A few years back, we became friends with a young priest named Kenn, who eventually got married here the day after the Epiphany 2016. Fr. Kenn’s first church was in Casa Grande, Arizona, which is famous for the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, except that the monument isn’t even in Casa Grande, but rather in nearby Coolidge. Casa Grande is infamous for the Japanese-American relocation camp that was set up outside of town, known as the Gila River War Relocation Center. The future actor Pat Morita was there with his family.
The most striking thing about Casa Grande, which is halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, is that there isn’t anything else in between Phoenix and Tucson. When Doan and I visited last year for the wedding of our good friend Holly, we were struck by two things immediately:
- While Arizona is very large, there is strikingly little in Arizona. It’s essentially empty, especially compared with the Northeast.
- Everything in Arizona is a shade of brown. The ground, the hills, even the plants are sorta brownish-green. The brown theme translates to the buildings as well.
Point being, welcome to the American equivalent of the Judean Desert, the setting for today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles. But before we get to the desert, a little set-up.
Early in the book of Acts, Jesus tells his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” The Apostles receive the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, and all heaven breaks loose. Thousands of people are converted to the Way, and the community of believers was quite lovely, really; they took care of one another, with special concern for the elderly and infirm, the widow and the orphan. There was some initial resistance from the religious authorities, who weren’t pleased with the Apostles, what with their teaching and healing in the Name of Jesus.
As the Church grew, they began to formalize positions within the group. They began the Order of Deacons, and ordained seven men to serve as deacons among them. The word deacon is derived from the Greek word diákonos, which means something along the line of table servant, which is why, even today, if a deacon is active in the Mass, he or she is always the one who sets the altar for the Consecration. Deacons always take a servant’s role; they assist, they do acts of charity, they are always with and for the people. And so among the seven ordained as deacons were Stephen and Philip, not to be confused with Philip the Apostle. Now, it was about this time that the initial resistance to the Church turned to outright persecution. Stephen was arrested and tried for blasphemy because he wouldn’t stop proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God, and was subsequently stoned to death. The Apostles and the other Christian leaders scattered, and Philip ended up in Samaria, which you might remember, was not a place that was friendly to Jews, even Jewish converts to Christianity.
It was in Samaria that Philip made a name for himself: he healed people, drove out demons, and essentially started a church there. Then the Holy Spirit led Philip down a road and into the desert, into the very brown wasteland that is Casa Grande – I mean the Judean Desert, south of Jerusalem. Where Philip ends up, if it wasn’t the end of the earth, you surely could almost see it from there.
It’s there that Philip runs into, of all people, an Ethiopian eunuch, a member of the court of the Candace, the title of the queen of Ethiopia, riding in a chariot, reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. I can’t describe to you how weird that is. I tried to think of a local scenario, and the only thing I could come up with was if you were driving through the Pinelands and came across Bettina Hagedorn, Parliamentary State Secretary of Germany’s Bundesfinanzministerium, while she read the Bible in the back of a Mercedes Benz.
Philip is filled with the Holy Spirit, though, and is therefore undaunted by this encounter. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch study the Scripture together, Philip tells the eunuch about the good news of God in Christ Jesus, and the eunuch comes to believe, he sets his life on Jesus.
There’s too much in this story to teach it all in one sitting. We have the power of the Holy Spirit, the spreading of the Gospel even in the desert, converts as unlikely as Ethiopian court ministers, Philip poofing into thin air. But maybe all of that is the one big point of the story: that you never know what God is going to do in your life until you let God do things in your life. In Bible Study a couple weeks ago, we talked about how miracles rarely happen anymore not because God doesn’t do miracles anymore, but because we don’t expect the miraculous. In the same vein, the strange and wonderful things God can work through us won’t ever happen unless we ask to live in His graceful and powerful kingdom. What will you let God do in your life?