The Great Equalizer (Part 2 in “The Great Ends of the Church: The Proclamation of the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind”)
July 14, 2019
Acts 8:26-40, Isaiah 53:6-9,11b-12
“ ... and Philip baptized him.” –Acts 8:38b
“If anyone knows of any impediment to this marriage, speak now or forever hold your peace.” Oh, excuse me — wrong service . . .
“If anyone knows of any impediment to this baptism, speak now or forever hold your peace.”
Who would ask such a question? And yet, it is probably this very question that the Ethiopian eunuch was challenging when he said, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptised?”
You see, the Ethiopian eunuch was either a Jewish proselyte, or a God-fearer. (God-Fearers or God-Worshipers were “neither Jews nor converts but an in-between category. They [were] pagan adherents to Judaism who attend[ed] the synagogue because they [were] attracted to Jewish monotheism and morality, family and community values.”) 
We know this because, by virtue of his a-sexuality, he was excluded from the Jewish worshiping community. Deuteronomy was rather strict about that and other things. I’ll eliminate the explicit description of sexual descrimination, but here are some of the other rather strict rules of membership we find in Deuteronomy 23:
(23:2) Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.
(3) No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD, (4) because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt . . . (6) You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live.
So it seems that this man, a powerful and influential black figure in Biblical times, wanted so much to pray to the Jewish God, that he made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem . . . only to sit outside the Temple – even outside the Court of the Women, where even a ritually unclean priest could enter.
And now he is reading Isaiah, about the Suffering Servant, and Philip comes along and is asked to interpret for him. Philip the Evangelist, is happy for this opportunity to do what preachers love to do . . . expound on scripture! And it’s unlikely that they spent the entire time on the few verses from Isaiah that we heard this morning. It’s quite likely that they continued a few chapters more, because we’re told, “and starting with
this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus”. And so they probably encountered these words in Isaiah 56 :
Do not let the foreigner [e.g., an Ethiopian] 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 56:3-8)
So this Ethiopian God-fearer, who has been bludgeoned by the words of Deuteronomy his entire life, now reads in the scroll of Isaiah . . . perhaps something he picked up in the Temple Bookstore just days before . . . that God’s ultimate intention is to include him in God’s very house.
And here is Philip, who is part of the milieu of 1st century Christian leaders. He and his colleagues were being prodded by the Spirit, as they with bewilderment began to accept uncircumcised Gentiles into their fellowship. We know of this Spirit-led reversal of mindset through some of the best-known writings of Paul. For instance:
In Romans 10:11-12, we read: The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.
And in I Cor 12:12-13, we find even a reference to baptism: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free . . .
And now perhaps the best known passage, Galatians chapter 3: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
So, here, together, the Seeker and the Evangelist confront one of those pesky contradictions in scripture . . . it says one thing in one place, and another in another . . . and that’s just the Old Testament. The text they’re examining doesn’t include these powerful words from Paul! And so, just as you and I seek answers when scripture appears to contradict itself, Philip does his best to interpret . . . probably wishing he’d never listened to the angel, sending him on what must have seemed to him a pointless journey. (“Get up and go on this road through the middle of nowhere.”) 
And then God’s grace offered the answer. Just as the ram appeared – to allow Abraham to spare Isaac; just as manna appeared in the wilderness – to allow the Israelites not to perish; just as the lamb’s blood on the doorpost – spared the firstborn from the Angel of Death . . . . God brings the chariot with Philip and the eunuch next to a stream of water, as if to answer the question, “is this man to be forever excluded from the faithful ?” . . .
Here is water.
Now, you’ve got the gist of the story . . . the context, the crisis of culture and the turning point. But there are some folk whose words convey better than others the color and smell and atmosphere of a story. One of those is Fred Craddock, and I’d like to read for you portions of his retelling of this story, beginning with the day of Pentecost. 
… when [Peter] stood up in Jerusalem that first day, the day of Pentecost, and preached,
it looked sweet and good, big crowd.
Luke says that they were from every nation under heaven –
Partheans, Medes, Elamites, and dwellers of Mesopotamia.
From everywhere they came.
Peter was carried away in his oratory,
and when he was finished that sermon,
he said that this promise is not only to you,
but to your children’s children and to ALL that are afar off – Gentiles –
as many as God shall call. Great day!
And then he had a vision
to go to the house of a Gentile and preach and he said no.
It’s one thing to preach, it’s another thing to do.
Maybe that’s the way it was with them.
I know he must have been divided in his own heart.
Paul says he was, at the fellowship dinner in Antioch.
He started eating with Gentiles, but some others came in,
and he, with Barnabas and some other Jewish Christians, formed a separate table.
A painful thing for that church, and for Paul,
and I’m sure for Simon Peter himself.
Because you see it’s one thing to say “I know that we should include these people.”
It’s another thing to believe in your heart that we should include these people.
That’s the longest trip you ever make in your life:
is between the head “I know”
to your heart “I know.”
And in-between . . . there was no small dissension and much debate.
Who’s fault is it? Luke says the fault is God’s.
That God sent the Holy Spirit, to push and shove the church,
beyond ethnic borders, national borders, social borders, economic borders.
That repentance and forgiveness be preached to all nations,
and the Holy Spirit pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed.
But every once in a while,
Luke turns the camera around,
and instead of giving us this painful pushing scene,
of the Holy Spirit moving the church beyond its own prejudice,
once in a while, Luke turns the camera around,
and lets it focus on one of the outsiders whose future is at stake,
one of these people whose fate is being debated by the church,
“Should we let them in or should we not let them in?”
And the strangest of all the stories Luke tells is that of the Ethiopian Eunuch,
in his chariot from Jerusalem to Gaza, to whom Philip spoke.
He’s an Ethiopian.
And he’s a Eunuch.
A Eunuch was a man who by accident or by surgery, was rendered sexless.
Usually such persons found gainful employment,
and sometimes powerful and wealthy employment,
in palaces, especially in the service of queens.
For being sexless,
they were not derailed by their own private interests,
harmless around the harem,
never having to be late because they were driving the car pool that morning,
no wife, no children, no anything to distract, devoted single-minded loyalty.
They were very useful on such occasions.
Plutarch says it was very common.
I think it was Josephus who said that one nasty thing about Herod
was that he had three Eunuchs in his palace – even though the Jewish scripture was very clear.
“The Eunuch shall not be permitted in the assembly of the people of God.”
“The Eunuch shall not be permitted in the assembly of the people of God.”
Then what in the world does it mean when it says he had been up to Jerusalem to worship?
What kind of man is this?
Who would walk around the outside, stand at the edge,
look over the fence, ask people what’s going on,
how was the service, how was the sermon,
what did the priest do, were there many people there,
peeking through knot holes, getting stuff second hand,
looking over fences, walking the edge of the crowd? WORSHIP?
I ask you seriously,
why will any human being continue to knock at a locked door,
and stand there with bloody knuckles and refuse to go home?
Why? The door is locked.
Shall I read it again?
You are not welcome.
Why doesn’t he just make it easier on himself?
Is he one of these people who entertains the notion
that if you rise to a certain level of power,
a certain level of wealth,
then the rules don’t apply to you anymore?
He is a wealthy man, he has his own bible it says in the text, he must have been wealthy.
He’s in a chariot.
He’s in the service of the candace, the queen of Ethiopia, he’s the treasurer of the country!
Maybe the rule doesn’t apply to me anymore, you see.
I don’t know,
I certainly wish he would make it easier on himself,
he’s simply increasing the pain.
Lingering at the edge of the people of God,
with that verse staring at him day and night, why does he do it?
Even if somebody, even if a careless usher,
even if somebody who didn’t know what it was all about
admitted him, then he wouldn’t fit in.
The moment he got inside it would be obvious to everybody,
you don’t fit in.
You just don’t fit in,
I mean even if we let you in, you don’t fit in. 
Why does this Ethiopian Eunuch keep doing it?
Well you know what he’s doing?
You do it yourself. I do it myself.
He’s flipping the pages of the Bible to find his own name.
Everybody in the world wants that.
I want to find my name. I want to find a verse that says “FOR ME!”
And I’ll write in the margin: that’s who I am.
Just a little promise, just a phrase,
He’s looking for his name. We all do that.
And so he’s reading in Isaiah and he finds it!
At least he thinks he finds it. It’s almost too good to be true.
There it says it, Isaiah:
“No longer let the foreigner say, ‘Surely the Lord will separate me from his people.’
No longer let the Eunuch say: ‘I am but a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord, ‘The days are coming, when the Eunuch who hears my voice
and obeys my law and keeps my covenant, I will give him a place in my house
and I will give him a name.
And it shall be to him as generation and generation and generation of children,
better than sons and daughters it shall be to the Eunuch.”
And Philip said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
And he said, “No, I don’t have anybody to help me, but I found some good stuff here.
Now is the prophet talking about himself,
or is the prophet talking about somebody else?”
And Philip said, “Let me tell you who that is. That’s Jesus.”
“You mean, he was cut off without any children?
He didn’t have any other generation – grandchildren, people to keep his name?”
“No. He was cut off from the land of the living.”
“Do you mean to say that, maybe this other verse up here – now I know that I’m just an Ethiopian,
and I don’t know how you feel about Ethiopians – but it says here:
“No longer let the foreigner say, ‘Surely the Lord will say get out.’
Now I know I’m a Eunuch, and I know what it says in Deuteronomy,
but it says in Isaiah,
“No longer let the Eunuch say I’m just a dry tree – listen –
I will bless you and you will be remembered
and it will be better than children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, forever.
Philip, do you suppose it’s possible – I know I’m just an Ethiopian –
I know I’m a Eunuch – but do you think it’s possible?
Could I be a member of the church?”
And Philip said “Yeah. I can think of a hundred people that are going to be upset,
I don’t know how this is going to go over back home, but – yes.
In fact, I feel a little awkward myself, because I’ve never been in this situation,
and I’m not handling it well, but yes.
In fact, I’m surprised to hear myself say this, but yes.
Because, the fact of the matter is, who am I to say no, when it is clear,
that God has already said yes.”
AND PHILIP BAPTIZED HIM.
That is the end of Craddock’s story, but it’s not the end of the story.
Arlo Duba writes, “I believe that the early church understood before long that by baptism one enters “a royal priesthood,” the priesthood of all believers. Priesthood had traditionally been reserved for red-blooded males, and only for a privileged few of them. But baptism was understood as an equalizer. The eunuch was baptized into the priesthood of all believers.
In Leviticus, chapter 21, speaking now of holiness in the priesthood, not simply acceptance into the assembly, we read, “For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. . . .shall come near to offer the LORD’s offerings . . .he shall not come near the curtain or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries. . .”
Duba continues, “And the Ethiopian eunuch did indeed exercise his priesthood. He lived out his baptism as each of us should. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has a tradition that “the eunuch” of this account proclaimed the love and acceptance by Christ to the Candace court, and was significant in the founding of the Christian church in that country.” 
On the day of his baptism, the Ethiopian eunuch may have just experienced rejection as he worshiped in Jerusalem.  So part of the question he’s asking here is, “Am I acceptable? Am I included among those for whom Jesus is good news? Can I be part of this community?”
As we consider his question, who do we prevent from being baptized? Or from taking communion? Where do we draw the lines as to who is a viable candidate for membership? Or leadership? Depending on the congregation, do you have to be college educated, of a certain race or ethnic group, gay or straight, married or single, young or old, employed or a street person? To whom do we Proclaim the Gospel for the Salvation of Humankind?
Where does the Holy Spirit draw the line? In this story, clearly not around race or sexuality.
What does that say to us – we who in baptism are to leave behind all divisions; we who are brothers and sisters, children of the one Living God?
© 2019 R. Lostetter
This sermon was first delivered on May 10, 2009, at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. (See also another sermon on the Ethiopian Eunuch from May 13, 2012.)
- John Dominic Crossan, Eclipsing Empire ~ Participant Reader, p. 16.
- Arlo D. Duba, “How my mind was changed,” Presbyterian Outlook, Sunday, 28 December 2008 20:34.John Dominic Crossan, Eclipsing Empire ~ Participant Reader, p. 16.
- “May I Also Be Included,” a sermon preached by Fred Craddock, November 14, 1985.
4. Craddock, omitted ending of sermon:
I am borrowing the phrase "don't fit in" from my first student church. It was up in east Tennessee, and it was about 20 miles from Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge had gotten into place, the atomic energy thing was booming, and folk were coming and constucting that little town into a city. Folk were coming from everywhere, hard hat types, in tents and trailers and little temporary carts, and all kinds of lean-to's, and they just covered those beautiful little hills with temporary quarters, wash hanging out on the fences, and little kids crying through the muddy places where all these things were parked, and my little church, aristocratic little church, white frame building, beautiful little church was nearby. Aw, it was a nice church and wonderful people, and I called the board together and said, "we need to reach out to those folk that are here, they've just come in from everywhere, and they're fairly close, and here's our mission." And the chairman of the board said, "No, I don't think so." And I said "why?" And he said, "They won't fit in. After all, they're just here temporarily, living in those trailers and all." "Well, they're here temporarily, but they need the Gospel. They need a church, now why don't . . . " "Naw, I don't think so." It lasted kind of long. We called the next meeting for the next Sunday night. The upshot of it all was a resolution. The resolution was offered by one of the relatives of the chairman of the board, and the resolution basically was this: "Members will be admitted to this church from families that own property in the county." It was unanimous, except for my vote, and I was reminded I couldn't vote. They won't fit in, they won't fit in. Since I've been back at Candler, I wanted to take Nettie, my wife, up to see the scene of my early failures. We had a hard time finding the church because of interstate 40 through there and all that now, but I finally found the road, the county road, back nestled in the pines, it's still there, shining white, just beautiful. Just like it was except now, there are just cars and trucks parked everywhere, just everywhere, cars and trucks, and a big sign out front: BARBECUE - ALL YOU CAN EAT! CHICKEN - RIBS - PORK I said, "Well, we might as well go in for lunch." We went inside, they still had those beautiful oil lamps hanging on the wall, still had that old pump organ. The pews that had been cut from a single poplar tree, around the walls with people waiting to get seated at a table, a lot of those hollow aluminum legged tables with plastic on them, and the place is just full of all kinds of people - listen - there are Partheans, medes and Elamites, and dwellers of Mesopotamia there. And I said to my Nettie, "It certainly is good this is not a church now - these folk would not be welcome." They won't fit in?
5. Walaskay, p. 86, as quoted by Duba.