May 3rd 2015
Based on Acts 8:26-40
The year I was in grade three I ended up with a kidney infection and a fever so high that it left me delirious – seeing and hearing scary things no one else could see or hear. When I recovered and went back to school, one of the boys in the class announced to everyone that I’d gone crazy. I was devastated. Who would befriend me now? Who would want to hang around with a crazy person?
Have you ever found yourself on the `outside’ of a group, or know someone else who has faced that struggle? If so, you may be encouraged by this story from the book of Acts today. In this story Philip saw and heard things too, that no one else perceived. While the rest of the disciples were gathered in Jerusalem, Philip is spiritually compelled to leave – to head west toward Gaza. As he walks, a chariot draws near, and Philip sees and hears a man reading aloud to himself. ‘Go to him’, the Spirit urges.
“Do you know what you’re reading?” Philip calls out. `How can I, unless some explains it to me,’ responds the man. Clearly he is literate, but there is something deeper going on here. He invites Philip to hop up in the chariot and the have a conversation.
It turns out this is a man of high standing. Our first clue is that he’s riding in a chariot, no humble donkey, or sandals and walking stick for him. He is no less that the chief treasurer for Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. It would be like hopping in a stretched limo with the finance minister of Canada, and offering advice. ) And… the man is a eunuch. In cattle country we’d say he’s a steer, not a bull. Usually, such details don’t make it into the biblical stories unless they are considered important. So, knowing this information about the stranger, let’s look again at what he is reading. The Acts passage from the NRSV quotes Isaiah53:7-8 as saying, “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 is denied him. What can describe his generation?”
For many years I interpreted, “Who can describe his generation?” as, `What can you say about a culture that would treat someone so badly?’ However, if you go back to the actual Isaiah reading, in the same NRSV, verse 8 reads, “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future?” It’s always enlightening to look at a few different translations. The Contemporary English Version takes Isaiah’s words in Acts to say, “He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial. How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?”
Whoa! Isn’t that exciting? It puts it in a whole new light. Here we have a man who has wealth and prestige and responsibility for the financial well-being of Ethiopia (which would have included present day Eretria, Somalia, Djibouti, and Yemen.) At that time in history Ethiopia was on top of its game – an exporter of ivory, gold and incense. This man has everything, including the luxury of making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. But he is a eunuch. He does not have the status or right to any common man – to have a family, to have a loving partner, children and grandchildren. As a child he was castrated to fit him for a particular role in society. All alone in his chariot he reads: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. “He was treated like a nobody and did not receive a fair trial. How can he have children, if his life is snatched away?”
Have you ever read a book, or heard a song, or a story and found your heart quickening in recognition? Have you ever thought, “Who saw into my deepest sorrow, or longing, or dream, and wrote it down?”
On this dusty desolate piece of road, a lone man reads a passage of ancient scripture about someone who is led like a lamb to the slaughter, someone who can never have children and therefore has no future. No wonder he says to Philip, “Is the prophet talking about himself for someone else? Implication – `like me’, for example.
So Philip talks to him about Jesus. Note that it doesn’t say that Philip says, `Isaiah is talking about Jesus.’ He starts where the man is. Obviously he listened to his story first and he connects this passage with the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of the man in the chariot beside him.
When it says that Philip told the man about Jesus I’m sure he didn’t give him a formulaic four spiritual laws lesson on our sinful natural, and all the man had to do was confess his sins, believe in Jesus and be assured that he would not burn in hell eternally. I don’t think that would have gotten Philip very far.
He must speak of Jesus who knew suffering, who was led like a lamb to the slaughter, who never had a chance to have a family of his own, who did not fit in well with the established rules about what was acceptable and normal. And yet, this Jesus still managed to live a life and give a life of such richness and grace that it profoundly changed Philip and the other disciples and now it has the chance to profoundly change this man’s life. Philip must have talked of the love of God that Jesus came to share with everyone – and I mean everyone! Somewhere in the conversation, Philip must have mentioned baptism, for when they come to a small body of water the Ethiopian puts this good news to the test. “Look, here is water. What is to stop me from being baptized?” What’s to stop him? How about the Levitical law code that forbids a man of his dubious sexuality from entering the temple. How about a two year course on the meaning and nature of baptism. With all the rules and barriers and red tape that could have been called into play – absolutely nothing is there to stop him. Philip baptizes him then and there, at the side of the road.
The man who can have no family is welcomed into the family of God. He is accepted as whole, complete and worthy, just as he is. He who can have no children, discovers that he is a child of God. He goes on his way – rejoicing.
Philip turned a teachable moment into a moment of grace. We struggle sometimes as Christians with how to talk about what we believe, and how that affects our lives. Perhaps we forget that God is already at work in the hearts of people – that people are hungry for good news. What we can do is to have our eyes, ears and hearts open to the hunger, the pain, the wondering; to welcome the story of the other, and to offer the hospitality of God’s unconditional love, God’s amazing grace, witnessed in and through the life of Jesus.
What a day of rejoicing when every wounded soul will know they are NOT less than, unworthy, an outsider, a scapegoat, a loser, a mistake, a burden to society, an alien, a `crazy person’… what a day of rejoicing when we all know, we are beloved children of God, and brothers and sisters to one another. Amen.