The Good News in Intersections
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" 37 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
Previously, on the last episode of Following Jesus in the First Century…
Jesus Christ, recently risen from the grave, appears to the disciples and shares a bold vision in which he tells them “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The disciples try to live up to this vision, but are basically stumbling through. Still, the good news of God is spreading and the church is growing, and so they lift up more leaders.
Stephen was one of those and he went about his call of helping, healing, and preaching passionately in Jerusalem which got him killed. Phillip was another of these and he continued to teach and heal beyond Jerusalem and into Samaria. Now, at the edge of what Philip knew of the earth, God is still on the move. The angel of the Lord says “get up and go.” Get up and go….not necessarily to any particular place, but just start walking in the general direction of nowhere and see what happens.
“oh, sure” says Phillip. "Heading out into the middle of nowhere in the middle of the day, a time when you can expect any road to be deserted because most people have retreated inside and away from the heat…sounds like a great evangelism strategy and an excellent use of time." This plan is sure to make a fool of Phillip….if he were actually the one in charge. Nevertheless, Phillip listens to this voice calling him into the unknown. Nevertheless, he got up and went.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, who held an important office for a foreign Queen and who was a faithful worshiper of God. Several things about this eunuch are worth noting. In this ancient world, paper was ridiculously expensive and literacy was not common, so most Jews wouldn’t have had a scroll of the prophets around for their personal use. That tells us that this is a person of financial means and the office they hold is one of political power. That kind of power could be a substantial threat in the court, especially if that person was also male.
The imperial system had a way of dealing with that. They would employ eunuchs in roles that were vulnerable to grasps for power. A eunuch is someone whose genitalia does not match the societal expectations or is altered in some way, either because they born that way or they were subjected to violence by the empire. Deuteronomy outlines how eunuchs are excluded from the temple and thus a full life within their faith community. But then in Isaiah, the prophet proclaims that God will bless eunuchs and foreigners and even give them the house of God.
Now, this particular eunuch is from Ethiopia. This tells us a bit about where the eunuch is from (essentially the ends of the earth), but could also refer to the eunuch’s race. This is a person of color. So there is a lot going on here. One particular scholar reflected that, “in relation to standard categories of race, class, and gender (the Ethiopian eunuch) uncovers a fascinating, multifaceted character who defies easy classification.”
We have Phillip – the food distributor turned healer and wandering preacher, and the Ethiopian eunuch – a well-read person of complexity and intersectionality. Two people who are distinctly “other.” The Holy Spirit brings these two together.
Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
The exchange goes both ways, with each one inviting the other into deeper conversation. There’s a posture of openness. Phillip is willing to ask a question that doesn’t have a pre-formed answer, one that could open a can of worms. The eunuch is willing to be vulnerable and honest by naming what they don’t really understand. Can you imagine what might be possible, if before asserting their certainty or their opinion, people were willing to say, “Actually, I don’t know much about that.” If people were willing to ask for help in understanding?
In their questions and their discussion, we are reminded that this wondrous library we call the Bible doesn’t just function as a straightforward encyclopedia, but invites us into an elaborate mystery. As we read and engage scripture, we can not do so faithfully without being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit puts the prophets and the gospel alongside each other and opens our eyes to the possibilities, to the promise they point to, to a God of expansive love.
The Spirit puts two very different people, not one over the other, but alongside each other. Not one, but both are changed for the sake God’s widening grace. Both are edified and the church becomes more aligned with the Good News of the risen Christ with its radical inclusion. Philip opens up the scriptures and the eunuch opens up their significance for life. Philip points to Jesus Christ in the text and the eunuch points to Jesus Christ in the water.
In verse 36, the eunuch says “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Depending on what translation you’re reading, there is no verse 37. The original scrolls say nothing of the eunuch first saying a particular prayer or making any certain confession. Phillip does not enroll the eunuch in a 6-weeks preparatory class. Those things have value, but they are not what ultimately saves us. Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized? The Ethiopian has lived life at an arm’s length due to a litany of things that society has said prevent them from being fully apart.
I wonder, how many people silently carry the suspicion that they are outside of God’s love for a variety of reasons? Philip doesn’t stop to first quantify and categorize those reasons. The Holy Spirit is on the move in them and they come alongside each other to share the story of Christ so that they see each other as more fully a part of it.
What is to prevent me from being baptized? What is to prevent God from claiming me as God’s own beloved and redeemed child? The Eunuch speaks with the voice of the Spirit rather than the “good order” of the world. If we looked around to our human systems, we could come up with a few reasons. With God, there are no qualifiers, no contingencies. In the kingdom of God, nothing is to prevent anyone from the fullness of God’s love for them.
The gospel is for people who have been excluded. It is for those who have been excluded:
- in society, but also and especially by the church
- for foreigners who are valued for the exoticism, but ultimately seen as lesser than
- for people who have been excluded because of their bodies
- for people who don’t fit cleanly in a single category
- it is for you who are trans people of color
- it is for you
Historically, we (the church) have not said this clearly enough. Last year in this country, the Human Rights Campaign counted the killing of 22 trans people, trans children of God. This year, there are already 9 trans women who have died as a result of fatal violence, with 5 of them being women of color. For this, we lament and we repent. But what if we also listened to the Holy Spirit calling us alongside each other to understand for the sake of the Gospel? This past week I got a phone call from one of my pastor colleagues in town inviting us to listen. This upcoming Saturday at 1PM, Resurrection MCC is hosting an event called “Lift Every Voice.” It’s an event that will focus on lifting the voices of the Black Trans community and will include a panel discussion, along with music and spoken word. Perhaps the angel of the Lord is whispering in your ear “go over to this chariot and join it.”
Perhaps the idea of such honest, open, and transformative conversation sounds impossible, or at least unlikely, or exhausting, or intimidating. Perhaps the prospect of seeing yourself as fully a part of a beloved community, cherished by God goes against 1000 other voices that you’re hearing. But before Philip ever started down that wilderness road and before the eunuch got in that chariot, the Spirit of God was already there, already at work.
This is not a road you walk alone. This is not a road that belongs to one political party, or a singular worldview. This is a road that brings together a world of “others.” This Gospel road is paved with the promise and presence of God for all people. And all along the way we encounter that mysterious and true voice that interrupts our well-ordered lives for something more. The resurrection brings to life that which didn’t dare dream. God is continually redeeming us each day as we find ourselves alongside an unexpected neighbor who helps us to see Gods persistent love for us. God is at work in rich conversation and discovery that remove the scales of obstacles from our eyes until we too can wonder aloud, what is to prevent me from being baptized? What could possibly keep me from the love of our creator? Silence.
That silence holds more than our hearts could speak. But the silence doesn’t last forever. As we receive God’s abundant blessing, we go on our way rejoicing. We are set free. Joy abounds. This is the new dawn and the new day of Easter. This is the day that the Lord is still making, let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen.