In one of those moments of diary failure with which we are all familiar, I thought that this coming Sunday I was down to preach at the 10 a.m. service immediately before the Annual Parochial Meeting. Wrong. I’m preaching at Evensong: different readings. I’ve now written a new sermon but, having had some useful moments online and face-to-face talking to others scheduled to preach on the Ethiopian eunuch, I thought I may as well put up here the sermon I’m not preaching, not least because it focuses on a ‘shared conversation’! It’s written for a middle-of-the-road Anglican congregation with a few children present (mostly in the choir) so I wouldn’t major on the medical details…
Acts 8.26-40: The Ethiopian eunuch
Two of the buzz words of today are ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’. In the education world, any new policies need to be evaluated for both of them: are these policies promoting inclusivity and diversity? That’s to say, are our actions doing enough to make sure people of all sorts – women, gay people, those with small children or other caring responsibilities, disabled people, black and other ethnic minorities – to make sure they are all fully included? Today’s gospel challenges us to think about the radical inclusivity and diversity of the love of God as revealed in Jesus’s teaching, his death and his resurrection.
The story comes in a sequence of encounters in which the brand-new church finds that the message of Jesus is not only for the Jewish people who were his first followers. Before this story, Philip has been working with two other followers of Jesus, Peter and John, spreading the good news of Jesus in the villages in Samaria. If you remember the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman, you’ll recall that Jews and Samaritans were traditional enemies. That was the case from Old Testament times onwards: because the Jews regarded the Samaritans as basically ‘foreigners’. The Samaritans regarded themselves as the true Jews, and accepted the first five books of the Hebrew Bible – but not the rest. When the Samaritans offered to help rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, the Jews turned down the offer! So wow, after the work of Peter and John and Philip, now some of the Samaritans are part of this new Jesus movement: already there’s some serious inclusivity and diversity happening here!
Philip is then told to go to the road that leaves Jerusalem to the south, where he encounters the eunuch. Who is this man? Across human history, it has been common practice in societies around the globe to use surgical castration for some senior royal officials. Why? Because not being able to reproduce meant that there was no danger of them wanting to set up their own descendants in opposition to the royals they served. Without their own family to promote, they were thought to be more trustworthy, more loyal. I’ve seen it argued that ‘eunuch’ here is just a job title, like ‘Chamberlain’, rather than a description – which would mean that the Ethiopian holds one of these trusted positions, but has intact organs – but that seems really unlikely because he is also described as a ‘court official’, and if ‘eunuch’ already told us his job, we wouldn’t need that extra label. There’s another Ethiopian eunuch in the Bible. ‘Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, a eunuch in the king’s house’ features in the book of Jeremiah, where he is the person who helps this prophet to escape when he has been thrown down a well because nobody likes his prophecies.
In earlier translations, this eunuch we’ve heard about works for Queen Candace of Ethiopia: in more accurate translations like the one we’ve used today, he is ‘a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury’. Candace is definitely a title. There’s clearly a diversity moment happening here, because the eunuch is almost certainly black. The Greek word ‘Ethiopia’ actually means ‘with a burnt face’; the dark complexion is summarised in the name. The place he is from isn’t where we think of as Ethiopia, but is probably the kingdom of Kush, south of Egypt and once ruled by it, in what’s now Sudan. It was a very rich kingdom with a thousand-year history.
This man has just been to Jerusalem. We don’t know why: financial business for the Queen, or a personal trip? When we meet him on his return journey, he is reading the work of the prophet Isaiah. Did he buy this in Jerusalem? Is it new to him, or something he has been reading for a while? In the ancient world, people normally read out loud, so as Philip approached he’d know precisely what the Ethiopian eunuch was reading. It’s from the Hebrew Bible. So what was this man’s own faith? Later in history, there were Jewish settlers in what is now Ethiopia, but there’s no evidence for this during New Testament times. Martin Luther reckoned he was a Gentile, a non-Jew. John Wesley thought that he was someone who’d already converted to Judaism. Was he someone on the fringe of Judaism but not a convert yet? Or did he follow the religion of his region, which was similar to that of Egypt with a strong focus on the afterlife?
There’s an interesting exclusion point here: the Ethiopian wouldn’t be allowed in the Jerusalem Temple. Jewish holy law (Deuteronomy) strictly forbids a eunuch from entering the assembly of the Lord. So did the eunuch go to Jerusalem to worship, despite the fact that he’d be turned away by the religious establishment, or was he there for state business? Whatever the case, he is interested in Jewish sacred texts, because he is reading Isaiah.
Specifically, he is reading Isaiah 53, which many of you will know because so much of it features in Handel’s Messiah: ‘all we like sheep have gone astray’ and ‘he was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’. So here we have the eunuch, a powerful man who is physically impotent, reading the prophecies about Jesus, in whom God emptied out his power in order to become the suffering servant, the victim. But he hasn’t yet got to the best part of Isaiah for him, chapter 56: ‘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’.’ The foreigner… the eunuch… and this man is both. ‘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 …’ This section of Isaiah is very much prefiguring the expansion of the church from the original Jewish followers of Jesus, to the rest of the world. ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered’. Radical inclusivity. Foreigners – and eunuchs!
So what’s this story about? What’s it doing in the Bible? Like many people, I was brought up to see it as a story about evangelism, about how the good news is best shared person to person. Philip was the hero, and the eunuch was the person he was ‘converting’. But now I’m not so sure. This seems to be quite a journey they take together, discussing the Bible and what it means, talking about who Jesus was. It recalls to me the road to Emmaus, when Jesus himself came and walked with his disciples, explaining the Bible to them. Are Philip and the eunuch learning from each other here? And does Philip learn that the way of Jesus is even more inclusive than he’d thought?
Today is our annual parish meeting. Perhaps the story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a reminder to us to look for those who are not like us, in colour or class or sexuality. But perhaps it is also a reminder that those who are not ‘like us’ may already be far nearer to God than we are. ‘Inclusion’ suggests that ‘we’ who are already the powerful ones generously make sure that we allow others to join us. What we see in this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is the excluded foreigner who doesn’t fit into binary categories of male and female, whose sexuality is not going to lead to sons and daughters, inviting Philip to join him – ‘he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him’. While our focus at the annual parish meeting is on our buildings and what we do in them, perhaps the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminds us that we also need to be open to invitations to meet people on their territory. Maybe, we need to get out more!