May 6, 2012

Acts 8:26-40 – Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza reading the suffering servant from Isaiah. 

Psalm 22:25-31 – All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD. (Ps. 22:26)

1 John 4:7-21 – Beloved let us love one another for love is of God… whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

John 15:1-8  I am the vine; you the branches, that you might bear fruit. By this my Father is glorified: that you bear fruit.

Acts 8: The Ethiopian Eunuch

The texts this week are enticing.

I John 4 is one of my favorite passages. It embodies the theology of John from the gospel to the letters and Revelation: “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.” John moves human religion from God-is-law to God-is-love.

In John 15, Jesus is the vine, God is the vine-grower, and we are the branches. The branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine. The branch cannot bear fruit apart from the vine. God is glorified when we bear fruit. The text begs the question, what fruit are we bearing in our lives, in our communities, and in our churches?

Both of these texts, above, are pregnant for preaching. Acts 8 is even more provocative.

I love this story in Acts 8. Easter 5B is the only time it comes up in the lectionary. We won’t hear it again for three years. If you are hearing this story for the first time, it may raise your eyebrows, but if you’ve heard it before, I want to encourage you to hear it with new ears, see it with new eyes. Watch how the Spirit is working in their place and their time, and then ask yourself, how is the Spirit working here in this place and in this time.

Acts is written by the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke. Let’s call him Luke! Luke is a careful writer. He has the best Greek in the Bible. He knows his is not the first gospel. In fact, he says in Luke 1:1 that many have already set out to write down all the things that have taken place. He tells us he is writing an orderly account for a guy named Theophilus, which means “lover of God.” This was a word that was often used, along with God-fearer, for people who believed in God and were seekers, but had not yet converted. Could it be that Luke was writing for a postmodern, spiritually hungry generation?

Acts begins with the words, “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught…” The first book was about Jesus. This second book is about the Apostles. It is the Acts of the Apostles. Apostle means one who is sent. You see the word “post” in apostle. Jesus sent out his disciples, and they became apostles. The early church read from the Old Testament, the memoirs of the apostles, and from the good news of Jesus.

Acts paints a picture of the Spirit working in the post-resurrection church. The outline of Acts, the theme verse if you will is 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Jerusalem is where Pentecost takes place. Judea is the surrounding area. Samaria is the place of those heretic Samaritans. The ends of the earth is the whole Roman Empire.

In Acts 2 we have the Jerusalem Pentecost. In Acts 8 we have the Samaritan Pentecost. Philip goes to Samaria and preaches. I don’t think this is the same Philip who was a disciple of Jesus. I think he is the Philip that is elected a deacon in Acts 6. Philip preaches and even Simon the Magician believes and is baptized. So the apostles Peter and John come down, lay hands on them, and they receive the Holy Spirit. Even Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit!

I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…

Remember? You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and… all the ends of the earth. We start with Ethiopia, but later we will have a Roman Centurion.

An angel of the Lord comes to Philip and tells him to go down to Gaza. You know the Gaza strip, right? When have you been open to the prompting of the Spirit in your life, to go some place new, do something different? Are you open to that possibility now, right this very minute?

Along the way, Philip bumps into an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official. He will take this opportunity to bear witness to what God is doing to another outsider. Who has God placed in your path, to whom you might bear witness to what God is doing?

Ethiopia is a country located in the horn of Africa, south of Egypt. Incidentally, the Ethiopian Lutheran Church is the second largest church in the world.

  1.  Church of Sweden – 6.7M
  2.  Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus – 5.3M
  3.  Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania – 5.3M
  4.  Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – 4.6M

Ethiopia is the most-populated country in Africa with over 90 million people. Ethiopia was a dynasty for most of its history, dating back to the 2nd century B.C. The oldest traces of humanity have been found here. It is an ancient land. There are twice as many Christians as Muslims in Ethiopia, and there are more Lutherans in Ethiopia than there are in the ELCA. Think about it; this man may have been the very first African baptized. He is certainly the first convert outside of Jerusalem, recorded in Acts.

Candace: We are told the Ethiopian eunuch is a very important man. He is a court official for Candace, Queen of the Ethiopians. He is in charge of the treasury. Shades of Joseph? Ethiopia is mentioned many times in the Bible (sometimes as Cush), but this is the only place Candace is mentioned. Candace is a family name, referring to a dynasty of Ethiopian warrior queens.

Eunuch: We are told the man is a eunuch, which means he was castrated. Why castrated? Because sometimes court officials fall in love with royalty, and if something happens, you don’t want potential heirs to the throne running around. So royalty in many cultures tended to use eunuchs.

A eunuch for the royal court would have been chosen at an early age. The child would be chosen, and castration would be carried out without his consent. It is a hard and horrific thing to imagine, being taken like this as a child and castrated. This is a classic example of human rights abuse, but when dealing with the powerful, what choice do the powerless have? Did his parents give consent? Were they paid? Did he know what was happening? Did he cry out?

Jewish: Finally, we know that this man is probably Jewish. We are told in verse 27 that the Ethiopian eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship at Passover, and he is sitting in his chariot reading the Prophet Isaiah. Why would you go to Jerusalem to worship, unless you were a Jew? He was probably there for the feast of Pentecost with all the other people from the ends of the earth: Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia…

But get this, according to Deuteronomy 23:1, he is not a full man. He is of questionable sexuality. He is unable to enter the assembly of the Lord. It is noteworthy that many of the people Jesus hung out with were also unwelcome in the Temple: women, lepers, tax collectors, the blind, the lame…

Philip is led by the Spirit to go over to the guy’s chariot. When he gets there, he discovers the eunuch is reading from the prophet Isaiah. Now here’s the Spirit at work. This eunuch is reading Isaiah 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant.

Imagine that you were castrated against your will at a very early age and then listen to this text from Isaiah:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”

Can you imagine how the eunuch hears this passage, in his own brokenness? How old was he when he was robbed of his descendants? Did he know what was about to happen to him? Did he understand what it meant? Did he open his mouth and cry out or was he silent, like a sheep led to the slaughter?

The Ethiopian man asks Philip, “Who is the prophet talking about? Himself or someone else?” And then Philip told him about Jesus, the Suffering Servant. Jesus is the paradigm for all the innocent who suffer unjustly at the hands of the powerful. This is the good news that God is on the side of those who are suffering. There is healing in the cross of Christ, in ways we cannot even begin to imagine.

The love of God is poured out for Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, Roman Centurions, and, yes, even eunuchs. What a barrier crossing. Isn’t it interesting that the first convert to Christianity outside of Jerusalem is a black, Jewish, sexual minority? Think about that for a moment. In Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Gal. 3:28)

Jesus is the hero for all who suffer, in body, mind or spirit.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!
Because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
release to the oppressed!

Who out there needs to hear that word of grace and hope today?

To whom is the Spirit leading you, as it led Philip?

To whom are you going to proclaim a word of God’s radically inclusive love this week?

Are you open to the Spirit?