TEXT: Acts 8:26-40
That video was created by the group Improv Everywhere. You can find them on YouTube. They are masters of helping people find themselves in interesting and awkward situations. Situations that they never expected. Doing things that they never believed in response to the situation. In the case of this video, simply setting up a lectern and a bull horn with the simple directions “Declare your love” resulted in a lot of curiosity and a lot of interesting declarations. Despite the peculiarity of the situation, these everyday people – like you and me – stop for a moment, step outside of society’s expectations, and declare their love for total strangers to hear. In doing so, others smile, laugh, and react joyously to their words. Not only does it bring joy to strangers, it also brings joy to those who participate. In bringing joy to others, the participants receive joy.
Philip is not a major figure in the bible. He’s not one of the superstars like Moses or David or Paul. Philip is one of the first seven Deacons of the Church – ordained with the specific role and purpose of “waiting on tables” – which is what the word “diakonia” means in Greek. The Deacons were selected by the Apostles to handle the proper distribution of food and goods in the Church so that no one was missed – such as widows and orphans. And the Apostles created the office of Deacon because they simply did not have the time both to teach the word of God AND address all the pastoral care needs of their growing congregation. That’s the biblical reason why we have Deacons in the Presbyterian Church today – to be the major pastoral care arm of the congregation, addressing the pastoral needs of the congregation, so that the pastor can do the work of teaching and spreading the Word of God alongside the Elders of the Church.
But Philip is called to more than his ordained role. Philip is also called to be an evangelist – to share the Word of God with others, especially those who might not otherwise be accepted. So, when an angel of the Lord commands Deacon Philip to go to a road in the middle of nowhere, he simply got up and went. And, to no surprise, Deacon Philip finds a person in need of someone to teach them about the Word of God. There Deacon Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. And not only does Deacon Philip help the eunuch understand the Word of God, Deacon Philip also baptizes the eunuch – welcoming him into the Church – even though this eunuch was most likely excluded from worship in the Temple in Jerusalem for a number of reasons. Even though this eunuch was nothing like the rest of the members of the early church.
First, because they are Ethiopian – and not necessarily considered a “Jew” (though it is possible he could have been) – the Ethiopian would have been confined to the outer courtyard of the temple, known as the court of the Gentiles, because only Jews could enter the inner courtyard. Secondly, because they are also a eunuch – a male who has his testicles removed before puberty so as not to be a threat to female royalty – they are banned from entering the court of the Gentiles because it is written in Deuteronomy 23:1- “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” At the same time, there were a LOT of stigmas and stereotypes surrounding eunuchs – ironically, most of which said that they were sexually deviant and immoral – because of their non-binary gender identity. Eunuchs were not really men. But they were also not women. They were something different. A third gender. So, the Torah’s rules against eunuch’s were written because of these false stigmas, untrue stereotypes, and their misunderstood gender identity.
Despite having their ethnicity and gender identity working against them both in religion and society, the Ethiopian eunuch does have a lot going for them. They are wealthy enough to own a chariot with its own driver and an expensive scroll of the prophet Isaiah. They are highly educated. Not only can they read (in a language other than their own) but they are also in charge of the treasury of the Candace of Ethiopia. They’re basically the minister of finance, the secretary of the treasury, for the nation. They have a devout faith in God – otherwise why would they waste time and money to travel such a long distance to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and study a giant scroll of Isaiah? They are humble – unafraid to admit that they do not understand what they are reading. Unafraid to declare that they don’t know everything about their faith. And so therefore, this Ethiopian eunuch is also hospitable – especially towards someone who is willing to help them understand – even some random guy running alongside the chariot, yelling,“Do you understand what you are reading?” Personally, I would take offense if someone did that to me, but the Ethiopian eunuch shows humility and hospitality to Deacon Philip.
I also find it interesting that of ALL the books of the Hebrew Bible that the Ethiopian chose to purchase, they chose to buy the one book that says in chapter 11: “11 On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.” And in chapter 56, Isaiah says: “For thus says the Lord:/To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,/ who choose the things that please me/ and hold fast my covenant,/ I will give, in my house and within my walls,/ a monument and a name/ better than sons and daughters;/ I will give them an everlasting name/ that shall not be cut off.”
I’m guessing that at some point, the Ethiopian eunuch heard these verses of Isaiah, and wanted to read it for themselves. That the Ethiopian eunuch wanted to know for sure that there was a place for a total outsider like them within God’s promises – a foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity. A place for them within the Temple walls, worshipping alongside the other children of God. But the Ethiopian eunuch gets to a certain passage – specifically Isaiah 53:7-8 – and begins to struggle with understanding who it is the Prophet Isaiah is speaking about: himself or someone else? That’s when Deacon Philip shows up for a quick bible study.
Now it isn’t written what Deacon Philip said specifically to the Ethiopian eunuch, only that Philip, “began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to them the good news about Jesus.” We can infer that at some point Philip talked about baptism as the ritual of initiation into the Church because of what happens next. But then again, with what Deacon Philip has learned, this is not a possibility because of the eunuch’s gender non-conformity and the stigmas surrounding their sexuality. Deacon Philip does what the Lord commands him to do – tell the Good News to this outsider – but he knows that his new religion – Christianity – is clear about keeping sexual deviants like eunuchs out of the Church. What is Deacon Philip to do? How will he know if it’s okay to baptize the eunuch?
The Lord clearly has plans beyond the rules of the church. Because coincidentally, they come upon a random pool of water in the middle of the desert in the heat of the day! What a fortuitous opportunity for the Ethiopian eunuch to be baptized. So, the eunuch questions Philip – I would even say “challenges” Philip – by asking, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And so, without regard for the Ethiopian eunuch’s outsider status as a foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity – without requiring the Ethiopian eunuch to make a statement of faith or to pray the sinner’s prayer or to “ask Jesus into their heart” – Deacon Philip takes the Ethiopian eunuch into the water, and baptizes them. And the minute the eunuch comes up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord literally “snatches Philip away” and the Ethiopian eunuch never sees him again. But it says that the eunuch “went on their way rejoicing!”
What’s even more fascinating about this story is the legend that then continues about the Ethiopian eunuch beyond the scriptures. According to legend, the eunuch then returns to Ethiopia and founds the Ethiopian Orthodox Church – making Ethiopia the second country to establish Christianity as its official religion. This foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity becomes the founder of one of the oldest Christian Churches in the world – founded in 333 AD. This Ethiopian eunuch becomes the founder of a Christian group that currently has between 40 and 50 million followers world-wide! Clearly, the Ethiopian eunuch – despite his status as foreigner of a different race/ethnicity, socio-economic class, and gender identity – was blessed by God – through Deacon Philip – so that they could be a blessing for millions of future followers of Jesus Christ. Clearly the Ethiopian eunuch’s conversion – despite their “otherness” and “difference” – was the work of God who sees beyond the concerns of human religious rules and societal expectations.
And you know what – the Ethiopian eunuch was not the only person who is converted that day. Deacon Philip is also converted that day as well. The Lord sent Philip to teach the Good News to a person who otherwise is excluded from the worship of God. To baptize a person who is banned from the temple because of the priest’s strict adherence to a legalistic reading of Leviticus. And Deacon Philip – having been raised on and taught these rules, having learned a legalistic reading of the Hebrew scriptures, having grown up in a culture that saw eunuchs as “sexually immoral” because of their ambiguous gender identity – would have never chosen to baptize a eunuch on his own. But on that day, Deacon Philip’s understanding of the work of God is transformed, and he is converted from practicing a religion to living his faith. As the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, When Philip joined this person who sought to worship God despite [their] exclusion, was it perhaps Philip himself who was converted to the faith?” Because when the Holy Spirit brings you to something – you better pay attention. When Christ calls you to something – you better listen. When God commands you to do something – even something that seems out of line with what both your religion and society always taught you – you better follow through. Not only because it will be a blessing to that person, people, or situation – but because it will also be a blessing to you. God most often blesses us by making us a blessing to others. Those who follow Christ are always blessed to be a blessing.
One of the ways you can see people being blessed to be a blessing is right here at Grace during the Welcome Table. Even though it’s only been operating for 9 weeks now, the Welcome Table is averaging over 40 people a week – the vast majority of which do not currently attend Grace. More and more families are starting to attend – and so around 15-20 children are part of those being blessed. And while the free meal is a blessing to the people who come to the Welcome Table – the blessing for us here at Grace is found in the chance to build relationships with those who attend. To sit and hear them share their stories and their lives with you. To learn about the hardships and struggles that they go through. To discover just how hard they are working to overcome them. The blessing we receive here at Grace is NOT in being fed – but in feeding. The blessing that Grace Presbyterian Church receives is the chance to love our neighbors as ourselves. The blessing we as a congregation receive is the opportunity to sacrifice just a few hours of our time, once a week, so that someone in our own community goes to bed with a full stomach.
After all, isn’t that the kind of community you WANT to live in? One where people – where children – don’t go to bed hungry at night? Don’t you want to be a part of the solution to your community’s problems? Don’t you want the opportunity to be a blessing? To be the hands and feet of Christ for your neighbors in your own community? Just think of the impact you can make in the lives of people in your own community simply by sacrificing a couple of the 168 hours in your week. By sacrificing only 2% of your week. Small sacrifices can lead to big transformations – both in other’s lives and your own life.
Now some may ask, “But are these people going to come to worship on Sunday?” But, worship attendance is the worst way to measure church growth – because it’s NOT the point of God’s mission. Mission is never about getting butts in the seats on Sunday. Nowhere in scripture did Jesus command the Disciples to build a church and measure its success by weekly worship attendance. Instead, Jesus commissions his Disciples – including us today – to take on THE MISSION OF GOD every hour of our lives. And the Mission of God is about being blessed by being a blessing. About growing as Disciples by making other Disciples. About dying to the life religion and society tells you to want and resurrecting to a fullness of life by sacrificing what you’ve always wanted. About following the Spirit’s call to do the hard work of faith – instead of following the expectations of religion and society. Christianity is NOT about making your life easier. If anything, it’s about sacrifice that just might make your life harder. Because, faithfully following Christ will ALWAYS lead you to the cross.
Like Philip, conversion is the death of everything you’ve ever understood about yourself and your life. Yet we always try to avoid this inevitable and painful reality of the Christian faith because society (and even religion) tells us that we should never be uncomfortable.
But we can’t forget that, in the Christin faith, death always leads to resurrection – to new life. Not just the extension of this life into the hereafter – but a fullness of life in the here and now. Jesus tells us in John 10:10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And isn’t that what we all want? A fullness of life? Right here? Right now? Isn’t that why we struggle to sacrifice what we have, because we’re afraid that if we give up something, we’ll miss out on the fullness of life? And yet, that’s the opposite of what Jesus calls a fullness of life. Fullness of life isn’t found in what you gain, but rather in what you sacrifice.
Fullness of life through faith in Jesus requires us to leave behind the man-made rules and expectations of religion and society so that we may live into the Spirit led doubts and uncertainties of faith. Faith that defies religious and social conventions in order to do the holy and revolutionary work of blessing those on the margins of society and religion. Faith that desires all to receive the same fullness of life as you – because that’s what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Faith that sits down to dinner with sinners, overturns the tables of the affluent, condemns self-righteous religious leaders, and challenges oppressive political powers. Faith that feeds the hungry simply because they need to be fed. Faith that welcomes children because Jesus teaches us that the kingdom belongs to them. Faith that forgives the adulterer, pardons the criminal, listens to women, heals the leper, welcomes the foreigner, and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch – even when religion and society tells us they are not worth it.
Faith calls us to always bless others
– and in doing so –
we are always blessed.