Last week, we explored Acts chapters 6 & 7 culminating in the stoning of Stephen. At the beginning of Acts 8, we read that great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. The disciples scattered and Philip went proclaiming the good news of Jesus in the city of Samaria, with great success. An angel directs the Philip to go south on this wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
As Philip travels, along comes a foreigner, an Ethiopian, riding a chariot. This person is not given a name, but Luke tells us not once but 5x that the Ethiopian was a eunuch.
Most often, eunuchs were castrated before puberty to prepare them for a life of service to the royal court. Without testosterone, Eunuchs were supposed to be trustworthy because they could not be seduced, nor would they have families or offspring to embezzle for because they wouldn’t need to pass their wealth on to their children, and they could attend female royalty. Eunuchs were often employed as military officers, domestic servants, or treasury officers.
This particular Ethiopian eunuch was a court official in charge of the entire treasury to the Queen of the Ethiopians. While Ethiopa was a wealthy and sophisticated place, and this Eunuch was entrusted with a powerful position, most eunuchs were pretty much shunned by the rest of society. They were outcasts.
Luke tells us that this Eunuch was returning from worshiping God at the Temple in Jerusalem. He is probably an admirer of Judaism, although he cannot participate in its practice. He wouldn’t be allowed into the inner court, first of all because he was not Jewish. He was a “Yahweh worshipper,” somewhere between a Jew and a Gentile. But, there was an even more important reason that the Eunuch would not be allowed in the Temple.
Both Dt 23:1 & Lev 21:17 forbids a eunuch from entering the temple. “No one whose testicles or penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” I’m curious if anyone was ever given that particular verse to memorize as a child. I’m also curious about Hebrew laws: One form of genital mutilation (circumcision) was required to get into the temple (Gen 17:14). Another form of genital mutilation (castration) would keep him out. This law forbids a Eunuch from entering the assembly of the Lord. Eunuchs would have a place within the people of God, despite being mutilated & having restricted access to the Temple. Apparently the trespassing of gender binaries and the inability to fit in proper categories made them profane. Though he was wealthy and powerful, he was still an outsider. Even though he would be turned away at the Temple, he does not turn away from God. His heart was still open despite his rejection. The Eunuch seeks after the heart of God anyway.
There are so many details in these 14 verses. Luke also tells us that this Eunuch had in his possession an expensive and prized scroll of the book of Isaiah, from which he is reading. The fact that he could read and that he had a scroll are clear indicators of his position and his faithfulness.
The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” The Eunuch asks Philip, “Who is this scripture about?” Philip explains how it was connected to the story of Jesus. About his “life being taken away from the earth;” He spoke of resurrection. The eunuch was deeply moved; he understood so well that he believed the impossible: that God loved him, an Ethiopian eunuch.
Perhaps, since he possessed a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, he was familiar with Isaiah 56 which Tom & Allison led for our call to worship. It is a scripture I was not familiar with before researching for this sermon. This passage is one of the most inclusive promises in Isaiah and in the entire Bible. The place of foreigners among the people of Israel had been ambiguous-according to the Torah – foreigners were to be welcomed and protected (Lev 19:34), but other laws required separation between Israelites and outsiders (Ezra 9:1-4). In this text, foreigners who “join themselves to the LORD” (proselytes) will be accepted as full members of God’s people. This applies to eunuchs as well. According to Lev, they could not serve as priests; for Dt, they could not be admitted to the assembly of God’s people at all. But this passage in Isaiah changes all of that. Foreigners & eunuchs are welcomed. God will gather these “outcasts” (foreigners and eunuchs) to the “outcasts of Israel” already gathered.
Feeling the movement of the Spirit as they were traveling along, the eunuch sees a body of water and asks: ”What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Well according to certain books of Hebrew Scripture, Philip could have answered “Actually, there are a few things preventing you from being baptized. We’re building a new church, and the church hasn’t yet approved the baptism of gentiles, let alone foreign black eunuchs.” But perhaps Philip also knew about the chapter 56 from the Prophet Isaiah. How does Philip respond. He baptizes the foreign Ethiopian Eunuch. Suddenly the binary labels that prevented this eunuch from full inclusion in the assembly of God are overcome…and not even the dried up desert can defeat them, for suddenly water appears as the eunuch asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
No consulting the rules; no consulting with Peter, James, and John; no calling the Bishop to see if it’s all right. Philip doesn’t ask the Ethiopian if he is a practicing eunuch like the UMC does regarding those who identify as part of the LGBTQIA community or if he’s a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of eunuch like the military used to ask. Nor does Philip qualify his response with reservations or restrictions, such as: “Well, we can baptize you, but we can never ordain you.” Or “We can baptize you, but we can’t promise not to discriminate against you.”
Philip doesn’t share the church’s concerns. The Ethiopian commanded the chariot to stop, and Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water and Philip boldly baptizes this inquiring, scripture-reading, Christ-seeking eunuch.
Lutheran pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber says this about this passage in ACTS:
Some like to call this story “The conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch”. When the Spirit guided Phillip to that road in the desert I like to think she guided him to his own conversion. When Phillip joined this person who sought to worship God despite his exclusion from the Temple, maybe it was Phillip who was converted. Perhaps it was a mutual conversion – asking each other spiritual questions in the desert. The only commands came from God and the command was go and join the other. What we don’t know is if the Spirit also gave the Eunuch a command to invite. Invite him to sit by you. Go…join…invite…ask questions. Perhaps Phillip in his encounter with this gender transgressive foreigner learned what seeking God looks like.
Who needs to be converted? Who needs to take another look at the inclusive love of God for all?
In a break from the Vatican and past policy, American bishops of the Roman Catholic Church introduced a process that could eventually sanction the exclusion of President Joe Biden, who happens to be Catholic, from receiving holy communion.
In the UMC, there are many questions about what will happen when the 2020 General Conference delegates are finally allowed to gather to determine the future of the global UMC, mostly based on questions of human sexuality, the ordination of LGBTQIA clergy, and the ability of UMC clergy to officiate at LGBTQIA weddings.
This story from Acts IS a story of conversion, but not necessarily the conversion of the eunuch. It is Philip’s conversion, the story of how he left his prejudices, his cultural preconceptions, his fear of those who are different – he left all of that behind and followed the call of the Gospel. It is the story of Philip becoming who God called him to be.
If we are honest all of us struggle with that. It’s more comfortable, validating, to surround ourselves with those like us. How will we ever know who God is calling us to be beyond ourselves? Who’s to say who can be baptized? Who’s to say who God loves? Who’s to say who has the right image of God? The truth is, we don’t know. It’s not ours to say. But we can act on the inclusive love as we are led by the Holy Spirit. We can learn something from Philip’s radical act. Instead of talking and arguing among ourselves, we ought to just jump into the water and trust the Spirit to take care of the details. Amen.
There is a hymn called “In the Midst of New Dimensions” written in 1985 by Rev. Julian Rush, a United Methodist minister who served churches in Texas and Colorado for 17 years, until he came out as a gay man. Julian Rush wrote this hymn for the 1985 Rocky Mountain Annual Conference meeting, where Rev. Roy Sano was commissioned as the first Japanese-American United Methodist bishop. When Julian came out, the UMC in Boulder where he was appointed decided he was no longer fit to be their minister, and stopped paying his salary. The hymn has beautiful imagery from the Hebrew Bible: pilgrim people, olive branches, God of rainbow, and fiery pillar.
Two verses were edited out of the 7-verse hymn in most hymnals including The Faith We Sing. In them, Rush describes the “rainbow coalition” to include black, Asian, Indian, Hispanic, & white, who are “all of value in God’s sight.” He also includes “gays & lesbians together fighting to be realized.”
We are black and we are Asian, Indian, Hispanic, White,
we a rainbow coalition, all of value in your sight.
God of Rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar, we your people,
ours the journey, now and ever, now and ever, now and ever more.
Through the years of human struggle, walk a people long despised,
gays & lesbians together fighting to be realized.
What happens when a hymn or a verse goes underground in order to support the Church’s status quo? What does it mean that a culture has been created within the Church that queer folks sing in code or be silenced? Leave out the gay verse in “In the Midst of New Dimensions” and God’s welcome gets sterilized. When we sing as a congregation, we participate in an ancient, subversive practice. The early Church would sing to defy Empire and construct an alternative to Imperial violence and war. I can imagine the sound of music coming of house churches, an auditory sign of belonging and community to Jesus rather than Caesar. Music in the early Church was a sign of an alternative, safe space.
“God of rainbow” refers to God’s promise to Noah following the great flood found in Genesis 9. The Israelites were assured of God’s constant presence through a “fiery pillar,” recorded in Gen 13. Ex 19 & Dt 32 show God as an eagle caring for God’s people. We are all God’s people, and God is always faithful, present, and caring for those people.
There is another hymn, not in any of our hymnbooks, that leaves out a verse. For Everyone Born a Place at the Table,
For gay and for straight, a place at the table, a covenant shared, a welcoming space,
a rainbow of race and gender and color, for gay and for straight, the chalice of grace,
and God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace:
yes, God will delight when we are creators of justice, justice and joy!
When we sing as a congregation, we are singing about Who we belong to. When we sing, the words we sing just aren’t words connected to a pretty melody. When we sing, we are proclaiming a world as it is in order to create a world as it should be. Singing these words create a safe space. As we sing, we are proclaiming our trust in the Holy One and the way in which we live together as people of God’s Way.