Faith in Jesus of Nazareth does draw us to a new way of life, a shared life that disrupts old patterns of living and breaks open cultural, familial, and tribal alliances and allegiances. This requires a new negotiation within ourselves and with our peoples regarding the shape our lives will take as Christian disciples. — Willie James Jennings, Acts: A Theological Commentary
The story of the Book of Acts 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, which was unknown to Luke, wrote the Book of Acts.
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 good clothes. Luke might even 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. It was a bit of a milk run! 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 huge rifles standing around in the loo, talking and joking. It was unnerving. I’d never been that close to a proper gun before.
Calcutta was like a furnace (remember I was in a school uniform made for the cold north of England). There were people there in rags looking at us from outside a tall wire fence. And everywhere we went, people looked very strange and spoke altogether differently.
It was a relief to my eleven year old self to arrive in Australia, where they spoke English. (Of a kind.) Australia seemed to me how I thought the USA might be, except — like Britain — 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 outlandish stuff like bacon sandwiches or prawns. Yet the Spirit was sending them out there.
When Philip is out in the bush, one of the people he meets is a eunuch. We know this man as the Ethiopian Eunuch. He was the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia, an educated man (less than 10% of people could read). He held a high position and was trusted to travel all the way to Jerusalem and back in the queen’s service.
The Ethiopians believed that the Queen of Sheba returned home from Solomon’s court carrying his child. They believed that from this child came the royal line of Ethiopia. So as far as they were concerned, there was a very strong link to Israel.
The eunuch had business in Israel; yet though he was the queen’s treasurer, he was still a eunuch. Probably, he was born a slave and castrated as a boy. Or he may be labelled ‘intersex’ today, having ambiguous genitals, neither fully male nor female. If so, he’d be the ‘I’ in LGBTIQ.
Eunuchs were treated with some disdain by men who could father children. In addition, they were rumoured to indulge in sexual improprieties, despite their physical condition.
As we meet him on his return home, the Eunuch 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 (cf Isaiah 53.7–8):
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.
The eunuch identifies with this figure. Despite his high position, he knows what it is to keep his mouth shut, to be humiliated. He know what it is to be excluded, to be on the outside looking in. He knows what it is to have no possibility of any daughters or sons or grandchildren to remember him.
He wondered just who was this other man who was humiliated, ridiculed, and treated unjustly? Was he a eunuch too?
Philip explains that Christians see Jesus in this passage. It has shown them that Jesus underwent shame and disgrace for a purpose. The eunuch feels connected to this Jesus. He feels that Jesus would understand.
But not everyone in Israel understood.
I said the eunuch had ‘business’ in Israel. Perhaps he had come to worship in the Temple, though only in the very outer court where Gentiles could go. He couldn’t go too far into the Temple because he was a eunuch. The Temple authorities 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, along with a similar verse in Leviticus (21.20), was effectively a ‘Do not enter’ sign for people with ambiguous or damaged sexual parts.
There was no room for the eunuch on the inside of the Temple. He was still on the outside looking in. Still unable to open his mouth. Still humiliated.
Yet did you know that Scripture doesn’t speak with one voice here? There is a debate within Scripture about the place of eunuchs in the community of faith. Just listen to Isaiah 56.3b–5:
… 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.
(‘Cut off.’ Isaiah would have written ‘cut off’ very deliberately here.)
These 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 within Scripture.
How do we make our mind up which to follow? Isaiah or Deuteronomy?
We are not left alone to decide here between Deuteronomy and Isaiah. It’s not (for example) that progressives follow Isaiah, while conservatives go with Deuteronomy.
We decide by looking at the story of Jesus, including his life and teaching, his death and resurrection, and the direction that the life of the early Christian church took as the Holy Spirit led.
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.
The Ethiopian Eunuch had faith in Jesus, and that was enough. Whatever Leviticus and Deuteronomy say. And — I would say — even if Isaiah had said nothing about eunuchs. The Spirit is Lord of the Scriptures. The Spirit was moving here; our role is to follow.
The Spirit of the risen crucified One was bringing healing to this man — not to change his status, not to somehow make him able to have children, but to become whole in his spirit through Jesus Christ.
So: there were competing views in Scripture on the place of eunuchs in the community of faith. Let’s fast forward to today. Today, the issue is other gender minorities — how does a Christian community respond to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex or questioning?
I have preached on this passage in congregations far more heteronormative than West End. There, I witnessed to the fact that I knew committed and Christlike people in the LGBTIQ community. That was news to some people in those places.
Here, we have a varied fellowship. We have a pride flag as a banner. We celebrate diversity. We are an Open and Affirming Congregation. Let’s not pat ourselves on the back though: I’m sure there’s always room for improvement in providing a safe place for people. And: we’re only trying to do what we believe this congregation should do.
The sad fact is, we are one of less than a handful of such Uniting Church congregations in Brisbane. Some of us drive past several other UCA churches to come here. I’m very glad we have this accepting and safe place, but I do wish more congregations were safe places.
Recall that in the Book of Acts, Luke shows the church spreading the Gospel from Jerusalem, through Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
When it comes to sexuality, there are people who want to stay in ‘Jerusalem’. Perhaps they feel it’s an idealised picture of the 1950s: a heteronormative paradise. (It wasn’t, really; things were well hidden though.)
That’s not our time and place on this earth in 2021.
The Spirit desires to lead 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.
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?
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. God continually works to bring people into the light and life and love of Jesus Christ.
The eunuch said to Philip, ‘Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?’
And the answer? There was nothing to prevent him. Nothing. Nothing at all. The community of faith is open to him.
West End Uniting Church, 2 May 2021