Observing the Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist
10 October 1999
Acts chapter 8 tells our fascinating story this morning, the story of St. Philip the Deacon, who found himself wandering one day, down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. St. Philip was led by God to attach himself to a foreigner, an Ethiopian eunuch, who had been to Jerusalem to worship.
Now, talk of a eunuch in polite society and in the discreet Christian Church is not very common these days. (Though we do seem to talk about everything else!) But eunuchs are mentioned in the Bible some fifty times. The general definition of a eunuch might be this: “males who do not have the ability to reproduce.” The reason for that inability might be genetic, and it might be due to accident. Eunuchs were obviously regarded as different from most; and because they were different, certain roles were denied them.
They were considered blemished, and so the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus dictated that they could not offer sacrifice, or even be admitted to the assembly of the Lord (Deut 23:1-3 and Lev 21:18-20). In fact, they were considered as foreigners. Any foreigner, too, was not allowed to join the chosen people of God.
But something happens in the development of Scripture, and in the development of God’s people. The prophet Isaiah changes the attitude of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, when he makes the startling pronouncement at chapter 56, verse 3:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
The Lord will surely separate me from his people;
And do not let the eunuch say,
I am just a dry tree.
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
... and the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord
These I will bring to my holy mountain,
And make them joyful in my house of prayer
For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcast of Israel,
I will gather others to them
besides those already gathered.
This incredibly provocative passage begins to be fulfilled in the Book of Acts, when Paul and Peter discover that God has poured out the Spirit upon Gentiles, upon people who were not obviously regarded as the people of God.
And St. Philip, the deacon, fulfills the prophecy even more clearly. He attaches himself to someone who is both a foreigner and a eunuch, someone who does not fit the customary description of purity and correctness. And Philip baptizes this Ethiopian eunuch. Philip baptizes him and so makes him part of a new community, a new definition of God’s people – just like we baptize people today and make them part of a new community.
The witness of Philip is a critical one for us. If we are to follow in his footsteps, it will mean at least three things. First of all, we must be willing to move, to follow the Spirit into new territory, even into wilderness places to which we are unaccustomed. Part of my own fascination with Philip is that he is transported from place to place.
It is good that we are named for this kind of Philip, as the cathedral church of a city ...on the move...driving cars and flying airplanes from place to place. The word Philip, in the Greek, translates literally as “lover of horses.” (If you are a horse-lover, you are in the right church!) Philip is a horse-lover; and a horse was the noblest and fastest means of transportation of the day.
Yes, there is good reason for Atlanta, with its dependence upon the automobile, upon the airport, and as a crossroads of transportation, to have a cathedral named for Philip, who used transportation to its fullest extent, who traveled to baptize even the foreigner and the stranger. I believe it is a good thing, too, that this very cathedral has traveled. We were once further south, across the street from the state capital; but we kept on the move. We are meant to be a traveling church.
If we are to follow Philip, we must overcome any fear of travel, but –secondly-- we must also overcome fear of the foreigner and of the stranger, the one who appears blemished, or much different from the norm. This fear seeps through much of American society these days, and it affects us here in Atlanta. North Atlanta fears South Atlanta. We tend to go to church, to go to schools, to go to clubs, with people who are the most similar to us. Indeed, that is easy. But it is not the mission of St. Philip the Deacon.
The mission of St. Philip would be to attach ourselves to the people who are different from us, who speak different languages than us, who are gay or lesbian or straight, but of different sexual orientation than us. The mission of St. Philip would be to serve as a deacon everyone with whom we come into contact.
Thirdly, St. Philip also baptized. We are becoming very good at this. We baptized 101 people last year; and as of today, this cathedral parish has baptized 92 souls this year. I know that not everyone baptized here is immediately energized with the Christian witness; but I believe God honors those baptisms. In baptism, we open our community to a wider and wider constituency. We make people part of the glorious Body of Christ in this place. And we are changed by their presence. The early Christian Church was changed by the influence of different people being baptized, people like this Ethiopian eunuch, people like Timothy whose mother was Jewish, but his father was Greek – a foreigner.
After this baptism of the Ethiopian, St. Philip suddenly found himself at Azotus, a town very far to the north; and the Scripture says he made his way up the Mediterranean coast to Caesarea, where he apparently lived. Later in the Book of Acts, he has four daughters – he has a family– and he is proclaiming the good news.
Proclaiming the good news. That was the mission of St. Philip, and that is our primary task at this cathedral. The good news that Jesus Christ has come among us in love and grace. Jesus loves us, no matter what our ethnic origin or physical description.
In 1933, the Dean of this Cathedral, Raimundo De Ovies preached a sermon in which he claimed that the cathedral was a house of prayer for all people. He said that “from henceforth the keynote of the communicants of this House of God shall be ‘Service.’” “We shall not be respecters of persons,” he said. “One’s possessions, social standing, family affiliations, or any other worldly standard can find no particular value in this place.”
Indeed, we are here to offer another particular value, the value of love. We are here to welcome the lonely and the stranger, the foreigner and the blemished, the rich and the poor, no matter what your wilderness has been. We are here to serve one another with good news: Jesus loves us, no matter where you are in your pilgrimage. This city, where so many are on the move, where so many are strangers, where so many are looking for love –this city-- has a cathedral, a house of prayer for all people.