Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 2nd of Fifth Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: Acts 8:26–40, NRSV
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.
Good morning, Friends!
I’m reminded today that much of the story of the New Testament is the story of boundaries being crossed, divides being bridged, and gaps being filled in. Today’s passage is one of the many instances of this pattern. Indeed, much of the Book of Acts is in this mode: as it tells the amazing story of the growth of the early church, Acts shows the apostles and the other servants of the Jesus movement reaching out to others across religious, cultural, and racial divides. In the part of chapter 8 just preceding today’s passage, Philip has been among the Samaritans, neighbors of the Jewish people and yet despised by them, and his gospel labors there do much to bring them in to the new Jesus movement.
Then here, we read a personal encounter with one Ethiopian eunuch. And both parts of that description are important—“Ethiopian” and “eunuch”. Actually, to begin with “Ethiopia”: Ethiopia, in the ancient mind, in the mind of the Mediterranean world, the Greco-Roman world and the world of Palestine in the first century—Ethiopia represented the “ends of the earth.” It was out there—it was as far as you could go to the south. As far as the Greeks and the Romans knew, there was nothing any further south. And so this fellow, who has come to Jerusalem to worship, is now going back to his country at the ends of the earth. This reminds us of the charge that Jesus gives to the disciples at the very beginning of Acts, which also resonates with the passage we looked at the last time that I spoke; remember, in Luke 24, Jesus says, “you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). And then in Acts 1:8 he says, again to the disciples, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And so what we see in this passage here is that charge beginning to be fulfilled. Philip is speaking the word to someone from the ends of the earth.
It’s likely that this Ethiopian courtier is actually from the kingdom of Meroe, which would be in modern-day Sudan, a little bit north of what we know as Ethiopia today. It was an African kingdom that had been in existence for many centuries by that time, and is well-known, well-attested to in the Hebrew Bible. The queen is in some translations named as “Candace, (In the translation that was read that morning, it is used as a proper name rather than a title.) but in the translation that I usually use, it is entitled “the Candace,” so it’s not a proper name, it’s actually a title that means “queen” or “queen mother.”
That’s a little about Ethiopia; now, what does this man represent, as an Ethiopian? First, he is a Black man. He is from the part of Africa where Black people, what we think of in our country as African-Americans, were from in the time of Jesus, and continue to live today. He is a high court official; he’s been trusted with much. He has been trusted with the funds of the Candace’s government. So he is reliable. He’s also learned. He can read Greek. It’s likely that he is reading a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible; that scroll of Isaiah would have been written in Greek.
What does he represent as a eunuch? As a man who had been castrated, he is someone trusted with many things because his own desires have been thwarted. He is also someone in love with the God of Israel; he’s devoted to worship in Jerusalem. He’s made this long trek from what we think of as Sudan today to Jerusalem, to be able to be near the worship of the God of Israel, in the Temple. He is likely, however, a Gentile, not a Jewish convert. He might perhaps be in that group of what Luke calls “God-fearers”: Gentiles who were devoted to the worship of the God of Israel and to the Hebrew Scriptures, and yet who had not become converts. And in the case of this man, it’s because he would not have been allowed to. As a eunuch, he would have been “excluded from the assembly”; he would not have been allowed to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem. This was forbidden in at least two places in the Jewish law (Deuteronomy 23:1, Leviticus 21:18–19). So paradoxically, he has what one commentator calls a “high status and a low status”: this very high status in the Ethiopian court—trusted, learned, reliable; but outside the Temple courts would have been as close as he could have gotten to the worship of the God of Israel, because of his status as a eunuch.
Finally, in more recent interpretation, we might think of this fellow as a queer person; a gender non-binary. I’m not an expert on this, but as I understand it, he has been claimed by the transgender community as one of their own. And as someone somewhere in the middle of that spectrum between male and female, his coming into the family of God here is as a symbol of God’s inclusive love for everyone; of God’s desire to bring everyone in to God’s peaceful Reign.
One of the things I notice in this passage is that almost all of the dialogue comes in the form of questions. Philip asks one, and the Ethiopian asks three. I think we can think of these questions as signposts on the discipleship journey; they’re not the only signposts, but I think they illuminate something about that journey. The questions are:
“Do you understand?”
“How can I, without a guide?”
“Who is this about?”
“What is to prevent me?”
Philip’s question is the first, “Do you understand?” This seems awfully direct, as the very first thing to be said to someone you’ve never met before—and someone who actually is of a higher station than you. Most of us would probably choose something more preliminary and polite, like, “What’s your name?” or “How are you doing?” or “Can I help you?” But remember, Philip is under the hand of the Holy Spirit here; that Spirit has directed him to this wilderness road, in the middle of the heat of the day, and that he hears the word of Isaiah the prophet being spoken from the chariot is perhaps all the confirmation he needs to know: he is in the right place at the right time. And this distinguished traveler must be the one to whom God intends him to speak. So—no preliminaries are needed; let’s get right to the heart of the matter.
Many of you are, or have been, teachers; and almost all of us have been students. “Do you understand?” is perhaps the question that is behind many of the other questions a teacher asks her students. At the beginning of the school year, a teacher needs to be clear on which student has grasped the basics, and which need some help. And so by many means, she sets about to ask, “do you understand?” It’s the truly skillful teacher, and the one who will be best loved, who can do this without resorting to constant tests and quizzes.
So for many of us, the discipleship journey begins with a skillful and patient teacher, one who is concerned that we begin to understand the nature of God’s love for us. It would take me a while to enumerate all of the teachers that I have had over the course of my discipleship journey. Some have provided important information, new perspectives, or challenging ideas; but the ones who have taught me the most are the ones who have instructed me by their example: the example of a life fully yielded to God.
In response to Philip’s first question, the Ethiopian asks, “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me?” Commentators observe that the Greek spoken by the eunuch is very polite and refined; exactly what one would expect from a court official. In effect, he is saying, “if you can help me understand, please come and do so.” And so he invites Philip up into the chariot, so their dialogue can continue on an equal footing. The high government official of a southern empire and the Greek-speaking Jew from the coastlands sit down to reason together.
So here we see another step at the beginning of the discipleship journey: to accept the offer of help. Probably each of us has declined when someone has offered us assistance; sometimes it’s a trivial situation—you say, “no thanks, I can get the door myself, don’t bother;” other times, it’s much more significant—“no, I’m very sad right now, but I don’t think there’s anything you can do.” Our culture stresses self-reliance to such a degree that we often refuse help almost as a reflex. The call to discipleship runs counter to this reflex; most often, we work this call out in the company of others, with the help of others. So a wise disciple is one who realizes she can’t make much progress on her own. And also, a wise teacher is one who knows the right moment to offer help, and what kind of help to offer.
The Ethiopian’s next question is, “about whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Again, this seems to be about information. The question is almost a rabbinical question—an important point that will help the eunuch interpret the rest of the passage. The passage, by the way, is from one of the “Servant Songs” from Isaiah (53:7&8); the Servant Songs in Isaiah are something that has been debated much by scholars since the words were written, and particularly the identity of the servant. Jewish interpreters often identify the servant as the nation of Israel as a whole, or the faithful portion of Israel. Christians usually understand the Servant as Jesus, and this is the hinge upon which Philip’s message swings: he has a new perspective, provided by the cross and the resurrection, so that he can identify the sheep led to the slaughter as Jesus, the faithful servant. And so this appears to be where he begins in laying out his message for the Ethiopian.
Now, I think it’s useful to rephrase this question a bit when we think about our own journeys, because it points to another important aspect of discipleship. We can also ask, “Who is this about?”—but not specifically regarding this Scripture, or any Scripture—simply the question, “Who is this about?” Part of the journey is coming to the realization that it’s not all about me. Most of us begin our walk with God in a self-centered mode: we’re occupied with our own agenda, our own needs, our own sin—and we take our first faltering steps because we are concerned for ourselves. I certainly did. Yet after not very long, we realize that this journey is not primarily about us; rather, it’s about God and all of the others that God is gathering in. “Who is this about?” can be a useful way of clarifying things in times of conflict: either when we feel that we have been wronged, or when we see that others have been. Who is this really about—is this really about me, or is it about someone else? This can be another useful question on the journey.
Finally, we have, “what is to prevent me?” The discipleship journey is not just about information. Information is important, but without inspiration, which is literally the in-breathing of God’s Spirit, the journey is incomplete. Luke doesn’t really tell us how this happens in this passage; he doesn’t really tell us what happens for the eunuch there on the wilderness road. In verse 35, we do read that Philip proclaimed “the good news about Jesus” to the eunuch. Beginning with that passage from Isaiah, I imagine him explaining that the good news was that a sheep led to the slaughter, the Lamb silent before its shearers, humiliated, denied, oppressed, and executed, was yet vindicated by God in the resurrection. And in that vindication, God did a new thing, opening up a place for all of those who are humiliated, denied, oppressed, or shut out. Creating a new family, in which no law could prevent the adoption of any of God’s children. Setting a banquet table with places for everyone, where all were welcome to eat their fill.
That, I imagine, was part of the good news as Philip proclaimed it to the eunuch. And I
trust that the Spirit was at work, breathing in this new reality, so that information became inspiration for the eunuch. And that is what leads to “what is to prevent me?”—in the eunuch’s case, it’s “what is there to prevent me from being baptized at this moment?” Clearly, there is nothing to prevent an Ethiopian eunuch from joining the family of God. There’s no law to say who can enter the Temple courts and who can’t. No one to draw boundaries around who’s in and who’s out. No prejudice regarding skin or gender or gender expression. No systems keeping people in boxes. Certainly, this was cause for rejoicing, as the chariot resumed its journey to the south.
What is the good news for us, today? What do we hear, when we hear God’s good news, whether that is spoken out loud, or whether we hear it in the quiet of our hearts? Do we hear yet another way that some people have devised to put others in boxes, to divide us up, to create in-crowds and outsiders?
Or instead, do we hear: “God loves you, in all that you are and all that you are not;”
“There is a place set for you, here at the table;”
“God desires for you to grow alongside your sisters and brothers so that each of you can show God’s love to others.”
Which do we hear? And what is there to prevent us from hearing the really good news?
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This document is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license, available at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/us/. You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform this work, as well as to make derivative works based on it, as long as: 1) you attribute whatever part of this work you use to the author, Brian Young, by name; 2) you do not use the work for commercial purposes; 3) you distribute your resulting work only under the same license or a license similar to this one.