More often than not, I preach on the gospel text for the day. But this week the story from Acts had such a strong pull on me that I barely mentioned Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is timeless because we still struggle with many of the things that might have kept these men apart: race, gender, economic class, nationality. But that is exactly where the Holy Spirit is calling us to go: into the difficult places and difficult conversations. Like Philip and the Ethiopian, we might be surprised at what we find there.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
This was a conversation that never should have happened. Philip and this Ethiopian eunuch, that is. Everything ought to have kept these two men apart from each other. Philip isn’t even supposed to be here. He’s a deacon, one of the men chosen to help order and serve the church in Jerusalem. The disciples were too busy with prayer and teaching, that they couldn’t make sure everyone was fed and cared for. So the seven deacons were chosen. Except then the persecution started. Stephen, also a deacon, is stoned to death, and the rest of these table-servers are scattered, fleeing for their lives. And Philip finds himself being led by the Spirit down a wilderness road.
He never would have expected a conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch of all people, honestly, because he was an Ethiopian eunuch! He was a sexual minority, not viewed as a whole man, not allowed to worship God in the temple. He was probably a God-fearer, a person who was drawn to the God of Israel, but had not made a full conversion. In his case, he couldn’t, on account of being a eunuch.
He was a foreigner, from Ethiopia—that unknown land south of Egypt. But beyond those things, this man was a wealthy and powerful person. He is the chief treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia. He has a chariot and servants. He has a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, which would have been quite costly. He is an educated, influential person.
This conversation never should have happened. There are so many walls that could been put up. Philip didn’t ask for this: to go and preach to a eunuch, and not just a eunuch but a foreign eunuch. And for the Ethiopian’s part—who is this Philip, a poor bedraggled man on the side of the road to ask him if he understands what he’s reading?
But instead of putting up those walls—walls of nationality, of religion, gender-identity—instead of stopping this conversation before it starts, something miraculous happens. Philip trusts in the Spirit. Philip follows God’s call and approaches this chariot he might have otherwise let pass by. And the eunuch, instead of ignoring this man, telling his chariot to speed up, is humble enough to accept help, and open enough to listen to what Philip has to say.
And after he hears Philip’s story, after he hears about Jesus life, death, and resurrection, he wants to be a part of it. He sees the stream by the side of the road and asks, “here is water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?” It’s almost as if he’s expecting to hear Philip say no.
When we think about it, there are actually quite a few things that might prevent this Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized. He was living in Ethiopia, for one, cut off from the land of Israel and from the budding church. He was a eunuch, in violation of religious law. He was a member of the cabinet of the queen of Ethiopia, loyal to the wrong sovereign. He belonged to the wrong nation, held the wrong job, and possessed the wrong sexuality.
He has probably heard no many times before. But instead of being told “no,” instead of being told this is good news for some people, but not you, instead of being turned away, he hears only God’s joyful “yes.” Yes to who he is, yes to his worth as a person, yes to his inclusion, yes to his being grafted onto the vine of Jesus Christ. And he goes away rejoicing.
What is to prevent him from being baptized? What is to prevent anyone from being baptized? Can wealth, race, sexual status, piety, understanding? The good news is for all and all are invited to share in this fullness of life with God and each other.
It was a conversation that never should have happened, and it led to great rejoicing! The Ethiopian Church, one of the oldest in the world traces its origins to this moment. There have been Christians in Ethiopia for almost as long as there have been Christians. In fact, when European missionaries headed into Africa, thinking they would be bringing with them the news of Jesus, they found in Ethiopia a vibrant, strong, and ancient church. How much could have gone differently if either one of these men refused this conversation?
Where do we put up walls? Where do we avoid encountering those who are different from ourselves? We might not even have mean motives—we might just be uncomfortable and not know what to do or say. And so we avoid. Those who look differently from ourselves. Those who speak with accents we don’t recognize. Those whose sexuality is different from our own, or presented differently than we expect. Those who are not from our own economic class.
But when we open ourselves up, instead of avoiding, instead of putting up walls, we experience the fullness of God. We experience God’s “yes” which says to each and every one of us: you are a person of worth. You are welcome here, you are included here. There is nothing to prevent you from belonging here. What was true for the Ethiopian eunuch is true for us: there is nothing to prevent us from experiencing God’s love.
And what is true for us is true for our brothers and sisters who differ from us. Those who are still excluded from many parts of the church for their differences. Differences in sexuality or race or class or nationality.
This week, I’d like to challenge us: to let God’s Spirit lead us into conversations that shouldn’t happen. Meetings, interactions that we’d otherwise avoid. Because when we do so, when we stop and take notice of the people God puts in our path, amazing things can happen. What is to prevent us from being agents of God’s grace and love that we have experienced? What is to prevent us from sharing the good news that God’s yes is for everyone?
It was a conversation that never should have happened. But thank God that it did. Because Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch not only show us God’s expansive and inclusive love, but bid us to go and do likewise. Have those conversations. And most importantly, share the love of God that we have experienced in Christ Jesus. Amen.