26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
I remember undergoing a transformative period in Middle School. Through my first six or seven years of school, I really didn’t care too much about what I wore, what kind of book bag I carried, or really my appearance in general. I don’t know how old I was when I started choosing my own clothes, but surely by the time I was 10, my mother was not selecting my attire every time I stepped out of the house. At 10 years of age, I wore t-shirts that represented my favorite basketball team, my favorite pickup truck, or favorite tractor. It wasn’t abnormal for me to wear my Cleveland Cavaliers shirt on Monday, Ford truck shirt on Tuesday, and John Deere shirt on Wednesday. Then on Thursday I would repeat the cycle. I wore what I liked and I honestly didn’t care what anyone thought about it. That’s not because I was stuck up or anything like that. I just didn’t even consider that anyone else would notice or care what I was wearing. Yes, I was different in Elementary and Middle School. But so was everyone else. We just did our own thing.
There is a huge difference between being a 10-year-old boy and being a 13-year-old boy. At some point you start to notice other people. And I’m not just talking about noticing the opposite gender, I mean you start to notice who has the coolest backpack and clothes. You start to notice who wears their hair in what way and how other people react to that person’s appearance.
I recall in about 7th grade that “everyone” wore two specific things. And I know that naming these things will put a time stamp on me. But when I got to the 7th grade, I and every other 7th grader wore IOU sweatshirts with a baggy-style of pants that we simply called “Hammer pants,” a reference to the great rap artist MC Hammer. Can’t Touch This.
Looking back now I recognize that there were a lot of social pressures to conform to a certain look or style. Some of these pressures were verbalized, others were embodied. But they were clearly there. If a teenager didn’t dress a certain way, listen to a certain kind of music, or go to a particular place or party, they were considered an outsider. But nobody used that language in the 1990’s. No, they were called nerds, geeks, or freaks. And once you received that label, it was difficult, perhaps even impossible, to be welcomed into the inner circle.
I believe that today’s text reveals a great transition in the history of Christianity. We are only in chapter 8 of the book of Acts, so we aren’t too far past the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. There have been a few big event that have happened along the way. Two weeks ago we saw the great healing story that took place on Solomon’s Porch at the gate called Beautiful. A few chapters earlier we read about the coming of the Holy Spirit and the gift of language and translation that was given to the people to go out and teach people about Jesus. But for the most part, with a few exceptions, this has still been a Jewish movement.
In the first seven chapters of Acts there are some references to Hellenizers. It is debatable just who these people are, but I think that they were Jewish people who spoke Greek. Helles is simply Greek for Greek, kind of like Deutsch is German for German. Just think about the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the people gathered in Jerusalem. We are told in Acts 2:5 that there were people gathered “from every nation under heaven.” But we must keep in mind that these people are gathered in Jerusalem for a reason. They are there to observe the holy day of Pentecost, a Jewish holiday. Yes, the text tells us that these people were gathered from all corners of the earth (as they knew it), but they were still Jewish people.
The point that I am trying to make is that up until Acts chapter 8 the converts to Christianity were very much alike. Yes, some of them spoke Greek, and others maybe spoke some other language. But they all looked the same. They all came together for worship at the Jewish temple on Pentecost. We are told that they were not all born Jewish, but they were at least converts to Judaism.
So we come to the middle of chapter 8 and we find the apostle Philip receiving a message from the Lord to go to a certain road. There is someone that God wants him to meet. Philip was probably thinking that it would be another Jewish man, just like all of the other Jewish men that he had shared with before. But the person that he met was different.
There are a few things about this person that we can gather from today’s text. We are told that when Philip shows up, this person is reading from the book of Isaiah. Let’s think about this for a second. Where did this person get a copy of the book of Isaiah? We probably don’t think anything of that today because we can get any chapter or verse from multiple translations immediately on our phones. If you don’t have a smart phone, all you have to do is get on the internet. If you don’t have access to the internet, all you have to do is go to any bookstore and buy a copy of a Bible. It is very accessible to us today. But in the first century all of the scrolls were hand copied, big, and expensive. Most people didn’t have their own copies. This man was important and powerful. And if we read on, we find out that he is a court official for the queen. He is in charge of the treasury.
But the Jews don’t have a queen. No, this man is from Ethiopia. He is a long way from home. But perhaps even more interesting is that he would have been of a darker skin color; Ethiopia is in Africa.
So why was this man so far away from home, reading the book of Isaiah? We are told that he was in Jerusalem to worship. You can probably assume that if a person is going to travel all of the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship, that they going to be a Jew. But if you assume that, you would be wrong. This Ethiopian man was at most a God-fearer, but he was not a Jew. He couldn’t be.
What is perhaps the best known aspect of this man is something that was probably the least easily observable. We are told that he was a eunuch, which means that he was a farmer that raised maize. His product was pretty rare, so he called it eunuch corn.
I read one commentator that asked why we always refer to this man as the Ethiopian eunuch, as if that was his most important quality. Why not call him the Ethiopian convert, or even just the new believer? Why do we put so much emphasis on what we cannot see?
I want to argue that we put so much emphasis on the genitalia of this man because the text does exactly that.
Let’s take it a step further. Why does Luke, the author of the book of Acts, even mention that this man is a eunuch? Luke could easily have just called him the official from the court of the Queen of Ethiopia. But Luke specifically names the man as the Ethiopian eunuch. At least three more times after the initial introduction of this man Luke refers to him as “the eunuch.”
This is where the sermon gets a little bit PG-13 on you. Let us remember, without going into too much detail, what a eunuch is. The term eunuch was applied to men who were not able to have children. Sometimes it is a reference to people who were sterile. But most of the time it was a reference to men who had been castrated.
This practice was not completely uncommon in the first century. Men were sometimes selected to be castrated as children, and it was considered an honor. This wasn’t an act of mean-spiritedness or sexual perversion. It was an honor because young men selected for service in the king’s palace were sometimes made into eunuchs. The eunuchs were put in charge of caring for the queen, or for the king’s harem. Because they did not have certain parts of their anatomies, the parts associated with sexual desire, they were considered safe to have in the living quarters of the harem. Furthermore, with lower testosterone, they would potentially have less ambition for power and money, so a eunuch could be trusted as the treasurer, as is the case in our story for today.
So why does Luke refer to this man as a eunuch at least four times? Why focus on what isn’t there?
Deuteronomy 23 is a part of the Torah that talks about holiness. We find a lot of teaching in this section about what is acceptable to God and what is not. We find teaching about who is clean and who is unclean, and what the unclean must do to become clean. There is also a considerable amount of attention given to sexual ethics in Deuteronomy, including this gem from chapter 23, verse 1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
That’s in the Bible folks, I didn’t just make it up.
The thing that sets being a eunuch apart from all of the other issues in Deuteronomy that keep a person from full participation in the community of God is that being a eunuch is permanent. Touching a dead body or having a bloody discharge is something that is temporary. You wait a week or so, wash in the mikvah, and you are able to go back into the temple as if nothing ever happened. But if you are a eunuch, you will never be a full member of the Israelites. You can believe in God, learn all of the laws and practices, even get your own copy of entire books of the Bible like the scroll of Isaiah. But as long as you are a eunuch, you will be an outsider. You will be different. You will not belong.
I want to take a quick poll in our congregation this morning. By a show of hand, how many people were not born in Staunton, Virginia? How many were not born in Virginia? And how many were not born in the United States? I ask this already knowing that about 10% of our congregation was born outside of the United States and I think less than 10% of us were born in Staunton. We have members that were born or have lived in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, Alaska, New York, Maine, Illinois, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Iowa. Some of you were born in Belize, Kazakhstan, Croatia, and England. Even though we are very white, we bring a lot of diversity to this congregation.
The question that I want us all to consider is whether or not that is a good thing.
I’ve said before that I greatly appreciate the time that I spent studying among other Mennonites. I have learned how to articulate my faith from a Mennonite perspective, and to defend my faith from potential attacks. But some of the most formative times in my Christian walk have been when I have had the opportunity to learn in a community where not everyone has the same life experiences. I’ve learned in community with people of color and people from different countries. I have learned in community with people who have different theological ideas than I do. I have been challenged and I have been affirmed in these groups, and I cannot deny that I have grown.
Now notice what I did not say. I did not say that it was always easy. But when I consider our congregation, I think we do this well. We are a small church, and that means that we cannot form cliques that are exclusively made up of people just like us. I hear stories of large churches where people don’t even know but a few in the congregation. They have a small group of friends that they sit with and talk with each week. But they are able to ignore a large portion of the rest of the church.
Here we have to interact with one another. An Ohio State fan like me and all you Virginia Tech fans are forced to talk to one another. And do you know what I’ve found over these last nine years? Ya’ll aint so bad.
In our text we find the radical inclusion of a person who had been told that he would be forever excluded. The eunuch asks in verse 37, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer is so obvious that we don’t even hear another word out of Philip’s mouth. In this situation the absence of words is more powerful than anything else could be. What is to prevent me from being baptized? Nothing, so they do just that.
The diversity of our congregation is just a small sample of the diversity in the kingdom of God. This is so different from my Middle and High School days where everyone tried to be exactly the same or else they would be seen as an outsider. In the kingdom of God, the only outsiders are the ones that choose to be outsiders. We aren’t outsiders by our clothes, nationality, color of our skin or even genitalia. All are invited to come.
We must not assume that Philip’s response meant that there was no sin in the life of the Ethiopian eunuch. His inclusion did not mean that he was perfect, just as I assume nobody here would claim to be perfect. But this radical inclusion means that now people who had previously been told that they don’t belong now find a place where they fit in, no matter how weird they are. And we work together on our sins and imperfections. The Holy Spirit convicts, and in community we hold each other accountable.
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is not simply as story of a person who converted to Christianity. It is a story that breaks down barriers. It is a story that tells us that nothing can keep a person out of the kingdom of God if that person wants to follow Jesus. Nothing is so permanent that it can keep us separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ and his church. And we don’t have to all be just a like. In fact, I would prefer it if we weren’t.