The baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch reminds us that in Christ there is no
room for racism, there is no room for oppression, there is no room for
exclusion of people from the religious fellowship of our Lord and Savior. This
African man is reading the book of Isaiah. Clearly he wants to know God, but he
You see, the bible says a few different things about eunuchs. And I realize
the topic makes us uncomfortable in many ways, but we need to get through it to
understand the deeper message.
So, on the one hand the bible says in Isaiah 56:4-5, “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.” Unfortunately in another place it
says in Deuteronomy 23:1 it also says: “No one whose testicles are crushed or
whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.” In Jesus’
day, the book of Deuteronomy held more sway and more importance than Isaiah and
so that was the predominant view, eunuchs were forbidden from participating in
religious life. So there is the first strike against this man who wants to know
more about God.
Further, let’s be honest. There was a fear of foreigners in those days too.
We didn’t start the foolishness of treating people differently because they came
from a different place.
That has been around for a long time. Although evidence does suggest that
the people of that time did not care much about a person’s skin color, they did
care about their national origin. There are whole sections of scripture about
not marrying foreign women, foreign people being forbidden from joining in the
Passover and so on. But the whole idea of opening up religion to the gentiles,
the non-Jews was on the cusp of emerging with the Apostle Paul. Unfortunately,
it hadn’t happened yet. This passage is setting up the revolutionary ideas that
Paul will bring over the next few pages of the book of Acts. So at this time,
the Ethiopian would have been an outsider, a non-Jew.
So here he is: judged for being a eunuch and a gentile, and he is reading a
passage in Isaiah, about a man who is humiliated, and who has justice taken
away from him. My guess is that the man relates to him, and wants to know more
about him. Who is this person who has an experience like mine?
Most of us, can on some level, understand what the Ethiopian eunuch is
thinking and feeling. Most of us understand what it means to be the outsider,
the one who is not welcomed, the one who is bullied or shunned, the one who is
judged for things that are beyond our control. We have been there, we know what
it is like.
Most of us, can on some level understand what it means to be judged and
excluded. Sometimes it is even at the hands of religious folk, people who are
supposed to live their lives around the principles of love, that we receive the
worst treatment. The video shows that well. But it is not how it should be.
In our biblical story what happens next for the man in the story is amazing.
He is reading the passage aloud, and Philip overhears him. Philip immediately
reaches out to him – this is new! A religious person who is crossing the
barriers, who isn’t judging him. Philip then explains that the one that we as
Christians follow, the Christ, was the one spoken of in the passage.
Sadly, we don’t get the exact explanation that Philip uses, but we can
guess that he talks about how Jesus was unfairly tried, and yet how he gave
himself up, like a sheep led to the slaughter, and then how God raised him from
the dead. He probably explained further that in Jesus’ resurrection all of us
who had no hope, all of us who did not find justice, all of us who were
humiliated in this life are offered God’s love and acceptance. After all that
is the good news.
So here is this man who has felt like he has never been treated justly by
religious people, hearing for the first time that forgiveness is poured out,
shame is erased, and new life is given to us. He can be welcomed in the
assembly of the Lord. The words of the other passage in Isaiah are finally
going to be heard for him – there is a place and an everlasting name for him. Hearing
this from Philip, the Ethiopian man immediately wants to be baptized. And I
don’t blame him. After being mistreated and cast out, here he is being offered
a chance to belong and be a part of God’s people – of course he wants to join!
Like I said at the beginning of the sermon. This passage reminds us that
the good news of Jesus Christ is that there is more than one way of reading the
bible and it’s laws. It can be read through the lens of separation from God, of
holy purity only available for a select few, like the Pharisees that Jesus
often argued with.
Or it can be read through the lens of Jesus’ grace which welcomes the
sinners and the outcast. This passage suggests that as Christians we are to
read it that scripture the second way – that we are to open the doors of the
assembly to all people who want to learn God’s ways, who want to grow in their
relationship with God, who want to be in covenant with God. That there is no
excuse for racism or exclusion of people based upon their nationality, nor are we
to judge those who love God.
For those of us who have been humiliated at any time, for those of us who
have been unloved, unaccepted, unwelcomed; this is what we refer to as amazing
grace! Through Christ, who also experienced suffering, injustice and
humiliation, there is a place for us in Christ’s church. This is the good news,
and it should so inspire us that we immediately respond, “What is stopping me
from being baptized?” What is stopping me from being part of the assembly of
the Lord? To which Christ answers – “nothing”, not even Deuteronomy.
And that is a pretty radical statement. It is no wonder that the Pharisees
did not like the Christians – they were challenging scripture itself by
suggesting that we interpret it through a new lens. A lens of Jesus’ death and
resurrection. A lens of grace rather a lens of law. It becomes the great
foundation for Paul’s life work, for his writing, and quite honestly is still
one of our greatest struggles in the church.
Yet, the death and resurrection should have the final word. When love and
injustice collide, love should be our choice. When grace and law collide, grace
wins. When we are caught being judgment and acceptance, Christ still accepts
us. We are here only by love and grace, we must allow others the same. To
celebrate that – we are going to sing about the one who sets us free, the chain
breaker that Philip explained to the Ethiopian that day. The one who welcomes
us into the Assembly of the Lord, our savior Jesus Christ.