Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter 8:30 AM

April 30, 2018

 Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 29, 2018 8:30 AM

 

ὅτε δὲ ἀνέβησαν ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος, πνεῦμα κυρίου ἥρπασεν τὸν Φίλιππον καὶ οὐκ εἶδεν αὐτὸν οὐκέτι ὁ εὐνοῦχος, ἐπορεύετο γὰρ τὴν ὁδὸν αὐτοῦ χαίρων.

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away and the eunuch saw him no longer, so he went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:39)

 

I

A likely story. I’ve seen the movie “Ben-Hur,” and I don’t recall seeing anywhere for Charlton Heston to sit down in his chariot to read the prophet Isaiah; and even if the Ethiopian Eunuch’s chariot was a transportation wagon and not a racing vehicle, I have a difficult time wrapping my mind around our lesson’s image of the eunuch sitting in his chariot, reading scripture. Maybe he had stopped to let the horses rest and was perched on the back of the chariot mumbling words to himself from the Greek version of Isaiah? Silent reading didn’t exist in the Ethiopian Eunuch’s day; so, if he was reading, he was reading aloud. Besides you just had to read Greek and Latin aloud because Greek and Latin books didn’t separate words from each other, and they had no punctuation. Just to add insult to injury, when the copyist got to the end of a line, he just broke off the word he was writing and continued it on the next line. I suppose Luke, the author of Acts, imagines the Ethiopian was reading from a scroll. The codex, what we now call a book, had been invented by Luke’s time; but it was cumbersome instrument, and the entire book of Isaiah wouldn’t fit in one. Either the Ethiopian was just skimming—or scrolling—through Isaiah or he had already read 80% of the book. Either way, he wasn’t the first or and wouldn’t be the last reader to wonder whom the Second Isaiah had in mind when he wrote about a Suffering Servant that had died for the people of Israel.

The road from Jerusalem to Gaza went first to Hebron and then turned westward through the Shephelah to the ancient Philistine city of Gaza on the coast. Maybe Luke is playing with us a little bit, though, because he mentions that this Ethiopian is in charge of the Queen’s treasury, and the Greek word for treasury is also gaza.[1] Depending on how far down the road he had travelled, the eunuch may have found himself in some pretty barren land[2] without obvious sources of water; and so, finding water to baptize the Ethiopian would have comprised a minor miracle in itself. Perhaps we are supposed to imagine a wadi full of a spring overflow.[3] Finally, how, exactly, Philip caught up to the chariot and its horses down in the Shephelah doesn’t concern Luke.

This interception on the road, though, isn’t any more improbable than a high Ethiopian official traveling some 2500 kilometers to Jerusalem to worship there. By all accounts, the man wasn’t a Jew; and even if he had been a Jew, his physical condition, his being a eunuch, prohibited him from entering the temple precincts where Jews worshipped. If he wanted to worship, couldn’t he have done so as well in the Candace’s court without making an excruciating, months-long chariot trip up to Jerusalem? But his persistence underscores his ardor for the God of Israel, and his study of the Greek Isaiah suggests his allegiance to that God and to God’s Torah went deep into his soul.

Our unlikely story ends with Philip baptizing the Ethiopian and upon exiting the water, being whisked away somehow into the city of Azotus, while the Ethiopian Eunuch continues on his way, joyously unaffected by the sudden absence of his mentor. It’s a blissful, even magical tale with angels and spirits, improbable meetings, and a Hogwarts-worthy disappearance at the end. It’s a story quite unlike the rough-and-tumble stories of hardship, deceit, cowardice and heroic perseverance we’re used to reading in Acts. But beyond this out-of-time quality, what are we supposed to learn from such a story?

II

We might start with the fact that the scorn ancient writers heaped up on eunuchs makes Washington’s top-level bigotry against transgender people sound like soft soap. Within the law and literature of the Mediterranean, you could find plenty of bile against eunuchs both in Jewish and pagan authors. These writings called them freaks, unmanly, unclean, lascivious among other common insults, and the Emperor Domitian tried to make their very existence illegal.[4] The fact that eunuchs served in high positions in governments outside Rome’s control confirmed for some the moral depravity of those regimes. So, to say our Ethiopian had driven his chariot into a hostile environment on his religious quest would be an understatement.

Yet the angel sent Philip after the Ethiopian, not to the upstanding members of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and not to the upper-crust Roman elite in the capital city of Caesarea Maritima but to a single despised, if somewhat exotic, foreigner in the rolling hills and almost-desert climate of Roman Palestine where none could see or cheer, approve or disapprove of Philip’s largesse toward this stranger. Interesting how Luke puts this conversion first in line among the conversions of the gentiles in Acts. Later in Acts, the Apostle Peter will recruit Cornelius, that upstanding and respected centurion of the Italian Cohort, to the cause of Christ (Acts 10:1-23), but the Good News for the whole world goes first to the fear-provoking and much distrusted eunuch from far away, to the outcast, to the intruder, to the fellow that doesn’t belong. And this trespasser has all of the passion and all of the piety of Cornelius the centurion, but his love for God has gone unnoticed because he is a curiosity, even a threat. The angel sends Philip after the Ethiopian, and Philip finds the man reading scripture in a foreign tongue and asking about its meaning not out of curiosity but out of faith.

III

I believe the angel that sent Philip to the Ethiopian would send us too, if we were inclined to listen. There are other Ethiopians, other eunuchs, other precious souls on a journey somewhere that the angel would send us to find and teach. And those precious souls are likely not where you were planning to travel this morning when we got up to get ready to go to church.

Or perhaps you are the Ethiopian waiting for somebody to interpret the scripture for you. A dear friend called recently to tell me about a meeting of a religious group she had attended recently during which an somewhat disheveled older man of another race, kept looking at her strangely. My friend admitted to being somewhat disturbed at his attention and tried to blend into the group away from his gaze. Finally, to her consternation, he made his way up to her and said, “I believe God wants me to pray for you.” This declaration did nothing to dispel my friend’s trepidation, but she is a courageous woman and did not give into her fears. “Then I wish you would,” she replied. For a few moments the man prayed aloud with her, and she reported that when she finally stopped listening to her fear and started listening to what the old man was saying, she found that he was praying for the very things that had been weighing on her heavily as she entered the meeting that morning. She was, I think, the Ethiopian eunuch of that story and the older man of another race was her Philip.

As part of the Augustine Literacy Project, I was tutoring a young man in reading; and the book we were reading at the time was the story of Rosa Parks. The fellow I was tutoring asked me, as children do, whether I knew Rosa Parks; and I had to reply sadly that I had not but that I remembered segregation in all its awful reality. He then asked the million-dollar question, “Were you mean too?” Did I ride the segregated buses and attended the segregated schools without realizing how wicked they were? Yes. Did the system of segregation make my young mind think people of other races were inferior? Of course, it did. Was I mean? And what am I now? In this case, a very young Philip met this old Ethiopian eunuch in the Shephelah and gave him a chance to repent. God’s grace is endless.

God’s Spirit is calling us to some uncomfortable places we’d rather not visit and to some human beings we can find fearsome or even loathsome. That call is the Gospel calling. Men and women languish on their journeys in the Surry County Jail or in the Galax Hope House. Some journeys detour through the Staples Ministry or by way of the Medical Loan Closet. The Spirit calls us to be where human beings of every color, language, ethnicity, and life experience yearn for Good News; and in delivering that Good News, it’s not always clear who needs the baptizing and who needs to baptize.

The Good News went to Ethiopia that day. Where will you let it travel today?

Amen

 

 

[1] ὃς ἦν ἐπὶ πάσης τῆς γάζης αὐτῆς, Acts 8:27.

 

[2] That’s all the author meant when he commented αὕτη ἐστὶν ἔρημος, “this is deserted land” in 8:26. This is not a reference to Strabo’s observation that Alexander the Great destroyed the city of Gaza, “and it remains a deserted place (ἔρημος; 16.759).”

 

[3] On this topic, see J. A. Blakely and F. L. Horton, “’Behold Water! Tell el-Hesi and the Baptism of the Ethiopian Enoch (Acts 8:26-40),” Revue biblique 110/1 (2000): 56-71.

 

[4] For a useful discussion of the Roman view of eunuchs and their rising acceptance within the Byzantine-Christian upper classes, see Walter Stevenson, “The Rise of Eunuchs in Greco-Roman Antiquity,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5/4 (April, 1995): 495-511.

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