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What is to prevent us?

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?”