Sermon on Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Posted on June 8, 2009

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Sermon on Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

BY Nadia Bolz-Weber

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A sermon for Easter 4b

Text: Acts 8

26Then 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.) 27So 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now 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.

33In his humiliation justice was denied him.

Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When 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. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

As many of you know, last week Seth and I attended the Rocky Mountain Synod assembly – the legislative body for this region of the Lutheran church. For more than 10 years my denomination has been talking about human sexuality. Much like the early church who were convinced that gentiles could only become Christians if they changed into being Jews first (which, for the record, involved a rather unpleasant process), much like our first century brothers and sisters there is a segment of the church today who thinks that if we extend the roof of the tent to include “the gays” then the whole thing will come crashing down around us. We must “evangelize” them – ie. change them into us before they will fit. Or else the roof can’t hold. Meanwhile the other side of the church is all about “inclusion”. We must extend the tent to include the marginalized, the less fortunate the minorities.

But then we have this story of Phillip and The Ethiopian Eunuch. A text which I have always heard as being about evangelism. “The conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch” it was called. I was always told that the message of this text was that we should tell everyone we meet about Jesus because in doing so we might save them. We might convert them. We might change them into being us.

But today I’m not so sure. Because if the Eunuch was reading Isaiah as he returned from Jerusalem having gone there to worship – see if he was reading Isaiah then I would bet he was also familiar with Dueteronomy, specifically 23:1 “No one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” Anyone have that one as a memory verse growing up?

This law strictly forbids a Eunuch from entering the assembly of the Lord. Their transgression of gender binaries and the inability to fit in proper categories made them profane by nature. They do not fit in the tent. But the Eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship despite the fact that in all likelihood he would be turned away by the religious establishment. The Eunuch sought God anyway.

See, when the Spirit guided Phillip to that road in the desert I like to think she guided him to his own conversion. As he approached the chariot he may have been thinking OK…I’ll just beat him with the scripture stick until he becomes what I am comfortable with. But when Phillip joined this person who sought to worship God despite his exclusion form the tent, maybe it was Phillip himself who was converted to the faith. It was perhaps even a mutual conversion. Maybe because they simply asked each other questions in the desert. The only imperatives came from the Holy Spirit. Phillip and the Eunuch only asked each other questions. The only commands came from God and the command was go and join. Go and join the other. What we don’t know is if the Spirit also gave the Eunuch a command to invite. Invite this nice Jewish boy – representative of all that clings to the law and rejects you from God’s house. Invite him to sit by you. Go…join…invite…ask questions. Perhaps Phillip in his encounter with this gender transgressive foreigner learned what seeking the Lord looks like.

A couple weeks ago Stuart showed up to liturgy wearing slacks and button down shirt rather than his Grease Monkey jacket and jeans. Earlier that day He had stood as Godfather and baptismal sponsor for the child of his friends’ ; a straight couple who have known Stuart for a number of years. Apparently after the baptism there was a little reception back at this couple’s house. To Stuart’s surprise his friends got all of their guests attention so they could say a few words about why they had chosen Stuart as their child’s godparent. “We chose you Stuart” they said “because for most of your life you have pursued Christ and Christ’s church even though as a Gay Man all you’ve heard from the church is that ‘there is no love for you here’”. I heard that story as his friends saying to him “you, Stuart convert us again and again to this faith”

All many of you have heard is that the tent is simply not big enough unless you change to fit in it. Change your sexuality, your personality your doubting. Change your addictive patterns, your story, your brokenness. And if you can’t, then just pretend. Yet here you are. Converting me once again to this faith.

Because how can I know what it means to follow Christ unless I learn it from someone who has done so despite every obstacle possible? That’s why I am so in awe of those in our community who have heard again and again “there is no love for you here unless you let us change you into who we feel comfortable with you being”. Not just the queers either. Also those who have the wrong personality or the wrong socio economic status or the wrong gender or the wrong immigration status or the wrong politics to fit under the tent.

I think maybe that we can’t actually know what this Jesus following thing is about unless we too have the stranger show us. This is far more than “inclusion”. Inclusion isn’t the right word at all because it sounds like in our niceness and virtue we are allowing “them” to join us – like we are judging another group of people to be worthy to be a part of this thing. “inclusion” seems like a small thing. A charity. A mercy. But the truth is that We need the equivalent of our Ethiopian Eunuch to show us the faith. We continually need the stranger, the foreigner, the “other” to show us water in the desert. We need to hear “Here is water in the desert, so what is to keep me the eunuch from being baptized” or me the queer or me the intersexed, or me the illiterate or me the neurotic or me the over-educated or me the founder of Focus on the Family. Until we face the difficulty of that question and come up as Phillip did with no answer…until then we just look at the seemingly limited space under the tent and either think it’s our job to change people so they fit or its our job to extend the roof so that they fit. Either way, it’s misguided because …it’s not our tent. It’s God’s tent. The wideness of the tent of the Lord should concern us only insofaras it points to the gracious nature of a loving God who became flesh and entered into our humanity. The wideness of the tent should only concern us insofaras it points to the great mercy and love of a God who welcomes us all as friends.

The bigness of God’s tent is why we have an open communion table. When we come to the table we all come as Christ’s guests to his feast. And as much as we’d like to be – we are not the makers of the guest list. We come to the table with those who accept us and those who reject us. We come to the table with those we love and those we distrust. We come whether or not we feel worthy. Because It is God who has made us worthy in the invitation. It is God who has torn the curtain of the temple so that there is no longer Jew nor Greek, Slave nor free, Male nor Female gay nor straight. Liberal nor conservative.

So maybe here in this story of the conversion of Phillip and the Eunuch is some hope for the church. That under God’s really big tent we might ask questions, invite those who represent the establishment to come and sit by us, to stay in the scriptures, to be converted anew by the strange and the stranger, to see where there is water in the desert, to enter fully into the waters of God’s mercy with the foreigners, with the “not us”. And to go on our way rejoicing having converted each other to this beautiful, dangerous expansive life of faith.

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Nadia Bolz-WeberNadia Bolz-Weber is a very lucky gal; she gets to be the pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado – a very queer emerging church.  She is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (Seabury 2008) and of the Sarcastic Lutheran blog.  Nobody really believes she’s an ordained pastor in the ELCA.  Maybe it’s the sleeve tattoos or the fact that she swears like a truck driver.  Either way…she’s fine with it.  Nadia lives in Denver with her family of 4 where she can be found writing bios in the third person and chasing chickens around the back yard with her kids.

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