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Phillip and His New Friend Shut Down a Highway

Acts 8:26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south[a] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31 He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,    and like a lamb silent before its shearer,        so he does not open his mouth.

33 

In his humiliation justice was denied him.    Who can describe his generation?        For his life is taken away from the earth.’

34 The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’[b] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[c] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.


I think this might in part be a story about connection and the different kinds of connection that shape our lives. It’s all right there in the very first line. A messenger from God tells Phillip to take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. So we start with Phillip’s connection to God through the messenger, through these words that come from God. But that connection moves Phillip into the very literal structures of this world. The angel tells Phillip to take the road. We might not generally think of roads as symbols of power, they’re just kind of around for us, but there was a Roman road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza. The Romans crisscrossed their entire empire with a system of roads unlike any the world had ever seen before and this allowed them to move commodities in a really efficient way, and it also helped them get their armies wherever they wanted them. So a road isn’t just a way of getting from point A to point B, a road is a very literal way of shaping the world, a connection looping the lands where people live into the larger network of the Empire. A road is both in between two places, but it’s also inside a larger structure.


I found myself thinking about all of this, about roads and structures and interconnections, when I read that the angel sent Phillip along the road to Gaza. I’m gonna be honest I’d forgotten that Gaza was named in this story and reading it stopped me in my tracks. It’s pretty much impossible to hear the word “Gaza” and not think of the genocide that the Israeli government is committing there right now, and also to think about the college students and professors at campuses all over our country who are protesting on behalf of Gaza.


And those protests themselves speak to the interconnections, the networks of relationships and power that shape our world. The Israeli government gets a lot of money from the US, not just from official military aide, but through what are called Israel Bonds, which are a form of investment that let’s cities and higher education institutions provide funding directly to the nation of Israel through their investments. And since many universities in the US have endowments that are larger than the GDP of some countries, those investments can be really substantial, and they’ve increased by billions of dollars since Israel began bombing Gaza. And so these student protests that you’re seeing and hearing about, including the one happening right down the road at UNC, are specifically demanding that their schools divest from those investments. And naturally, those universities have responded by sicking the police on those students and teachers, and many of those police forces have received training in crowd suppression through exchange programs with the Israeli Defense Force, which has perfected their techniques on Palestinians.


So these protests are designed to call attention to the interconnections between our struggles. The genocide in Gaza is not some random event that has no bearing on us here; that’s not the kind of world we live in. I think this is why it’s symbolically important that some protestors have chosen to shut down highways, and here specifically Highway 147. Highways are symbols of interconnection and the movement of capital. They are the circulatory system of our global economy, and then locally they have been the means of segregation and red lining. 147 itself decimated the Hayti area of Durham and cut off Black neighborhoods from downtown, just like interstate highways did all over the country. Interrupting peoples’ commutes on a highway isn’t just meant to be provocative or irritating, it’s calling attention to realities of our world and our lives that we often just speed right past. It’s disrupting a certain kind of connection, a certain flow of movement and information and commodities, in order to make other connections, to recognize how that speed and ease of movement actually damages a whole lot of people around the world and right around the corner.


And so in our story this morning, the Spirit of God sends Phillip along the road to Gaza in order to interrupt the kind of connection the Empire wants to make. Phillip sees this figure on the road. And the story tells us that this figure is an Ethiopian eunuch. We don’t get their name, only the fact that they are African and that they are a eunuch, which probably means they were a slave (a high level slave with a lot of responsibility, but still a slave). They were also someone who by the gender norms of their time was not specifically a woman or a man, and at least according to Leviticus, because of this they wouldn’t have been allowed to offer sacrifices in the Temple.


So on the road, Phillip is both in between places and within the space of the Empire, and he meets this person who is in-between respectable positions and within the power of their master. And that’s also kind of Phillip’s position, too. He’s Jewish, but he’s a follower of Jesus, which makes him a heretic of sorts. He’s living in the Roman Empire but he’s going around proclaiming that Jesus is the Risen Lord, which puts him at odds with them, too. He’s also a poor worker, who might’ve felt intimidated by the wealth of this other character’s chariot, even if it wasn’t their wealth. And so we’ve got these people who don’t quite fit in this place that doesn’t quite fit and that’s where the Spirit of God draws them together.


The Ethiopian eunuch is reading from the prophets. And they ask for help to understand what they’re reading. They’ve been drawn to this passage about a suffering servant from the book of Isaiah. And I wonder if when they were reading, they thought about their own suffering. Like a sheep lead to the slaughter, in humiliation justice denied. I wonder if they thought of their own wounds, the ongoing injustice of their position, their own servitude? When they ask Phillip, “Is the prophet talking about themselves or someone else?” I wonder if they thought they might in some sense be who the prophet is talking about? And maybe Phillip thought the same thing, thinking of the risks he was taking continuing to associate with Jesus, the loss of what he’d left behind in Galilee, the trauma of seeing the crucifixion.


And I think the answer to that is yes, for both of them. But then they sit side by side and read together, and the Spirit moves Phillip to tell his new friend about Jesus, about the crucifixion, yes, but also about the resurrection. About the loss, yes, but also about new life. About hunger and pain, yes, but also about abundance and healing. And so in the Spirit the road becomes a place of a different kind of connection. Where before it had represented the lacerations of an extractive economy, when Phillip and this person stop on the road, when they hold up traffic for a moment, their own lacerations and those in Jesus’ hands and side meet up and they become a part of each other, these two people gathered reading, but also Jesus with them in their gathering. Jesus makes new kinds of connections, new kinds of relationships, new kinds of coalition possible in the very places where the powers of this world are trying to alienate us.


It’s alongside the Roman road that this person asks Phillip to baptize him. They say “I want to get immersed and swept up in the same story that brought you out here.” Part of what’s interesting to me about this scene is that it’s so different from the kind of “evangelism” I was taught in high school, which was more like theological pick up maneuvers. I remember a time when I thought the mark of being a great evangelist was that you could convert someone who was sitting next to you on an airplane (which now sounds like such a nightmare). But Phillip doesn’t resort to any manipulative tactics or apologetics arguments. He sits alongside this person and tells a story that speaks to their wounds and to a hope beyond them, and they want in.


But Phillip is there and available to tell that story. He does stop along the road. Sometimes I’m afraid I/we go too far to avoid the kind of manipulative evangelism we’ve seen before. And so we keep our heads down, we don’t bother anyone, if someone finds out we go to church we’re quick to add (but it’s not like what you think…). We just want to get from point A to point B along our commutes without bothering anyone or anyone bothering us. And I wonder if there’s not a risk of missing the Spirit’s movement in that reticence. Nothing really changes without people choosing to have intentional conversations. That might not seem as disruptive as shutting down a highway, but stopping to say to a coworker, “Hey, our boss is treating us this way—how do you feel about that?’ can put it’s own little glitch in what’s normal.


So many of us go about our days noticing little graces and beauties or little irritants and injustices, but we’re so busy getting from point A to point B, doing our jobs, taking care of our kids, that if we don’t express those things or have anyone express them to us, we start feeling really lonely with them, like we’re crazy for noticing them because they don’t seem to be stopping anyone else in their tracks either. Some of the most beautiful moments of my life have been when people have stopped me and expressed that very same thing that I worried might make me crazy. That’s what I love about you all and our time together each week sharing our prayers. And I wonder if instead of evangelism, we might think of how we can offer a bit of that kind of recognition to the people we’re around Monday through Saturday, too. So many of the loudest voices in our world speaking for the church are saying really ugly things. So instead of trying to manipulate our neighbors into something they don’t want or believe, it can be a real gift to offer some recognition, to let people know they’re not crazy, that because you’re working with the story of Jesus you want a different kind of world, too.


That’s how people get swept up together in the movement of the Spirit, that’s how we forge new kinds of connections that undermine the networks of the empire. I want that for Jubilee, but I want that for the world, too. Because what I’m talking about here as evangelism is also just organizing. But no one’s gonna find love and belonging and another world by just traveling from point A to point B along the usual circuits.


So I wonder, for you, what might that chariot on the side of the road be? What might be that wound you could share that would let someone else know they’re not alone? What might be that beauty you can point to and say, “hey, notice this with me?” Maybe it’s coming out to the May Day rally for Durham city workers. Maybe it’s writing a letter and asking your old college friends to write letters to your alma mater to divest from Israel Bonds. Maybe it’s reaching out to someone to say, “Hey, I don’t know what your experience of church is like, but Jubilee’s somewhere where I feel like I’m not crazy and I think maybe you’d feel that way, too.”


Whatever that might be for you, don’t be so busy traveling, being a good commuter, that you pass an opportunity by. Don’t be afraid to let yourself be interrupted. That interruption might just be the Spirit of God throwing a glitch into the world and some grace into your day. Amen.



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