Tuesday 12 October 2021

St Philip the Deacon

A reflection at morning worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 12th October 2021.

Philip the Deacon proclaiming the good news to the Ethiopian eunuch

 (icon written by Ann Chapin)

Yesterday was the feast day of Philip the Deacon, a contemporary of the apostles and St Paul. And we remember him today. He is not to be confused with the Apostle Philip. Philip the Deacon helped the apostles to administer the alms of the growing church in Jerusalem, and when that church suffered persecution, he became a travelling evangelist first in Samaria, and then along the Mediterranean coast of Palestine. His name tells us that he was Greek speaking, a Hellenised Jew, which must have been a great advantage in his work away from the Aramaic speaking Jewish heartlands.

There is an ancient tradition that he was one of the seventy disciples whom Jesus sent out in pairs to proclaim the good news. But the first we hear of him in the New Testament is when he is appointed as one of seven deacons, along with Stephen and five others, to help the apostles to administer the growing church, so that they could concentrate on spiritual leadership. The epithet ‘deacon’ derives from the Greek word for ‘helper’. It must have been a very sensitive job, since Greek speaking Christians were starting to complain that they were being neglected by Hebrew speaking Christians in the distribution of alms.

The church in Jerusalem suffered pogroms after the martyrdom of Philip’s fellow deacon Stephen. Most Christians fled from the city, leaving the apostles in Jerusalem. Philip went first to Samaria, where he worked as a travelling evangelist, with great success, we are told. 

Then, as today’s reading tells us, he was inspired to travel to the South, toward Gaza, where he encountered the ‘Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians’. These people were probably not from Ethiopia as we know it today, but from the Kingdom of Kush in Nubia, South of Egypt, which at that time was governed by queens with the title Candace. Philip’s exposition of a text from Isaiah, from which he proclaimed the good news about Jesus, so impressed the eunuch that there and then, he asked Philip to baptise him, which Philip did. How lovely it would be if the eunuch’s conversion and baptism could be seen as the origin of the Ethiopian Church. While this is not impossible, historians tell us that the Ethiopian church dates only from the 4th Century AD.

Immediately after the baptism, we are told, ‘The Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away’ to a place called Azotus, which is identified with Ashdod, a town on the coast close to Gaza. From there Philip travelled North up the coast, ‘proclaim(ing) the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea’, a port town between modern Tel Aviv and Haifa. He must have settled in Caesarea, because the Acts of the Apostles reports that many years later St Paul and his companions stayed there with ‘Philip the evangelist, one of the seven’ on his way to Jerusalem. It adds the detail that Philip had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

What a career Philip had! Guided by the Spirit he served and nurtured the growing church in many different ways, as the need arose. It is good to remember him, and all he achieved, because he is one of the heroes of the primitive church, a model for all who serve the Church as deacons. As we travel our own pilgrim paths through this world, may his story encourage us to continue proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.

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