Thursday in the Third Week of Easter
Acts 8:26ff. The Ethiopian eunuch hears Philip explain who is the suffering servant of whom Isaiah speaks.
John 6:44ff. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”
Explaining the Inspired Text
Our heavenly Father was already drawing the Ethiopian eunuch and royal treasurer to a life-giving faith. This foreigner was already a “God-fearer,” the term for gentiles who believed in Israel’s God Yahweh, and followed those prescriptions of the Torah which would not alienate the foreigner from his own family and country. The Spirit of God was attracting the Ethiopian more deeply into Israel’s faith through his reading of Isaiah and the Suffering Servant Songs.
As God directed Philip the deacon to head south along the same route taken by the Ethiopian, Providence was clearly at work. Yet something was still lacking and the Ethiopian felt unable to understand the divine message. “Do you really grasp what you are reading?” asks Philip, and the African says, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” Philip then explained the meaning of the Suffering Servant Song: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, like a lamb before its shearer he was silent .”
After Philip re-read the passage as referring to Jesus and with the Ethiopian contemplated the profound sense of the passage through Jesus’ death on the cross, the God-fearer asks to be baptized and Philip at once admits him to the church. We observe here the steps of conversion, not only from sin to grace, nor simply from an outsider to membership within the church, but also from an opportunity of grace to its full realization.
First, we need confidence that God is always drawing us closer to Jesus. In each moment of our lives God is summoning us from hate or displeasure to love or joy, from fear to peace, from isolation to companionship, from sin to grace, from being “good” to being “much better.” We must have the same faith in others that they too are being attracted by God to a more fervent way of life and to a holier attitude. Like the Ethiopian we must be a “God-fearer,” awesome and in wonder at what God is doing with ourselves and our lives. Like this foreigner, we should go regularly to community prayer and church worship, as he did to the Jerusalem temple.
This pilgrimage to the temple or church not only means a physical journey but also a spiritual walk along the pages of the Bible. The Ethiopian was reading from Isaiah Chapter 53. It is important to note that he was reading a passage and even delaying over it, despite the fact that he did not understand what the words were saying to him. He did not simply hurry onward to something within the reach of his understanding and control! He waited for the Lord to speak.
Still another pilgrimage must be made, this time by the church toward those who are being attracted by the heavenly Father. Deacon Philip was told to “head south … catch up with that carriage … [and inquire] ‘Do you really grasp what you are reading?'” There must be a missionary drive within the church, with gentle initiative, asking “Do you really grasp?” The Church must also be driven by a longing to see Jesus everywhere or to believe that all good desires, even those in Scripture, are leading to “the good news of Jesus.” Jesus absorbs and fulfills every good desire and strong hope.
When all of these pilgrimages come together, a person is ready to be received within the Church. The Ethiopian asked for baptism, the door to the Church. This door, however, swings back and forth. It leads the Ethiopian into the Church but it also invites him to go forth as an apostle of the good news. Deacon Philip disappears and the foreigner continues on his journey home to bring the good news to his own country.
Through the Church the Ethiopian not only receives baptism and new life in Jesus but also the bread or nourishment to sustain that life strong and vigorous. The gospel tells us: “I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread that one shall live forever.
Yet, this eucharistic nourishment also leads to death. It brings a participation in the death of Jesus. “This bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” This flesh or body of Jesus silently suffered death, as announced in Isaiah Chapter 53. Yet, in death there is a door to new life beyond human imagination. For this reason baptism too is compared to death, a sharing in the death of Jesus (Rom 6:3).
Life comes in extraordinary ways. The Ethiopian treasurer is called a “eunuch.” The word may not have to be taken literally as someone unable to beget children. At this time it had acquired a more general sense of a court official; in ancient days, these men had to be eunuchs in the physical sense of the term. Yet, in the passage we see several persons, all seemingly without offspring and without a future. The suffering servant gives rise to the question in Isaiah: “Who will ever speak of his posterity, for he is deprived of his life on earth?” Jesus died, a total failure from all appearances. The Ethiopian may have been deprived of descendants. Through Jesus’ resurrection life and offspring come in mysterious ways.
First Reading: Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Gospel: John 6:44-51
No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”