “Good News”!

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles coincides with a day on which, by the mercy of God, we enroll [ 4  / 5   ] people as “catechumens,” people who have chosen to turn to Christ and find, through the study of the Sacred Scriptures, the meaning of life. I want to take advantage of this happy coincidence and lead us in reflecting on being an evangelist; on being a learner; and, on being a church that is obedient to the Great Commission, “Go ye…and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.[2]

The Evangelist

Philip was preaching in Samaria – the land of the half-breed, religious syncretists so despised by mainline Judaism of the time. But an angel called him away from this very successful ministry and sent him to the desert – which in the Bible frequently represents a place of barrenness, of demonic power, of death. In the desert, Philip sees a man of obvious importance riding in an animal-drawn cart, studying a scroll. He turns out to be an Ethiopian, a eunuch in charge of the treasury of the Ethiopian queen. He is returning home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

Philip runs along-side the cart as it is rolling along, and he hears the foreigner reading aloud – of all things – the Prophet Isaiah! Philip takes the initiative by moving towards the stranger; but he also shows respect by inquiring if he understands what he is reading, listening to the questions he is asking, and waiting to be invited to join him in the cart. Then, beginning from the passage the Ethiopian was reading, Philip opens to this seeker the meaning of the Scripture by showing the life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus to be the key that unlocks its meaning.

Time and again in the Scriptures, God is encountered or preached in the desert. Today, we live as Orthodox disciples of the Lord in a land that is, in many ways, an urban desert: populous, but spiritually barren; well-watered, but choked with fruitless, prickly weeds. This desert cannot afford for us to sit comfortably in our little, ecclesiastical oases waiting for strangers and outcasts to come to us. Like Philip, we are to go out to the desert, listen to people and treat their questions seriously, speak to them the words they need to hear, and offer them the kindness that God has offered to us.

Genuine evangelists are first of all faithful disciples, persons of prayer and godly deeds, people who demonstrate that the God who has saved and healed them can also save and heal the other hurting, doubting, answer-seeking people whom they encounter every day.

Evangelism is a patient endeavor, because it means listening deeply to the deep longing of others; it is a difficult endeavor, because it requires risking the questions and pain of others; it is a rewarding endeavor, for there is great joy in heaven over even one lost sheep that is found, over one sinner who repents.[3]

The Learner

The Book of Acts is silent about what Philip actually said to the eunuch; but it is notable that the passage that the eunuch was reading makes reference to a man who dies childless: “…who shall declare his generation? For he was cut off out of the land of the living.”[4] Perhaps the eunuch was pondering the childlessness of the man about whom Isaiah wrote – in sad awareness of his own inability to father children to carry on his name and heritage. Perhaps, he looked about at the desert and was oppressed by its barrenness, seeing in it a reflection of his own condition, hidden beneath the pomp of his position and wealth. Childlessness was considered a great shame in the culture of the time. Did Philip take the opportunity to show the eunuch how Jesus, who also died without offspring, had “fathered” a multitude of children for God through his cross and resurrection? Isaiah goes on to say that, “…when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.”[5]

The suffering servant of Isaiah had, indeed, a message of hope to which the Ethiopian eunuch could relate! Further on, Isaiah continues, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord hath utterly separated me from his people’: neither let the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord unto the eunuchs that keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant; Even unto them will I give in mine house and within my walls a place and a name better than of sons and daughters: I will give them an everlasting name, that shall not be cut off.”[6] These words of hope must have seemed like rain upon the parched soul of the desert-traversing eunuch! The words of the scroll had come to fulfillment for him in the Living Word, Jesus of Nazareth! And those words were enough to make a eunuch the much-beloved Father in faith of the Church in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Every person who seeks to know Christ must, ultimately, find the place within him- or herself where the Good News speaks a word of hope in the silence, opens a spring in the desert, lights a candle in the darkness, and pours oil and wine on the wounds of the soul. Each must come to the point of saying, “I see the oasis, I choose to enter the waters of new birth, and I will live from now on a new life as a servant of God, a servant of my neighbors.”

Just as these people who are about to become catechumens must read, learn, and pray along the way to full inclusion in the Church, so too must we who have been baptized and sealed by the Spirit read, learn, and pray with them. We, the Body of Christ, the Church, take them to ourselves today and set them on the path towards the “seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit,”[7] which they will receive when they are baptized or chrismated on Holy Saturday morning. But they, too, bring a gift to us: as persons going through the process of conversion, they are a sign to us of the ongoing conversion required of each and every Christian, no matter how long she or he has been baptized and chrismated.

The Obedient Church

Like Philip with the Ethiopian, our role as a Church obedient to the Great Commission is to open to our catechumens the wisdom of the Sacred Scriptures.

The Christian community is no less important than the evangelist who first announces the Good News, or the preacher who expounds it, or the catechist who teaches Orthodox doctrine and practice. It is in the community that the saving Gospel is “incarnate,” and it is from the community that a catechumen learns the beauty of confessing Christ, being baptized into his death and resurrection, and walking according to his ways.

St. Paul told the Christians at Corinth, “ye are …the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.”[8]

Can a person come to us, like the lawyer came to Jesus in today’s Gospel Lesson, and ask, “…what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”[9] Will the answer be pronounced as clearly in our lives as in our words?       When seekers, strangers, and catechumens read the “epistle of Christ ministered by us,” what, or rather, whom will they find?

The priest or Levite, whose concern for the letter of the Law prevented them from actually fulfilling the meaning of the Law?

The Samaritan, who gave no thought to himself, but immediately reached out in mercy and compassion to a stranger in need?

Or perhaps even an evangelist who, like Philip, will run to uncover the “treasure hid in a field[10] for someone who is outside the bounds of his or her expectations or comfort?

Here in this holy temple, I see an icon of the boundary-crossing Gospel of God:  men and women; Arabs and Slavs; Republicans and Democrats; Greeks and Eritreans; college students and professors; Celts and Chinese; American citizens and resident foreigners; an assembly of those who – in terms of the world – would be called “no people” and yet who, in Christ, have been revealed as “a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.”[11]

As I look at you, I recall how, a couple years ago, you welcomed me, a stranger and sojourner, into your midst and made me to feel at home. I am confident that the living epistle these new catechumens will read during their time as beginning Orthodox Christians, will be the same text that I read, that you wrote to me: the Good News of the love of God: poured out on the world through Jesus Christ, and abiding forever in his Body, the Church.

Through the prayers of the Holy Evangelist Philip, O Savior have mercy upon us and save us. Amen.


[1] Acts 8: 30, 31
[2]Matt. 28:19
[3]Lk. 15:4-7
[4]Is. 53:8
[5]Is. 53:10
[6]Is. 56:3-5
[7]Service Book of the Holy Eastern Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, Ninth Edition, p. 159
[8]2 Cor. 3: 3
[9]Lk. 10:25
[10]Matt. 13:44
[11]1 Pt. 2:9