The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is part of a section of the Book of Acts that describes the witness of the followers of Jesus who were scattered from Jerusalem by the persecution that was unleashed there. The Jesus movement was still a sect of Judaism – one part of Judaism was persecuting another part. Just before today’s section of Acts, we hear about Saul who became Paul: “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”
The church at its best knows that persecution is never the last word. Throughout history group after group has been persecuted and marginalized by the dominant culture. Last Thursday we hosted the Rev. Nadim Nassar, the only Syrian priest in the Church of England. Rev. Nassar spoke passionately about the persecution of Christians and other minority religious groups in the Middle East. He accused both Christians and Muslims of ignoring their plight as they are being practically eliminated. The most surprising representatives of persecuted groups have always been people like Rev. Nassar who spoke up boldly on behalf of their people. The Ethiopian Eunuch represents at least two of those groups relevant to our culture: people with dark skin and sexual minorities.
Ethiopians are dark skinned people – the norm in Africa, but minorities elsewhere. Throughout most of history darker skin has meant lower status and greater marginalization. In this country, 2015 marks the 150th anniversary of the end of our Civil War. Slavery had officially ended two years earlier, with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863; it was followed by another century of racial segregation. Today, in 2015, we have an African American President, and yet, black men are still being shot by police in alarming numbers. Change happens unevenly. Still, God chooses the lowly to be the messengers of love, justice and hope.
The other thing we know about this man is that he was a eunuch, part of a sexual minority. Even though he was a man of high social esteem in the royal court, he had been rendered sexually powerless by the deliberate actions of others – he was sexually mutilated. In the eyes of the society at large, his high public office did not conceal the marginalized social status he was forced to endure for the rest of his life.
He was also a gentile God-fearer who wanted to become a Jew. But he was disqualified because he couldn't be circumcised; many eunuchs were partially dismembered as well as castrated. This black African eunuch was returning from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship Israel's God. But God’s people made it difficult for him to get to God. They put up obstacles at every turn. He was ritually excluded from celebrating the festival, because he was physically unfit. He could pray at a distance but no more.
God’s people used Scripture to justify excluding him. Scripture gives mixed messages about eunuchs. Those who wanted to keep the Ethiopian out focused on a passage in Deuteronomy insisting that people like him should not even be admitted to “the assembly of God” (23:1). And yet, this man was so captivated with Israel's God that even on his way back to Ethiopia he was still scouring the Hebrew Scriptures looking for hope. He really wanted God badly. He was reading Isaiah 53 when Philip came upon him. When the eunuch asked Philip, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Philip saw it as an opportunity to tell the eunuch about Jesus. But I think the eunuch had another “someone else” in mind – himself. He knew what it meant to have justice denied. He saw himself in this Scripture.
He hadn’t gotten to the good news in Isaiah 56 yet. “Do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” 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.
How do we choose among Scriptures that lead to such different conclusions? Jesus used a prophetic lens to interpret Scripture. When official religion used a selective literal interpretation of the Jewish law, Jesus quoted a prophet to speak a different truth into the situation. Those for whom justice has been denied have a unique authority for interpreting the Bible. I learned this powerfully by teaching a Bible study to a group of mothers in a squatter community in Mexico City for five years. Even though they had never read the Bible, and some were illiterate, their insights were much more powerful and relevant than the comments made by the seminary students I taught at the same time.
I’ve met many marginalized people whose hearts are so on fire for God that they refuse to allow religious institutions to keep excluding them. Some hide who they are so they can be inside enough to access God, even as they hide their true identity. They endure subtle and not-so-subtle rejection in the struggle to be accepted for who they are:
• In Mexico, I taught in a seminary where women attended, even though they were excluded from ordination, because they believed they were called.
• As chair of the Committee on Preparation for Ministry, I came across a lot of people with learning disabilities who wanted to be ordained but couldn’t pass Ordination Exams as they are currently given. So they petitioned for another way to take the exams
• As a pastor I’ve known fellow gay Christians whose longing for God is so deep that they have been willing to put up with incredible rejection by the church as they seek to freely serve.
The church has treated these groups of marginalized people in horrible ways, and still does. And, sadly, for every one willing to put up with such terrible treatment, there are thousands of others who don’t want anything to do with the church, despite their deep hunger for God. Would that the church would be more like Philip, who allowed himself to be taught by the Ethiopian Eunuch.
What would it look like if the church allowed people like the eunuch to witness as Philip did? Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch if he understood what he was reading because the Hebrew Scriptures represented a cross-cultural reading for him. The early church took culture very seriously. Philip was one of seven people chosen to be deacons earlier in Acts, when there was an intercultural conflict between the Greeks and the Hebrews. Like his six companions, Philip was Greek. The apostles – all Hebrews – wisely selected all Greeks to serve as mediators in the conflict between Hebrews and Greeks. No wonder Philip anticipated the difficulty the Ethiopian eunuch might be having understanding the text.
But Philip was in for a spiritual surprise. On the one hand this government official of a foreign power quickly submitted himself to Philip’s teaching: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” But later the eunuch understood something that went beyond Philip’s understanding. “The eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” Who’s in charge here? The eunuch! I bet the eunuch was talking so fast Philip didn’t even have a chance to get a word in edgewise. The eunuch’s sensitivity to injustice opened both him and Philip to a spiritual breakthrough that touched the whole church.
That’s what we are trying to do at St. Athanasius. But the journey is challenging. We worship in Spanish, English and Korean. Along the way we’ve had cultural misunderstandings. Misunderstandings and miscommunication are always disappointing, but they should not take us by surprise. We don’t take on these challenges because they’re cultural. They’re spiritual challenges that move us toward becoming a more just community. Both Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch were willing to learn from each other. That is spiritual work. Let us listen carefully to the Gospel and this text as they call us to push through to ever deepening, mutually transforming relationships and ever more inclusive communities of justice.