The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian seeker is rich with insight and possibility for how we share the gospel in this postmodern and post-Christian age. It has the potential to open our eyes and spark our imaginations to new and faithful ways of authentically confessing our faith. In biblical studies, the main character of this story is often called the Ethiopian eunuch, and that is mostly how Luke refers to him in this narrative. But can’t we do better than that? For that description names him by a characteristic of his body and his social standing, which in light of the gospel is not nearly the most interesting thing about the man. Others have called him the Ethiopian treasurer, which gives him higher standing in society to be sure — but still not the most important thing about him. We learn in the story that the Ethiopian is a genuine seeker after God. He is a God-fearer who makes the long journey to Jerusalem to worship, and then continues to study and meditate on scripture on his way home. He is seeking the truth, and seeking God.
If nothing else, this small point in the story and its reception history can call us to question how we describe those to whom God sends us and who are placed in our path. How do we see them? Do we see them in terms of social, economic, racial, ethic, gender, or other identity markers? Or do we see unique persons created in the image of God, in whom God is already at work? Do we see people who are seeking Christ and who have already been found by Christ — though they may not know it yet? On this Sunday I would rather not call this man the Ethiopian eunuch…I would rather call him the God-seeker whom God was seeking.
Indeed, the Spirit had found the Ethiopian long before Phillip arrived. Phillip was sent to meet him on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Notice first that God’s messenger is sent to go out to meet the one who is seeking God. This in itself is a paradigm shift for many churches, who believe — implicitly or explicitly — that the seeker will find God when the seeker comes to the Christian community, when the person shows up at a worship service or meal or event. But what if God intends the community to go out to meet the seeker, to find her where she is and join her there?
Phillip overhears this person reading scripture aloud, like people did then. And the Spirit says, “Go and join him.” What follows is a beautiful picture of an honest and mutual seeking and sharing that ends in baptism. Phillip joined the man and engaged him in conversation through a question about what he was reading. The man then invited Phillip into deeper conversation, to help him understand what he “did not get” — and apparently had not gotten in Jerusalem. So Phillip sat with him in the chariot, and through their mutual study of scripture Phillip had the opportunity to “proclaim the good news about Jesus.”
Where does proclamation happen and who does it? In a Sunday morning pulpit or on a stage? On TV? In a stadium or arena? Yes, that’s proclamation…but there is so much more! Most proclamation happens like Phillip’s conversation with the Ethiopian. It is most often a quiet conversation between one person and another on the road, often about life’s deepest questions. Phillip had no idea where this whole encounter would go; he didn’t strategize it or plan it. He simply followed the Spirit’s lead, joined the man on his journey, and confessed his faith when the conversation went there. This is the proclamation that the whole church shares, and for which the whole church is empowered and sent!