The Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch

One of our lessons today at church was the story of the Ethiopian eunuch from the Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40:

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward 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.

I had heard this story once or twice before, but never really thought much about it until recently. This story is one that you really have to understand within its cultural and historical context to be able to understand just how amazing of a story it is.

In ancient times, certain men were chosen to live lives of obedience to a king or queen (as a guard, a food taster, treasurer, etc.). To ensure obedience, and to prevent the man from marrying anyone else and having a family of his own (and also to ensure the man didn’t “sleep around” with anyone from the king’s court), these men were often castrated. The term “eunuch” literally means “bedroom guard,” from the ancient Greek word eunoukhos, defined in the New Oxford American Dictionary as “a man who has been castrated, especially (in the past) one employed to guard the women’s living areas at an oriental court.”

So, eunuchs were castrated men. They were men without their genitals. They were men who had no testosterone flowing through their bodies. They were men who were deemed “ritually unclean” by the Jewish priests, and therefore excluded from temple worship. They were men whose lives were intended to be lived in servitude to another person. They could not have a family of their own, nor would any women want to be with them.

Today, we cannot relate directly with the story of what a eunuch must have gone through. It is no longer socially acceptable in our culture to castrate a man to ensure his obedience and servitude to another person. That is unthinkable. However, the struggle for acceptance that the eunuch must have gone through can be likened to the struggle of gays and lesbians, and those “sexual others” in our society whom people shun and distrust. The message from Acts couldn’t be clearer: Jesus calls us to accept and welcome everyone into the fold of God’s love.

So our castrated official has come to worship in Jerusalem, but he has undoubtedly been turned away; his racial and sexual identities have put him outside the worshipping community. In this light, do you feel the full pang of the question he asks as the chariot passes some water? “I have just been rejected and humiliated in Jerusalem, but you have told me of a man who, like me, has no ph ysical descendants, a scarred and wounded man who like me has been humiliated and rejected. Is there a place for me in [God’s] kingdom, even though I have an unchangeable condition that was condemned forever by the sacred Jewish scriptures?

Philip doesn’t speak. Nor does he leave for Jerusalem to consult with the apostles there, nor does he convene a five-year committee to study the subject. Instead, he simply acts. The audacity of his action is seldom appreciated, I fear. As the horses are reined in and the chariot comes to a stop in a cloud of dust, he leads the eunuch down from the chario and into thwater, and there he baptizes him. The sign of the kingdom of God that began in Jesus—a place at the table for outcasts and outsiders—continues in the era of the Acts of the Apostles. The poor are accepted, and the sick. Samaritans are accepted, and Gentiles, including Africans, and here, even the “sexually other,” those considered “defective” who will never have a place in traditional religion or in the traditional culture based on the “traditional family.” The old “other-excluding” sanctions—against the uncircumcised, against the “defective”—even though they were claimed to be in effect “throughout their generations”—have been buried in baptism, left behind as part of the old order that is passing away. As Philip and the Ethiopian disciple climb the stream bank, they represent a new humanity emerging from the water, dripping wet and full of joy, marked by a new and radical reconciliation in the kingdom of God.

–Excerpt from A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren, p. 181.

The mystery of the depth of God’s love cannot be fathomed. God loves all of creation…those of us who make wrong choices, and those of us born a different way. Those of us whom society shuns, and those of us who abuse and misuse their wealth and resources in greedy and injurious ways. I pray that all of creation rejoices in the knowledge of that love, regardless of what anyone (including other Christians) has said contrary to that!

In closing, I invite you to watch a sermon reflecting on this story by the Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope of Washington National Cathedral. Click here to watch the sermon, or click here to watch the entire worship service.

Thanks be to God!

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Filed under Book Excerpts, New Testament, Sermons, Videos

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