Formations 05.21.2017: Anonymous Strangers, Angels, and Pixies

Acts 8:26-40

I’ve never (that I know) met an angel. The closest I can claim was more of a pixie. Here’s how it happened.

I had a pretty rough time my first semester or so. I was living farther from home that I ever had before. I struggled with some of the new concepts and approaches my professors were teaching me—and which many of my classmates apparently found perfectly normal. And, being a very introverted person, I often found I didn’t have much energy left at the end of a long day to invest in socializing and making friends.

The Baptism of the Chamberlain, Museum Rotterdam (photograph) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Everybody knows what that’s like. We’ve all been plunged into new environments. We’ve all had our comfort zones threatened. Still, my life experience at that point was not remarkably broad. I was pretty sure I was the only person in the world who felt the way I did.

So, back to the pixie. She was tiny and cute as a button, and she walked up to me one afternoon, introduced herself, and said something along the lines of “This may sound weird, but I think God is calling me to be your friend.”

Now, before we go any further, let me say that my God-sent pixie was already engaged. It wasn’t that sort of relationship: she just somehow picked up on the quiet new guy who seemed to be overwhelmed with everything and thought she could be a friendly face and a listening ear. For maybe three months, she was the big sister I never had, and by the time she moved on to her next assignment (whatever that may have been), I had taken a step or two back toward emotional equilibrium.

Our lesson this week calls us to ask to whom God may want to send us. Once more, Philip is our example. Despite his thriving Samaritan ministry, an angel draws him to a desert road on the way to Gaza. There, he meets an Ethiopian eunuch reading the Bible in his carriage. We can imagine him saying something along the lines of, “This may sound weird, but I think God is calling me to read the Bible with you.”

As far as the Ethiopian was concerned, Philip was an “angel” from the Lord sent to give him guidance. How can chance encounters with anonymous strangers change our lives? What if we are the anonymous stranger?

Discussion

• We rarely receive such clear instructions from God as Philip did. How, though, does God speak to us today—and to what end?
• What can we do to be more attentive to the guidance God provides?
• To whom might you be an “angel” sent from God?

Reference Shelf

Ethiopia

In ancient sources, the term designates the Nile valley south of Aswan which is properly known as Nubia. Otherwise, classical sources may use the term more generally to refer to regions south of Egypt as far as Zanzibar. The region occupied by modern Ethiopia was in ancient times part of the Sabaean kingdom of Aksum, ruled by the dynasty descended from Menelik whom tradition recognized as a son of Solomon and the Queen of Saba (=Sheba).

John Keating Wiles, “Ethiopia,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 270.

The Eunuch and the Gentile Mission

This story has puzzled interpreters because it appears to offer an account of the conversion of a Gentile. Yet the attention Luke gives to the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10–11) would seem to indicate that Luke’s narrative portrays the Cornelius episode as the initiation of the “Gentile mission” (see 11:18 and 15:7, 14). If Peter is the instrument through whom God “first visited the Gentiles” (15:14), how does one make sense of Philip’s encounter with this non- Jewish (Gentile) man from Ethiopia?

The story echoes texts such as Deuteronomy 23:1 and Isaiah 56:3-7. The Deuteronomic text explicitly states that castrated men cannot enter the assembly of the Lord. Yet the Isaianic text states that in the new age of salvation, even the eunuchs and foreigners would be admitted into God’s house (see Isa 56:3-7). [Eunuchs] It is significant that this man was a eunuch from a foreign land, for he embodies those of whom Isaiah 56:3-7 speaks….

Readers would profit to pause and reflect further on the notice that the eunuch has been to Jerusalem to worship (proskyneo, v. 27). Recall that Israel’s raison d’être was to worship (latreuo) God (7:7). Luke does not employ the same Greek word in 8:27, but he does not sharply distinguish between the two words (see, e.g., Luke 4:7, 8; Acts 7:42, 43; 24:11, 14). This non-Jewish person, one excluded from the temple by those who have run Philip out of Jerusalem, satisfies better in his life Israel’s reason to be than does Israel itself.

One can appeal to Luke’s use of sources to address the problem of the tension between this story about the conversion of a Gentile and the more detailed story of Cornelius. For example, Hans Conzelmann argues that the Ethiopian story served as the Hellenist Christians’ account of the conversion of the first Gentile. It existed as a rival narrative to the Hebrew Christians’ account of the first Gentile conversion, the Cornelius story. Luke wanted to employ the Philip story, despite the tension it would create with the Cornelius story, for it offered a concrete tradition about the activities of the Hellenist Christians. He apparently did not have an abundance of traditions from these circles on which to draw. Luke then tried, without much success, to downplay the tension it would create with the Cornelius story by avoiding the term “Gentile” to describe this eunuch.

Robert Tannehill offers a literary solution to the problem. He argues that within the flow of the narrative the story of the eunuch serves to foreshadow for the reader the Gentile mission “to the ends of the earth.” He thinks it significant that only the two characters in the story and the reader of the story know of this incident. It is a private foreshadowing offered to readers, so that by the time they come to Acts 10–11, they can watch the Jerusalem Christians come to realize what they already know: God has granted repentance and life to the Gentiles.

J. Bradley Chance, Acts, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2007), 137.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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