Religious gatekeepers would not like Philip the evangelist

Religious gatekeepers would not like Philip the evangelist March 31, 2014

Philip the evangelist is one of my favorite “minor” characters in the New Testament.

Philip was an affirmative-action hire by the early church in Jerusalem — before that word “church” had even begun to be used. The early Christians shared all their possessions — “everything they owned was held in common” and “there was not a needy person among them.” Part of what that meant was a kind of Meals on Wheels program that took care of widows. But the community was growing fast and, “the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.”

A dangerous man.

This is just a few chapters after Pentecost — the miraculous declaration that this community was going to include everybody from everywhere as equals. But the community was growing fast and there was a bit of a rift between the original insiders and the newcomers. So the disciples told the Greek-speaking newcomers to pick “from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.” Smart solution — correcting for the imbalance of power in the community by empowering those who were being neglected.

One of the seven men elected by the “Hellenists” was Philip. So he’s a community organizer in charge of feeding neglected widows. I like him already.

The next time we meet Philip is two chapters later. He’s in Samaria, healing the sick and preaching the gospel to the Samaritans. You remember all those Sunday school lessons about how the Samaritans were religious and ethnic outcasts? Those Samaritans. Samaritans were the first people Philip chose to reach out to, and we’re told that he brought them “great joy.”

One of Philip’s most enthusiastic converts in Samaria was Simon the magician, who was baptized and “stayed constantly with Philip.” Magic and sorcery always make for good stories, so tradition and legend have run wild with the character of Simon Magus — giving him a flying chariot drawn by demons and a host of other unlikely attributes never mentioned in the book of Acts. Those stories are loopy, but they confirm something that was certainly true of Simon — before he met Philip he was a wicked man, feared by many and despised by the righteous.* But Philip didn’t fear him or despise him. Philip didn’t fear or despise anybody — that’s what “evangelist” means.

The next story with Philip has him heading south, sent by “an angel of the Lord” to the wilderness road leading to Gaza. There he comes across: “An Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” This man, Acts says, was returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem, where he had gone “to worship.” That’s interesting, because we’ve just been told several reasons why this man wouldn’t be allowed to worship in Jerusalem. He’s an Ethiopian — a Gentile, so most of the Temple would have been off-limits to him. He’s a eunuch, and the inerrant, authoritative Bible clearly teaches that “He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1). And he’s also a member of the wrong political party — a devotee of some foreign, heathen feminist.

This man, in other words, is existentially against the rules. A host of clobber texts from the holy Bible say that this man is unacceptable and unclean.

So Philip, being Philip, hops up into the man’s chariot and rides along with him, telling him “the good news about Jesus”:

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.

Philip knew his Bible. He knew that there were dozens of clobber texts that would have authoritatively answered the eunuch’s question. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” But Philip did not recite those clobber texts. He hopped down and got in the water with his new friend.

The last time we come across Philip is much later. The story has shifted to the journeys of the Apostle Paul who winds up one day, on the way from Point A to Point B, at “the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven.”

That’s a reference back to that original story about the seven “Hellenist” Christians elected to make sure all the widows were being fed. They were: “Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus.” We don’t hear much more about the last five, but we do learn what happened to Stephen. Stephen was arrested for questioning the laws of the Bible and for threatening to “change the customs that Moses handed on to us.”

The religious officials ask Stephen if the charges are legit, and he launches into a 52-verse sermon, which we can summarize as “Guilty as charged — way guiltier than you can even imagine.”

Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

So Stephen — Philip’s friend and co-worker — was stoned to death for his disrespect of the clobber texts (hence that term). And of course that “young man named Saul” who participated in killing Stephen would later become the Apostle Paul. Oh, and that story about Philip preaching in Samaria?  That starts like this:

Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria …

So that’s a bit of backstory we should keep in mind as we re-read that final mention of Philip from Acts 21: “The next day we left and came to Caesarea; and we went into the house of Philip the evangelist, one of the seven, and stayed with him.” There’s no mention there of Paul’s personal history with “the seven,” or of the fact that really at this point, thanks to him, it’s only “the six.” Philip certainly doesn’t seem to mention it himself. Paul was just as welcome in Philip’s house as any Samaritan sorceror or warrior-queen’s eunuch would have been. He would probably have been just as welcome if he’d still been Saul.

Paul and his friends stay with Philip for several days, and this is the last we’re told of anything regarding Philip the evangelist: “He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.”

Four daughters. All preachers.

Somehow, though, the Apostle Paul didn’t rebuke Philip and his daughters for violating all those clobber texts that insist that women must keep silent in the church. Instead, while enjoying his time there in Philip’s house, Paul himself seems to have cheerfully and enthusiastically ignored all those clobber texts. That’s kind of interesting, considering that Paul himself supposedly wrote them.

I guess that just goes to show what a bad influence Philip could be, and why it’s dangerous to allow people like him to remain in the church.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Peter and John show up later and rebuke Simon for the sin of simony — for thinking he could “obtain God’s gift with money.” He pleads for their forgiveness and Luke, annoyingly, never tells us what happened next. The tradition and legends say that Peter and John rejected Simon’s repentance, but there’s nothing in Acts to suggest that. In the actual story, Peter says, “Repent … and pray to the Lord” and then Simon repents and prays to the Lord. There’s no reason to think that Peter and John did not take yes for an answer:

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”

But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.”

Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

This is why the corrupt practice of buying and selling influence in the church used to be called the sin of “simony.” Nowadays, of course, it’s referred to as the “annual stewardship campaign” or, even more recently, as “punishing World Vision’s apostasy by withdrawing support.”

I picture Peter and John heading out of Samaria, later, discussing their encounter with Philip’s sidekick the ex-sorceror. “Where does he find these people?”

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