An evangelist, a eunuch and the unbounded love of God.
Homily, April 29, 2018
Colleen D. Hartung
I know most of us do not read the bulletin – at least not all the way to the end – but if you did you would know that every week, on the back page there is a list of ministers for the next week’s liturgy. Skimming that list last Sunday, I knew that it would be foolishness to ignore today’s first reading from the Book of Acts and – at least in this instance – I am not a foolish woman. And so today, I tie my reflection on today’s readings to the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch.
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” That is the question the Ethiopian asks Phillip the evangelist in today’s first reading from the Book of Acts. And it is a fair question given the string of identifying information we are given about the Ethiopian that Phillip encounters in the wilderness – a place where the spirit can take hold and change the course of a person’s life, the destiny of a nation or, as in today’s reading, the foundation of religious belonging.
“Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the candace, or queen of the Ethiopians. (He was) in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah” (Acts 8:27-28). At first blush, without any consideration of historical context, it is possible to read past the dissonance created by the label “Ethiopian Eunuch”. The person Phillip encounters in the wilderness is a high court official riding a chariot, a vehicle akin to a BMW in our time. He is close to a queen and in charge of vast sums of money, characteristics that would appear to put him in a position of privilege. But then as now, privilege, in terms of wealth and fame, is not always what it seems (think Colin Kaepernick or Stormy Daniels). In today’s parlance, privilege is intersectional, complicated and always qualified in relation to the domination of patriarchal norms. The designation of this human being as an Ethiopian and as a eunuch tells us a lot about his life experience in general and his experience as a spiritual seeker, in Judea, in particular.
Geographically, Ethiopia is a long way from Judea, south of Egypt, beyond the borders of the Roman Empire and the confines of the Mediterranean region, that would be familiar to the first readers and hearers of this story. And it is a place mentioned in Hebrew Scriptures that, then and now, conjures images of the tales of Solomon and the exotic Queen of Sheba. Furthermore, being from Ethiopia, indicates that the Eunuch is most likely a black African. The color of his skin would have made him easily identifiable in his travels in and around Judea as an exotic, foreigner, making him vulnerable to being treated as different and other.
As well, his identification as a eunuch is also significant. The Greek term “eunouchos”, translated literally, means “the keepers of the bed” (http://biblehub.com/greek/2135.htm). Eunuchs served and guarded women of great status in royal palaces and wealthy households across the Roman Empire and, according to today’s story, in Ethiopia. It was important to the kings and masters of these households, that their male servants could be trusted not to pollute the line of succession. Often the men were chosen to attend the women of the royal household because they were either not interested in women or incapable of fathering children. And most masters preferred both to be true which often lead to the sterilization of the young boys and men who would become trusted servants to queens and wealthy women (https://www.americamagazine.org/content/good-word/acts-apostles-online-commentary-25). So it is safe to assume, as the culture around him would have, that the sexual orientation and gender identity of the Ethiopian Eunuch in today’s story was considered to be ambiguous.
Today’s story tells us that the Ethiopian eunuch, formed in some mysterious way by Jewish traditions, has traveled a long way in order to worship in Jerusalem. However, generally accepted interpretations of Jewish law at the time prohibited the conversion of anyone who was incapable of fathering children, either physically or by reason of what we today would call sexual orientation. At the temple in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian Eunuch would have been informed that he could not even enter the outer court of the temple (https://www.americamagazine.org/content/good-word/acts-apostles-online-commentary-25). The eunuch in the first century CE was persona non-grata, an unwelcome person, both socially and religiously.
So it is not insignificant that the Eunuch is reading the passage from Isaiah about the suffering servant. The Ethiopian Eunuch is a servant. He might not understand the words of Isaiah in the way that Phillip understands based on an early Christian’s experience of Jesus. But the Ethiopian Eunuch understands the life of a servant. He understands humiliation. And he understands justice denied. Based on all of this, the Ethiopian Eunuch would have listened critically to Phillip’s explanation of the suffering servant passage from the Book of Isaiah. And he would have been attentive to the possibility of empty promises and hypocritical teachings. We can imagine that Phillip’s story about the good news of Jesus eventually made its way to something like the proclamation in today’s reading from the First Letter of John. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:7,20-21). And upon hearing this kind of promise, the Ethiopian Eunuch puts Phillip to the test. “As 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?’ (And) he commanded the chariot to stop…” (Acts 8:36-38). Will Phillip love him as a brother? Phillip follows the Ethiopian Eunuch into the water and he baptizes the faithful seeker who was three times an outsider, a foreigner, a racial minority and a person whose gender and sexual orientation were considered ambiguous.
Here, in the foundational movements and moments of Christianity, is the Ethiopian Eunuch with a challenging question and Phillip, the evangelist, with a gracious act of welcome. And together they become an expression of love that is inclusive beyond the normative boundaries of belonging characteristic of their times. They enact an unbounded love that welcomes the outcast who has been rejected not because of lack of faith but because of prejudice, fear, economic greed, a lust for power, and so on, that is ultimately a failure to love. The Ethiopian Eunuch’s question exists as the very foundation of Christianity. And heard from a perspective that highlights the experience and the agency of the Ethiopian Eunuch, it functions something like a pruning tool or knife, using the metaphor of the vine and the branches from today’s Gospel. We might say that whatever does not have its source in the vine that is the unbounded, inclusive love of God in Jesus withers and that “such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:6).
In fact, the Ethiopian Eunuch’s question, that is a challenge and a pruning tool, is not so remote and distant from us even though we are separated from it by much time and space. Rather, it is a question that echoes and repeats itself day in and day out in the headlines of newspapers and cable TV shows and across our social media feeds and in the voices of our disaffected neighbors. What prevents me, your Hispanic waitress, from being a citizen of the United States, one country, under God? What prevents me, the talented young woman, who is the head of ministry to children and families at the Catholic Church down the road from being ordained a priest? What prevents me, a phenomenally talented business woman from being the head of a fortune 500 company? What prevents me, a young man in a loving relationship with another man from buying my wedding cake where ever I want? What prevents me, a young black man, from using the bathroom at Starbucks just like the old white woman in line in front of me? These are questions that put us to the test. Reminding us of the unfulfilled potential of Christianity that is the unbounded, inclusive love of God made manifest in the wilderness by an evangelist and a eunuch; the vine that is the very source of Christian becoming and belonging.