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.
Have you ever found a character in a book, or in a movie, or on television – or perhaps a song – that was you? You knew exactly how that character felt, how she or he was thinking, had been through what that character was going through? I’m sure that many of the women of our congregation are upset today by the announcement that NBC has rejected Wonder Woman for their fall lineup – so many of you, I’m sure, identify with that character. I know my mother identified with Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, only to be reinforced when my father told her he didn’t give a hoot and walked out the door. Some of our young women probably identify with Bella Swan of the Twilight series of books and movies, trying to make a choice between vampires on one hand and werewolves on the other. I don’t know who the models are for our boys – I suspect some athletes, which is a scary proposition. I’m re-reading for the umpteenth time the wonderful series of British naval chronicles starring the fictional sailor Horatio Hornblower, whose insecurities, impulsiveness, and strong sense of honor were characteristics with which I identified with as a teenager. I knew – and know – what it feels like to be a Hornblower, trying to decide where to sail the ship.
This morning’s lesson from Acts tells of an encounter between Philip – not the Apostle Philip but one of the seven deacons chosen in Acts 6 and known in the church as Philip the Evangelist or Philip the Deacon -- and an Ethiopian court official on the road south from Jerusalem. Philip is one amazing and overlooked disciple: he simply does what the Holy Spirit tells him to do; he can, in the words of Harry Potter (by the way, a good role model, boys), apparate – appear and disappear across time and space; and he has four daughters with the gift of prophecy.
The court official is a eunuch – neutered as a child, without his consent, to serve in the palace and not be a threat to commit adultery with any of the women of the court. He is on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship in the Temple, but, because he was a eunuch, he would have been banned from Temple worship because of Deuteronomy 23, and even his offering would have been rejected because of Leviticus 22:25. Because of something that happened to him in his childhood, completely against his will, the heart’s desire of this foreigner to worship God has been, like his body parts, cut off. It’s not enough that he has been mutilated, or that he can never have children, which in his time and in ours represents our future and our eternity – his faith, his worship, his love for God have been rejected and denied. Go home, he is told. We don’t want you. As for his faith – he can go to hell.
This happens in our own day. Not long ago one of our children, who had been overwhelmed with the power of having served her family and church members the blood of Christ as an acolyte, was devastated when a church member criticized the shoes she wore under her acolyte’s robe. Strangers come to worship and no one speaks to them, invites them to a Sunday School class or to coffee and doughnuts, or asks them their names. Neighbors, co-workers, and classmates hear us talk trash about other people, denigrate elected officials, make fun of brothers and sisters in church. People go missing that we’ve sat next to in the pew for years, and we never bother to hunt them down – that’s what we pay the preacher to do. We proclaim that Jesus is the most important thing in our lives, but never talk to anyone about why. You see, the Ethiopian eunuch wasn’t the last person turned away before he got into the Temple.
The eunuch is reading the suffering servant passage from the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. In its original context, Isaiah was writing about the nation of Israel, which had grown up despised and rejected by the other nations. Israel, Isaiah said, in the fall of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon, had suffered for the sins of others, been wounded for the sins of others, and crushed. Despised . . . rejected . . . suffering . . . avoided by others . . . wounded . . . crushed. I know what this feels like, thinks the eunuch. He goes on to read, 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. That’s the eunuch – castrated as a boy without any choice. He has no future, not even with God, because of who he is.
Philip, running along side the chariot – another of Philip’s remarkable abilities – hears the eunuch reading this passage out loud. Do you know what you’re reading about? he asks the eunuch. How can I, without a guide? the eunuch replies. Philip is invited into the chariot, where the eunuch asks whether Isaiah is writing about himself or about someone else. I know how this feels, the eunuch is saying. I’m despised, rejected, wounded, crushed, and I have no future. What does this passage mean? And Philip connects the story of the suffering servant, Israel, in Isaiah, with the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Just as God had used the despised and broken nation of Israel to demonstrate God’s power to forgive and heal and restore, now God had used the despised and executed Jesus to show the whole world that love is stronger than evil, and that now all people are included in God’s mercy and God’s family.
But what about a black castrated man whose attempts to worship God had been rejected at the Temple gates? Is there room for me at the cross, asks the eunuch? Look, there’s a pond: is there any reason why I can’t be baptized, right now? I don’t want to waste another minute outside the family of God. That’s the real test, isn’t it? You say I’m welcome – show me. As Eliza Doolittle sings to Freddy in My Fair Lady, cutting off his flowery love song, Sing me no song, read me no rhyme, don’t waste my time, show me. Please don’t implore, beg on the streets, don’t make a speech, show me. Philip and the eunuch jump out of the chariot, go down to the river to pray, and the eunuch is baptized and welcomed into the Christian family. So the first African transgendered disciple is born again. The Holy Spirit disappartes Philip, and the eunuch goes home, rejoicing, to found the Ethiopian Christian church, which continues to today.
This is powerful story. It is powerful, one, because of its inclusiveness. All the barriers to inclusion in God’s kingdom have fallen down at the foot of the cross. God has called allee, allee, in free, which is why Jesus said that one of the most damnable things you or I can ever do is be an obstacle to anyone’s path to salvation. It makes no difference what color or gender or preference people are, who they vote for, or God forbid, what they wear.
But it is powerful, second, because what brings the eunuch to salvation is the story of a God who is wounded and battered and broken. No matter who your hero or role model is, no matter your color or your sexual history or how much money you’ve got in the bank or whether you’ve been in jail or been king of the world, you know what it’s like to be wounded, beaten, rejected, despised, broken. That’s why the cross is so utterly compelling. Few people can identify with miracles or parables or a virgin birth, but everyone who has ever lived knows what it’s like to be hung up, cursed, and abandoned. And when you and I live not as people who have no worries, no cares, and who sail triumphantly through life, but show people the wounded God who loves through our hurts and pains and brokenness into theirs, those other people discover that the crucified God welcomes even them into the Temple.
We’re all Ethiopian eunuchs, you know. We’re all cut off, despised, and without a future. So, show people your wounds. And tell them about a wounded God, because that’s a role model they can follow.