Like Stephen, Philip is reckoned to be one of the Church’s first deacons. One of the requirements for the seven men chosen by the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem to serve was that they were “filled with the Spirit and wisdom.”1 According to the Acts of the Apostles, the whole experience of the first Christians was “Spirit-filled.”
The inspired author of Acts tells us that it was an angel who told Philip to head south from Jerusalem along the Gaza road. It is important to note that this divine messenger did not let the good deacon know why he was to head that direction using that route. Being filled with Holy Spirit, Philip was able to discern why when he came upon the Ethiopian eunuch reading and not understanding a passage from the Book of Isaiah.
While it may seem strange to us that someone would be reading out loud in public, it seems good to note that in the ancient world nobody read silently. All reading was done out loud. Of course, most people could not read. The particular passage the Ethiopian was reading was one of Isaiah’s Servant Songs.2 The Servant Songs are four Hebrew poems found in what is known as Deutero-Isaiah. Hence, these were written some six centuries before Christ during the Babylonian exile.
Remarkably, Isaiah’s Servant Songs transcend Israel’s longing for a “savior” to rescue them from exile. The particular passage the eunuch was reading deals with the utterly counter-intuitive and unexpected manner of God’s deliverance. This left the wealthy and powerful Ethiopian confused. “To whom is this passage referring,” he asks?3
' Given this opening, “Philip opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him.”4 Jesus is who this passage is about! As a result of the deacon’s Bible lesson, this man, who, it appears, was Jewish- Ethiopian Jews exist both then and now- came to believe in Christ. As a result, Philip baptized him. After baptizing the eunuch, Philip went on his evangelizing way, no doubt following the Spirit’s lead.
In our Gospel today, taken from Saint John’s Bread of Life discourse, the importance of hearing and rightly grasping God’s word also comes to the fore. Of course, in this instance, it is God himself, Jesus Christ, who is doing the expounding.
Jesus tells his listeners- “They shall all be taught by God.”5 Indeed, right then they were being taught the word of God by God's very Word. Jesus here is saying that anyone who “hears” the Father is drawn to him (Jesus). Because only Jesus has seen the Father, only Jesus can reveal the Father.
Jesus is the Word who becomes flesh. Jesus is Word who becomes sacrament by the Holy Spirit’s power. Just as foretold by the Servant Song that so puzzled the Ethiopian, Jesus does not do this in an imposing way. Rather, he does so in a rather unimposing and unexpected way. To those who do not know the word, the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence is usually incomprehensible or misunderstood.
Jesus becomes bread so that he can live in and through us, again, by the Spirit’s power. To be a Christian is to be Spirit-filled. For this to happen, we need to have some inkling of what we’re doing, why it is important, and why it matters that we gather for Mass. Hopefully, after what will have amounted to a long Eucharistic fast for most Catholics worldwide, all of us will be more interested in the importance of how the word becomes sacrament in and through us.
Christ is really present in the proclamation of the Scriptures. Instead of eating and drinking, we hear intending to listen to him. The English word “obedience” comes from the Latin verb obidere, which means to listen. Hopefully, like Philip, we will attune ourselves to the Holy Spirit and help others see and believe in the risen Christ. But before you speak you must listen to God’s word with the ear of your heart. While this sounds like a pious sentiment, listening with the ear of your heart is what enables you to become a missionary-disciple and not a sanctimonious twit.
Yesterday, I did a committal service. Despite our current circumstances, it was a beautiful Easter day. It was a day on which it was easier to believe in resurrection than it is under certain other conditions. In such circumstances, all any member of the clergy has to offer are words. But words can be powerful, and so, remain important. The inspired author of Hebrews, which most scholars reckon is a sermon, tells us the
word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart6Let us dedicate, or rededicate, ourselves to reading, pondering, and praying God’s word daily. This is one of the primary ways God teaches us. This includes preaching. If a preacher does not explain the Scriptures the way Philip did to the earnestly inquiring Ethiopian, then what’s the point of preaching? As Saint Jerome, the great Bible translator and commentator wrote in the prologue to his commentary on Isaiah: “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”7