4/30/15

philip & the ethiopian eunuch

Here is a sermon I preached fifteen years ago (May 21, 2000) at University Hill Congregation on the texts in the Ecumenical Common Lectionary for this coming Sunday, May 3 - Acts 8:26-40 & John 15:1-8.

The Bible is a familiar book in this place. We’ve been reading it together for a lifetime and
longer. Yet, as the folks in our ‘Disciple Bible Study’ have been discovering this past year, the
Bible is full of forgotten surprise. Take this morning, for example. We find ourselves deep into
this season’s Eastertide readings from the Acts of the Apostles where we come upon a peculiar
little story ... the story of ‘Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch’. This is a little known and often
ignored passage. Not one that was talked of often in the Sunday School classes of my youth. I
suppose that the teachers must have feared the inevitable question: “What’s a eunuch?”.
Nonetheless, I have come to believe this week that there may be no more important story for
our congregation to consider at this time in our life. So this morning there are no hidden
agendas ... all of the preacher’s cards are on the table right from the beginning. Simply put, my
intention is to convince you that Acts chapter four, verses twenty-six through forty is not some
odd, inconsequential ancient story but is, in truth, God’s living, breathing Word here and now.

As it stands the story of ‘Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch’ comes at a crucial turning point in
the life of the fledgling church. In these early chapters of the Book of Acts the word ‘Christian’
is yet unknown. These early followers call themselves people of ‘The Way’. They are living in a
new way, following in the footsteps of the risen Christ, who is leading them to love one
another beyond all the accepted norms and bounds. The early chapters of the Book of Acts
portray a community in which the Holy Spirit of God is moving in powerful ways to create a
people who share all that they have with one another. Now, with the story of ‘Philip and the
Ethiopian Eunuch’, the Holy Spirit of God begins to open the people of ‘The Way’ to others in
an extraordinary manner. Up to this point, the community has continued Jesus’ ministry
among their own kind. Now things begin to change. Here in chapter eight Philip meets an
African. In chapter nine Saul is converted on the road to Damascus and becomes Paul, a
missionary whose life’s work will be to invite non-Jews into the community of ‘The Way’. And
then, in the tenth chapter, Peter’s absolute revulsion to ‘outsiders’ will be overcome as the Holy
Spirit confronts him with the Roman named Cornelius.

Do you see what is happening here? A people who have been focussed on themselves are
becoming extroverted. They have been turned inward, first in fear and then in wonder. In the
beginning they doubt that their tiny number can survive. But then they begin to see the Holy
Spirit moving among them in power. They discover a powerful and radical love at work in
their life together. Little do they realize, however, what God has in store for them. They can not
know just how far God’s Spirit will go in turning their life as a people inside out.

It starts with an odd angelic missive to Philip: “Get up and head over to that desolate road that
goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza”. Mysteriously, Philip is directed to a chariot on that
ancient interstate. In it he finds an Ethiopian eunuch. We do not know his name. We only
know his race and his gender. He is an African who has been ‘neutralized’. That is the reason
that he, and other eunuchs like him, are put in charge of the queen’s treasury and the king’s
harem ... they are no longer a threat to those in power. But we know something else about this
stranger: that he is on his way home from a trip to Jerusalem. His has not been a state visit.
Instead, he has come to the Temple to worship the God of the Jewish people. He has come
seeking. But he has quickly learned that he can never belong. The ancient law of God is clear.
The first verse of the twenty-third chapter of Deuteronomy explicitly bans eunuchs from the
community. There is no welcome.

So Philip finds himself riding alongside an outcast outsider who is studying the scroll of Isaiah
as he makes his way home to Africa. “Do you understand what you are reading?” asks Philip.
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” answers the Ethiopian traveller. As it happens, the
eunuch is reading from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah: “In his humiliation justice was denied
him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” One suspects
that a eunuch who himself has known humiliation and who has been denied the justice of
producing another generation and who sees his own future being taken away from the earth
has a special interest in this particular passage. He has discovered this story about God’s
chosen servant coming as one who is cut off and rejected by God’s own people. He wonders
what this can mean for one who now finds himself to be cut off and rejected.

“Then”, as the story says, “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he
proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”. It must be quite the conversation. But just what
precisely does Philip say about Jesus? How does he phrase this good news? That is what the
folks at our weekly ‘Text to Sermon’ study group want to know. They want to know because
whatever Philip says seems to work. The next thing we know the Ethiopian eunuch spots
water by the side of the road, stops the chariot and convinces Philip to baptise him on the spot.
Suddenly an infant church that has, to date, been made up exclusively of law-abiding Jews also
includes in its number one Ethiopian eunuch.

So what is it that Philip says? The text only gives us a tantalizing hint. “Starting with this
scripture”. Starting with Isaiah fifty-three. Look what happens when one begins at Isaiah
chapter fifty-three and continues on, as Philip does with his Ethiopian host. The two of them
do not, one suspects, have any other scripture at hand. Only this one large Isaiah scroll. And if
they start here ... well, then they will have soon read chapters fifty-four, fifty-five and fifty-six.
Lo and behold ... listen to what Philip and the Ethiopian read as they ride along together:

“Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child;
burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour ...
Enlarge the place of your tent,
stretch your curtains wide, do not hold back;
lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread out to the right and to the left ...”


The promise of fertility and of generativity is spoken to one who has no hope of a creative
future. But there is more. Isaiah continues:

“Come all you who are thirsty, come to the waters,
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”


Suddenly the invitation to receive refreshment is not limited to those who can pay the price,
whose righteous lives are somehow worthy of God’s tender mercies. Here the invitation is to
all who thirst. Surely, though, Philip’s newfound acquaintance is wondering if this invitation
can possibly include thirsty foreigners ... and thirsty eunuchs. Imagine his surprise as Isaiah
goes on:

“Let not any 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 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.”


Starting with these scriptures Philip proclaims the good news about Jesus. We don’t know
exactly the words he uses. But we do know what he says. He tells the Ethiopian eunuch what
we, too, have been told. He announces the incredibly good news that the time has come when
Isaiah’s prophecy has been fulfilled. The time of exclusion is over. The time for foreigners and
outcasts, Ethiopians and eunuchs to be welcomed into the family of God has arrived. God’s
chosen servant, Jesus the Christ, was himself cut off and rejected by God’s own people. But, by
the power of God, he has become the One in whom God’s promise to bless the earth and its
peoples is being kept. He invites all peoples, everywhere to be immersed in the cleansing, life-
giving waters and to live the radically new life of neighbour love that God intends for all
peoples, everywhere.

Two weeks ago, in Toronto, the United Church of Canada sponsored an event that brought
together over four hundred representatives from each of its many scattered presbyteries. As it
happens, our own John Culter was sent by Vancouver-Burrard Presbytery to the gathering that
was known as ‘Renovations 2000'. Together these folks pondered the renovations that God’s
Holy Spirit has in store for the multitude of introspective and fearful congregations that, for the
most part, make up our denomination these days. It is evident from the reports of those who
participated in the event that God’s Holy Spirit is up to something rather surprising and
startling in our midst all across North America. Those renovations begin with a voice that says:
“Go out ... and catch up to the stranger on the road who has come seeking ... and who has been
excluded ... who has not been welcomed into the family of God. Go and sit with her, read the
scripture with him ... open my community to them.” We’d like to say: “But ... but ... we include
a warm welcome in our ‘Order of Service’ and try our best to say hello over coffee after
church”. In truth, everything changes once the community is turned inside out so that its
members look first to the other, to the stranger, to the outsider. The Holy Spirit has major
renovations in mind for the church. Ask John. For that matter, ask Philip ... and Paul ... and
Peter, too. They discover to their great surprise that ‘The Way’ of Christ shapes an out-turned
people, whose eyes and ears and arms are open to the stranger in our midst ... unafraid to
welcome any and all who have been cut off by the world.

It is not hard to think of those who have been cut off from the source of life. They are the ones
whose lives dry up for lack of love. They are the ones whose fear makes them wary. They are
cast out within their own family ... neighbourhood ... classroom ... and workplace. Sometimes
they come here ... more often they approach us on the phone or over lunch or in an aside ...
standing on the fringes of the Christian community, wondering if there is love here for them ...
if there is God here for them. What do they find? Do they find a people who, like Philip, listen
to the Holy Spirit’s leading ... and so risk befriending the stranger who longs to know the love
of God?

“I am the vine, you are the branches”, says Jesus, “those who abide in me and I in them bear
much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing ... My Father is glorified by this, that
you bear much fruit.” Through Philip the Holy Spirit grafts an Ethiopian eunuch onto the vine
that is Jesus Christ. Philip welcomes a nobody into the community and, in so doing, bears
much more fruit than he can have ever imagined. For, you see, the eunuch that Philip meets on
the road to Gaza becomes the ‘father’ of the church in Ethiopia. In him God chooses a eunuch
to father a people. Rooted in Christ this once fruitless outcast becomes an incredibly fruitful
branch on the vine.

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the church.

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