Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Acts 8:26-40 Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now 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.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When 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. But 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.
There once was a man named Frank. As far as I can tell, if he wasn’t a founding member of my UCC church in Tennessee, he joined the church sometime between the late 1950’s and the late ‘60’s. He was racist. I don’t make this claim lightly. His racism was well known. Once, when a black family visited the church, which was and is predominantly white, he became so incensed that he stomped out of worship, went downstairs and cut off the lights during the middle of the service, and went home. He was so racist that turned the side of the building in which he ran his business into a giant billboard from which he could broadcast racist message after racist message, usually directing his rage at Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Highlander Center, a social justice training center where Dr. King and Rosa Parks had trained that was about 30 miles from the church.
A man named John became the pastor of that congregation in the early 1980’s, a few decades after the worst of Frank’s public behavior. John was deeply shaped by anti-racism work and the Civil Rights Movement. Where Frank felt as though his faith supported his contention that Black people deserved to be second class citizens, John's faith taught him that Black people were beloved by God. I’m not sure how John managed to be Frank’s pastor. But, somehow, he did. One day, after church, Frank said, “Oh, the wildflowers must be beautiful right now.” And John said, “Well, Frank, let’s go look at them tomorrow.” Surprisingly, Frank agreed.
Something powerful bloomed as they walked along the path looking at flowers in the wilderness. Starting that day, very slowly, things began to change. Frank seemed to be having a change of heart once he had someone whom he respected and couldn’t push around who was willing to be in relationship with him and call out his racism. I’m not sure how Frank was ever going to make amends for all the hatefulness he put out in the world, but he seemed to try. He ended up developing a program called Servant of All, one that is a bit like our Deacons Love Fund combined with a list of fix-it people who could be called to help around the house. Servant of All was meant to help all people, congregants and outsiders, who came to the church looking for help. And, I think that church has been trying to make amends, too, after being a place that didn’t seem to challenge this powerful man’s hatefulness for decades. John’s dedication to challenging Frank through Christian love was part of this amend-making. While Frank was long dead by the time I joined that church, John was still alive and an active member in his retirement. Whenever John talked about his relationship with Frank, he would always say, with deference to the Holy Spirit that was surely at work there, that Frank was his only conversion.
I believe a core part of Christian faith is being willing to challenge biases that our communities tell us are God-given that are really just human-made. Today’s reading from Acts is a story about the Holy Spirit directing a disciple to go against biases he was taught. In so doing, a beloved person was able to be welcomed to Jesus’ wide table. Philip was the disciple. He was a leader among the Greek-speaking Jews who followed Jesus. He felt a particular calling to leave Jerusalem to preach the Gospel. It is interesting that he went to preach in Samaria when he left Jerusalem. As some of you may know, one would be hard-pressed to find many groups of people more reviled than the Samaritans in Scripture. Samaria would seem like the last place Philip would go. But, as I noted before, the Holy Spirit will often lead us to questioning what once seemed unquestionable. So Philip headed to Samaria and John and Peter followed him. Eventually, the Holy Spirit took Philip to the Ethiopian.
For as strange as it would have been for Philip to be told that he was supposed to spend time with Samaritans, spending time with a Gentile eunuch would have been almost as difficult. Eunuchs were marginalized people in his culture. Though this eunuch appears to love the Jewish God, so much that he traveled to Jerusalem for Passover, eunuchs were expressly prevented from being a part of the covenantal community in Deut. 23.1. He would have never been allowed to convert to the religion that he appeared to find so meaningful because he was unable to fit into the social and religious roles that all men were expected to fill. According to scholars I have read, eunuchs, because of changes made to their body, usually without their consent, existed in an in-between gender role, not women and not men. This in-betweenness meant that they were not considered whole and therefore could not be considered to be part of God's holy people. The fact that most people who were made eunuchs were enslaved and their bodies changed against their will did not seem to matter. They were still excluded. So, even though this eunuch had high status in some ways (he was wealthy and had a trusted position in a foreign court), he would always be an outsider in the faith to which he aspired.
Thank God that Philip took the Ethiopian's faith seriously, treating him as a whole person asking honest questions about God. And, Thank God that the unnamed Ethiopian, likely accustomed to rejection due to his status outside expected gender norms, accepted Philip's offer to teach him. Despite everything that stood between them, the Holy Spirit pushed Philip to put aside what he had learned about who could be a part of God’s kindom and allowed him to see a person excited to know more about God who was sitting right in front of him. Because Philip listened to the Holy Spirit, the Ethiopian learned not only the Good News of Jesus Christ, but also encountered a disciple who was a living embodiment of the power of the Holy Spirit to overturn all of the prejudices that we have learned that keep us from fully knowing God's love and fully loving our neighbors as Christ demanded.
Now, I realize that Frank and John's story and Philip and the Ethiopian's story are not exact parallels. The first is a story of one Christian who was working to dismantle the racism he had been taught then going on to push a Christian who fully embraced racism to change his ways. The second is the story of a Christian who, in overcoming his own biases, was able to welcome someone whom many considered to be an outsider into the Body of Christ. However, I do think that both of these stories show us something about how following Jesus means risking going against all that you have been taught in order to make the Body of Christ more just and loving and reshape the world into God kindom of Love and Justice.
Who here has watched the news over the last few weeks and thought: We can’t keep living like this. Something has got to change. Maybe you’ve even thought: “Oh, this is horrible and, yet, nothing is going to change.” I hope these two stories can show you what can happen when an inspired Christian is clear about what the loving and just action is and just does it, not because they know they will succeed, but because they know it’s right to try. I’m not sure that John really thought he could get through to Frank, but he knew that it was right to try. He couldn’t let his racism go unchallenged. And, Philip... who knows if Philip could have once seen himself preaching in Samaria to someone who was excluded from his religious community, despite his great faith. And, yet, the Holy Spirit led him there. So, he spoke and he shared his faith. And, the Ethiopian’s life was changed by that generosity.
There is a persistence that is a part of Christian faith in both of these stories. And, now is a time for a persistent, insistent faith. Because some people are counting on us being so disillusioned that we don’t fight for what we know is right... a world where people can grocery shop and worship and go to school without the threat of gun violence... a world where medically vulnerable people aren’t ignored in public health responses... a world where gender-non-conforming people aren’t treated like more of a danger to children than weapons of war... a world where a few wealthy people can’t buy the attention of politicians, leaving regular people without the support they need to survive. Scripture shows us again and again what the kindom of God looks like. And, it looks like the Ethiopian seeing some water and asking what is stopping him from being baptized in that very moment and Philip realizing that nothing should. So, what is stopping us from doing what is right? Nothing should. The Holy Spirit is leading us right now. May we make the choice to follow.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Coleman Baker- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2445
Mitzi J. Smith https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1235
Richard Jensen https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=307
Also, our pastoral intern Sarah and I worked on this list of worship and policy resources in the wake of another mass shooting, as well as resources for talking to kids about traumatic events: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1oPI8kcYfPOCjc2jQviCTWZ0OLmJicdUp1aBkyt3pdik/edit?usp=sharing
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.