Finding Christ in the Gospel
Then 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 and 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.
Acts 8, 26-39
Philip asked the man, “Do you truly grasp what you are reading?” “How can I,” he replied, “unless someone gives me instruction?”
Acts 8, 31
Spreading the gospel involves a lot more than simply getting people to study the Bible. In fact, that can cause more problems than it solves. The Ethiopian eunuch was a man of faith and determination. He’d traveled all the way to Jerusalem to worship and he was putting his heart and soul into the task of studying the Word of God. His efforts yielded him nothing but bafflement.
Things began to change for the eunuch once Philip began to listen to his questions. After he did, the scripture tells us that “he proclaimed Jesus to him.” Other translations say, “he proclaimed the gospel to him.” Let me propose that we allow ourselves to take the terms ‘Jesus’, ‘the gospel’ and ‘eternal life’ in the same way. To receive the gospel is to receive Jesus. To desire eternal life is to long for the good news of the gospel.
The eunuch didn’t receive the good news while he was seated alone in his chariot. His spiritual hunger had led him to search the prophesy of Isaiah, but reading those words just left him hungry – and frustrated as well. His experience has been repeated over the years by a multitude of people whose hunger has led them to scripture, and scripture has left them hungry.
I say these things because I want you to know that even though the answers to your questions are all in the gospel, there’s no reason to think that you will only connect up with the gospel when you read the Bible. Sometimes you find the gospel the way the eunuch did, in a conversation with a believer; sometimes it happens when you receive the sacrament. Sometimes you find the gospel while you’re working for justice; sometimes when you’re showing compassion to someone who’s hard to love. Sometimes you find the gospel in prayer, sometimes in the process of forgiving someone or of being forgiven. And then there are those times when you actually do encounter the gospel, or Jesus, or eternal life while you’re reading the Bible.
We’re called to receive the gospel, and we’re called to transmit it as well. Philip certainly understood this and he was only too happy to give to the eunuch what he himself had received. God wants us to spread the gospel at all times, and that means both give and take. It also means that you have to learn to translate the gospel. I’m not talking, here, about translating the Bible from one language to another. I’m talking about translating the gospel into all manner of human activity and interaction. The gospel is much, much more than readings and sermons.
There’s something else to know about the gospel and that’s to know that it’s always preceded by repentance. You’re exchanging your life for Jesus’ life. You’re abandoning your ways and you’re taking on his. You’re changing what you believe, and what you think and what you do. And it never ends. It’s not as if the journey is over once you’re ‘there’, you’re always ‘getting there’.
The fruit of the gospel is joy, and joy is the Bread of Life. Like any bread it can get stale after a time so it has to be renewed. Receive the gospel, and then transmit it. Get, and then give. Inhale, and exhale too. Another sign of the gospel is hope, and hope adapts to every new situation, and situations are always changing. It’s not as if there are certain lucky people who are ‘hopeful people’. There are people who choose hope, day after day, moment after moment.
What should we be thinking about while we’re repenting, while we’re reforming our lives? The idea, I think, is for us to rid ourselves of anything that gets in the way of our being a conduit for hope and joy. The first thing to do is to rid yourself of violence – and that means ridding yourself of anger, and resentment, and maliciousness, and contempt and littleness. Make the pursuit of non-violence an every day task. The more thoroughly you rid yourself of violence the more truly you will be able to match Jesus’ compassion with compassion of your own. Compassion that knows no discrimination.
Repentance is also about forgiveness. It’s about believing that God is infinitely merciful, and infinitely merciful to you. The sins that we refuse to forgive in others are the sins that continue to pain us. The sins that we refuse to forgive in ourselves are the sins we keep repeating. Another aspect of repentance is acceptance. You’re not perfect, and neither is anyone else. Perfection is not our goal, our goal is to see God. God is the one who is perfect. It really is possible to see God in the land of the living, but to do that you’re going to have to stop fussing about your own inadequacies or complaining about the inadequacies of others.
There are two other measures to consider in order to make your repentance effective: justice and respect – that is a respect for life itself. It’s true, of course, that justice is an element of love and that compassion encompasses respect. Why, then, do we bother ourselves with issues of justice and respect; why not simply rest our considerations on the topics of love and compassion? It seems to me that there are two aspects of our salvation. We can describe these two elements as ‘being there’ and ‘getting there’. Being there is the transcendent aspect of our salvation. Getting there is the incarnate aspect. Love and compassion are about being there, justice and respect are about getting there.
Put your faith in the promise that your salvation is complete. God’s grace has taken you from death into life and, in a real sense, you are already ‘resting on the bosom of Abraham’. God is offering you an abundance of love and compassion that is as unlimited as it is pure. We are invited to taste and see the transcendent goodness of the LORD; we are welcome to enjoy the benefits of being there. Just the same, though, as long as we live inside a flesh-and-blood body we’re going to be able to take note of the incarnate aspect of our salvation. While we’re on earth we’re getting there. While we’re on earth we must work to promote justice. While we’re on earth we must learn, and teach respect for life. These are processes that are continuous and we must continuously dedicate ourselves to these processes.
The eunuch received the gospel from Philip and he went on his way rejoicing. That joy was proof enough that he knew what being there was all about. What isn’t spoken of, but what we know must be true, is that the eunuch’s joy eventually dissipated and he was again invited to share in the work of promoting justice and learning the principles of respect. This is the way it is for all of us. Spreading the gospel is an enterprise that never ends, and the joy it produces never ends either.