We hear the story of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch today, and we might be tempted to make some assumptions. The Ethiopian, we think, might be someone who has no knowledge of the One God. He might be very different from Jews like Philip, and perhaps even a little frightening to him. Philip might be particularly brave or saintly, engaging this odd man on a wilderness road, simply because the Holy Spirit told him to hit the road. Brave, holy Philip! Poor misguided Ethiopian!
If that’s the lens through which we read this story, it simply becomes another tintype portrait in a compilation of works of the early saints.
But like so many stories in the Bible, it is so much more than that!
Let’s start out with the Ethiopian eunuch.
He was a high official in the court of the queen (the Candace, or kandakē in Greek). His appearance as a man with brown skin would not be unusual to Philip, because the nation of Israel consisted of many different racial and ethnic groups. Think back to the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and being impressed with his wisdom and teachings about the One True God. This Candace whom the Ethiopian eunuch served might well have been an Ethiopian Jew.
This man is said to be coming back home from Jerusalem where he had come to worship. He would not be worshipping pagan gods from Ethiopian culture in Jerusalem – that was the seat of worship for the God of Israel. And so this man was probably an observant Jew.
As he rode on the road in his chariot, he was reading aloud, as was the custom in those days. Philip heard him and ran toward him. “Do you understand what you were reading,” Philip asked. “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” answered the Ethiopian.
So Philip got in the chariot with him – never mind that his mother probably taught him never to get into a chariot with a stranger – to teach him and to tell him about the new covenant foretold in the very scripture that the Ethiopian had been reading…a passage from Isaiah.
“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.”
We hear that passage and immediately think, “Wow, Isaiah is once again prophesying about what happened to Jesus Christ!”
But the eunuch might have heard it differently.
Think of what it is to be a eunuch. Eunuchs were men who were castrated, usually before puberty. They were neutered men, considered to be “safe” to work in the royal courts, particularly to serve the royal women, because they had no sexual desire for them.
Men who were, in effect, shorn as lambs. Powerless in their loss of sexual identity. Considered odd, different, half-men. Useful tools in a royal court because of their difference, but unable to live fully because of the way they were shorn. Like a sheep, silent, humiliated.
That eunuch might have heard the passage from Isaiah, and felt like it was telling his story, the story of another person who was powerless against the forces that sheared away his manhood.
It’s an odd juxtaposition, because in many ways the Ethiopian eunuch had power. He was akin to the chief of staff for the queen of Ethiopia. No doubt his chariot was beautiful, richly decorated, with the latest in shock absorbers to deal with rough roads, with a stern soldier driving and a pair of powerful horses pulling it. His clothing might be the most luxurious fabric, hand-embroidered, bejeweled, and he might wear a pendant or ring denoting his office, set with diamonds or rubies. But all that he had could not take away the fact that he had been shorn like a young lamb many years before, and all knew his humiliation by his hairless face and high voice.
Isaiah was speaking to him.
It is a good thing he was reading Isaiah and not Deuteronomy, where the ancient laws said that anyone who was sexually mutilated was ritually unclean and could not enter the “assembly of God.” (Deut. 23:1).
Deuteronomy would have named him persona non grata in the temple. It would have humiliated him, shorn him once again, by naming him imperfect and unworthy.
But it was Isaiah he was reading, the same Isaiah who held particular promise to eunuchs, saying eunuchs who “keep my Sabbaths will receive a name better than sons and daughters” (Isa 56:4-5). It was Isaiah who promised hope for the marginalized, the outcasts, the captives, the same Isaiah whom Jesus preached so often. The eunuch might be powerful, he might be rich, he might have jewels on his person and the ability to command in the name of his queen, but he was still viewed as different, unlike other men, snickered at when he spoke in that high voice. He needed to hear some of that hopeful promise.
And along came Philip. The eunuch would be surprised by this strange fellow on the road, asking him, “do you understand what you’re reading?” Sounds a little presumptuous, doesn’t it? Imagine, as Barbara Brown Taylor has done, the eunuch as a rich foreign diplomat riding through Washington DC in a Lexus, and suddenly this street preacher in shabby clothes runs up to the vehicle. In Washington, the diplomat would ignore the fellow. In this story, though, the eunuch invited Philip into the vehicle for some conversation.
And the eunuch, perhaps inspired by the Holy Spirit as Philip was, or perhaps just curious, asked Philip “This passage I was just reading – is it just about Isaiah and his situation, or is it about something or someone else?” Philip couldn’t have asked for a better opening…he told him about Jesus, and how this passage described Jesus, that suffering servant king, so perfectly. And somewhere in his conversation, he must have told the eunuch about baptism, because when they came up to a place where there was water, the eunuch said “what is there to stop me from being baptized?”
Perhaps the eunuch did have familiarity with the passage from Deuteronomy that forbade him from entering the temple. Perhaps his question to Philip at that moment was not “Sure, why shouldn’t we do this thing that you have talked about?” Perhaps it was more like, “Will you, too, deny me God’s grace by saying I am unworthy, because of my sexual status?”
But Philip had no desire to keep this man away from sacramental blessing. To him, the man’s status as a eunuch was irrelevant. All that mattered was that he was a child of God, and sought to affirm his belief through baptism. And so the chariot halted, they two men hopped out, ran to the water, and Philip baptized him. And they parted ways, the Ethiopian going back to his country rejoicing, Philip going to Caesarea Phillipi proclaiming the good news.
Philip would no more deny this man a sacramental blessing because of what had been done to him than he would deny a Jew who was the father of ten children such a blessing. He would no more deny a prostitute such a blessing than he would deny a woman in a stable household such a blessing. He would no more deny a gay man or a lesbian woman a sacramental blessing than he would a straight one. Just like Jesus.
Why? Because Jesus said we are all eligible to be part of God’s kingdom. We are all shorn in some way. We are all missing parts of our bodies and our hearts and our souls, and if that’s the criteria for entrance into the kingdom, we all fail.
But Jesus Christ, the lamb who was shorn and slaughtered, is clear that all are welcome. And only he gets to be the judge of who stays forever. And based upon his teachings in the gospel, I suspect that sexual status is not the prime litmus test for faithfulness – in fact, it may have little bearing at all in his judgment…it is simply loving God and loving each other.
So as we continue forward on our journey to be faithful to the One in whom we were baptized, here’s the lesson from Philip: share God’s love without making assumptions about whether or not they are worthy of God’s love. Be grateful for the opportunity to welcome newcomers of all stripes into God’s family. Ask for God’s blessings on all God’s people. Trust that God knows your heart, and the heart and soul of those you meet, and, like the Ethiopian eunuch, go on your way rejoicing.