11 October 2015

Saint Philip the Deacon: showing priority
in mission for people on the margins

An icon of Saint Philip the Deacon with the Ethiopian Eunuch, by Ann Chapin (2008)

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Sunday, 11 October 2015 (Saint Philip the Deacon; the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity).

11.30 a.m., the Community Eucharist.

Acts 8: 26-40; Psalm 119: 105-112; Colossians 1: 9-13; Luke 10: 1-12.

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

Today, the Calendar of the Church commemorates Saint Philip the Deacon. Saint Philip the Apostle is remembered alongside Saint James on 1 May. But who is Saint Philip the Deacon? And, are they one and the same person, or two different people? Indeed, does it even matter?

For a Jewish family to call their son Philip in those days might have been risqué – if not scandalous. The Greek name Philip (Φίλιππος) means “one who loves horses.” But it’s not as simple as that. The name represents much more.

Philip of Macedon (d. 336 BC) was the father of Alexander the Great. A century later, Philip V (Φίλιππος Ε΄) of Macedon (221 to 179 BC) was an attractive and charismatic young man and a dashing and courageous warrior, and the inevitable comparisons with Alexander the Great gave him the nickname “beloved of all Greece” (ἐρώμενος τῶν Ἑλλήνων).

Philip was also a common name in the Seleucid dynasty, which inherited the Eastern portion of Alexander’s Empire. The Seleucid Empire, based in Babylon and then in Antioch, was a major centre of Hellenistic culture that maintained the dominance of Greek culture, customs and politics.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes imposed aggressive Hellenising (or de-Judaising) policies that provoked the Maccabean Revolt in Judea. A century later, two of the last four Seleucid rulers, before their kingdom fell to the Romans, were Philip I and his son Philip II.

So the name Philip would be associated with a family that had been fully Hellenised and that was opposed to the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans.

At the time of Christ, we find the confusing figure of Herod I or Herod Philip I, the husband of Herodias and father of Salome; and Herod the Great’s son, Philip the Tetrarch or Herod Philip II, who married Salome and who gave his name to Caesarea Philippi (Καισαρεία Φιλίππεια), in the Golan Heights.

Philip the Apostle is very much a Hellenised Jew, perhaps from a non-practising Jewish family in Bethsaida, which was part of the territory of the Tetrarch Philip II. He may represent the very antithesis of Nathanael, the guileless Jews waiting for the expected Messiah

Yet Philip the Greek seeks out Nathanael the Jew (see John 1: 43-46), just as Andrew, with a Greek name, seeks out Simon, his brother with the Hebrew name (see John 1: 40-42). At the very beginning of Christ’s mission, the barriers between Hebrew and Greek, Jew and Gentile, are already broken down. And their calling, Andrew and Simon, Philip and Nathanael, shows how although we are called both individually and in community.

Did Philip join Jesus at the wedding in Cana (see John 2: 1-11)? Probably, although we cannot know with certainty.

‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus’ … a carving of Saint Philip on the pulpit in Saint Philip’s Church, Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Philip figures most prominently in Saint John’s Gospel. Christ asks Philip about feeding the 5,000. Later, Philip is a link to Greek speakers when they approach Philip and say: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip advises Andrew and together these two tell Jesus of this request (see John 12: 21-26). At the Last Supper, Philip’s question (John 14: 8) leads to the great Farwell Discourse (John 14: 9 – John 17: 26).

Is Philip the Apostle the same person as Philip the Deacon, who appears several times in the Acts of the Apostle?

Philip the Deacon was one of the seven deacons chosen to care for the poor of the community in Jerusalem (Acts 6: 1-6). Tradition says it is said he was one of the Seventy sent out in our Gospel reading (Luke 10: 1-12). But he is first named 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.” He baptises men and women, even converting the amazing Simon Magus, and has such an impact that the Church in Jerusalem sends Peter and John to join him (see Acts 8: 5-25).

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: 26-39). Greek culture gives Philip access to such an important and powerful courtier, and opens the way to 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: 39-40).

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 (see Ephesians 2: 20, 3: 5, 4: 11). 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 of 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. Tradition says he later lived in Tralles (Τραλλεῖς, present-day Aydin, near Ephesus and Smyrna) in Asia Minor, where he was a bishop. But, nevertheless, his ministry as a deacon became 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 (Acts 8: 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 half-way 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 Saint 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 him, Philip “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.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist on Sunday 11 October 2015, during a residential weekend for part-time MTh students.

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