Faith, hope and love—for a eunuch

Sermon for Easter 5 (10 May 2009)

Acts 8.26-40
1 John 4.7-21

…faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This comes from 1 Corinthians 13, one of the best-known chapters of the New Testament. It’s been called ‘the love chapter’ and is often heard at weddings—and since Princess Di’s funeral, sometimes there too. Do you remember it? You know it—it’s the one that goes

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

Remember it now? Let’s hear that verse again, 1 Corinthians 13.13:

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

Faith, hope and love. The Ethiopian Eunuch in today’s first reading knew something about faith, hope and love. Let’s try to see how.

Faith. It was the eunuch’s faith that drove him to make the journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. No planes, trains, no automobiles. As a high official of his Queen, he would have enjoyed some measure of comfort; but still, it was a hard journey.

The eunuch was probably a ‘god-fearer’, a non-Jew attracted to the Jewish religion. He had put his faith in the God of the Jews; he believed enough to come all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship.

He believed enough to search the scriptures, and seek out their meaning. As we meet him, he is reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah; reading of a mysterious figure who kept silence even when he was oppressed and afflicted; and who was unjustly put to death.

The eunuch identifies with this figure—while he occupies a high position, he knows what it is to be despised and ridiculed.

The eunuch’s faith leads him to ask questions of the biblical text. Sometimes, people think it’s wrong to ask questions of what the bible says—but here we see that the eunuch’s faith brings the questions to mind, so that he can dig deeper.

How great is our faith? We who come to church in comfort, and can open the Bible anytime we like—do we open it at all?

Hope. The eunuch had hope. Hope in a God who would allow him to be a part of God’s people, instead of being apart from the people of God.

This passage kindled his hope. As a eunuch, he was—well, different. This man looked after his Queen’s treasury. This required a close relationship with the Queen. In a highly-charged macho male culture, the only way he can be trusted is by not being a sexual threat. But this meant that he was always on the outside, never being fully included.

Here, in the scriptures, he found the story of another man who was humiliated and ridiculed, and treated unjustly. Who was he?

Philip explained that the passage referred to Jesus, who underwent shame and disgrace for us. The eunuch felt connected to this Jesus. He knew Jesus would understand.

You see, the eunuch was isolated by his sexual status. He’d gone to Jerusalem to worship, but as a eunuch he wasn’t allowed into the Temple. Don’t blame the Temple authorities—they were just doing what the Bible said. According to the Book of Deuteronomy (23.1),

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

It may be that the eunuch had felt there was no hope for him to be fully admitted into the life of God’s people—that is, until he read of this mysterious humiliated yet exalted figure, and found from Philip that it was Jesus of Nazareth. He wanted to be included, he hoped against hope to be included.
So seeing a body of water, he asks Philip this question:

What is to prevent me from being baptised?

You’re telling me that being a eunuch doesn’t matter—that Jesus identifies with me? So am I not excluded here? Can I have a full share in the life of God’s people?

Philip could have said No, Deuteronomy 23 forbids it. But thank God, he said Yes, and the eunuch’s hopes were fulfilled. He was baptised, and became part of the new people that God was forming in the name and the image of Jesus Christ.

How strong is our hope? We who come to church expecting to be included, but exclude others who don’t fit our idea of what a Christian should be?

Love. Love is the final of these three great gifts of the Spirit, and the greatest.

I wonder if the eunuch could see his exclusion from being a part of the inner life of God’s people as a loving thing? I certainly couldn’t. I picture him like a child with his face pressed up against a shop window, forever hoping that he would one day be allowed to enter.

But in Jesus’ identification with the humble, the humiliated, the excluded, the eunuch was included.

I wonder if the eunuch saw love in the scripture that kept him out of the Temple? There was another scripture, quite close to the one he was reading from Isaiah 53. I reckon that while sharing the scripture with him, Philip told him about it. Just three chapters later, it says in Isaiah 56,

…do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
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.

‘In my house and within my wall.’ The eunuch could hope to find love within the house of God. On Mother’s Day, we should remember the eunuch could never be a father—but a loving God would give him a name ‘better than sons and daughters’.

And he does have a name—he is perhaps the first African believer. And in this congregation, with a number of us taking in African air in their first breath, and standing first on African soil, we should remember him with love.

The love he found is the love that inspired the First Letter of John:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…

In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us…

God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us…

And, most simply yet most profoundly: God is love.

How deep is our love? We who come to church to see our friends, but don’t care about those we hardly know?

Today, we baptised C. We did that in faith, hope and love. We could say all sorts about this faith, hope and love. But let’s baptise what we say:

We baptised her into the faith of Jesus Christ, who loved her and gave himself for her; who suffered the deepest humiliation to win her heart.

We baptised her in hope, that she might come to know Jesus for herself; that she might become a woman of heart and soul, giving herself for others as her Lord gave himself for her.

We baptised her in the love that comes first from Jesus Christ, whose Spirit bathes her in continual love; whose Spirit has made her part of this community, which is called to be a sign that this love is real.

Faith, hope, love. Whether you’re an Ethiopian eunuch, a small baby, a mother, a believer, a doubter, a debtor, a sinner, a saint—faith, hope and love are what you need and crave.

Let us rejoice that the God who is the source of all three has given us this new life of faith, hope and love in Jesus Christ! Amen.

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2 Comments

Filed under RCL, sermon

2 responses to “Faith, hope and love—for a eunuch

  1. Thanks Paul. Travelling today so it was good when we reached our destination to take some time to connect with home and community.

    Blessings from India to the Walton household.

    Grace and Peace (and faith and hope and love)

    Gary and Lynn

  2. Good to hear from you, and catching up through your blog.

    When you return, I’ll take you around our church. Very cheap, you will enjoy…

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