Text: Acts 8 :26-40
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Apr. 29, 2018
One of my favorite stories is about Adolf von Harnock, a famous German church history professor who lived in the nineteenth century. One day he decided to visit an elderly aunt. He arrived just as she was leaving to go to a Bible Study. “What book of the Bible are you studying?” he asked. “The Book of Revelations,” was her reply. “Really, he exclaimed, “I’m impressed, the Revelation of St. John is a very difficult book. Do you understand what it means?” “Not always, Adolf,” she responded, “but what we don’t understand we explain to each other.”
In our first reading this morning Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch reading the book of Isaiah. He asks the same question. “Do you understand what you are reading?” But the eunuch gives the opposite answer. “How can I unless someone explains it to me.”
I have always liked this story. It is one of those famous “On the road” stories in the Bible. The Good Samaritan on the road to Jericho, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Paul on the road to Damascus, Jesus on the road to Jerusalem. Now here we find Philip on the road to Gaza. Sometimes I think these stories should be put together in a book entitled: “On the Road with Charles Karalt.”
I especially like this story as it is told in the Cotton Patch version. How many of you remember when this version came out? I first read this account in the early 1970’s shortly after it was published. It was written by Clarence Jordon, a Southern Baptist preacher who lived in Georgia. He wrote a paraphrase of the New Testament during the height of the civil rights movement. He tried to apply the scriptures to the situation in which he found himself. Here is what he wrote. See if you find that it still speaks to you fifty years later.
Now a messenger of the Lord said to Phil: “Get ready and go south along the road that goes from Atlanta to LaGrange.” So, Phil got ready and went. At the same time, there was a high-up official in Tuskegee, the Secretary of the Treasury in fact, who had gone to a convention in Atlanta. He was going home and sitting on the bus and reading from Isaiah.
So, the spirit said to Phil, “Flag that bus!” So, he flagged it and got on and saw the man reading the Bible. Phil asked him, “Does what you are reading make any sense?” The man replied; “How can I make heads or tails of it whI.en there is no one to explain it to me?” Then he asked Phil to sit beside him. The passage he was reading was this: “He was led off to slaughter like a sheep as a lamb which makes no sound when it is clipped. So, he uttered no word of protest. In his humiliation, justice was denied him. As for his children who will remember them? His earthly linage is no more.
The treasurer said to Phil: “Let me ask you a question. To whom is the prophet referring here, to himself or to someone else?” Then Phil began with this passage and explained Jesus to him. Along the way they came to a stream, and the treasurer said, Look, there is a stream, why can’t I be baptized now?” So, they asked the bus driver to stop, and they got off and went down to the stream where Phil baptized him. When they came up out of the stream the spirit of the Lord grabbed Phil, and the treasurer never saw him again. But he got back on the bus and headed off toward Tuskegee singing happily. However, Phil was in Anniston and as he traveled he was spreading the good word through all the towns as far as Huntsville.
In a commentary on Acts, Jordon made a great deal of the fact that the first gentile Christian was a black man. That certainly made sense when he was writing in the 1960’s and living in Georgia. It was a word that spoke directly to the church’s situation in segregated America. It was explosive. As such, his paraphrase very much paralleled d the situation that happened in the early church when the gentile, Cornelius, the Roman Centurion became a Christian. It caused a firestorm.
Remember how Peter at first resisted. He was in prayer when he had a vision. He saw several unclean animals which the Jewish law, given by Moses, had forbidden Jews to eat because they were declared “unclean.” But in his vision, Peter was commanded to kill them and eat. When he objected saying they were unclean, God rebuked him saying “How dare you call unclean, what I have made clean.” It was enough for Peter. When he preached to Cornelius’s household, he saw that the Holy Spirit came upon them as on the Day of Pentecost, so he baptized them.
That blew the Jerusalem church away. How dare he do that. Everyone knew that to become a Christian you first had to become a Jew. Paul faced the same critique because he accepted gentles into the community of faith on an equal basis as the Gentiles. The controversy raged for years.
So, in Luke’s day, it was not because Philip had baptized a black man what would have caused controversy, it was because he had baptized a gentile. But if there was any controversy at all, Luke does not bother to mention it.
Commentators speculate the reason is that Philip wasn’t an Apostle, he was just a deacon and didn’t know what he was doing. If you haven’t noticed, deacons and lay people can get away with things that priests and bishops cannot. Peter was an apostle. His actions could not be ignored. Remember when some retired bishops illegally ordained 11 women in Philadelphia in the 1970’s or when Bishop Spong ordained the first partnered gay man before our Constitution and Canons permitted such an action. I can understand why Peter’s action created a firestorm.
Still, I am surprised that Philip’s action caused no backlash. Not because the Ethiopian was black, unlike 19th and 20th century America, the Jews were not cursed with a history of racial prejudice. Not because he was a gentile. The story of Peter and Cornelius was far more important on which to focus that issue. Rather, I am surprised there was no firestorm because this Ethiopian was a eunuch. Eunuchs in New Testament times belonged to the most despised group of humans right next to those who had leprosy. Often, they were slaves who had been brutalized as a form of punishment. Even those fortunate enough to rise to positions of power and responsibility (like this Ethiopian) could not escape the stigma of their condition.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, who lived during the time of Jesus, wrote: “They are monstrosities who must be completely shunned on account of their unnatural effeminacy and lack the ability to procreate.” Here was a classic case of blaming the victim, mush like women who are raped in our day are often depicted as provoking the attack.
Philo, the Jewish philosopher held much the same view. He declared that “eunuchs are men who belie their sex and affected with feminization. They debase the currency of nature and violate it by assuming the passions and the outward form of licentious women.”
The Old Testament was just as explicit as well. “Eunuchs were seen as blemished and ritually impure. They were disqualified from service as priests. They were not even allowed to enter the outer court of the temple to worship God. As such they were place at the bottom of the heap, beneath disqualified priest, temple slaves and bastards. These persons were at least permitted to hear the public reading of the scriptures.
Is it any wonder that this eunuch was attracted to the words of Isaiah: ‘He was a like a sheep led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. As for his children, who will remember them. His earthly linage shall be no more.”
It was as if the prophet was speaking directly to his situation. Philip makes the key identification. Isaiah was speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, recently brutalized and humiliated by death on a Roman cross. But that is not the end of the matter. This “disgraced one” was raised from the dead and exalted by God. It is no wonder that this eunuch wanted to identify with Jesus in baptism and went on his way rejoicing.
“Do you understand what you read?” “How can I unless someone explains it to me,” the eunuch replied., Philip did, and the man found new status, he found new life. The question for us this morning is do we understand what we read. It comes as a challenge, a challenge for us as a church is to be an open inclusive community where others will find liberation and become part of the household of faith. May we truly mean it when as we often put on our church road sign, “Everyone is welcome, there are no exceptions!”