11 October 2013

Saint Philip: a deacon whose priority is
for those on the margins of community

A carving of Saint Philip on the pulpit in Saint Philip’s Church, Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 8: 26-40; Psalm 119: 105-112; Luke 10: 1-12.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Today’s Festival in the Calendar of the Church commemorates Saint Philip the Deacon – as opposed to Saint Philip the Apostle, who is remembered alongside Saint James on 1 May.

Saint Philip the Deacon, who appears several times in the Acts of the Apostle, was one of the seven deacons chosen to care for the poor of the community in Jerusalem (Acts 6: 1-6). Traditionally it is said he was one of the Seventy sent out in our Gospel reading this evening (Luke 10: 1-12). But he is first mentioned in Acts (6: 5), where he is one of “the seven” – including Stephen, the first martyr – who are chosen to wait on tables and to minister to the needs of the poor, marginalised, Greek-speaking widows in the Church in Jerusalem.

After Saint Stephen is martyred, and a large part of the Church is forced to flee Jerusalem, Saint Philip goes to “the city of Samaria” (Acts 8: 5) – perhaps Sychar, the city of the Samaritan woman at the well, one of the greatest missionaries in the New Testament. There, his preaching and his healing bring “great joy” (Acts 8: 6-8). He baptises, and Peter and John come to join him.

In the wilderness, on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza, Philip meets the eunuch from the court of the Ethiopian queen, teaches him, and baptises him (Acts 8: 27-39) – a major missionary initiative, for under Jewish law a eunuch was excluded from the community of faith.

Philip is then “snatched away” by the Spirit and “found himself at Azotus” (Ashdod), then “passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea” (Acts 8: 30).

Some years later, the Apostle Paul and his companions, on their way to Jerusalem, stay in Caearea Maritima for several days with Philip, who is described as “the evangelist” (Acts 21: 8-10). At that time, Philip “had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophesy” (Acts 21: 9), one of those gifts in ministry Paul tells the church in Ephesus about. So Philip’s ministry supports the ministry of the apostles, but is also passed on to a future generation. He is a figure of both innovation and continuity.

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, reflected in the Royal Bank of Scotland building in Saint Philip’s Place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

So, in what way is Saint Philip the Deacon a New Testament role model for our ministry and mission?

1, Philip’s ministry begins as a deacon, as a servant, in proclamation, sacrament, and pastoral care. He then moves from being a deacon to being an evangelist and a missionary, and although tradition says he later lived in Tralles (Τραλλεῖς, present-day Aydin, near Smyrna) in Asia Minor, where he was a bishop, his ministry as a deacon was the foundation for all his other paths in ministry.

2, There is a separation of the baptisms by Philip and the gift of the Spirit (verses 15-16) when Peter and John arrive – perhaps Saint Luke is saying that the Holy Spirit operates where there is communion with the apostles, who are witnesses of the Resurrection, and who certify the continued activity of the risen Christ on earth. Ministry is never founded on our own strengths and skills, but is in communion with the rest of the Church.

3, Philip is at the heart of the missionary movement of the church out from Jerusalem, both north and south, in other words all directions, extending the Church first to marginalised Greek-speaking Jewish widows, then to Samaritans, who were halfway between being Jews and Gentiles, and then to those proselytes who were kept at arm’s length from the community of faith, then to Gentiles, the nations throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

4, When the Apostle Paul stays with him, Philip is described as “the evangelist” (Acts 21: 8-10) – a term found again only twice in the New Testament: in Ephesians 4: 11, when the Apostle Paul is talking about the gifts given in ministry (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers); and in II Timothy 4: 5, where he tells Timothy to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry full.” Remember that ministry requires the exercise of a number of gifts, and it is best exercised collaboratively and in teamwork.

5, At the time Paul is staying with Philip, he “had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophesy” (Acts 21: 9), one of those gifts in ministry the church in Ephesus is told about. So Philip’s ministry supports the ministry of the apostles, but is also passed on to a future generation.

6, Because Philip is open to the leadings of the spirit, he is hospitable, flexible, and willing to move. He is a figure of both innovation and continuity, with important gifts. Yet at times we all find it difficult to be flexible, to be innovative and to move on. Remember always the poor, the marginalised, the widows, the disenfranchised, the ethnically different, those on the edges of the community of faith, for whatever reason, and to infect the next generation with the joy of the Gospel.

And so, may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Lord God,
your Spirit guided Philip the deacon
to show how ancient prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus Christ:
Open our minds to understand the Scriptures,
and deepen our faith in him;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Post Communion Prayer:

We thank you, Lord, for calling and using
people with different gifts to build your kingdom.
May we, who are strengthened by this sacrament,
like Philip and his family rejoice to serve you
by the witness of our lives and homes;
though Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Eucharist with part-time MTh students on Friday evening 11 October 2013

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