Unless Someone Guides Me

So, I want to start this reflection on this passage of Acts by talking about Martin Luther. Martin Luther has a lot to do with how we need to look at this passage. See, Martin Luther, among many things, rebelled against what is called mediated faith. That is, most religion is mediated through something, whether it’s through a prophet, through a priest, through a holy text, through a ritual, through some kind of rite. Most religion is mediated. The only religious folks who have an unmediated experience of Faith tend to be the mystics, who have an experience so profound they can usually never put it into words and describe what it’s like. The rest of us usually have some kind of mediation between us and the Divine. And Luther felt that the Catholic church was using its role as mediator as a way to prevent people from having the kind of relationship with God that they should have. And so, when he argued for the priesthood of all believers, which is a common Protestant refrain, the priesthood of all believers, what he meant by that was not that everyone is clergy but that everyone is their own priest, their own intercessor, their own religious official when it comes to communicating with God. That you don’t need some other individual to have to negotiate or mediate a relationship with the divine; you can do this yourself. That’s the priesthood of all believers.

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter
April 18, 2024—Easter V
Acts 8:26–40
Text transcribed by YouTube, Reconstructed by ChatGPT. Please forgive any typos.

And Luther worked hard at this because he believed that the church, in being the mediator, had abused a lot of its power. And so, he felt it was important for people to be able to read the scriptures themselves, rather than be told what they were by a priest who was translating them from Latin into the common speech. And so, he translated the Bible into German so that ordinary Germans could read it. This then, again, kind of exploded throughout the Protestant world, and before you knew it, you began to see translations into Dutch, into English, into the Scandinavian languages, into other languages. And then, as the influence of that movement spread, so too did the need to translate the word. And Luther strongly objected to the Catholic Church’s, I should say, the medieval Catholic Church’s insistence that it had a monopoly on what the scripture meant. He felt that people were capable of understanding and interpreting the scripture and reading it themselves.

If Luther’s era was defined by a monopoly on interpretation by the church itself, we have gotten to the other end of that pendulum swing. Because now, anyone with a copy of the Bible or with access to the internet can read the scriptures and interpret it themselves. And that’s the trajectory that we have gone on: from a monopolized interpretation to as many interpretations as there are readers of the text.

Image of Baptism from an Ethiopian biblical manuscript

And so, when I look at this passage from Acts, something surprising leaps out at me. Something more surprising than the fact that the Holy Spirit teleported Philip from Gaza to Ashdod, which is a little-known and a little-explored aspect of this story. Something more surprising than that is the behavior of the Ethiopian eunuch who asks for help and understanding the scriptures. When Philip approaches him and says, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The man says, “Not I think so,” or “I can work it out,” or “It seems like it means this.” He says, “Well, how can I unless someone guides me?” It’s a kind of humility in faith that we don’t see exercised very much anymore.

That is, people are too inclined to read the scriptures as if they had been written by a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant middle-class American Methodist about 75 years ago somewhere in Kansas. We read them as if we need no guidance, no help, no context, no interpretation, no sense of history, no sense of theology, no sense of anything other than the plain, what we imagine are the plain words of scripture and what they obviously mean to us.

See, the words that the Ethiopian eunuch is reading from Isaiah have a literal meaning. And he could have said, “I think this is talking about some prophetic figure,” or perhaps the prophet himself, or perhaps some anonymized generic victim of injustice. And it’s Philip who helps him to understand it based on the interpretations that Jesus himself has given the disciples. See, one of the interesting things that we’ve seen in some of those Post Easter Resurrection stories is that Jesus takes the time to explain to the disciples what the scriptures meant. Because they seem, on their own, unable to wrap their heads around the resurrection. And they don’t really understand it, right? We’ve looked at this. Is it a ghost? What’s happening here? How do we understand this? And in both Luke’s account and in John’s account, Jesus stops and explains the scripture. He says, “Let me connect the dots for you as to how this works.” So now Jesus, having trained his disciples, the disciples are now playing that role in helping others to understand.

This is a part about Christian faith that can’t be emphasized enough. It is not an individual religion. It is not a religion meant just for me or just for you or just for any one person. It is a religion meant for community. It is a faith meant for communities in which those with understanding can guide those without, where those without can ask questions, where those who are skilled at one thing can lend their talents to others, and so on and so on.

If some years ago, I had occasion to offer some biblical instruction to the daughter of a church official, who, somewhat to the embarrassment of this official, did not really know much about the Bible, but this person had expressed interest, wanted to study, and wanted to come study with me. So I was teaching them, we were going through the gospels, we were going through the creation, we were doing all kinds of in-depth stuff, and she was devouring it and loving it, and going home and talking to her parent about everything they were learning. And of course, the parent was thrilled beyond belief. But what she kept saying to me was, “I don’t understand how anyone thinks they can read this without some kind of help. Knowing even the little that I now know about the history, the context, the language, how does anyone think they can just open this thing and read it?” And that’s precisely the point. You can’t. No one can. I can’t. To the extent I can understand it, it’s because I had teachers. I had teachers who taught me how to read it, how to interpret it, how to learn about the history and the culture and the politics and the language, all the things that are necessary to understand this text. That’s why it requires a community. That’s why it requires all of us. Because one person alone can’t bring that kind of experience to it, because we were not born 2,000 years ago in Palestine and the Eastern in the Easter edge of the Roman Empire at a time of great upheaval. We weren’t practitioners of that form of Judaism living in that cultural milieu. We weren’t a part of that world. It is hard for us to simply jump there. In fact, one of the most important things about reading scripture is to understand how much we bring to it that we’re unaware of.

There’s an old line about, “Know what does the Bible say on this?” And the answer is, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say anything. You have

to read it.” The truth of that snarky joke is that reading itself is an interpretive act. When we read, we read with our lifetime of experience, our cultural assumptions. We read with lenses that we grow over the course of our lives and really often are unaware of. Now, we’ll never rid ourselves of those lenses. All you can really do is correct for them or to be aware that they exist, to say, “I might be reading this in a particular way because I was brought up in such and such an environment and this word plainly means this to me. So maybe I ought to see what this is actually all about.” And that’s where the rest of the church comes in. That’s what the church is meant for: meant to guide each other, to help each other, to offer wisdom, perspective, history, tradition.

Where Luther was right about the Catholic Church, the medieval Catholic Church, I should remember to say, where he was right about them was that they had developed their tradition to such a point that it was no longer just a tradition of interpreting the text. It was now the way to interpret the text. They might have said, “Look, we have interpreted this way for a long time. There might be other ways to look at it, and we should open ourselves to those possibilities.” But they weren’t doing that. And so, Luther’s reaction to then open it up to everybody did send us down a road where now we all think we can read it unaided. But unless someone guides me, how can I understand this text?

It doesn’t mean that reading the Bible on our own is pointless or useless. It’s certainly not. It is an important aspect of discipleship to read and reflect upon the scriptures. But it is a reminder, as one pastor of mine used to say, that all of us is smarter than any of us. That all of us together create a kind of wisdom and discernment and experience and knowledge and understanding that helps each of us individually to grow. Not just in our reading of scripture, but in our understanding of teachings, our understanding of Christian ritual, Christian behavior, our understanding of what the gospel means to us.

That’s what I believe Wesley meant when he talked about experience as informing us. It was, what is our experience of God in this? And how does that experience help us to understand a given point? But it’s not something we can do on our own. It’s hard to be a good Christian and an autodidact at the same time. Now, it’s hard for us because we also live in a culture that celebrates individualism to a very high degree. And that, in and of itself, can conflict with the Christian idea of communitarianism, because it can make us think that we can do all this on our own. And we can’t. But it’s okay, because we weren’t meant to. We aren’t asked to. In fact, we are encouraged to do it together.

When Jesus says, “Ask, and you shall receive,” the “you” he uses is plural. Meaning he’s saying, “Y’all,” in effect. When Jesus addresses the church, it’s in the plural, not in the singular. He never speaks to any one Christian or any one disciple. He’s speaking to them all. He’s speaking to us as a community, as a group, as people. And it’s as a community, as a group, and as a people that we are to grow in faith, to learn one from another, to reflect on the word and the spirit behind it. And as a people, we are to do as Philip does: as he departs from that place and witnesses to all with whom he comes into contact.

The Text

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.