keeping up with the Spirit

Icon of St. Philip and the Ethiopian by Ann Chapin

Our story Sunday was one of my favorites, because it is so incredibly unlikely. A disciple is headed down a road in the middle of the wilderness when all of a sudden he meets the treasurer of Ethiopia, who is also a eunuch. What? But this is how it is with the Spirit. We’re led into all sorts of encounters we would never expect. And thank goodness!

We’re living in Acts this Easter here at Bethany, trying to answer one key question each week: what difference does it make that Jesus died and rose? What difference does the resurrection make for how we live? What does it mean to be resurrection people?

Two weeks ago we saw that resurrection people are centered on Jesus, and committed to making peace and sharing resources so that there is plenty for all.

Last week we heard Peter name Jesus the Author of Life. Resurrection people let Jesus write their story.

Today we bring the same question to this passage: what difference does Jesus make? How do we live as resurrection people?

I feel like this story should begin with once upon a time. The whole story has a somewhat out of this world feel to it. Once upon a time… an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.”

This road is a desert road, through the wilderness. No one is around for miles. The word, translated in our text as south, can also mean at noon. I like that double meaning. It gives the image of the sun up above, beating down, as Philip travels this dusty, deserted road.

And then, on this road to nowhere, the quiet is suddenly broken by a chariot, clattering, and shuddering, and thundering down the road. As it draws closer, we can see it sparkling, almost blinding, in the bright sunlight. The horses are clearly expensive, well cared for. The owner of this chariot must be somebody rich and powerful.

As we peer in, we see a man with beautiful, deep, dark skin, clothed in fine linen. He is a eunuch from Ethiopia. A eunuch from Ethiopia—I can’t think of a more unlikely character for plain old Philip to meet out here.

This is one of the characters in the Bible who I desperately wish had a name. But we don’t get a name for this stranger. We just know the following:

He was Jewish—maybe an adult convert.

He was from Ethiopia, or, as it was known then, the kingdom of Cush. It was a mighty kingdom, south of Egypt, that had existed for more than a thousand years. And this stranger in the chariot was a court official with charge over the entire treasury.

Tall, dark, handsome—well, we don’t know if he was tall or handsome, but he was certainly educated, rich, and powerful.

There’s just one oddity. He was a eunuch.

This little word covers a lot of ambiguity. The greek word, eunochos, includes a range of meanings: men who have been castrated by force, men born with unusual physical characteristics, people who have both male and female physical characteristics, and men who behave or identify as women. All of that is possible—in that little word!*

Maybe the simplest way to describe him is he was someone whose body and sexuality weren’t typical. He didn’t look or act like the culture said he was supposed to.

Sometimes in ancient cultures men like this Ethiopian were considered special, exceptionally trustworthy. They were used for sensitive tasks like guarding the king’s concubines, or like this guy, overseeing the treasury.

But even though they were special, they were not really considered okay.

In fact, in Deuteronomy they were explicitly prohibited from taking part in worship, and in Leviticus from being part of the priesthood. There are similar prohibitions and opinions in greek writings of the day.

That’s who Philip meets on that desert road, in the heat of the day, with the sun beating down. A man wealthy enough to drive a carriage, powerful enough to control the treasury for a mighty empire, educated enough to read, devout enough that he has traveled more than a thousand miles to worship at the home of his faith, and yet, in spite of all that power, wisdom, and piety, he is an outsider. He is a foreigner far from home, and a person who doesn’t quite fit, no matter where he is.

Maybe you know what that’s like—to wonder, like this man, will I be accepted? I mean, if people really knew me, would they accept me?

Maybe like this eunuch you have felt this way because of a trait or characteristic that you were born with, perhaps even, like him, because of the sexual reality with which you live. Or maybe, unlike him, there is part of your past, or even your present, where you wonder, if people knew, would they accept me? Maybe you know what it is to have it fairly together on the outside, but wonder, deep down, am I in? Or am I out?

The Spirit tells Philip to go up to the carriage. Note: this is not a story with just two characters: Philip and the Ethiopian. There’s a third character—the Spirit. The Spirit drives all of the action.

Philip reaches the carriage and hears the man inside reading out loud from Isaiah:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’

Did those words have a different tone that day, as they were read by this man? Did he identify with the humiliation, and the denial of justice? Even though Deuteronomy and Leviticus said he didn’t fit, did he read this and wonder, maybe… just maybe there’s space in this story for me?

Philip asks him, do you understand what you are reading?

He answers, how can I unless someone guides me?

And Philip, starting with the scripture right there in Isaiah, proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

This interaction is the heart of this story.

The ethiopian’s quandary is, am I in or out? Am I holy enough? Could I ever be included in God’s love?

Deuteronomy and Leviticus both say clearly that someone like him is not okay, not in, and can’t ever be in. But then, just a few chapters later in Isaiah, it says that on the day of the Lord, when God’s in charge, all the eunuchs will have a place at the table.

So which is it? Is it Deuteronomy which says he’s an abomination? Or Isaiah, which says he’s okay? Which is it? Is he in or is he out?

How do we make sense of scriptures that say such contradictory things?

One, we do it together, with other Christians. We don’t have to figure it out on our own. And in fact, we can’t, not really. At least, that’s what the author of Acts seems to think: we need to be part of the body of Christ, if the words of scripture are going to become the Living Word in our lives.

And two, we read our Bibles, and our world, in the light of Christ.

That’s what it is to be resurrection people: by the power of the Spirit, we look at the world through the light of Christ. That’s what Philip does here, when he gets in the carriage with this devout, privileged, troubled Ethiopian. He tells him the news of Jesus and then uses that news to interpret everything else.

What news? What news made the Ethiopian stop the carriage and ask to be baptized?

It’s this: God so loved the world—all of it, every part of it, that God came and was fully, really present with us in this man named Jesus. This Jesus ate and drank with ordinary, everyday people, and proclaimed the kingdom of God had come near. Then he was put to death. He was despised and defeated. But then, God raised this Jesus from the dead. The story was not over. Dead cannot wipe out life. There is love more powerful than the worst the world can do, a love that gathers us all in, and is, right now, making a new creation in our midst.

This is the news that Philip has staked his life on, the story that has become his story. It’s why, when the angel came to him and said, go down this road, he went. It’s why, when the Spirit said, go talk to that stranger, he went. And it’s why, when this man asked, maybe with a catch in his voice, could I be part of this story? Is there anything to prevent me, even me, from being baptized, Philip doesn’t blink. He leaps out of the carriage and welcomes this man, baptizing him.

It’s this news, this love—nothing less than the power of Christ, that led Philip to know, beyond any doubt, that in spite of what Deuteronomy and Leviticus say, and in spite of what the culture around him might say, in Christ, this man, just as he was, was welcome, fully, completely welcome.

So Philip baptized him, in water that appeared providentially right there along the way. And the man went on his way rejoicing.

Friends, this is still how we are called to live our lives. This is what it means to be resurrection people. We live our lives, our whole lives—from reading scripture, to eating dinner, and everything in between—by the light of Christ. We decide how to live and how to love by looking to the love of Christ.

Sometimes, as with Philip in this story, that means we’ll be running, literally running to keep up with the movement of the Spirit. It may mean we find ourselves in a wild land, surrounded by strangers. But we follow the one who ate and drank with sinners, who was despised and rejected by the “good folks” the “keepers of the faith” and who, in spite of that, was lifted up and raised to glory.

If you are wondering today, am I in? Really in? Could it be that God loves me, even me? The answer comes back loud and clear: Yes! Yes, you are welcome! You are loved! You are washed and claimed in the waters of life.

Like the Ethiopian, we rise from the waters of baptism, hair dripping, and heart full of joy at discovering love that is big enough, wide enough to cover us all.

Like Philip, we’re sent on our way to share this news with the world.


* from “Eunuch” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H. Vol. 2  (Nashville: Abingdon, 2007), 355.

by Sarah W. Wiles
April 29, 2012
Bethany Presbyterian Church
Tacoma, WA
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