[E]thnicity, sexuality, ableism, gender, religion, and many other expressions of human difference must be considered in accounts of societal sin. — Janice McRandal, Christian Doctrine and the Grammar of Difference, Fortress, p.84. Kindle Ed’n.
The Book of Acts is very clear that its story is the beginning of the global spread of the Good News. Jesus tells the disciples:
you will be witnesses for me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
The Gospel news starts in Jerusalem, then spreads beyond into the surrounding country. From there, it goes all over the world. Even to Australia.
I came to Australia too. I came as an eleven year old schoolboy, dressed up in my school uniform complete with cap, blazer, and tie. They were my best clothes. You could say that I came to the ends of the earth…
We flew here, and our flight was long. It took about 36 hours from boarding in London to disembarking in Brisbane. We made eight stops along the way, and each step further away from England was a step towards differences that were quite disorienting. In Cairo airport, I went to the loo. There were soldiers with big rapid action machine guns standing around in the loo, talking. It was quite intimidating. And Calcutta was like a furnace (remember I was in a school uniform made for the north of England). There were people in rags looking at us from outside a tall wire fence. And everywhere we went, people looked and spoke differently.
It was a relief for my eleven year old self to arrive in Australia, where they spoke English. Of a kind. (Australia seemed to me how I thought America might be, except they drove on the left and still had pounds, shillings and pence.)
I reckon my experience of encountering difference is like the time the Gospel went out from Jerusalem, the home city of the Jewish people, the place where the Temple stood, right out to the bush and beyond. Things got a bit strange quite quickly. There were unfamiliar and odd customs. People didn’t bathe properly, they weren’t circumcised, they ate pork crackling and prawn cocktails.
When Philip is out there in the bush, one of the people he meets is a eunuch. Stranger things have happened, right?
Maybe, but not many.
We know this man as the Ethiopian Eunuch. He was the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia, a man of high position and a man trusted to travel all the way to Jerusalem and back for her.
The Ethiopians believed, and still believe, that the Queen of Sheba returned home from Solomon’s court carrying his child, and that from that child came the royal line of Ethiopia. So as far as they were concerned, there was a very strong link to Israel.
So the eunuch had business in Israel; yet though he was the queen’s treasurer, he was still a eunuch. Eunuchs were treated with some disdain by those who could father children. And they were suspected of sexual improprieties, despite their physical condition.
As we meet him on his return home, 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:
Like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered,
like a lamb that makes no sound
when its wool is cut off,
he did not say a word.
He was humiliated, and justice was denied him.
No one will be able to tell about his descendants,
because his life on earth has come to an end.
The eunuch identifies with this figure. He knows what it is to be despised and ridiculed. He knows what it is to have no descendants to remember him.
He wondered just who was this other man who was humiliated and ridiculed, and treated unjustly?
Philip has been sent to him by the Spirit of Jesus. He explains that Christians see Jesus in this passage. It has shown them that Jesus underwent shame and disgrace for us. The eunuch feels connected to this Jesus. He knows Jesus would understand.
But not everyone in Israel understood.
I said the eunuch had ‘business’ in Israel. We don’t know if it was just ‘official’ business, or if he had come to worship in the Temple, perhaps in the outer court where Gentiles could go. But he probably couldn’t go too far into the Temple, just because he was a eunuch. The Temple authorities stuck to the authority of the first five books of the Bible, Genesis to Deuteronomy. They would have enforced the decree 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.
This verse was effectively a ‘Do not enter’ sign for damaged people. The Temple priests would have taken it very seriously indeed.
Yet did you know that there is a debate within scripture itself about this? Just listen to Isaiah 56.3b–5:
A man who has been castrated should never think that because he cannot have children, he can never be part of God’s people. The LORD says to such a man, ‘If you honour me by observing the Sabbath and if you do what pleases me and faithfully keep my covenant, then your name will be remembered in my Temple and among my people longer than if you had sons and daughters. You will never be forgotten.’
The scriptures are wrestling with each other. Are eunuchs excluded from the people of God, or not? There is more than one opinion about this; Isaiah gives one answer, Deuteronomy another. This isn’t anything as two-dimensional as a contradiction; it’s a full-on debate.
We are not left alone to decide here between Deuteronomy and Isaiah. We Christians decide by looking at the story of Jesus, including his life and teaching, his death, resurrection and ascension, and the direction that the life of the early Christian church took under the direction of the Holy Spirit.
One thing is clear: the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, led Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch. Another thing is clear: nothing was keeping this eunuch from being baptised.
He had faith in Jesus, and that was enough. Whatever Deuteronomy says. And, I would say, even if Isaiah had said nothing about eunuchs. The Spirit was working here. The Spirit of the risen crucified One was bringing healing to this man—not to change him, not to make him able to have children somehow, but to be whole in his spirit through Jesus Christ.
I don’t know about you, but I didn’t see many eunuchs as I drove here today. But we’re all aware that there are other people whose sexuality leads them to be suspect in some people’s eyes.
I believe that I have been led to see Christ active in, for example, gay and lesbian people. I believe it is the Spirit who has led me to this place, just as the Spirit led Philip to the eunuch.
Let me mention a couple of things.
I have friends who are LGBTIQ Christians. They have encountered resistance from Christian brothers and sisters who could not believe they can possibly be Christian. What I have seen is that they have consistently responded to this opposition in loving and grace-filled ways. In Christlike ways. I clearly see the Spirit of Jesus in them.
Another thing: one of the accusations they have had thrown at them is that they have chosen a ‘homosexual lifestyle’. The thing is, sexuality is not a choice but a discovery about yourself. I am straight, but I didn’t choose to be straight. I just am.
As one LGBTIQ Christian said, Who would choose to be like this, with all the insults and name calling that go with it?
This is very hard for many people, and I am sure it’s hard for some of us. But the Spirit leads people from Jerusalem—where everything is safe, and where we know the rules and the way things are done—to the ends of the earth, where things are different, where we can easily make mistakes if we assume that Jerusalem’s rules fit everywhere.
This happened in other ways in the Book of Acts. It wasn’t not just about whether a eunuch could be baptised straight away.
In Acts 10 Peter meets the Gentile centurion Cornelius, and baptises him without his being circumcised. When Gentile believers pour into the church, the Apostle Paul succeeds against vigorous and determined opposition to have them exempt from the laws of circumcision, and from strict interpretations of Jewish food laws.
The Bible gives us a direction to follow. The Spirit calls people of all kinds into the faith of Jesus Christ, and the Spirit calls us to welcome them.
The question for us is, Can we be like Philip? Can we move with the Spirit? Can we see the Spirit in others, even those we may not expect to be Spirit-filled people?
The Spirit calls people from the ends of the earth into the freedom of the Gospel. God calls those who had previously been excluded. God calls them out of servitude and into service.
And throughout history, God has called Christians to fight against slavery; God now calls women into the full ministry of the church. God continually works to bring people into the light and life and love of Jesus Christ.
So in the end, who are we to judge? Dare we keep people out who the Spirit calls to come in?
The eunuch said to Philip, ‘Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?’
And the answer? There was nothing. Nothing at all.
Preached at Trinity Wellington Point Uniting Church, 29 April 2018 (Easter 5B)