Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Where It Starts

Rev. Kathy Donley

 4/29/18

 

Scripture Lesson:  Acts 8:26-40

The beginning of the sermon is always the hardest part for me to write.  Sometimes I start with a question, sometimes with an amusing story, sometimes I start in the middle and then backtrack.  This week it was particularly difficult to figure out where to start. 

We could start with the unnamed stranger.  He is from Ethiopia.  With his dark skin and distinctive features, he would stand out in as a foreigner in Jerusalem and Samaria.  He is a person of wealth, as evidenced by his chariot with room for two and his possession of a scroll.  The fact that he can read the scroll tells us that he is well-educated.  He is in charge of the royal treasury for Ethiopia and he enjoys all the power and privilege that entails.  He has the freedom to travel alone to and from Jerusalem, not on the queen’s business, but because he wants to worship in the Temple.

He is a eunuch which means that as a young slave boy, he was castrated and even partially dismembered so that he would present no danger to the queen he now serves. “In a culture in which the concept of family was central to one’s identity, the eunuch was truly one of the deprived. . .. He is literally maimed, butchered, deprived of sexual iden­tity and power, robbed of any connection he might ever have with a mate or children, an unwilling victim of lost manhood, virility, personhood.”[1]  He is disfigured and has no hope of ever reversing that situation.  He is a sexual outcast, a mutilated slave and yet also a person with status and power and wealth.  We could start there.

Or we could start with Philip.  Philip was one of those members of the Jerusalem church who practiced radical sharing.  Philip was not one of the  Twelve Apostles, but he was one of the Seven – the first deacons.  The first deacons were selected from among the church leaders for their reputations for having wisdom and the Holy Spirit.  Their job was to distribute food to the widows of the church.  The apostles wanted to delegate that task so that they could concentrate on prayer and preaching. 

As a deacon, Philip’s job was to wait on tables.  But then, before he could really perfect that role, the persecution started.  Soldiers were going house to house in Jerusalem and dragging Christians off to jail.  So, Philip fled.  He went to Samaria.  Samaria was the unique place whose inhabitants were not fully Jewish, but not fully Gentile either. 

Luke, the writer, tells us that before Jesus ascended to heaven, he said to the apostles, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Samaria is the middle ground between Judea and the ends of the earth.  It is where Philip has gone. Philip the deacon becomes Philip the evangelist.  He tells the story of Jesus to the Samaritans and they respond so readily, that the apostles Peter and John come from Jerusalem to offer their preaching as well. 

Or we could start with the Holy Spirit.   It was when the Holy Spirit blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost that the church really started to grow.  It was the Spirit that fanned into flame the embers of the tiny Jesus’ movement, so that thousands were being added to their number and they were pooling their resources and there was not a needy person among them.

It was when people recognized the presence of the Spirit within Philip that they nominated him to serve as a deacon.  It was the Holy Spirit (maybe in the form of an angel) who said to Philip on this particular day, “Get up and get yourself on the road to Gaza.”  Luke mentions that this was a wilderness road.  And I have to wonder if Philip might have questioned the angel’s strategy.  Because once he traded in his apron for a pulpit, he became quite the compelling preacher among the people of Samaria.  So, he might have wondered why the angel would send him out to such a deserted stretch of road. But the story says that when the angel said “Go,” he got up and went.  No questions, no back-talk.  And when the Spirit said, “Go, join that man in the chariot” he did that too. 

We could start with the Ethiopian eunuch.  We could start with Philip.  We could start with the Holy Spirit.  Or we could start with scripture.  We could start with the passage from Isaiah that the eunuch is reading.  The eunuch reads these words “In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”  He reads those words and then he wants to know “– is Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?”  He reads about a person who is humiliated and denied justice, a person whose life is taken away from the earth.   That might sound like a description of a eunuch.  It is a passage that resonates and so he wants to know more.  “Tell me, is this about the prophet Isaiah or someone else?”

This is a section of Isaiah that Christians understand to be about Jesus.  Wherever you begin, at this point, the story becomes a conversation between Philip and the eunuch about Scripture, and about what Philip knows about Jesus that has not yet been written down. From many possible starting points, it becomes a story about an encounter with Jesus shared by two people at a significant intersection in each of their lives.  Does it start with Philip, with the Holy Spirit, with the eunuch or with Scripture?  Who can say?  The story is the story because each of those elements came together in a particular way at a particular time. The story that is is a story of transformation, transformation for the eunuch and for the people of Ethiopia with whom he will share this story. 

Remember that Jesus said the gospel will spread from Judea to Samaria to the ends of the earth.  If any place could represent the “ends of the earth” in Luke’s day, it was Ethiopia.[2] Within this story, then, are the seeds of transformation of the whole world through the sharing of the story of Jesus.

When Philip got into the chariot, the eunuch would have been reading out loud, because that’s what they did in those days.  After listening for a bit, Philip asked “Do you understand what you are reading?” 

We don’t know how many scrolls the eunuch had access to or how much he had already read.  The story might have been very different if he had been reading from the scroll of Deuteronomy that day.  Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”

He is on his way home from Jerusalem where he went to worship God.  He has travelled hundreds of miles to worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem.  He was part of a category of people called God-fearers.  These were Gentiles attracted to Judaism because it was monotheistic and because it offered good moral and ethical teaching.  He has not taken the step of converting to Judaism, because conversion requires circumcision which is probably physically impossible for him.

We don’t know what his experience in Jerusalem was.  If the rules of Deuteronomy 23 still apply, he would not be allowed into the Temple at all. But there was a Court of Gentiles in the Temple which didn’t exist at the time that Deuteronomy was written, so perhaps he might have been admitted that far.  The Court of the Gentiles was the noisy place where the money changers and the temple vendors were.  It was further out than the court of women.  A place that was in, but not fully in.  A marginal place where he was begrudgingly allowed to attempt to worship God. 

And so, when Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

He responds, “How can I without someone to guide me?” 

“How can I when you won’t let me in your church?  How can I, when you are so afraid of me that you won’t even talk to me?  Do I really understand what I’m reading? No!  I’m out here in the wilderness trying to make sense all by myself.” [3]

The eunuch needs a guide, not an expert, not an authority, but a guide.  He needs someone who has had access to what has been denied to him.  He needs someone willing to be open to his particular questions, someone who will let him resonate with the words of Scripture that resonate for him and wrestle with the ones that definitely don’t.  If he does know about Deuteronomy’s word of exclusion, then he might need someone to point out Isaiah’s word of inclusion.  In his chariot, he was reading from Isaiah 53.  He might need a guide to roll the scroll forward to Isaiah 56 where it says “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and 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.”

There needs to be a guide who can inform the eunuch that the word of exclusion is balanced with one of inclusion and that both of these are held in tension within the Bible.

The eunuch wants a guide.   When Philip becomes his guide, his life is transformed.    There are all kinds of people around us longing for transformation and what they need is a guide.

Maybe they are seekers, people actively looking for encounter with God.  Maybe they have status and privilege and education in certain arenas and it is hard to admit their ignorance about spirituality.  Maybe they are foreigners, immigrants, who need welcome and hospitality.  Maybe they have already heard a message of exclusion, a contemporary version of Deuteronomy 23:1.  Maybe they have been allowed into a church community, but only partway, with grudging tolerance instead of active embrace. 

People like the eunuch are all around us.  We who are disciples of Jesus are called to bear witness in Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth, even to Albany.  Where does it start?  How do we begin? 

We might start with the Holy Spirit, putting ourselves at the Spirit’s disposal, joining her in her work, being led to places we did not plan to go, even to the Gaza road.  We might start with Scripture, with texts that make our hearts sing and those that are deeply distressing.  We might start with our own story, our own experience.  We might start with the eunuch, getting to know individual people who are marginalized or angry or hurt or doubting or scared. 

From many possible starting points, the story that God is writing, can become a conversation, an encounter with Jesus shared with someone else at a significant intersection in both our lives.  We are always in the midst of the story.  Other people are always in the midst of the story.  As we encounter each other, we can offer to serve as guides.  We might find that we will also receive guidance. That’s how transformation works.   

Where does it start?  Who can say?  But, by the power of the risen Christ, may it begin now in me and you. 

Amen.   

 



[1] Lawrence A. Reh, in his sermon “Turned Out, Turned Off, Turned Away,” May 1994

[2] Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles:  A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans Publishing, 1998), p. 293.

[3] Rev. Dr. Anna Carter Florence, in her sermon Do You Really Understand What You Are Reading?” http://www.30goodminutes.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/298-anna-carter-florence-program-4802

 

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