We read one of my favorite stories from Scripture yesterday. I think I liked it first because one of the central characters has my name. And I like it even more because of what it says about God’s kingdom.
We Christians spend too much time talking about who’s in and who’s out when it comes to faith. We think somehow this conversation is helpful, except when you’re the one on the out and trying to figure out how to get in. Or even worse, deciding that it’s not worth it getting in.
Jesus seemed a bit more relaxed than we are when it comes to this kind of thing. He says, “Follow me,” and we get to do just that if we want.
I’m showing my cards on where this sermon is going, so I’ll let you read it.
Easter 5 Year B—Acts 8:26-40
We gathered in the cool, slightly musty basement of an old Episcopal Church with the elementary aged-students who had come to Vacation Bible School that week. I think there were about 15 students, and 6 adults. We watched as a few of the students were acting out the lesson of the day, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
I watched patiently, waiting for the story to be done so we could move on to the craft that I was helping with and then outside to the games that I would be leading. Melissa had the script in hand in order to give a cue if needed, as Philip and our Ethiopian gallantly read their lines. We came to the climax of the story, when they happen upon that water. The young boy playing the Eunuch looked intently over towards Philip and with steely determination, said emphatically, “Look! Here is water! What’s to prevent me from becoming a Baptist?”
Before we can get to this question at the center of our lesson from this morning, there’s quite a bit leading up to this. Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, is a master story-teller and so I want to give him his due today.
Our story really begins in Acts chapter 1, just before Jesus ascends into heaven. He is there with his disciples giving his last instructions, and his very last words to them are these, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Then, without anything else to be said, Jesus is taken up from them. They must be marveling at these words, since it seemed that Jesus had come for the Jews, and yet, he tells them that they would be sharing his message of love and hope with those further afield. They would be exclaiming his good news with Samaritans, and even the Gentiles, those at the ends of the earth.
In chapter 6, Luke reports that these are getting complicated for the early church. Some of the Hellenists, that is Greek speaking Jews, felt like they were getting left in the lurch by those Jews who, like the disciples and Jesus himself, spoke Aramaic. These two camps were separated due to their language differences, and as such the Hellenist widows weren’t getting their share from the food bank. The disciples appointed seven deacons full of God’s Spirit, including Philip, to wait on tables and to live lives of service. Luke declares that the church continued to increase even more.
But as the church began to increase, there also became an increase in the amount of persecution. Saul—later on he’ll be known as Paul—led the charge against the Christians, and the believers were scattered in all different directions trying to avoid him. And in Chapter 8, a little before our reading today, we read that Philip went to Samaria to proclaim the Messiah to them.
Remember that Samaritans and Jews hated each other. The Samaritans were half-breeds, they were descended from Jews who hadn’t left Jerusalem during the exiles, and who had intermarried. When the exiled Israelites returned, the Samaritans were treated like second-class citizens—much like the “half-bloods” in Harry Potter’s world who had both muggle and wizard parents.
But Philip shares the message of Jesus with them. Jesus’ last words about the spreading of his message is beginning to happen. Philip, this Helenistic Jew, is allowing the Spirit of God to break down the barriers and spread the message with Samaritans, and they believed and were baptized. Word soon gets back to the believers in Jerusalem, and they send Peter and John to investigate, to see if the Spirit had actually moved there in Samaria. They are astounded to see that it is in fact true, that these folks had believed in Jesus.
At this point in the story we come to the lesson we read this morning when an angel of the Lord instructs Philip to leave Samaria and to head on the road to Gaza. He does just that without questioning.
Luke interrupts his retelling to fill us in on the background of the other character in this unfolding drama. Notice the description he gives us. “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch,… [h]e had come to Jerusalem to worship, and was returning home.” He had come to worship, and what is left unspoken—the thing that every Jewish person would know— is the simple line, “and it would have been almost impossible for him to do so.” This man had made his way to Jerusalem from Africa, a long pilgrimage to be sure, and he would not have been admitted into the temple to worship because of his sexual status. Deuteronomy 23 spells it out clearly in somewhat graphic terms, “No one who’s emasculated by crushing or cutting shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” This eunuch would not have been welcomed in the temple like other men. He would have to stay outside the courts of the Lord.
He is a God-Fearer to be sure. He made this long journey, worshipped as best he could, and on the return trip he reads from Scripture. But notice that he isn’t reading Deuteronomy—the book that excludes him from worshipping God—he’s reading from Isaiah chapter 53. This Ethiopian eunuch no doubt would have also known Isaiah’s words that address him specifically a couple of chapters later, in Isaiah 56. Isaiah writes, “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast 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.” The Lord goes on to say that the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord would be made joyful in his house. Isaiah holds open hope for this man who had been barred entrance into the temple, a hope that would be even greater than children.
As this man’s chariot comes by, Philip is told to walk alongside it. He then hears the Ethiopian reading aloud from Scripture, and asks if he understands what he is reading. Philip isn’t asking if he can make sense of the words, of course, he’s asking if the man recognizes the spiritual sense. The eunuch, this official in Candace’s court, responds with great humility, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
The eunuch reads from Isaiah 53, “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the 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.” Surely this passage hits home for him. He too, would be unable to speak of his descendants. Certainly he was deprived of justice in life and probably recently back at the temple of the Lord where he was unable to fully worship in the temple. He was an outcast. And so he asks that simple question of Philip, “Is the prophet speaking about himself, or is it about someone else?” He could have easily have asked, “Is this about me?”
Philip uses this passage as a jumping off point about Jesus. He knows the story of Scripture and the interplay of Jesus’ life by heart. He explains that Jesus himself was denied justice, that he was treated much like a lamb. Philip told the eunuch about Jesus’ life, how he healed the sick, and taught his disciples about how life in his kingdom was like a lost sheep or a son who went off on his own, only to find his father still waiting for him. Philip would have told him about Jesus’ death and resurrection. And he would have mentioned Jesus’ last words, that the message of life and hope and love brought about by Jesus was meant for the entire world. Even him.
At that point they happen upon water in the desert. “Look! Here is water!” he exclaims excitedly. “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” he asks Philip. All of those years of being forced out, of being pushed away from the worship of God. The shame of his condition had probably come to a climax for him when he was refused entry to the temple in Jerusalem, this place that he had traveled so far to see. “Is there anything stopping me from becoming a follower of Jesus?” he asks.
The question just hangs out there in our story. We don’t even get a verbal response from Philip. The next verse simply says that the chariot stops, both men go down to the water, and Philip baptizes the eunuch.
Philip’s actions, prompted all along by the Spirit, give an emphatic answer to his question. “There is nothing that is stopping you from being a follower of the true and living God as revealed in Jesus Christ. His message of love, forgiveness and hope is for everyone, even those whom others ostracize, even the ones that society forgets. The kingdom of God is open to everyone who desires to honor God and follow the resurrected Christ. Everyone. No questions asked.”
And that is good news whether you’re a eunuch, an Episcopalian, or even a Baptist.