Love is our Orientation: What The Ethiopian Eunuch Means to the Church

Where are we going? What direction are we headed? What’s our orientation? Fairly broad questions, and here in Tulsa they can be fairly easy to answer.  It may surprise those of you who have lived here or in the Midwest in general for all your life, but most cities outside Oklahoma aren’t laid out on a grid like Tulsa. Most people don’t give directions including “go east,” “ go north,” etc.  In most places, getting from here to there is a circuitous route, so which way one’s orientation is a little harder to answer.

One thing I have learned about the Holy Spirit is that She doesn’t  have much regard for sticking to the same old path that has been traveled for so long.   Today we hear the Spirit calling the Apostle Philip to an interesting place.  A road….A deserted road….What was it that Robert Frost said?  “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”  Yes—that’s a wonderful line.  And one that the church could stand to hear a little move often.

Why not, when we see what it leads to in this story.  Philip, a wonder worker and one of the seven commissioned by the 12 disciples as a deacon, was called to the road less traveled, and there he met the first baptized convert to the church whose story is individually told.  And who is it?  Who else could it be from a God who loves to shock us with Grace: an Ethiopian Eunuch.

Now, about Eunuchs. As was this particular Eunuch, they were typically of high social class and involved in the upper echelon of courtly power, and yet the whole reason they were sometimes came at a high expense.  They suffered a sexual stigma.  Since many were castrated at a young age before puberty, they were effeminate.  The Bible has a lot to say about Eunuchs, and even Jesus addresses the subject of Eunuchs in Matthew 19,  when discussing divorce and marriage and re-marriage with his disciples, “Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” 

Eunuchs “made in their mothers’ womb,” seems to be referring to the fact that some Eunuchs who served in the typical positions of power that they were educated for weren’t castrated, but instead simply had a natural predisposition for being unable to be attracted to women.  Yes, this may be the only reference to homosexuality that Jesus ever utters, and what does he say about it?   “Those who can accept this should accept it.”  Basically, an idiom for “and that is that.”

“Do you understand what you are reading?” This text is full of questions.

In Biblical Law, castrated Eunuchs are to be excluded from Temple Worship. In what is perhaps the most painful Bible verse for a man to read, Deuteronomy 23:1 (“No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.“). He that is wounded in the stones, or hath his privy member cut off, shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD. This would most likely have been the case during the time portrayed in Acts.  So, this Eunuch, who is said to have been making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so most likely Jewish Ethiopian from the long heritage of Jews in Ethiopia tracing their roots all the way to King Solomon, If this Ethiopian Eunuch was a castrated Eunuch, then his pilgrimage to Jerusalem only gone as far as the Temple walls. He would have journeyed over 1000 miles to have the door shut in his face—and being Jewish, he most likely knew this would be the reception he would receive, and still he went.

“How can I, unless someone is to guide me,” says the Eunuch.

He was reading the prophet Isaiah, and the text tells us he is at a point that we know of as the “Song of the Suffering Servant.” “In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation?”  Well, that line would have gotten the Eunuch thinking, I would guess. Perhaps Isaiah knew something about our contemporary victims of sexual and gender stigma too!  “In their humiliation, justice is denied them.  Who can describe this generation?”

This generation sees our United Methodist Church celebrating its 50thbirthday this past week at the same time that a special called General Conference looms next year that may threaten to undo it before it reaches its golden years.

So, the Eunuch wants to know—“does he say this about himself or someone else?”  Is this Isaiah someone I can relate to?  Is he someone who knows my story?  Notice what comes before this next question—one that probes the scripture, one that probes his own soul—the Eunuch invites Philip into the chariot with him, and Philip sits there next to the man and they begin a conversation.  So much of our faith hinges on these conversations, and we miss out on so many of them because we believe they belong in church—and then most of us don’t even show up for Sunday school or Bible studies.

Here, on this deserted road, this marginialized and stigmatized and yet also powerful man has the humility to say he does not understand, and invites Philip into his chariot to sit with him and help him come to an understanding.  And Philip, who knows the law, who has not yet gone through the radical unbinding of the Gospel to the people of Israel that is the primary focus of Paul, who at this point in the story is still Saul, a persecutor of the Christians.  This devoutly religious man goes into the chariot and sits down beside him. Just think of where this would translate for us in our day.  Do we understand what we are reading?

And he hasn’t even gotten to the best part.  I wonder…is this man reading the Isaiah scroll for the first time?  Did he pick it up in Jerusalem?  Could it be that he has not yet gotten to Isaiah 56, which has such a wonderful word of hope that he ends up embodying in the beautiful conclusion to this story?  Let no 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 what pleases 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. And foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship Him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant– these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer, Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nation  sThus says the Lord God,
   who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them
   besides those already gathered.*(Isaiah 56:3-8)

It could have been that the Eunuch invited Philip into his chariot because no-one else had been willing to explain it to him.  After all, he probably wasn’t allowed in the temple—how can I, unless someone will explain it to me?”  And Philip, says the text, “opened his mouth,” and the Holy Spirit did the rest. It’s a textual reference to the prophetic books of the Bible.  Philip and the Eunuch are here fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy.  The outcasts are given open arms into the waters of Baptism.

And so, the God of Love and Grace abounds and makes life abundant for all people, most especially the outcasts. In this critical year, when celebrating its 50th birthday,  celebrated this past week, the United Methodist Church considers how it will be in ministry with those who might relate to the rejection of this Ethiopian Eunuch. Will we be like the Temple, only allowing folks who are LGBTQ to the temple walls, or will we invite these sisters and brothers to be fully immersed in ministry if they are so called by the Holy Spirit?

 

*We had multiple fails associated with trying to get this sermon to you–the one preached this past Sunday was an adaptation of a sermon Rev. Mattox gave in June 2012. Both of those audio copies have been lost. So–we will relay a sermon the old fashioned way, in print! Feel free to share, we think it speaks to the current goings on in the United Methodist Church, especially as our Bishops gather in Chicago to determine the details of a plan to be presented to the Special Called General Conference of 2019. We pray for their discernment being led by the Spirit.