Friday, June 6, 2014

St. Philip: Deacon and Evangelist

The Baptism of the Eunuch, by Rembrandt
     There are a number of Saints whose feast we celebrate today, among them St. Philip the Deacon, also known as the Evangelist (not to be confused with St. Philip the Apostle).
     Philip was one of the original seven deacons, first appointed because, in the first explosive growth of the Church, it was not considered right that the Apostles “should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2), and so the deacons were chosen to carry out some the more mundane duties.  Interestingly, however, they were not limited to “serving tables”, because almost immediately we see the Deacon Stephen preaching and suffering death as the first Christian martyr after the death of Christ Himself (Acts 6 & 7).  Next we see Philip preaching in Samaria, and “the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did” (Acts 8:6).  On the other hand, there were still limits to his authority:

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John,  who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit; 16 for it had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. . . (Acts 8:14-16)

While he could baptize, as a deacon Philip did not have the authority to confirm.
     After that, an angel of the Lord sends Philip to the road that runs from Jerusalem to the coast and to Egypt and beyond.  There Philip sees

. . . an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, "Go up and join this chariot." So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: "As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth." And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus.  And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, "See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?"  And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:27-39)

This is the last we see of Philip in Scripture, aside from the observation that he “preached the Gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea” (Acts 8:40), where years later St. Paul visited him and his daughters, who had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8-9).  There is a pious tradition that he later served as a bishop in Asia Minor.
     I have always been fascinated by St. Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.  There’s a lot going on in that one brief passage.  First, we see that God will answer those who sincerely want to know him, and that he usually uses other people as his instrument, as he does with Philip here, and we also see the necessity of baptism.  It’s worth noting that in the very next chapter, even after his direct encounter with the risen Lord, St. Paul similarly needs direct contact with Ananias before the scales fall off his eyes, and then is immediately baptized (Acts 9:1-18).  We also see the universality of God’s love: the eunuch is not only a foreigner (albeit with some connection to Judaism), but has been mutilated in a way that sets him apart from most other men; he receives the Holy Spirit nonetheless and goes off rejoicing to become the spiritual father (in spite of his castration) of the Church in Ethiopia.  Philip’s immediate disappearance is also instructive: once his work is done, the evangelist needs to get out of the way so that he doesn’t come between the convert and Jesus Christ.  Finally, the entire story of Philip shows us that while we do indeed all have difference roles and responsibilities in the Church, we are all called to spread the Good News.
    In these days when the world, even the nominally Christian part of it, is so much in need of Evangelization, we would do well to call upon the intercession of St. Philip the Deacon.