Let’s talk about Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. (Our Lector who read the Acts reading about this story had us all close our eyes while he read it so we could imagine the story as it unfolded.)
Phillip first: This isn’t the apostle Phillip. This is a Greek man, a deacon (like our Joyce) appointed by the apostles to help spread the word about Jesus. This man, this Phillip was on fire with the good news and was eager to share it. So when the angel of the Lord came to him and told him to take a lonely desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza he did so. This was an alternate route, like taking the Blue Slough Road to Aberdeen instead of the highway. Phillip didn’t argue with the angel, he just got up and went.
Now, here comes the Ethiopian eunuch. There may be some confusion about him: exactly what is a eunuch? Well, this person had a dreadful operation when he was just a boy so that when he grew up he couldn’t be a real man. He would never be able to have children. He would live a strange life, kind of in limbo.
Eunuchs could hold important positions though - because they were not considered to be a threat they often held were guards of royal women. Our Ethiopian eunuch had attained a very high position in his culture: he was in charge of the queen’s treasury.
So here was this powerful black man, dressed in fabulous, richly colored robes and riding in an elegant chariot. He was a learned man, able to read Greek and curious about spirituality. He had traveled almost 1600 miles from Ethiopia to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. Imagine though, after traveling all this distance, he would not have been allowed to enter the temple to worship as it was expressly forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1. Look it up!
Outside of the temple, he bought a scroll with the writings of the great prophet Isaiah and now we find him bumping down a dusty road, struggling to understand what he was reading.
You know how sometimes you open the bible and read something that is exactly what you need? Try to put yourself inside that eunuch’s mind as he read this passage from Isaiah:
“He was led like a sheep
on its way to be killed.
He was silent as a lamb
whose wool is being cut off,
and he did not say a word.
He was treated like a nobody
and did not receive a fair trial.
How can he have children,
if his life is snatched away?”
“How can he have children if his life is snatched away?” Poor eunuch!
He looks up from the scroll with tears in his eyes, and sees Phillip running alongside his chariot. Phillip offers to help him understand and climbs up beside him. Starting with this very text, he introduces the eunuch to Jesus Christ. He explains how the lamb is like Jesus who was led to the cross. He tells the whole story of Jesus. Phillip is filled with passion and joy! Don’t you wish you could have been in that chariot to hear him!
The eunuch really hears what Phillip is saying. He really understands the message. He understands the good news Jesus brings: God Loves Everyone. God even loves him. Nothing excludes him from God’s love. So when he sees some water the eunuch asks “What is to keep me from getting baptized?”
Oh, Philip could have said, “Well, you are a Gentile, you are a black person, you are a eunuch, you are just SO different from me I’m not sure I want you to be a part of my group.”
Instead Phillip shouts: “NOTHING separates you from God’s love!” They get out of the chariot and the eunuch is baptized. He receives the mark of God’s love. I guess Phillip was doing the right thing because the Holy Spirit just plucked him right out of that place and dropped him into another town!
Meanwhile, the eunuch is filled with joy and continues on his way, rejoicing in the spirit of the Lord! Tradition has it that this very eunuch goes on to establish the Christian church in Ethiopia.
You know, this is one of those stories I’ve heard many times and it has never really meant much to me. This week, this story came alive for me and I have felt overwhelmed by its beauty. Two people meet on a desert road, two people from completely different backgrounds and together they come to understand that God really does love everyone. I think that Phillip is probably just as changed by this experience as the eunuch. He has a new, deeper understanding of God’s love after this encounter with the stranger.
This story is from the book of Acts and it is a very early text, written just decades after Christ’s death. Very, very early in the church this story is told to make it clear to the new followers of Christ just how radical, just how inclusive they are meant to be. Everyone, Everyone. God loves the outsider, the stranger, the black man, the eunuch. Everyone. Everyone. God loves everyone.