“Then 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)”. (Acts 8:26)
It gave me a bit of a chill this week when I looked at our reading from the book of Acts and saw it opening with a reference to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. We are told explicitly there that it is a ‘wilderness road’ – a term which, when it appears in Scripture, generally suggests something more than it being just another dirt road. It was a desolate road – a forgotten road, one that is travelled by forgotten people. Certainly, it seems to be that today.
If you’ve been keeping up with the news, you know that at the end of that road today there are a battalion of snipers from the IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) who have shooting and killing unarmed protestors on the other side of a fence that designates the border between Gaza and Israel!
It seems inexplicable to me that while three of the most powerful countries on earth – the United States, Great Britain and France – were recently bombing the hell out of Syria in retaliation for an alleged gas attack on innocent civilians, allegedly carried out by the Syrian army, a stone’s throw away, at the end of that road from Jerusalem to Gaza, there were hundreds of innocent civilians being shot and killed by the Israeli Defence Forces – a crime that nobody was disputing, and yet no one threatened to bomb Israel in retaliation. Indeed, none of those self-appointed judges of humanity were even talking about it!
Why is there such a disconnect? How did our world get to be like this? These are difficult questions to answer, but one thing that is clear is that this part of the world has seen a lot of unjust and unnecessary suffering.
Ange and I had the opportunity to watch the recently-released movie on the ministry of St Paul. I confess that the movie brought me to tears at more than one point.
The image that continues to haunt me from that movie was of the Christians locked up in cells beneath the Colosseum in Rome – men, women and children all crowded together in adjoining cells.
The Christians, of course, had been accused of trying to burn down Rome – a crime which is generally believed to have been instigated by the Emperor Nero himself. Even so, the Christians were convenient scapegoats, and they are pictured in the movie as waiting in their cells, not having a clue what is going to happen to them until they receive the news that there are going to be games held there the next day, and then the penny drops, and people begin to cry and scream.
Thankfully the movie does not depict the games themselves, though there is a short scene of Roman soldiers pushing children out though the cell gates towards the central stadium, where you can hear the roar of the crowd in the background.
As I say, that image still haunts me, and I did find the movie as a whole to be a sobering reminder of what life must have been like for many of our Christian sisters and brothers in the first century.
How did our world ever get to be like this? Why does God allow innocent people to be tortured and killed like this? These are questions we continue to ask ourselves, and we might expect that if we were going to find answers to such questions in the Scriptures, we might find them in the Book of Acts, where Christian people are constantly being oppressed and brutalised.
Indeed, today’s story in Acts chapter 8 is inserted between two accounts of violence – the first being the story of the stoning of Stephen, and the second being the account of the persecution undertaken by Saul, who heads to Damascus hoping to arrest members of the church there and drag them back to Jerusalem in chains.
Not all these persecutions were successful, of course (Saul’s being an obvious case in point), but most were, and yet at no point does the author of the book try to explain to us why God didn’t step in to stop these things from happening. What we are told though, explicitly and bizarrely, is that every time the church experienced violence, the result was that it grew, and it grew not just in size but in breadth!
In Acts chapter 7 (the chapter preceding today’s one) we’re told of the aftermath of the stoning of Stephen – namely, that the persecution scattered the early church across Judea and Samaria, resulting in … a mission to the Samaritan community!
I’m sure we remember the reputation Samaritans had (from the Parable of the Good Samaritan amongst other things). These were those half-brothers and sisters of the Jewish community who were generally much despised by regular Jews. Taken in context, this inclusion of the Samaritans is all part of the gravitational movement of the early church away from the centre of religious orthodoxy towards the periphery.
The church begins as a small group of entirely kosher Jewish men and women. At Pentecost (Acts 2), Jews from every nation come on board. In Acts 7 the Samaritans join the party, and from there the news about Jesus starts penetrating the thoroughly non-Jewish world (largely through the ministry of St Paul). In the middle of it all though we have this little pericope about the conversion of a character who is without parallel in the Scriptures – a man very much on the ecclesiastical periphery, not only because of his ethnicity, but because of he is sort of gender non-specific!
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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:27-29)
Maybe I’m not correct. Maybe the Ethiopian Eunuch considered himself very much a man. I don’t know and it’s very hard to work it out as there aren’t a lot of eunuchs around now such that we can hear from them as to their own self-understanding.
Mind you, some scholars do suggest that the term ‘eunuch’ could simply be a designation of the man’s office as a high-ranking official in the court of Queen Candace, but I think that if Luke (the author) had wanted to say ‘official’ he would have used the word for official. He deliberately uses the word ‘eunuch’, meaning a male who had been emasculated, and I believe he did so because he had Deuteronomy 23:1 in mind – “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.”
I’m a little reticent to make pronouncements about persons whose sexuality puts them on the periphery. Indeed, when it comes to the LGBTI community, I’m not even confident that I’ve got the acronym right. I think it’s LGBTI, but I know some people add a Q or a Q+, though I’ve been told by others to drop the Q, and I don’t think you can add the + unless you have the Q, but I’m not entirely sure about that either.
I do fully respect the difficulty in settling on a fixed form of the acronym, as the goal is to be inclusive, and it’s hard to be sure if we’ve included everyone once you fix the acronym, though I appreciate too that not everybody who feels left out can be included or necessarily should be included.
I don’t think any of us want to include those who have a sexual orientation towards children as a part of the ‘+ community’ or as a part of any community we’re involved in, regardless of whether the ancient Greeks found that form of sexuality acceptable! We tend to make a clear distinction between activities between consenting adults and abuse, and that certainly resonates with me. Even so, the ambiguities about who should be included and who not to include don’t stop with pederasty.
I just completed reading what I thought was an excellent book on the philosophy of love by Canadian philosopher, Carrie Jenkins, who lives a polyamorous relationship. She’s a heterosexual woman with two adult male partners. At the end of the book she details some of the discrimination she’s received as poly-person, and it’s been extensive and, curiously, much of it has come from people in the GLBTI community!
According to Jenkins, a lot of gay and lesbian people feel that people like her are discrediting their efforts to be accepted by the mainstream, and so she finds herself labelled as immoral rather than as different by people who, until very recently, were themselves labelled as immoral rather than different by the broader community.
Where in this spectrum would the Ethiopian eunuch have found himself, I have no idea. What we can be confident about is that he would have been on the periphery of the Jewish temple community.
“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the LORD.” (Deuteronomy 23:1)
That this man, who, presumably, was not a Jew, and would not have been allowed into the temple even if he had been a Jew, would nonetheless travel to Jerusalem to worship was itself remarkable! Evidently, somehow, this man had come to find in the religion and Scriptures of the Jews a form of spiritual integrity and truth that he could not find in his own culture and amongst his own people.
We don’t know his exact story, but we know that he travelled a long way to be near to the place where he felt God was, and we know he had his own copy of the Jewish Scriptures (or at least a section of them) and this must have cost him (or his queen) a small fortune, as in the days when these manuscripts were only copied by hand, they would have been hard to come by and distributed very frugally.
The other things we know about this man, and this is really the most remarkable thing of all, is that whatever understanding of the faith he had embraced up to the point where he met Phillip, he moved away from it completely and embraced the Good News about Jesus, all within the space of a short chariot ride!
What was it that so convicted this man as to the truth about Jesus? Acts chapter 7 gives us a clue by detailing some of the conversation that took place in the chariot:
“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. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”” (Acts 8:32-34)
The passage the eunuch is reading is from is one of the well-known ‘servant songs’ of the prophet Isaiah (chapter 53), and Phillip, of course, takes this as a God-given opportunity to talk to his new friend about the suffering and death of Jesus who he no doubt identified as being the very suffering servant that Isaiah spoke of.
My guess is that for the eunuch (and I’m sorry to keep referring to him as ‘the eunuch’ but unfortunately, we never get to know his name) – my guess is that for the eunuch this is more than a ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense’ moment. This was rather the missing piece in the puzzle that he had been waiting for, because in Isaiah’s servant he would have seen (possibly for the first time) a depiction of a God who suffers.
As I say, we don’t know this man’s full story, but my guess is that, despite his money and high position, he was something of an outcast. Certainly, the only image we get of him, travelling half way around the world to be part of a religious community that would never fully accept him, is somewhat pathetic. What he finds in the church, of course, is immediate and complete acceptance. Philip has no hesitation at all in baptising him. He doesn’t feel any need to consult with the other Apostles first as to whether they should allow a eunuch into their assembly. He knows full well that, despite what is written in the law of Moses, the love of Jesus embraces everybody!
Those who know my sermons know that I like to make one point with one sermon, I seem to have made two with this one. I’ve been talking about the way God allows us to suffer and about the way God forms the church as an inclusive community. What I want to say in closing is that these are the same point for, in the Book of Acts at least, these two are one. We suffer in order to become more inclusive.
If you can’t immediately see the connection, read through the Book of Acts again for yourself. It’s the pain and suffering of the early church that keeps pushing its members out on to the periphery, where they find Christ waiting for them, ready to introduce them to people that they had never intended to include in their fellowship. Likewise, God uses our pain to open us to other people. He brings us down so that we might encounter others at the bottom of the ladder who have nowhere else to go.
I’m not suggesting that all human suffering is simply a mechanism to build more inclusive communities. Even so, I do believe that God works through all suffering – through the martyrdom of unarmed protestors in Gaza as well as through the more mundane struggles of depression and relationship breakdown we experience here.
I do believe that through the violence and the pain, through the cross and through the humiliation of it all, God is at work to form us into a new humanity, and that through His suffering and ours, His Kingdom comes.
First preached at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on April 29, 2018.