Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter 2009
Acts 8:26-40 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.) 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 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. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 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. 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.
Psalm 22:25-31 From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him. The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the LORD. May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations. To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.
1 John 4:7-21 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
John 15:1-8 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
“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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it . . .”
In this morning’s lesson from Acts 8, the apostle Philip ventures into the wilderness, and in the wilderness, Philip encounters a strange person – a eunuch from Ethiopia — who has come to Jerusalem to worship. Like many in our society, he is searching and seeking, but confused. If he had come to Jerusalem to worship, it must mean he is a Jew, or wants to be one. He is on his way home, and has obviously left Jerusalem with more questions and confusion than when he came.
Let’s think about this strange man. Eunuchs were generally people castrated at a young age, but sometimes were castrated after being sold as a slave, or after being captured in battle, and forced into slavery. Nowadays parents agonize about the trauma and long-term psychological effects that circumcision may cause. Castration was an act of violence against the identity of a person (often a young person), not just an attack on his masculinity and place in the world, but the destruction of it. It was intended to humiliate as well as domesticate. Castration rendered males docile and they were considered less threatening because after castration they were not likely to be attracted to women or competitive with other men, and therefore they were often given jobs tending to the wives of important men, or to the queen herself. I don’t want to belabour it, but it’s important to know that this man is someone deeply scarred, a man who carries permanently the physical and emotional scars of being violated in a horrific and painful way. Eunuchs were people who were neither male nor female, gay nor straight – they were in a category of their own. As such, despite his position of influence, the Ethiopian eunuch is something of an outsider, an alien. He has a high position, perhaps, but his lengthy quest implies he lacks a sense of dignity or worth – he is someone who has everything, yet has nothing.
This is the man Philip encountered. Like many people today, he had a good job, appeared to function well, and looked successful on the outside, but inwardly was wounded, unloved, alone, and yearning. Can you imagine someone so desperate for fulfillment that he would get into a shopping cart and ride to Winnipeg in it? I checked online and discovered that this Ethiopian made a journey of as much as 1,500 miles (about the distance between here and Winnipeg) by chariot, which itself speaks of the intensity of this man’s search for something better for himself.
In Bible study classes, I often ask people to examine what they have underlined in their Bibles – what are the highlights for them, because some passages speak to us more than other. The eunuch has a copy of the book of the prophet Isaiah, and he quotes from the section he is reading to Philip: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The image of a lamb standing silent and helpless before the person with the knife speaks volumes about his own painful past. Small wonder this passage about the innocent victim appeals to him; small wonder he wants to know more about the person this refers to. As a eunuch (one who has been castrated), he can identify with the “suffering servant” who is humiliated and denied justice. You read just a few verses further on (Isaiah 55) in that same section, and there is the invitation to “come to the waters,” and the summons to “seek the Lord while he may be found.” But just beyond that, the remarkable passage which says: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree’ … 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 . . And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants . . . these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their … offerings … will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56: 3b-7).
In these great words of promise, not only to foreigners but to eunuchs like himself, he was hearing in scripture a song of hope to the hearts of the downtrodden and abused – a song of liberation and redemption to the suffering servants and innocent victims of life’s cruelties. Small wonder a eunuch might have taken Isaiah for a guide as he undertook a spiritual pilgrimage. Maybe reading Isaiah was the incentive to go in the first place.
Of course he’s curious. So, given the opportunity to speak to a holy man, the eunuch asks Philip: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
The Ethiopian is a seeker, someone looking for inclusion, for validation, for a sense that his life is worth something to God. Surely it was obvious to Philip that this man has made a tremendous journey – a journey that would have taken weeks! He is asking deep questions – meaning-of-life questions. Philip quickly discerns that even though he has been to Jerusalem he is still searching, still unfulfilled. Ironically, the Ethiopian would have discovered that the religious institution of the day excluded him, because he was a eunuch. Ignoring the mercy and grace revealed in Isaiah, they focused instead on hard-line passages from the legal code. The eunuch would have been prevented from full participation in Judaism. So his case is significant, because his inclusion by Philip is an example of how the early Church strove to embody the kingdom as a communion, where all are welcome.
As we reflect on the background of this strange man, we get some idea of what kind of person he might have been, but I want to focus now on the way Philip deals with the Ethiopian’s spiritual quest and eventual Baptism, because I believe it is a model for how Christians today might better connect with the world.
First of all, perhaps above all, the passage strongly suggests that Philip was operating in a way that was very open to God’s guidance and direction. In our media-saturated society, we flatter ourselves that we know what’s going on. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. Philip is portrayed as being obedient and responsive to the direction of the Spirit, so he was open to whatever he might encounter, ready to take it as a calling from God, rather than being stressed out that he was stranded out in the middle of the wilderness. Because he operates on that wavelength, Philip is also able to hear the cry of the heart from the eunuch. Philip’s focus wasn’t primarily on himself. When your life is surrendered to God in that way, it is a lot less likely that your ego or your agenda is going to get in the way when you are trying to lead people on in their own journeys.
Philip meets the man where he is — in the midst of the wilderness, in the midst of his confusion – regardless of the man’s differences. He is not disconcerted by the eunuch’s foreign appearance or mannerisms, he takes him as he is – he doesn’t judge or condemn him or focus on potential negative aspects. Philip does him the courtesy of taking his spiritual quest seriously.
Philip journeys with him. He gets into the other man’s vehicle, which to me is symbolic of entering his life, walking in his shoes. As it says, “he sat beside him.” Philip gets to know what the man is about, and demonstrates the importance of fellowship and community (that we are not in this alone), as well as a sense of mutuality/equality. Programs like AA realize this aspect of having a companion is critical to a successful transformation, but until recently, the Church seems to have forgotten all about it.
Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian replies “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Good question!
Many Christians are quick to provide answers to questions no one is really asking. Philip offers the man guidance, but he deals with the man’s personal questions – he finds out what is important to him. He doesn’t just start spewing a bunch of information and opinions that are irrelevant to this man’s particular search. Philip obviously notes the book he is reading and starts there, beginning to find out what the man might be seeking (and finding) in the book of Isaiah the prophet (obviously, it was significant).
One of the responsibilities of the Christian Church is to carry the Christian legacy forward in an effective way. To do so, it is essential that we mentor and guide and inform people. Jesus made the observation that many people are like sheep without a shepherd – “harassed and helpless” – needing guidance, nurture and encouragement. They don’t know the way, and their lives are often distorted by ignorance and fear.
If Baptism required no more than the simple gesture of applying water, we might as well toss holy water at passing cars out on St. Johns Street. It would be similar to handing someone a golf ball and then assuming they will magically become a Tiger Woods. Many people in our society want the instant, “just add water” approach, whereas an effective approach to enabling people to come close to God and to become effective disciples (which is what Baptism is for) requires instruction and guidance. Philip does the man the courtesy of offering him his experience and understanding of the Way.
It is also critical that we know the way – that we know where we’re going. Unreliable, uninformed, inexperienced guides can be more trouble than help. You would never attempt to ascend Mount Everest without expert guidance, or take scuba diving lessons from someone who had never negotiated anything deeper than a paddling pool. Yet in the realm of the soul, we often entrust our lives to people who know neither the heights nor the depths of the Christian spiritual journey.
What is to prevent my being baptized? he asks.
Nothing, as it turns out. The Pharisees, apparently, found ways to prevent and obstruct. One thing I like about Philip’s approach is that he doesn’t let a lot of technicalities get in the way. He focuses on the key thing, which is allowing the grace of God to flow toward this man who has suffered so much and searched so hard. Baptism is primarily a means of conveying God’s love to people; it’s not primarily about the institution. As John points out, love is the highest virtue, the one characteristic that most identifies us with God, and ultimately with each other.
The encounter between Philip and the eunuch reveals how progressive the early Christians were – reinterpreting their Jewish traditions and teaching in a way that enabled them to reach well beyond their own racial, cultural and religious background. They weren’t a bunch of elitists who treated strangers like criminals; they didn’t act like they owned the Spirit; they got past that “us and them” approach, and they were more eager to share their treasure than defend it. Philip himself was an example of that inclusion, because he himself was a Greek. Early Christianity focused on the fact that even Jesus had been treated dismissively and excluded by his own people (John 1: 10–11; Luke 2:7; etc.) and that Jesus had always been extremely gracious to outsiders of all sorts, so his followers were very open and hospitable. This inclusive, universal approach distinguished the Christian Church from all other religions.
The question “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD) always applies. I believe Philip dealt with this man in a manner consistent with how Jesus dealt with people – he had learned from the Master that “love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Institutions of all sorts tend to be rigid, self-perpetuating, self-protecting, patriarchal, rule- and regulation-oriented, all about externals, norms and conformity. In his spiritual quest, the eunuch encountered a rigid, legalistic and very patriarchal institution. By the time he met Philip he had already discovered that he could never find acceptance and belonging within the Judaism of that day, because of the way the leadership of that day chose to interpret the scriptures. Their own scriptures contained messages of grace and mercy, but the religious leaders of the day chose to ignore them in favour of legalistic passages which protected the institution, rather than the spirit, of Judaism. But he did find what he was longing for from a disciple of Christ, quite apart from any institutional demands and complications. Philip has no church, in a physical sense, yet he opens the doors of the kingdom to this man, whereas his trip to the impressive religious shrine had yielded little or nothing.
I do realize it’s Mother’s Day and I’ve been going on and on about a situation involving castration! No doubt Freud would have a field day with this. However, my final point is that the Christian Church created a radical alternative to the patriarchal and legalistic institutionalism into which the religion of their ancestors had fallen. Isaiah the prophet expresses that mothering aspect of God and the Church picked up on it, drawing heavily from the book of Isaiah. It is already implicit in Philip’s approach to the Ethiopian. From the earliest days, the Church was often conceived of as feminine – as “Mother Church.” And a mother doesn’t say, to someone like the eunuch “Oh, – you don’t measure up! We can’t make an exception for the likes of you! You can’t be part of us.” A mother says, “That’s a child in need of love; that’s someone who’s alone and lost – that’s someone who’s hurting. He (or she) needs to be part of a family.” When you think like that, that this seeker before you is a lost child – someone who’s hurting and needs to be loved — then you respond in a completely different way than when you are identifying yourself with the integrity of the institution. Instead, you are more concerned about the integrity of that person. Mothers find ways to connect – to include. The motherly approach is almost always more unitive in nature. I believe we need to balance our conception of God by recognizing that mothering character; I believe that balanced, unitive dimension is accessible to all of us, male and female; and I am certain that it is essential to the Church to balance the rather mannish tendency to be more about the institutional rules and requirements than about the grace of God, and the inner meaning of the Christian life.
In the example of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, we see clearly that the early Christians found a way to allow the gracious love of God to be the primary factor, and let the rules and practices of the Church take shape accordingly.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+
Your comments are welcome. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org