Readings: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 66; John 6:44-51
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are two parts of the same work, interrupted in our Bibles by the Gospel of John. So in fact, in this great two part work, the account of Stephen's death comes just eight chapters after the account of Jesus' death. We have seen how the trial and execution of Stephen mirror in so many ways the experience of Jesus. Similarly just eight chapters after the account of Jesus' appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus comes the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch whom he ends up baptising.
Similarly there are striking similarities between the events recorded in Luke 24 and those recounted in Acts 8. The protagonists are on the road away from Jerusalem. In each case we find a person or persons musing about God's dealings with the world. In each case we find a person or persons puzzled, to say the least, by the 'suffering servant'. He and they are wondering who this figure might be, what God could possibly be doing through him, The two disciples on the road to Emmaus thought he would be the one to redeem Israel. The Ethiopian is completely at a loss.
In each case the traveller or travellers are joined by a stranger who, beginning from a text, 'explains' the suffering of the Christ for them. In Luke 24 and Acts 8 we have a liturgy of the word leading to the celebration of a sacrament. In the gospel it is the breaking of bread, the moment in which the two disciples recognise Jesus, just as he is taken from them. In Acts it is the baptism of the Ethiopian - 'what is to prevent me being baptised?' (which has the ring of a question from an early Christian liturgy). The two sacraments are the ways in which those who have come to believe may participate in the paschal mystery of Christ, identify with it and make it their own. Baptism is the sacrament in which faith in that mystery is first bestowed, just as it conforms the baptised person to Christ in his dying and rising from the dead. And just as Jesus disappears in the moment in which he is recognised so Philip disappears after the baptism and the Ethiopian sees him no more.
Applying all this to our own experience we can say at least this much: that our liturgies and sacramental celebrations are similarly structured. There is a liturgy of the word followed by a celebration of the sacrament. We too need the riches of the scriptures to be opened up for us just as we need our hearts, minds and eyes to be opened to the presence of Christ with us. Just as for these first believers, the suffering of the Christ remains at the heart of things: 'was it not written that the Christ should suffer and so enter into his glory?' Had he not said (today's gospel reading) that the bread he would give would be his flesh, for the life of the world?
We continue to need help, whatever the direction in which we are travelling, whatever our perplexity or puzzlement. We have not yet entered fully into the mystery of the cross which remains a stumbling block and a folly. But whatever road we are on, whatever questioning we have, however far we might be from the destination, the Spirit seeks us out. He will find ways to assure us of the presence of Christ, help us to understand the mystery of His love, lead us to a deeper experience of the mysteries we celebrate in our liturgies and which we seek to live out in our lives.