Seeking to Understand

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

Scriptures: Acts 8:26-40, Isaiah 53:7-9

“Look, here is water.”

The observation by the unnamed Ethiopian here in Acts 8 seems like a fairly ordinary statement.  Except that it comes at an extraordinary point in this meeting between the Ethiopian and the apostle Philip – and there is not supposed to be any water nearby.

Why not?  Did you hear what Luke, the author of Acts, told us at the beginning of the story?  The angel said, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  But then Luke adds this little detail: “This is a desert road.” (NRSV – “wilderness road”).

A desert road – you do not expect to find water along a desert road.  But then again, this is a story full of surprises.

The first surprise is the man who is journeying down from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Listen to all of the details Luke includes even if he doesn’t give us his name: “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 and was returning home.”

He is an Ethiopian.  In Luke’s world, “Ethiopians” referred to anyone with dark skin, particularly those who came from south of Egypt.

He is an eunuch, a castrated male because of the actions of others – probably when he was quite young.  He is a man, and yet not fully a man.  Not fully male, not female – many people today think that sexual ambiguity in people is a modern phenomenon.  Acts lets us know that it is not.

This Ethiopian eunuch stands on the margins, neither fully this nor fully that, in another way as well.  Not Jewish himself, the clues left by Luke depict him as a Gentile who is interested enough in Judaism to worship at the Temple, yet is not a full member of the Jewish community.  The other details in these verses lets us know that he is important enough – and perhaps safe enough as an eunuch – to hold a position of great responsibility as the Ethiopian queen’s treasurer.  He is also “wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help.”[i]

What he is reading in Isaiah are the verses that we heard a few moments ago from Isaiah 53: “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 he was killed.”  Reading these words, the Ethiopian asks Philip: “Who is Isaiah talking about?  Himself or someone else?”

Here in Acts 8, this strange and surprising Ethiopian eunuch gives us a model to follow – whether we are an inquirer on the outside of the church wanting to know more about Christ, or whether we are a disciple inside the church wanting to grow in faith, wisdom, and love.  Note his earnest and searching spirit.  He is open and questioning in the best sense of the words.  This is one man who, when lost, is willing to ask for directions!

As James Bryan Smith has written, “the inability to be weak before God is the nemesis of the spiritual life.”[ii]  That is one reason Jesus never turns away from someone who asks a genuine question seeking to understand – as opposed to a trick question seeking to test or undercut Jesus.  If we always think we have all of the answers; if we always think that we are certain where we are going and don’t ever need to ask for directions, then we will get lost.  But when we do acknowledge our questions and doubts and seek understanding, then there is no telling how much we might receive from God, how much we might grow.

The second man on the road, the one who runs beside the chariot for a time, before being invited to join the Ethiopian in his chariot, is a bit less exotic than the Ethiopian, but he brings his own surprises with him.  Philip has just finished up a successful preaching mission in Samaria.  He has every reason to believe that he is to continue his preaching in Samaria – because there is so much need – and he has had so much success.

The Holy Spirit, however, has other ideas for Philip: “Get up and go towards the South, to that desert road that runs between Jerusalem and Gaza.”  To Philip’s credit, he drops whatever he is doing to obey the Holy Spirit.  And when he gets to that road, he gets the next instruction to go the Ethiopian’s chariot.  Strange instructions – but again Philip obeys.  It is what happens next – that especially stands out.  The great evangelist…

…Listens.  He doesn’t begin by speaking or instructing or sharing the gospel.  He listens to what the Ethiopian is reading, because as was the custom at the time, the Ethiopian is reading out loud.  Then he listens again to the Ethiopian’s question: “About whom is the prophet speaking?”  Only then does Philip provide an answer, explaining about how the promises of Isaiah were fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

If I were to ask you to close your eyes and picture in your mind an evangelist, what image would come to mind?  If you are of a certain age, perhaps a golden-tongued preacher like Billy Graham – or if you saw the movie, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” a big-haired television show host?  Or do you picture the co-worker who means well but turns off more than she turns onto Jesus Christ because of her non-stop witnessing to others?  Whatever image you have – positive or negative – I dare say you picture someone talking.  To be sure, Philip knows his Scriptures and he interprets them for the Ethiopian.  But it is his listening that really stands out here in Acts 8.

Philip listens to the Holy Spirit.  Three times the Holy Spirit counsels Philip what to do and he does it – even if the Holy Spirit is not very logical.  Logic and conventional wisdom might say, “Stay” in Samaria wherever things are going so well.  But the Spirit says instead, “Go now!” and Philip goes.  He allows his agenda to be set aside for God’s agenda, and he takes the road that leads through a desert to strange places with strange people.  Philip then listens to the Ethiopian before he speaks.  He listens to him so that he can better understand him.

35 years ago, Stephen Covey wrote a best-seller on leadership that has remained in print ever since, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  The fifth habit was “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”  Would that more leaders developed that habit, whether in business, politics, or on social media!  But that advice is not just good for leaders, including those elders and deacons whom we ordain and install today.

Developing a habit of seeking first to understand is also good for any would-be evangelist.  The most important faculty for evangelism is not a mind overflowing with memorized quotations or theological answers.  Nor is it a golden-tongued-voice or an impressive appearance.  No, the most important faculty is the ability to listen – an open heart revealed in open ears. 

Seeking to understand – when we do that, we show that the other person matters – and that they are not just a means to an end, whether it is another soul so-called “saved,” or a new member to grow the church.  Listening to another person shows that  we care about them.  Good listeners convey to the other person that they have something to contribute to the conversation, that their questions are important, and that we are not just there to give answers.  Only when we shut our mouths and open our ears can we be a good guide – like Philip. 

Recall Jesus’ example in the gospels again.  We remember Jesus’ words to be sure, but when you look closely what seemed to impact people more than his words was how people felt when they encountered Jesus.  The woman at the well, Zacchaeus, Nicodemus – they all felt listened to, known and understood, even as they were called by Him to live in a new way.

Love listens; listening demonstrates love.  And the most complete and Christ-like love comes before changes come in the other person.  This is the great paradox of love and change.  Think about parents, teachers, coaches, and others who made a difference n your lives.  You may have appreciated their knowledge, their wisdom, their words.  But most of all, I am guessing, you knew that deep down they deeply cared for you.  They truly loved you as you were, even as they hoped you would not always stay that way.  With God, we don’t change to be loved.  We change because we are already loved.

At the heart of Philip’s call by God and conversation, at the heart of the church’s mission, at the heart of our evangelism, is love.  Love propels us forward into the world, down obscure roads into the unknown and into conversations and relationships with those whom we might not otherwise encounter.  Love propels us outward towards those on the margins and on the outside.  Because Jesus Christ was, and is, always about bringing those outside inside, and erasing the lines that we people too often draw between “us” and “them.”  It is sad that for much of the past 2000 years ago that the church has forgotten about Acts 8 when it comes to those who don’t fit into neat, preconceived sexual gender or orientation categories.  But make no mistake, as far as Philip and Acts are concerned, they are fully welcome in the church.

Evangelism grows out of love.  Because of the love we have experienced in and through God, we want others to experience that love.  We have good news to share.  Like someone who found a good doctor or a good counselor or good plumber, we share that helpful news with others, not because we are somehow superior, but because we want to pass on someone who was really helpful for us.  Or as D.T. Niles put, evangelism is nothing more than one beggar telling another beggar where the free feast is.  When we have experienced something good, and someone else is struggling, how can we remain silent if we love them?

We are witnesses, not prosecutors or judges.  It is the Spirit who persuades, not us.  It is Christ who is our judge and the judge of others – not us.  We are simply witnesses, saying what we have seen and heard.  Instead of giving lectures, we simply say how our faith in God, how our participation in a community of faith, has made a difference in our lives.  Like Philip, we simply can extend an invitation for them to join us one Sunday in worship.  But it is always an invitation – not a sales pitch.  It is up to them – and the Holy Spirit – to take it from there.

Love is not only the source for our evangelism.  Love also guides our evangelism.  We treat others the way we want to be treated.  I don’t know about you, but I am not a big fan of know-it-alls, people who think they need to save me, or people who want only to go on social media rants or who talk, but never listen.  Why should we ever think that God would want evangelism to look like that?  It certainly does not look that way in Acts 8.

At the end of their conversation in the chariot, on that road through the desert, the Ethiopian saw that unexpected water.  And so he asks Philip one last question: What is to prevent me from being baptized?

The answer: absolutely nothing.  Not his nationality, not his skin color, not his sexual ambiguity, not his social or economic status.  There is nothing that prevents him from being baptized.  So, the Ethiopian commanded the chariot to stop, and he was baptized on the spot, Luke tells us.  The outsider found himself loved and included, and two strangers were united as brothers in one family.  The Luke gives us one final detail about that Ethiopian: he went on his way rejoicing.

Love and joy – who wouldn’t want to experience that?  And among us, who doesn’t want to share it?  Let us go and do likewise.

[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Acts 8:26-40: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 457.

[ii] James Bryan Smith, Embracing the Love of God (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995), 35.