- Bible Reading: Acts 8:26-39
- Free Resource: Who Is the Holy Spirit to You? (Cross+Gen Worship – NL)
- Unit Theme (April 4—May 23): Birth of the Church
- The Point: We can learn about God through the most surprising people.
It is not the most obvious thing to me, a white man, but as I was thinking about our story in Acts 8, I was struck with a thought: our story today is about a black man stopped while driving down a road. In our modern context, that means a lot, and it’s not good. So, as a faith formation leader, I would suggest approaching this story with this awareness in mind. Our personal experiences and understandings affect how we hear and interpret a story, and it is critical to remember that ours is not the only—not the “right”—way.
The echo between the story traditionally called “Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch” and the grave injustice to black men (and too many more people) is distorted and tenuous at best. Racism, as we know it in the United States (my context), did not exist in first-century Palestine. But it is an inescapable reality now.
Even though our special kind of evil and injustice is not the same as theirs, prejudice is a universal part of human sinfulness. If you are not one of “us,” then you are one of “them.” The more different you are, the more “other” you are. And the man in this story is definitely an “other,” both in the story’s context and ours. I have no idea if the man’s skin color had any affect on how the Jews in Jerusalem would have seen him, but he was definitely a Gentile, definitely a representative of a foreign power, and definitely a sexuality/gender-related minority. Luke, our purported writer of Acts, doesn’t do any favors by denying this man a name. He is here defined by what makes him different.
It’s important to note that different is not bad. Diversity is beautiful and part of God’s wonders of creation. Sinful humans, however, too often turn diversity into otherness.
Differences in power exist. They just do. One person will have more knowledge, skill, strength, authority, etc. than another. These differences in power in action are power dynamics, the interactions of people with different levels of power. This is not inherently bad, but our human sinfulness can often make it that way. And power dynamics and “otherness” are a bad combination. That is an aspect at the root of the evil and injustice perpetrated on people of color on the road and throughout their lives.
However, it is important to remember that humans are complex—as are human contexts—and therefore so are our power dynamics. A person can be more powerful in one area and less in another, and more in one situation and less in another.
There are so many aspects of this story that I don’t know about or understand. Scholars in this area will know more about the cultures and prejudices of the time, but I would wager that there is also much that even the most knowledgeable scholar does not know. Here are some power differences that I can see:
- Philip is named. The man is not.
- Philip is more knowledgeable about Scripture than the man.
- Philip is a local. The man is a foreigner.
- The man has a level of political power (in his home country). Philip has none.
- The man has access to wealth (personal or positional). Philip is a refugee from religious persecution.
- The man has a home. Philip is possibly couch-surfing and housing insecure.
- Philip is considered physically “whole.” The man is considered physically “blemished.”
One of the dangers inherent in missionary, human service, and other aid work involves a distinct power dynamic. Even putting aside any implicit (or explicit) racism and classism (which should not be ignored), we have the unequal power dynamic of the helper and the one needing help, the savior and the one needing saving (spiritually or physically). This can—and has—led to many unhealthy situations, especially for marginalized or vulnerable people.
The way to combat unhealthy power dynamics is not to stop any type of aid work, but to move toward mutuality. It’s a topic I don’t know enough about, but, at its core, it is a belief that all people have inherent dignity and giftedness. I found a three-page excerpt called “Discussion of ‘Movement Toward Mutuality’” to be helpful in thinking about this through the factors of mutual empathy, mutual empowerment, and movement toward mutuality.
All of this is to give a warning and suggestion. Be wary of telling this as a story primarily about Philip, either about Philip giving the man radical acceptance or Philip as a model evangelist. The main mover of this story is the Holy Spirit. She was not just active in bringing Philip into this encounter, but she also was present and active with the man before, during, and after this encounter. We never bring the Holy Spirit anywhere she is not already working. And—I hope and believe—both Philip and the man emerged from this encounter having grown and been blessed by the Spirit and by each other.
Each week I offer a free activity for congregations to use for faith formation. This week’s activity “Who Is the Holy Spirit to You?” gives participants (large and small groups, families and individuals) the opportunity to reflect upon and illustrate their understanding of the Holy Spirit as she comes to us in the story of Scripture and our lives. This activity was written for our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Worship (NL) product, though it can be used in pretty much any context.
Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources
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