St. Philip baptizes a eunuch, attributed to Jan Brueghel the Younger (Wikipedia)

Acts 8 (NRSV) 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 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?”[b] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[c] baptized him. 39 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.

We’re reading a book called Real Faith for Real Life for a bible study class at church (well, on Zoom for the pandemic), and right off the bat I got confused by something the author said. It’s by Michael Foss, senior pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minn., and he lost me for a minute or two when he said:

The call of Jesus to each of us is the invitation to joy, but we have often confused joy with happiness in our time. Happiness is an echo of joy, entirely limited to time and circumstance. […] Happiness is found at the amusement park. It is as easily lost as it is found.

Joy, on the other hand, is an inner quality that can exist above and beyond time and circumstance. Joy is the inner pleasure born of purpose and achievement. […]

I liked his distinction between momentary flashes of emotion and longterm attitudes, but I wasn’t really sure there’s a difference between happiness and joy. To me, they’re two words for the same thing. But I let it pass. The discussion was lively and thoughtful, and I didn’t want to sidetrack it with an English teacher-y quibble about words.

Down the rabbit hole

So I waited till later and looked them up in the dictionary:

  • Joy, according to Merriam-Webster’s, is “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires,” also “a state of happiness or felicity.” It comes from Anglo-Norman French, which in turn traces back to Latin gaudēre, “to rejoice.”
  • Happiness is “a state of well-being and contentment JOY.” The same thing, in all-caps, no less! Also: “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Like in an amusement park? Check. It’s the noun formed from happy, “favored by luck or fortune,” which comes from Old Norse happ, “good luck; akin to Old English gehæp, suitable.”

Interesting stuff! (At least to an old English teacher.) But not exactly the spiritual insight I was looking for. So I checked out a couple of online New Testament study aids.

The Greek word for joy is chara (χαρά), according to Bible Hub, a website that compiles several concordances, Greek and Hebrew dictionaries and other study tools. It cites Strong’s Concordance and an evangelical study aid called HELPS Word-studies, that says the word (which it transliterates with an x instead of ch) is cognate to the Greek word for grace:

The etymological link between 5463 /xaírō (“rejoice because of grace”), 5479 /xará (“joy because of grace”) and 5485 /xáris (“grace”) – i.e. that they are all cognates – is observed by [several authorities, including Eerdmans’ highly-regarded Theological Dictionary of the New Testament]. TDNT likewise groups them as cognates, referring to 5479 (xará) as the noun-form (nomen actionis), discussing them separately in light of their distinct connotations. [The numbers are links to other Bible Hub entries; the summary within the brackets is mine.]

So joy and grace are related? (Cognates are words with a common root, and as an English major I learned to ferret out meaning by looking at word roots. “Cognate,” for example, comes from Latin co-, “together” and natus, “born.” So joy and grace are like brother and sister, or kittens from the same litter — who doesn’t like kittens? — and the thought inspires me.) Now we’re getting somewhere …

Another cognate word is charisma, which means a gift in Greek and in English (but without the final -a in English). Strong’s defines the Greek word as a gift of grace, an undeserved favor.” I was always familiar with modern-day charisma — it was like a gift of gab, and John F. Kennedy had it — but I hadn’t heard of a charism in the other sense until I taught at a college founded by the Ursuline sisters. There I was reminded periodically at faculty meetings of the charism of St. Angela, who founded the Ursuline order.

“The charism of Saint Angela Merici […] is a contemplative love of God and a resulting openness and eagerness to serve the needs of others,” as one chapter of Ursuline sisters puts it. And the motto at the Ursuline high school just down the street from us, was Serviam, “I will serve.” Full disclosure: I wasn’t always paying attention during those faculty meetings, and I’m sure I didn’t get all the nuance, but I thought the Ursuline charism was pretty much the same thing as our mission at the college, and I believed in it.

So grace and joy are related to service? Now we’re cooking!

We don’t talk much about charisms in the Lutheran church, but I think the whole idea of recognizing the gifts of the spirit and putting them to work for the benefit of others is good Lutheran doctrine, too.

Which means joy is what you get when you pay attention to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. What Michael Foss calls an “invitation to joy.” OK, listen up, Angela, you are hereby called to start a community to serve the educational needs of girls. OK, Brother Martin, you’re going to teach the epistles of Paul next semester at Wittenberg. (The spirit had a little help on that one. Luther wasn’t sure he wanted to teach, but he was ordered to anyway. And out of it came the Protestant Reformation and, eventually, bible study Zoom sessions 400 years later halfway around the world in Springfield, Illinois.) OK, listen up, Pete, you’re hereby called to … to do what?

Good question. And, again, I don’t have an immediate answer.

So I put it aside and turned to Sunday’s lectionary reading (which came up in another Zoom session).

On his way rejoicing’

The first reading for the fifth Sunday of Easter is the familiar story of St. Philip the Deacon, or Evangelist, and the eunuch from Ethiopia. They meet on a “wilderness road” leading from Jerusalem down to Gaza. Philip explains the gospel to the eunuch, who asks to be baptized and goes on his way rejoicing.

Great story! We don’t know much about Philip the Deacon, who is not the same guy as the disciple from Bethsaida in the Galilee. He had a Greek name, and he was one of the seven deacons appointed by the early church in Jerusalem to minister to the poor. Serviam? Why, yes. Of course. In Sunday’s passage, the book of Acts tells how one day the Holy Spirit directed him to go over to the eunuch on the road to Gaza.

Let’s set the scene here. We’re on a wilderness road in the hills of Judea. Tradition places it at the Ein Hanya Spring, practically within the city limits of Jerusalem. (A controversial city park that excludes local Palestinians is under development there, and the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz has a 2018 photo spread that helps me visualize it. It looks like the high desert country in Arizona and New Mexico. Rough, but not Lawrence of Arabia-type desert.) The eunuch, who is not just any old traveler but a high official in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia, has pulled his chariot off to the side of the road. He’s reading scripture.

Not exactly a typical roadside scene, then or now.

There’s a painting attributed to Jan Breughel the Younger (or possibly to Hendrick van Balen, another Flemish painter with whom the Breughels collaborated in the 1620s) that shows cherubs flying around overhead and a crowd of courtiers, ladies and nymphs cavorting in the foreground. (No satyrs, but one of the ladies is petting a greyhound or a whippet.) When I imagine the scene, drawing on the photos in Ha’aretz, I picture instead the eunuch seated in his chariot reading, his driver and guards trying to find a little shade under a nearby olive tree.

A couple of scrubby olive trees in the foreground, and maybe a stone wall like the one in Ha’aretz, with barren hills all around. We’re in high desert country, and this guy’s sitting in his chariot reading aloud from Isaiah, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, / and like a lamb silent before its shearer.” The Spirit tells Philip to go over and strike up a conversation with him, so he does and they chat. The eunuch says he needs someone to explain the scripture. He invites Philip to hop in the chariot and sit beside him.

If I’m Philip, I’m thinking this is getting really, really weird. But, hey, the Spirit’s calling me to get in that chariot. Serviam. So that’s what he does.

They hit the road again, and Philip tells the Ethiopian about Jesus. The guy likes what he’s hearing, and after a couple of minutes, they come to some water. The spring at Ein Hanya, according to tradition. “Look, here is water!” says the eunuch. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Luke winds up the story like this:

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[c] baptized him. 39 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. 

As an old English teacher, I’ve got to believe we’re in the realm of folklore here. Or a story that Philip told as he traveled the seacoast from Ashdod (Azotus in Acts) to Caesarea, where he apparently settled down later and raised a family. It’s a good story, and it easily could have gone into oral tradition. I suspect that’s exactly what happened. And that’s one way I think it would have gotten up to Antioch, where Luke would have heard it.

But what in his story speaks to me today? Right off the top, I see it as an inflection point in the history of the early church, and a reminder that parts of Africa were already Christian from the beginning, when my ancestors were still herding goats and leaving offerings to Thor and Odin on the coast of Norway.

And it’s powerful testimony to the inclusiveness of early Christianity, especially important today in a time of systemic racism, “bathroom bills” and statutory discrimination against young transgender athletes. John W. Martens, associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, suggests “the import of the scene is the opening up of the people of God to all, even those previously excluded.”

But that’s the view from 30,000 feet. How does the story speak to me in my daily life? What joy does it invite me to?

Good question, and — again — I don’t have an immediate answer to it. But there’s something in the overall story of Philip the Deacon that I can identify with. Or aspire to. He’s one of the seven deacons appointed to minister to the poor. During the persecution that followed the martyrdom of St. Stephen, he fled to Samaria. There he went about teaching, healing and baptizing with considerable success. As the book of Acts notes, “unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.”

Great joy in the city. Are we beginning to see a pattern here?

But Philip is just a deacon, not one the apostles. (Again, he’s not to be confused with St. Philip the Apostle, who was one of Jesus’ first disciples.) In fact, St. Peter and St. John come out to Samaria from Jerusalem to confer the Holy Spirit on Philip’s converts through the laying on of hands.

The way I see it, Philip is a workhorse. He does what needs to be done and moves on. Serviam? I think so. In another article for the Jesuit magazine America, Martens suggests he’s a prominent figure in early Christianity because he’s one of the guys who make the wheels go around. “And this is a genuine prominence which Philip has in Acts,” Martens adds, “since he is not an Apostle, and many of the apostles have no role in the actual narrative.”

After he’s snatched away by the Holy Spirit and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing, Philip will preach up and down the coast of Palestine and settle in Caesarea Maritima. There he will raise four daughters who have the gift of prophecy. Another charism. And more inclusiveness! Yay! Later on St. Paul will stay at Philip’s house on his way to Jerusalem. Serviam. I will serve. The thought of it gives me joy — and something to aspire to.

Works Cited

Diana Ali, “The Rise and Fall of the Bathroom Bill: State Legislation Affecting Trans & Gender Non-Binary People,” NASPA [Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education], April 2, 2019

Michael W. Foss, Real Faith for Real Life: LIving the Six Marks of Discipleship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books, 2004), 5-6.

“Israel opens natural spring to visitors – except Palestinians,” Middle East Monitor [London], Oct. 16, 2019

John W. Martens, “Is the Ethiopian eunuch the first Gentile convert in Acts?” America, Sept. 23, 2015

__________. “Philip the Evangelist and Simon Magus,” America, Aug. 18, 2015

Naama Riba, “The Ein Hanya Spring: A Charming, Spruced-up Jerusalem Spot Free of Palestinians,” Ha’aretz, March 16, 2018

Nick Selbe, “Multiple Governors Sign Bills Banning Transgender Athletes From School Sports,” Sports Illustrated, March 28, 2021

Wikipedia. Various linked articles.

[Published May 2, 2021]

2 thoughts on “Climbing up out of an English teacher-y rabbit hole with a little help from the Ursuline sisters and St. Philip the Deacon

  1. Interesting blog. I see joy and happiness in very different ways. For me happiness might be going to Disney World watching a grandchild do well in a sport but joy is being in the room with my child when they deliver their first child. Being with a friend when the doctor says your cancer is in remission. They are different feelings as you stated one is filled with grace and Thanksgiving and knowing it is a gift from God and one is just for fun.

    Liked by 1 person

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