Thursday, April 22, 2010

They Shall All Be Taught By God? Yet, How Can I Learn, Unless Someone Instructs Me?

Thursday of the Third Week of Easter
Reading I
Acts 8:26-40
The angel of the Lord spoke to Philip,
“Get up and head south on the road
that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza,
the desert route.”
So he got up and set out.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch,
a court official of the Candace,
that is, the queen of the Ethiopians,
in charge of her entire treasury,
who had come to Jerusalem to worship,
and was returning home.
Seated in his chariot,
he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit said to Philip,
“Go and join up with that chariot.”
Philip ran up and heard him
reading Isaiah the prophet, he said,
“Do you understand what you are reading?”
He replied,
“How can I, unless someone instructs me?”
So he invited Philip to get in and sit with him.
This was the Scripture passage he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who will tell of his posterity?
For his life is taken from the earth.

Then the eunuch said to Philip in reply,
“I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this?
About himself, or about someone else?”
Then Philip opened his mouth and,
beginning with this Scripture passage,
he proclaimed Jesus to him.
As they traveled along the road
they came to some water,
and the eunuch said,
“Look, there is water.
What is to prevent my being baptized?”
Then he ordered the chariot to stop,
and Philip and the eunuch
both went down into the water,
and he baptized him.
When they came out of the water,
the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away,
and the eunuch saw him no more,
but continued on his way rejoicing.
Philip came to Azotus,
and went about proclaiming the good news
to all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
Again we meet the deacon Philip, whom we saw yesterday as a very successful preacher of the Gospel to the people of Samaria. The Samaritans were doing so well that Peter and John were now sent to baptise them in the Holy Spirit.

In today’s reading, Philip gets instructions from God to take the desert road to Gaza on the south coast of Palestine, the same place from which comes so much tragic news almost daily on our TV screens. The distance from Jerusalem to Gaza is about 80 km (or 50 miles).

On his way, Philip runs into an Ethiopian eunuch, the finance minister of the queen of Ethiopia, who was on his way back after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Eunuchs were commonly used in positions of seniority and trust, especially where the women of the royal household were concerned. They often became powerful and very rich.

‘Ethiopia’ corresponded in this period to Nubia, from the Upper Nile region at the first cataract (Aswan) to Khartoum. It would now be part of the Sudan. Kandake (Candace) was the traditional title of the queen mother, who was responsible for performing the secular duties of the reigning king. He was thought to be too sacred to have to deal with such administrative chores.

As we are told the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, it is very likely he was a convert to Judaism or else a Gentile who believed in the God of Israel.

As Philip catches up with him, the man is reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah. It was Isaiah 53:7-8, from the Fourth Song of the Suffering Servant which is read at the liturgy on Good Friday and is a text long seen by the Church as pointing to Christ in his passion. It was also the usual practice at the time to read aloud and that is why Philip knew what he was reading.

Philip asked him if he understood the passage. “How can I,” the man replied, “unless someone explains it to me?” This is something we need to acknowledge too. We cannot really understand the meaning of the scriptures unless we have someone explain them to us. We cannot simply expect to know what they mean just by reading nor should we expect that God will directly inspire us. We have to take the natural means available to us, namely, the experience and the knowledge of experts and people of deeper wisdom. The texts are separated from us by language and centuries of custom and lifestyles. Like the eunuch, we need interpreters to help us understand.

Here, the eunuch was quite at a loss to know what the passage was about. “Tell me, if you will, of whom the prophet says this – himself or someone else?” And Philip proceeded to show the official how the words applied to Jesus in his suffering and death and this gave him the opportunity to proclaim the whole message of the Gospel.

So completely won over was the eunuch that, as they passed a stretch of water, he asked to be baptised there and then. In other words, he was expressing his total faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour. Where was this stretch of water? There are several possibilities – a brook in the Valley of Elah (which David crossed to meet Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:40) or the Wadi el-Hasi, just north of Gaza or it could have been any other suitable stretch of water.

As soon as the baptism was done, Philip disappeared but the eunuch continued on his journey home filled with happiness. This is typical of the joy which is associated in the Acts with salvation.

Meanwhile, Philip’s work of evangelising was not done. He found himself in Azotus. It was one of five Philistine cities about 30 km from Gaza. From there he proceeded north all the way to Caesarea in Syria, a distance of about 100 km. Caesarea had been rebuilt by Herod. With an excellent harbour on the Mediterranean it served as headquarters for the Roman procurators.

We now say goodbye to Philip but he will reappear again some 20 years later, still in Caesarea, still an evangelist and enjoying domestic bliss (Acts 21:8).

As we read this story we might reflect that there will be times when we will be given opportunities to share the Gospel with people who are searching for meaning in their lives. But will we be ready? If someone presents us with a question about a Bible passage or a belief of our Christian faith, will we have the answer? Will we be ready to go beyond the answer and lead our enquirer to a further level of understanding? If not, then, like the eunuch, it may be time for us to take steps to deepen our understanding of the scriptures and of our Christian beliefs.
+++    +++    +++    +++
Psalm 66
Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
Bless our God, you peoples,
loudly sound his praise;
He has given life to our souls,
and has not let our feet slip.
Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
Hear now, all you who fear God,
while I declare what he has done for me.
When I appealed to him in words,
praise was on the tip of my tongue.
Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
Blessed be God who refused me not
my prayer or his kindness!
Let all the earth cry out to God with joy.
+++    +++    +++    +++   
John 6:44-51
Jesus said to the crowds:
“No one can come to me
unless the Father who sent me draw him,
and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:
They shall all be taught by God.

Everyone who listens to my Father
and learns from him comes to me.
Not that anyone has seen the Father
except the one who is from God;
he has seen the Father.
Amen, amen, I say to you,
whoever believes has eternal life.
I am the bread of life.
Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert,
but they died;
this is the bread
that comes down from heaven
so that one may eat it and not die.
I am the living bread
that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my Flesh for the life of the world.”
We continue to read John’s sixth chapter about Jesus as the Bread of Life. Today’s passage largely repeats what has been said already but at the end a new element is introduced.

Jesus reminds us that it is not we who find Jesus but rather it is the Father who finds us and leads us to Jesus as the Way to God. Here Jesus quotes from the Old Testament: “They shall all be taught by God.” Words to be found in Isaiah (54:13) and reminiscent of Jeremiah: “I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts” (31:33-34).

We see a lovely instance of that in the First Reading today about the eunuch who was led to Jesus by Philip the deacon. What was important here was the readiness and openness of the eunuch to be drawn to the truth.

Jesus again repeats that he is the Bread of Life, using that formal expression ‘I AM’ which points to divine origin. Unlike the manna that the Jews’ ancestors ate in the desert, this Bread comes directly from God and whoever eats it will live forever. Jesus’ challengers were asking for a sign like manna but Jesus says that it did not give real life – those who ate it have all died. The Bread that Jesus will give will bring a never-ending life to those who eat it.

Jesus is the Living Bread because he is the very Word of God and because he offers up his Body and Blood in a sacrifice of love bringing life to the whole world.

And this Bread is his flesh, life-giving flesh. This flesh will be given for the life of the world – a looking forward to Calvary. Giving eternal life will cost the human life of the Giver.

With these words the chapter moves into its eucharistic meaning. The word ‘flesh’ introduces the link between Eucharist and Incarnation. Jesus is the Word made flesh and that Word is the food that we all need to ‘eat’. To ‘eat’ here, while involving actual eating and drinking, really points to the total assimilation into oneself and into a gathered community of the very Spirit of Jesus.

The Eucharist, as we shall see tomorrow, is the great sign of the Christian community by which we both affirm and celebrate our union with Jesus. By our eating of the bread-that-is-flesh we affirm our total adhesion to all that Jesus is and stands for.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

The Ethiopian eunuch:

A little further on in Isaiah (56: 4-5), there is a beautiful promise for eunuchs. Perhaps the eunuch was reading the book of Isaiah in the hope of this promise. There is also a promise for foreigners. So, as an Ethiopian, perhaps he placed his hope in that promise too.

Isaiah 56:1, which leads into these promises, says 'soon my salvation will come and my saving justice be manifest.' Perhaps Philip was able to show the eunuch that Jesus was this salvation, who would bring about the fulfilment of the promises to eunuchs and foreigners.

Perhaps God, in sending Philip, was answering the eunuch's heartfelt prayers, not just providing him with a source of instruction.

'I AM the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I WILL give
is my Flesh for the life of the world.'

It seems to me that two 'breads' are suggested here: present and future. The present bread is what Peter will call at the end of this discourse 'the words of eternal life', i.e. 'whoever eats this bread will live forever'. The future 'bread that I will give' is a kind of ransom: 'my flesh for the life of the world'. It is the ransom by which sins are forgiven.

Those listening do not understand yet how Christ will give that bread at the Last Supper and on Calvary. However, those who truly believe in the words of eternal life, like Peter, trust in Jesus even when they do not understand.