June 16, 2019
Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
I’m so happy to be with you this morning. Last week we celebrated two momentous occasions- Pentecost, and the fact that we all remembered to get here half an hour early!
Before we dig into this passage, I wanted to take a minute to wish all of the fathers represented here a happy Father’s Day. My dad is one of the best people I know- my first example of a godly man and the standard by which I measured every other male relationship of my life. My husband is the same, and he is showing our kids what it means to love well and follow the example of Jesus. I’m so grateful for both of them.
I also know that this made-up Hallmark holiday can feel pretty crappy for a lot of us. Whether you are mourning a dad who has passed away or navigating all that comes with having a complicated, abusive, or nonexistent relationship with your own father, we hold that pain with you this morning. May we be people who don’t gloss over pain, but who enter into it together with bravery and compassion.
Let’s pray before we tackle today’s scripture.
Dear God, Creator and Sustainer, thank you for the ways in which you parent us. Thank you for your love, your delight in exactly who we are, and for the ways in which you reveal yourself more and more as we have the capacity and inner spaciousness to seek you. Thank you for this morning, and may you show us something new in your word, that we may walk more closely in the paths you have for us, and love more deeply the people we encounter along the way. Amen.
I have a friend named Charlie. I haven’t known Charlie for very long, but he has become one of my most faithful and honest friends. Charlie is a trans, non-binary person of color who also has autism. His life’s work is to study, teach, and live out the Beloved Community where he lives in Atlanta. I met Charlie through my work with the Reformation Project and even before we met in person, I knew that this relationship would change my life.
Charlie loves people deeply and wants everyone to know how much God loves them too. When we did meet in person in April, Charlie and I went out after our seminar one night to get some ice cream. We talked about everything- racial inequality, disability theology, marriage, and the hope he holds for the people he loves. As our ice cream melted in the Florida heat, I asked, “Charlie, why do you do the work that you do? Why are you so convinced that the good news of Jesus will change the world? How have you continued to stay faithful to this work and to God after experiencing so much hurt at the hands of the church? Charlie smiled and told me a story. It’s the one I’m about to tell you, but first we need a little history.
Today’s scripture reading picks up just a few chapters after Pentecost- the Holy Spirit has descended onto the Jewish believers in Jerusalem, it’s been established that everyone is, in fact, sober at 9 in the morning, and Peter has given his eloquent speech reminding the Jews that their patriarch David had prophesied about the Spirit. Everybody’s happy, the Jews realize that the messiah they have been waiting for was embodied in Jesus, and everyone gets baptized and keeps hanging out and sharing all that they had. Peter continues preaching, heals a lame man and gets in big trouble with the Sanhedrin. They let him go, and then we run into Acts 5, the story of the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira. Kind of problematic, since they drop dead from a lack of charity, so I’ll let David preach on that one some other time.
Anyway, Peter and the apostles continue to preach, continue to have run-ins with the Jewish leaders, but manage to be let go each time. It’s important to note that, from Pentecost until the day that our story picks up, Peter has been preaching and converting Jews. By alluding to the Jewish prophets and patriarchs like Abraham, Moses, and David, he is able to help his fellow Jews understand the fulfillment of their scriptures in the person of Jesus, and lots of Jews get it. There’s lots of celebrating, and eating and drinking at normal hours, and the church continues to grow. The apostle Stephen is eventually persecuted for blasphemy and stoned to death, which strikes a major blow and scatters the church and the apostles in all directions. And here’s where we pick up the story in Acts 8.
Philip, who is one of the apostles, makes his way to Samaria. He is able to perform miracles and cast out evil spirits, and verse 8 tells us that the city was filled with joy because of this. Now, the Samaritans were half Jews and half Gentiles by heritage. So far in the early church, the good news had been preached only to Jews. The lines between Jews and Gentiles were firmly drawn, as we know from the story of the good Samaritan. So, the fact that Philip was even speaking to Samaritans is important. The beef between the two actually goes back as far as the 8th century BC. Through a series of conquerors and transplanted people, the Samaritans had intermarried with other tribes and were therefore no longer purely Jewish, so they were completely cut off from the 100% Jewish Jews.
Why is this important? We see that the news of Jesus brings love, healing, and joy to a people who were considered too untouchable to hear it. Love breaks through this racial barrier, and a whole city is changed.
In verse 26, an angel tells Philip to head south, by way of the Jerusalem road. This road was very heavily trafficked, and people from all over the world used it. It was a road between places, in a liminal space geographically, called a “wilderness road.” What do we know about wilderness in scripture? It’s where God shows up- teaching the Israelites as they wander, providing food and water for Elisha as he flees, and it’s where Jesus is tempted after his baptism. Often in wilderness spaces God shows up in ways we can’t see otherwise. In the spaces between certainty, God gives us new ways of looking at the world and our own lives.
So, Philip is walking along, and he sees this eunuch in a chariot. Now, eunuchs aren’t new to the biblical story, in fact, we see mention of them several times in the Old Testament. They were usually slaves serving the women in royal households, and because they could not bear children, they were not considered threats to wealthy men. They were considered somewhere in between male and female, and because of this they were thought to be something other than fully human. Deuteronomy 23:1 solidifies this idea in the religious law of the land. “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” (That’s the most PG version of this verse I could find). According to this Old Testament law, eunuchs were not allowed to enter the temple, and therefore not able to make the sacrifices necessary to be reconciled to God. This particular Ethiopian eunuch was a treasurer, with a chariot, reading a whole scroll of scripture which at that time was very expensive. He was surrounded by wealth but possessed none of it himself. He was returning from worshipping in Jerusalem but was not allowed access to the temple. He was reading Scripture but couldn’t understand what it said.
The eunuch was reading from the book of Isaiah, about a man who had been led to the slaughter. In his humiliation, he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? If you are a eunuch, what would you think? Humiliated by your body, unable to reproduce and therefore unable to have descendants? He asks Philip- who is this talking about?
In order to really understand what’s going on here, I think it’s important to look at the verses that the eunuch was reading more deeply. Isaiah 56, just a few chapters after the ones quoted in our passage, says this:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from God’s people.”
Do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
Who choose the things that please me,
And hold fast to my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
A monument and a name better than sons and daughters.’
I will give them an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.
Can you see why the eunuch was curious? Could it be that this scripture was talking about him? The one who was different, who didn’t fit into an acceptable category, who had been used and abused for his body and excluded from the temple? This passage told a different story. One in which the eunuch was not only allowed into God’s house but called a child and memorialized forever inside its very walls.
Philip tells the eunuch that yes, in fact, this passage is for him. It’s for all of those who feel cut off. For those who feel separated, dry, and excluded from God’s love. It’s a passage about Jesus, the one who identifies with us in our longings, in our pain, in our loneliness. Jesus’s kin-dom is for everyone. His resurrection from death means that every single one of us is in. There are no more boundaries, no more exclusive rules that make God’s family smaller than it should be. The old laws, the old ways of seeing the world, are flipped upside down when God reveals the bigger story.
It’s a new day for the eunuch, and a new day for the early church. The eunuch’s baptism into the family of God signifies that he is fully included just as he is. There are no more requirements, no more sacrifices or systems or regulations to prevent him from full participation in the life of Christ. His body is still the body of a eunuch, because that’s not the part of him that needed to be healed. The part that needed to be healed was the belief that he was outside the circle. He needed to know that the same Christ who welcomed the Jews welcomes him with open arms and no strings attached.
That night in Florida, Charlie told me that this ancient story changed his life. He saw himself reflected in the same water that the eunuch claimed for himself. He saw himself loved, accepted, celebrated for who God made him to be. He was included in the family of God, and no one could tell him otherwise.
As we were walking back to our hotel, I asked Charlie a question. How, as a black trans man with a disability, does he see his body in relation to the “ideal” that our culture holds up? Charlie smiled again and told me another story, this one about heaven. In heaven, Charlie said, he will still have autism, still be black, and still have the body he loves. He will probably still think the music is too loud, and the people are standing too close, and will have a talk with Jesus about possible remedies, just like he does now. He will experience the joy that comes with being in God’s presence, the healing that comes after years of being excluded, and his body will be whole and beautiful, just like it is now.
I am so grateful that we are a church whose doors are wide open for all people who want to know Jesus. It’s the reason I’m here at all. But I know that, however wide our doors open, there is always room to swing wider. There are people out there who feel excluded. Who feel cut off from community and cut off from God. Who feel like they are nothing but a dry tree. Who are asking, is this difference, this way that makes me unlike you, what needs to be healed in order for me to be in? Do I need to clean myself up, make myself better, or deny who I really am in order to be loved? What prevents me from being in God’s family?
May we respond by looking for the nearest water and jumping right in with them. May we be people who say, “Nothing. Nothing separates you from God’s love, and nothing will keep us from welcoming you here.”
As we go out this day, let’s take some time to think about who needs to know that they are included. Who needs to know they are welcome, just as they are, and that there is a God whose only requirement is that we love others the way we have been loved, holding nothing back. We are, all of us, created in the image of God. All of us are fearfully and wonderfully made. All of us are included whether we know it or not, and our differences are necessary and beautiful. The gospel of Christ is only good news if it is good news for everyone. So. let’s go tell some people how much they are loved. Amen.