Christ Centered Resources

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Rev. Ed Searcy

Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8
University Hill United Church : Sun, May 21, 2000
The Bible is a familiar book in this place. We’ve been reading it together for a lifetime and longer. Yet, as the folks in our ‘Disciple Bible Study’ have been discovering this past year, the Bible is full of forgotten surprise. Take this morning, for example. We find ourselves deep into this season’s Eastertide readings from the Acts of the Apostles where we come upon a peculiar little story ... the story of ‘Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch’. This is a little known and often ignored passage. Not one that was talked of often in the Sunday School classes of my youth. I suppose that the teachers must have feared the inevitable question: “What’s a eunuch?”. Nonetheless, I have come to believe this week that there may be no more important story for our congregation to consider at this time in our life. So this morning there are no hidden agendas ... all of the preacher’s cards are on the table right from the beginning. Simply put, my intention is to convince you that Acts chapter four, verses twenty-six through forty is not some odd, inconsequential ancient story but is, in truth, God’s living, breathing Word here and now. As it stands the story of ‘Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch’ comes at a crucial turning point in the life of the fledgling church. In these early chapters of the Book of Acts the word ‘Christian’ is yet unknown. These early followers call themselves people of ‘The Way’. They are living in a new way, following in the footsteps of the risen Christ, who is leading them to love one another beyond all the accepted norms and bounds. The early chapters of the Book of Acts portray a community in which the Holy Spirit of God is moving in powerful ways to create a people who share all that they have with one another. Now, with the story of ‘Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch’, the Holy Spirit of God begins to open the people of ‘The Way’ to others in an extraordinary manner. Up to this point, the community has continued Jesus’ ministry among their own kind. Now things begin to change. Here in chapter eight Philip meets an African. In chapter nine Saul is converted on the road to Damascus and becomes Paul, a missionary whose life’s work will be to invite non-Jews into the community of ‘The Way’. And then, in the tenth chapter, Peter’s absolute revulsion to ‘outsiders’ will be overcome as the Holy Spirit confronts him with the Roman named Cornelius. Do you see what is happening here? A people who have been focussed on themselves are becoming extroverted. They have been turned inward, first in fear and then in wonder. In the beginning they doubt that their tiny number can survive. But then they begin to see the Holy Spirit moving among them in power. They discover a powerful and radical love at work in their life together. Little do they realize, however, what God has in store for them. They can not know just how far God’s Spirit will go in turning their life as a people inside out. It starts with an odd angelic missive to Philip: “Get up and head over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza”. Mysteriously, Philip is directed to a chariot on that ancient interstate. In it he finds an Ethiopian eunuch. We do not know his name. We only know his race and his gender. He is an African who has been ‘neutralized’. That is the reason that he, and other eunuchs like him, are put in charge of the queen’s treasury and the king’s harem ... they are no longer a threat to those in power. But we know something else about this stranger: that he is on his way home from a trip to Jerusalem. His has not been a state visit. Instead, he has come to the Temple to worship the God of the Jewish people. He has come seeking. But he has quickly learned that he can never belong. The ancient law of God is clear. The first verse of the twenty-third chapter of Deuteronomy explicitly bans eunuchs from the community. There is no welcome. So Philip finds himself riding alongside an outcast outsider who is studying the scroll of Isaiah as he makes his way home to Africa. “Do you understand what you are reading?” asks Philip. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” answers the Ethiopian traveller. As it happens, the eunuch is reading from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah: “In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” One suspects that a eunuch who himself has known humiliation and who has been denied the justice of producing another generation and who sees his own future being taken away from the earth has a special interest in this particular passage. He has discovered this story about God’s chosen servant coming as one who is cut off and rejected by God’s own people. He wonders what this can mean for one who now finds himself to be cut off and rejected. “Then”, as the story says, “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”. It must be quite the conversation. But just what precisely does Philip say about Jesus? How does he phrase this good news? That is what the folks at our weekly ‘Text to Sermon’ study group want to know. They want to know because whatever Philip says seems to work. The next thing we know the Ethiopian eunuch spots water by the side of the road, stops the chariot and convinces Philip to baptise him on the spot. Suddenly an infant church that has, to date, been made up exclusively of law-abiding Jews also includes in its number one Ethiopian eunuch. So what is it that Philip says? The text only gives us a tantalizing hint. “Starting with this scripture”. Starting with Isaiah fifty-three. Look what happens when one begins at Isaiah chapter fifty-three and continues on, as Philip does with his Ethiopian host. The two of them do not, one suspects, have any other scripture at hand. Only this one large Isaiah scroll. And if they start here ... well, then they will have soon read chapters fifty-four, fifty-five and fifty-six. Lo and behold ... listen to what Philip and the Ethiopian read as they ride along together: “Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour ... Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left ...” The promise of fertility and of generativity is spoken to one who has no hope of a creative future. But there is more. Isaiah continues: “Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters, and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.” Suddenly the invitation to receive refreshment is not limited to those who can pay the price, whose righteous lives are somehow worthy of God’s tender mercies. Here the invitation is to all who thirst. Surely, though, Philip’s newfound acquaintance is wondering if this invitation can possibly include thirsty foreigners ... and thirsty eunuchs. Imagine his surprise as Isaiah goes on: “Let not any foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let not any eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree’. For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose me and hold fast to my covenant - to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” Starting with these scriptures Philip proclaims the good news about Jesus. We don’t know exactly the words he uses. But we do know what he says. He tells the Ethiopian eunuch what we, too, have been told. He announces the incredibly good news that the time has come when Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled. The time of exclusion is over. The time for foreigners and outcasts, Ethiopians and eunuchs to be welcomed into the family of God has arrived. God’s chosen servant, Jesus the Christ, was himself cut off and rejected by God’s own people. But, by the power of God, he has become the One in whom God’s promise to bless the earth and its peoples is being kept. He invites all peoples, everywhere to be immersed in the cleansing, life- giving waters and to live the radically new life of neighbour love that God intends for all peoples, everywhere. Two weeks ago, in Toronto, the United Church of Canada sponsored an event that brought together over four hundred representatives from each of its many scattered presbyteries. As it happens, our own John Culter was sent by Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery to the gathering that was known as ‘Renovations 2000'. Together these folks pondered the renovations that God’s Holy Spirit has in store for the multitude of introspective and fearful congregations that, for the most part, make up our denomination these days. It is evident from the reports of those who participated in the event that God’s Holy Spirit is up to something rather surprising and startling in our midst all across North America. Those renovations begin with a voice that says: “Go out ... and catch up to the stranger on the road who has come seeking ... and who has been excluded ... who has not been welcomed into the family of God. Go and sit with her, read the scripture with him ... open my community to them.” We’d like to say: “But ... but ... we include a warm welcome in our ‘Order of Service’ and try our best to say hello over coffee after church”. In truth, everything changes once the community is turned inside out so that its members look first to the other, to the stranger, to the outsider. The Holy Spirit has major renovations in mind for the church. Ask John. For that matter, ask Philip ... and Paul ... and Peter, too. They discover to their great surprise that ‘The Way’ of Christ shapes an out-turned people, whose eyes and ears and arms are open to the stranger in our midst ... unafraid to welcome any and all who have been cut off by the world. It is not hard to think of those who have been cut off from the source of life. They are the ones whose lives dry up for lack of love. They are the ones whose fear makes them wary. They are cast out within their own family ... neighbourhood ... classroom ... and workplace. Sometimes they come here ... more often they approach us on the phone or over lunch or in an aside ... standing on the fringes of the Christian community, wondering if there is love here for them ... if there is God here for them. What do they find? Do they find a people who, like Philip, listen to the Holy Spirit’s leading ... and so risk befriending the stranger who longs to know the love of God? “I am the vine, you are the branches”, says Jesus, “those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing ... My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit.” Through Philip the Holy Spirit grafts an Ethiopian eunuch onto the vine that is Jesus Christ. Philip welcomes a nobody into the community and, in so doing, bears much more fruit than he can have ever imagined. For, you see, the eunuch that Philip meets on the road to Gaza becomes the ‘father’ of the church in Ethiopia. In him God chooses a eunuch to father a people. Rooted in Christ this once fruitless outcast becomes an incredibly fruitful branch on the vine. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.