Most of us have our comfort zones. We do not like to get out of them. They may be the rut in which we are stuck. We just decorate the rut and call it our groove.
Philip was one of those people who would have called it a rut. He needed no encouragement to think out of the box because he did not see the box at all.
The story of Philip in Samaria and with the Ethiopian both came before the stories of Dorcas and Cornelius that you heard about while I was on vacation. So Philip led the way for Peter to take his own steps out of the box and across cultural divides.
He started as one who was elected because the church needed help “waiting on tables”, which is the idiom for doing the administrative work. It was not just about dividing up the food for the needy. It was also about financial tables, anything that involved the care for the whole person.
Like, Stephen, he was too stirred by the spirit to simply work behind the scenes. Unlike Stephen, or maybe because of Stephen who was stoned to death by the haters in Jerusalem, Philip left the city. He went to Samaria.
There were then divisions among the people of Judea just as there are in every society. Some divisions were about who held power and wealth. Some were about competing theologies and the life styles that went with them. One of the deepest divisions was an ethnic division that went back about seven centuries.
Sometimes we think the Jews despised the Samaritans because they were not pure children of Israel. The truth is they despised the Samaritans long before the elite Jews were deported and the remaining people of the land intermarried with whichever ethnic group was forcefully settled among them. It goes back to the split between the northern tribes, identified by the largest among them as Ephraim and labeling themselves as the kingdom of Israel, and the southern tribes identified by the largest tribe among them Judah and labeling themselves as Judeans who were eventually known simply as Jews. The Samaritans in the time of the early Christian church lived in the territory that was originally designated as Ephraim.
So when Philip chose to go to Samaria he was crossing a very old ethnic, religious and political boundary. Both groups traced their origins back to Abraham. Both held a belief that the land in which they lived was given to them by God.
When he talked with the Samaritans he simply told what he knew. He knew that through the teachings of Jesus, God was a loving being who included everyone in a warm and healing embrace. Philip saw no reason why the Samaritans should not be included in this saving grace.
He did not, it is true, give them the full and complete theology. He never mentioned the Holy Spirit apparently. The central authority for the early church in Jerusalem sent Peter and John up to Samaria to check out the rumor that these “others” were displaying signs of becoming disciples of Jesus also.
God sent him off somewhere else once the church officials from Jerusalem came up to check out his work and were made to realize that the Samaritans were part of God’s great plan.
Philip was then sent to an Ethiopian Eunuch. We will talk more about him next week. For now, we just need to see that Philip was able to look past even more cultural barriers. In this case it was the unique humanity of the Ethiopian and the most basic hurt he had that Philip was able to sense and heal.
The final mention of Philip comes chapters later and years later. He ends up in Caesarea, married and with four daughters. We are told that his daughters were unmarried and all prophetesses. Both of these pieces of information are startling.
He plays host to Paul who is on his way back to Jerusalem after many years. I would have loved to have been there for that visit.
Paul was known as the great apostle to the gentiles, only Philip had beaten him to that by many years. Paul had still not crossed two other boundaries that Philip had. Philip had reached out to people of different sexualities when he baptized the Ethiopian – I will explain that next week.
And he had given women a much larger role in the church when he raised his daughters to be prophetesses. Paul was still saying that women should keep silent in worship. I cannot imagine Philip agreeing. When one was said to have the gift of prophecy that meant they had messages to give to the church. How can you give a message if you cannot speak out? Philip’s daughters had each spoken out and they had been heard. What they said was acknowledged as God-given, otherwise they would not have been called prophetesses.
What makes this person relevant is that he crossed so many cultural divides. How could he do that? Can we do the same? We want to be a church for all people. We proclaim we are open to diversity. Yet, if we are honest we realize that there are some barriers that we find difficult to cross. Philip was a cross cultural pioneer. What was his secret? Unfortunately, he did not leave us a diary, nor were any sermons he may have delivered written down.
I think it was the gift of empathy – the ability to feel what someone else is feeling. It is not the same as sympathy – to feel along with someone else. Empathy requires an awareness of all the emotions a human being can feel, from the highest to the lowest, from the brightest to the darkest. To know that you are capable of those emotions also, and all the thoughts they produce. When you acknowledge fully your own humanity then you can see the full humanity of someone else. You realize that gender, race, cultural and social castes, etc., do not make us more or less human than anyone else. We are all dust. We are loved by the one who shaped us from that dust as the creation story goes. We are all given the same breath of life, the same divine spirit.
When we can empathize, we can connect on a deeper level. It is that need for connection that the community of faith fulfills. Philip say that early on. Do we still understand it today?