Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings from Scripture (NIV) Acts 8:26-40

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This person had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on their way home was sitting in their chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the person reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

31 “How can I,” they said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So they invited Philip to come up and sit.

32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”

34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told them the good news about Jesus.  36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” [37] (Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”) 38 And they gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized them. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on their way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.


What can stand in the way…the eunuch asks…
I think sometimes, the things that stand in the way, is us.

When I’ve read this scripture before, I, and my ignorance, have stood in my own way.  I graduated “only” 16 years ago and issues of gender and ethnicity or race were not a part of my seminary education.  At the forefront of theology at the time were issues of God’s deferential treatment of the poor, the idea of a suffering God who weeps alongside us, and ecological justice (care for the earth)…but as we’ve witnessed especially over the last few years, in addition to all of that, has arisen the need for more work to be done towards how gender and race are regarded by God.   And when I’ve read this scripture before, from the 8th chapter of Acts, I didn’t spend near enough time on who this Ethiopian eunuch is, and their interaction with Philip, the evangelist[1]

The Ethiopian eunuch is reading scripture in their chariot when Philip finds them…Philip is told by God to stand nearby.  In a recent sermon, Dottie Oleson[2] said that

“One of the central defining pieces of power for this Roman society is masculinity… Eunuchs were considered gender liminal figures.[3]  (That is someone that doesn’t fit the “traditional” binaries of male and female – sometimes eunuchs were missing some or all of their genitals) and by virtue of being a eunuch, the eunuch lacks a symbol of masculinity.  Being a eunuch was to be avoided at all costs because this person’s genitals did not meet the standards of bodily wholeness, especially masculine bodily wholeness.  [Add to that Greco-roman writers would often use words like defective or inferior when describing Ethiopians…and blackness being synonymous with evil in their writings.[4]But what’s fascinating about this story in Acts is that (neither the author nor Philip rebukes) the Ethiopian eunuch.  Instead – Luke identifies the eunuch again and again…by their gender and ethnicity reinforcing how important both being Ethiopian and eunuch are to the identity.” 

They were an outsider… they told they were in the way…that they didn’t fit in…that God didn’t love them… for who they were.  While they had a royal court position that would have elevated some, they’re excluded here because of the label put upon them: “Ethiopian” or “eunuch.”  It’s hard to think of how we’ve regressed that when you look at our current world struggling to understand not only gays and lesbians, but as well transgender people – that it’s often “people of faith” who have stood in the way of someone becoming who God has created them to be.[5]  And I’ll be the first to play the age or the outoftouchness or the ignorance card for myself – but both in this scripture from Acts 8, and the scriptures that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading, in both situations is the sad reality is that we understood it all nearly three thousand years ago…we had it all figured out!

Reading from Isaiah chapter 53, the Ethiopian eunuch learns of the story of the suffering servant, that many, including Philip, saw as a parallel to the story of Jesus.  But if Philip hadn’t creeped outside the chariot and interrupted the reading…if the eunuch had kept reading over to chapter 56 (and one hopes they did anyways):

Thus says the Lord:  Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil. 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.  And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer
    for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.
Isaiah 56:1-8

While we might think gender and ethnicity are modern constructs or understandings, 800 years before Jesus, God said, the outcasts, the foreigners and the eunuchs …everyone belongs – that in the house of the Lord there is love and there is legacy for all.  There’s room for all.  All are welcome.  God cannot hold back that love.   

Why then do we struggle to love?  Well no matter how we try – we’re not God.    

Our experience, our place of origin, our understanding of our faith, our biases all inform how we interact with one another, and with God.  If our home life was full of fear – we’ll operate out of that fear until we’re able to recognize and break that cycle.  If we grew up loved – hopefully we’d carry that same love to each and every relationship that fills our lives knowing there’s some out there who manage to make it oh so difficult to love them.  And I could give you my list of ones I struggle not to exclude or shame (because it’s not a model of my love.)  And I struggle with all those) still worshipping in person and I struggle with all those governing especially in Ontario – but we’ve all got that list.  We’ve all stood in the way of God’s love.  We’ve all acted as a wall, rather than a window.  We’ve prevented (maybe unknowingly) someone from knowing the welcome, acceptance, and unconditional compassion of the God who gathers together everyone.    I’m sure even Philip in the moment of being asked, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized” rolled through the rolodex of answers of all the things that maybe he shouldn’t have said…but thankfully the best response was

Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water…

I thank God for Philip – and for the Philips that have waded into those deep waters of controversy and struggle over the history of humanity in order to share this topsy turvy love.   It’s not easy.  Arguably with this pandemic, it’s more difficult than ever.  For there’s plenty within us, and beyond us that might stand in our way…the brokenness of the world is overwhelming.  But

Do not be dismayed by the brokenness of the world.
All things break.  And all things can be mended.
Not with time, as they say, but with intention.
So go. Love intentionally, extravagantly, unconditionally.
The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you. 
L.R. Knost

[1] Not to be confused with Philip the Apostle.





One Comment

  1. Wonderful worship to-day.
    The pictures of our church property were wonderful to see again!!!
    The music was good!!
    I loved your bird house in the back ground!!
    And the blossoming tree!!!!

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