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.
So this story in the book of Acts is a GREAT story. This week I found out it’s no less than three people’s favorite story AND Shelby is writing a paper on it during finals week coming up.
It’s great because there are so many different things happening. We could talk about how the Holy Spirit is a third character in the story. We could talk about evangelism. We could talk about baptism and breaking down barriers or reading scripture into our lives. I’m telling you, I could preach a different sermon on this one passage all summer.
I was talking to Carlos about this this week--Each week as I prepare for my sermon, in order to avoid giving you 10 sermons, I ask myself the question: what is this passage saying to this community, in this place, at this time. Every week I ask myself that. I ask God that. Sometimes I’ll ask you all that as I sneak it into conversation.
This is one of those texts that it is hard to nail down that one sermon--or as Ted Smith says--say one true thing about God and sit down--but in a story like this THERE ARE SO MANY THINGS.
And so today, although it was hard to pick, today we are going to talk about one thing--not all the things. We’re going to talk about the eunuch.
The eunuch. I would tell you a name but the text does not give us a name. The eunuch. This part of the story BUGGED me to no end. It bugged me that he had no name. It bugged me that he was labeled four times by his sexual reproductive organs, or lack of--the eunuch. I can think of a list of examples as to why this is problematic. Some of them are just one word: “boy” “woman.” Calling someone by a label, especially a label of otherness, and not their name is so troubling in so many ways. It’s an act of domination, certainly not love. It boxes in the multiplicity of identities and experiences this man has. The eunuch, although his sexual status shaped his identity in ways I can probably barely imagine, it does not fully define who he is. It’s a simplification of a person to an idea or an experience. It’s a silencing of who they are and a way to control who they can be. The eunuch.
As Queer theologian Patrick Cheng reminds us, “it is important for any given marginalized group to name itself and come to voice about its own particular experiences” (5). The author of Acts, perhaps because he’s participating in a broader trend of domination and stereotyping or perhaps because he’s trying to help us understand just how much of an outsider this man is, leaves him nameless. And we should repent for that in some ways, and for the legacy it left--a legacy where we’ve called people who are different from us by a term and not their name, by a stereotype and not their name, by a scientific term and not their name, by a perceived deviance and not their name. For this and more we must repent. We can get it wrong--even the author of Acts can get it wrong.
And it also bugged me, as I read the commentaries, to find out that he was most likely excluded from the temple because of his “disfigurement.” What a deep transgression--this possibility that this man was roped off from the temple--from the sacred space of worship--because of his sexual status. I do say possibility because we don’t know enough about the particular practices of the temple at this time to know for sure if they wouldn’t allow him in. In the book of Deuteronomy, eunuchs, as deviants from the norm, were not allowed in the temple--they were assumed unclean, permanently and forever. Yet in Isaiah, however, a book written later in Israel’s life, the temple and worship was to be opened up to all, to eunuchs in particular. So there is the potential for this man who traveled all the way from Ethiopia to be included or excluded, depending on who was in charge and what book they were reading...There is the possibility that he would have been turned away at the place of greatest intimacy with God. Because of his sexual status, his welcome into God’s house was in flux. Some of you know this feeling all too well and we must admit that we still get that wrong.
And again this text bugged me that his gender made him seem so much like a predator that his genitalia was altered--most likely as a child--before puberty. It bugged me.
This text is hard because even in its broad sweep of love, it still presents and even participates in all the problematic ways we label, dehumanize, and stigmatize people with gender and sexual identities different from the dominant culture.
And you know what, it bugged me because for many of you in this room, your gender and your sexuality has also been ammunition for others to rope off the sacred from you. It has been a way for you to be identified simply by a label: homosexual gay lesbian trans queer. It has been a way for your names, your actual names, to be forgotten in the shadow of your sexual or gendered identity--in a way that I will never know and I humbly ask for your grace as I explore it today.
But I truly, truly believe, or I wouldn’t be standing up here today, that the Bible is also full of places where God’s light shines through--among our missteps and mislabels, God is always pushing through, pushing us to reconsider and retack our course. Pushing us toward grace and abundance, not threat and labels. This story is no different--it’s a little bit of dark amidst cracks pouring through the light. So being the resilient people we are, we’re going to look at it again. And I’m also going to give the eunuch the name Abel--a popular Ethiopian child’s name trending right now.
So as we go back through this story, let’s take a moment to imagine what Abel’s life probably looked like. He was castrated at a young age, before puberty. He was “shorn” of part of his body, with no choice, no agency, no voice in the matter. Not only this, during this time, although eunuchs had limited sexual capabilities, they were STILL unfairly stereotyped as sexually immoral--sometimes we stop at no length to make someone feel as terrible about themselves as we can. And they were often given limited roles of service. Eunuchs had it hard. For all of his power and prestige that we read in the text, even our author can’t get over the fact that he’s a eunuch.
And yet, on this sunny afternoon in the middle of nowhere, sitting in his lap is the book of the Bible called Isaiah, I mentioned it earlier. It’s the book in the Bible that declares, in tension with Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the restoration of eunuchs and Ethiopians to the temple. It’s the book that mourns division and calls us to unity.
AND what specific verses does Abel read, what do we hear in Acts? Listen to this passage from Isaiah that he is reading in his chariot, listen WITH Abel’s life in mind:
“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.”
Now you and I may hear this and automatically assume it’s about Jesus. It is one of the suffering servant passages that is often read during holy week as Jesus approaches his death. But not Abel. He’s coming to it with fresh eyes--he has no idea who Jesus is.
After reading this passage, Abel’s earnest question to Philip is “about whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” You can almost hear Abel ask, “Is this about me?” “Is this passage about Isaiah and his situation or can it be about me as well?” Have I found myself in scripture, Abel wonders--the shorn, rejected, humiliated, lamb denied justice? Does someone, Abel wonders, maybe Isaiah, maybe this religion, understand my pain and rejection?
In the middle of a world where he is defined and limited and labeled and excluded, a passage of grace and solidarity appears in his lap. "This prophet knows how I feel. This prophet speaks about who I am and what I’ve experienced."
Yes. Yes he does. You are not alone.
And Philip, good ol’ Philip the evangelist (that’s his name in Acts), takes it even one step further. “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” This passage, he and others claim, is not just about Isaiah, or about you or me or the ways we suffer unjustly, this passage is also about Jesus.
The good news of Jesus is that not only does Isaiah get your pain, so does God. So does Jesus. We have a God who was led to the slaughter, had a voice that was silent, was humiliated and denied justice, whose life was taken away from him. Yes Isaiah gets it, but so does God--so does God.
And Philip probably read further with Abel as they rode along in his chariot--only a couple verses further in the book of Isaiah it reads “Out of his anguish he shall see light...the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.”
Past the labels, the limits, the hurt, the injury, there is light--solidarity and light and a place in the waters of baptism, to die and then rise again in new life with Jesus.
Philip tells Abel and he tells us this morning the good news of Jesus--God gets it. God knows and was one of those who was rejected, labeled, silenced, and shunned, and God is now the one going out to the ends of the earth, even Samaria and Ethiopia and Gaza and eventually Corinth and Rome and further, to share the good news that God knows your name, God feels your pain.
Tom Long says it best I think, that “the gospel, the good news that Philip shares, moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy (or perhaps the chariot) more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away, forgotten” and I would add un-named (458).
God will find us and lay God’s good news before us, perhaps on a wilderness road, or in our very lap as we’re reading, or in the words of a stranger jogging alongside our car, saying read this and hear the good news. God knows your name. God knows your pain. Be baptized into this family. Amen.