Today we continue our journey through the book of Acts. And we start by hearing a little about Philip. Last week I shared with you that we learn in the early chapters of Acts that there was a Diaconate of 7 Greek leaders or disciples appointed to balance out the disciples from Jerusalem. Like Steven, who we discussed last week, Philip is another one of these seven. And at the beginning of chapter 8 we learn that while the early Christians were being persecuted, the unexpected result of this was that they were ending up spreading the word in much more expansive and effective ways. They were being “scattered” as they escaped their persecution, which meant they were going out into other areas and telling the stories of Jesus and spreading the word.
So, then we come to today’s passage. And we hear about this Eunuch. The passage begins by telling us much about him. He is Ethiopian, which was often a way of stating, at that time, that he was darker skinned. He was probably a slave and we are told he was in charge of the entire treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia. He is on his way “home to Jerusalem.” And since many of the elite Jews during the Babylonian exile were exiled to Ethiopia, this tells us he is probably Jewish, but just like the Greek Jews who by many were not seen as the “real” chosen ones, because he is working in Ethiopia, he probably was not included, not “let in” to that inner circle by the Jerusalem Jews. We are told all of this in a few brief sentences. But after all of these ways of him being introduced, the story then identifies him only by his sexuality. He is called “the Eunuch” for the rest of the story. What is this about?
We will come back to that in a moment. We are told, then, that he is reading this passage from the book of Isaiah. And the passage says, “
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
Who can tell the story of his descendants
because his life was taken from the earth?
This passage is from Isaiah 53: 7-8. And it is probable that this Eunuch can relate to this passage all too well. Eunuchs at this point in time were often young men, or older boys who were castrated against their will in the service of royalty. They had no choice in it, and yet, after it happened, it was then usually held against them. “in his humiliation, justice was taken away from him” must have resonated strongly with this Eunuch. And according to Deuteronomy 23:1, then, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” So this is a man who has been banned from the fellowship because of something related to his sexuality over which he had no actual choice. Hm. Sound familiar?
This Eunuch, who is clearly still a very faithful person, is reading this passage in Isaiah and undoubtedly deeply resonating with the pain of it when Philip approaches. But the Eunuch also has the wisdom, the insight, the foresight to have humility around it. Or perhaps he is afraid that it is too good to be true that a Lord, a leader, could understand the kind of pain that he himself has lived. He asks Philip to whom the passage refers. And Philip talks about how this passage relates to Jesus. He goes on to tell the eunuch all about Jesus. And the Eunuch is so touched, so moved, so impressed with this Jesus who, like himself, was humiliated, rejected and whose life was taken away just as the Eunuch’s was, that he asks to be baptized right then and there. But he does it in a way we would expect anyone who has received rejection after rejection after rejection to ask. Instead of just saying, “Please baptize me now!” he instead says, “What would prevent me from being baptized?” and my guess is that he is asking it as a genuine question. Will his sexuality prevent him from being baptized? Will his being from Ethiopia and of darker skin keep him from being baptized? Will his being a Jew who is not from Jerusalem prevent it? Will his working for the royalty of Ethiopia keep him from being baptized? He dares to ask.
Just like with today’s people of faith, the questions around who was included and who was excluded were not clear cut. There was argument. There was debate. I read to you the passage from Deuteronomy. It was part of the purity code, which, by the way, included other things such as “It is an abomination to wear clothing of mixed material.” And “It is not lawful to plant two types of crops in the same field.” Men cutting their side burns, the eating of shellfish and pork – all of these were prohibited in this purity code. But still, even in the Old Testament there were other voices arguing against this exclusion. If the Eunuch had read just a little further in Isaiah, for example, he would have found one. Isaiah 56: 3-4 reads, “Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say, “The Lord will exclude me from the people.” And don’t let the eunuch say, “I’m just a dry tree.” The Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, and remain loyal to my covenant. In my temple and courts, I will give them a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give to them an enduring name that will not be removed.”
And, of course, the answer that Philip gave, the answer that is always, always given by God, to the Eunuch, to all those who have been excluded and rejected, humiliated and shamed is “No! Nothing will prevent you from being baptized this day in this water.” That is the Christian answer. That is the response of Jesus’ followers. What has excluded you before will no longer exclude you now. You are included in this place and in this time. You are invited to be part of this community. This is the Good News that Philip continues to spread and preach “in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.”
But just in case this wasn’t clear, Jesus himself had something to say about this as well. This is from Matthew 19:11-12: “Jesus replied, ‘Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it. For there are eunuchs who have been eunuchs from birth. And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people. And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven. Those who can accept it should accept it.’” I want you to read that again, because it is very interesting. What does it mean that there were eunuchs who had been so from birth? It means that this has a fuller meaning than simply what we now understand to be “eunuch”. “Eunuch” for Jesus and for those of his time included anyone who did not neatly fit into the two categories we have said are “male and female”. So I want you to hear this once more. Matthew 9:11-12: : “Jesus replied, ‘Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it. For there are eunuchs who have been eunuchs from birth. And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people. And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven. Those who can accept it should accept it.’” You notice he never tells them “go and sin no more” and he never tries to “heal” this. He accepts it as sometimes being for the kingdom of heaven.
Of course, there are other passages that also figure in here, such as Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
And yet, despite the fact that even Jesus preached acceptance, inclusion and even a recognition that for the kingdom’s sake, some would choose a different sexual identity, we still struggle with this. This remains the case for today. We, too, know there are Christians who reject others for their sexuality: their orientation, their gender identity, whatever it is. But that is not what this passage shows us. Those who choose to come in, those who choose to be included in the faith ARE included.
Dale posted on FB this week a quote that I think is so apt, so appropriate, “Worry about your own sin. God is not planning to ask you about mine.” Or, as Connie Schultz said it, “My mom taught me that being a Christian meant fixing ourselves and helping others, not the other way around.” But we get really confused by all of this, don’t we?
Martin Buber wrote that there are really only two possible ways we can relate to the world. I-it, or I-Thou. When you treat others as “its” it is very easy to judge them, to condemn them. But “thou” recognizes the other as a person who you can understand through relationship, through connection. You can’t stereotype “thou”s because you know each as an individual. You can’t ignore them, you can’t own them, you can’t throw them away. The God who gave us life IS love and we are called to love with God’s love. As I recently heard someone say, “Everybody is God’s somebody.” EVERYBODY is God’s somebody. Bishop Michael Curry said, “The Lord didn’t create anybody to be under anybody else’s boot” (Love is the Way, p 177) and that is what Philip understood in this story.
As I was thinking about the question, “who is out” and “who is in” I found myself remembering the very first time I had visited a particular boyfriend’s parents for Christmas. We were both well into adult-hood and we had been seeing each other for about a year at this point. As we were setting the table to eat, my boyfriend’s mother asked, “how many are here?” One of the my boyfriend’s siblings sister replied, “Well, there are seven. There are five of us and two of them.” But my boy-friend’s step-dad quickly came back with “No! There are six of us! And one of them.” Now I’m certain he doesn’t remember this. But I was struck at the time by the ferocity by which he defended my boyfriend’s place as part of their family rather than part of mine. I found myself also thinking, “At what point do we count ourselves as ‘us’ instead of ‘them’? At what point does the ‘I-Thou” move even deeper into the “We”.
In Tattoos of the Heart written by Father Gregory Boyle, he talks about his work with gangs in LA, giving them jobs, a sense of belonging to something and to people who do not require violence or aggression as part of their membership rituals. He writes about his experiences with these boys, these men, these families. But his book begins with these words, “If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives. William Blake wrote, ‘We are put on earth for a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love.’ Turns out this is what we all have in common, gang member and nongang member alike: we’re just trying to learn how to bear the beams of love.” (pxiii).
The idea of Ubuntu is that “a person becomes a person through other people” – we are deeply and completely connected to one another. When I am injuring you, it is me, myself who is damaged in the process. And when I am kind to you, I am offering that kindness to myself as well. There is a community in South Africa where an anthropologist told this story after studying the habits and customs of a specific tribe there. When he finished his work, he had to wait for transportation that would take him to the airport to return home. He’d always been surrounded by the children of the tribe, so to help pass the time before he left, he proposed a game for the children to play. He’d bought lots of candy and sweets in the city, so he put everything in a basket with a beautiful ribbon attached. He placed it under a solitary tree, and then he called the kids together. He drew a line on the ground and explained that they should wait behind the line for his signal. And that when he said “Go!” they should rush over to the basket, and the first to arrive there would win all the candies. When he said “Go!” they all unexpectedly held each other’s hands and ran off towards the tree as a group. Once there, they simply shared the candy with each other and happily ate it. The anthropologist was very surprised. He asked them why they had all gone together, especially if the first one to arrive at the tree could have won everything in the basket – all the sweets. A young girl simply replied: “How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?”
Returning to the situation experienced by the Eunuch, this situation continues, as we know, today. A 2014 study showed that 70% of all millennials and 58% of Americans overall now believe that religious groups are alienating people by being too judgmental about LGBTQ+ issues. One quarter of the people how were raised in faith and left those traditions say that negative treatment of LGBTQ+ folk was the primary reason for their leaving. We, as a church, claim to be something more, we say we are inclusive. But are we? Do we talk to those who are different from ourselves? Do we include and invite into conversation those we don’t understand? In light of the shrinking church, many ask how we can possibly feel we can afford to be judgmental. But I will own that I don’t feel that we should stay alive as a church just to stay alive.
No. I don’t call us to be inclusive out of fear of dying. I call on us to be welcoming and inclusive because that is what we are called to do. The church has to exist with meaning and purpose or it shouldn’t exist at all. And our purpose is to love. That’s the bottom line, every time. Our purpose is to love. It is not to judge. It is not to exclude. We are invited into learning, we are invited into our own growing. And we are invited into loving. It’s all that easy, and it’s all that hard. Thanks be to God. Amen.