A sermon preached during Black History Month 2020 referring to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40)
I have no doubt that some of you, perhaps many of you, will be asking why on earth we are devoting this service to Black History Month. Surely it’s just lefty political correctness gone mad in a leafy suburb like ours that is so predominantly white. Surely it’s the sort of secular initiative that our churches should be very wary of buying into. Why does black history matter?
Before I go on let me admit the irony of me, a white person, answering the question of why black history matters. Perhaps next October we can do better and invite a person of colour to address the question for us.
Black history matters, partly, as a way of bursting bubbles. We all live in bubbles. We always have done, they are not just a result of covid. We mix with a limited number of people, people like us. Before long we start viewing the world in a particular way. It’s as if we start wearing blinkers that restrict the direction in which we can look. To use modern parlance we take on biases both conscious or unconscious. If we’re not careful we start to believe that the only way of viewing the world is in this way.
It’s not just how we view the world, it affects how we relate to God. If we only ever talk about God with people like ourselves, then we start to relate to God in a particular way. If we’re not careful we assume that this is the only way of relating to God.
But God is amazing, there are as many different ways of relating to God as there are people on this planet. We need to listen to different voices, different stories, different histories in order that we get a full picture of the world, a full picture of God. In our leafy white suburb some of those different voices and histories will be black voices and histories. We need these voices and histories to burst our bubble.
In looking to anchor this sermon in the Bible I was drawn to the only New Testament story that is unambiguously about a person of colour, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip (recognise how odd it feels just to read these names in the “wrong” order). I’ve been blessed by the background reading I’ve done and the new perspectives I’ve gained, particularly when I’ve read the insights of those who are different to me, different in their ethnic identity and different in their gender identity.
The story is far more important than I’d ever imagined. In the past I’d just filed it away mentally as one of many conversion stories in the Bible. But when people of colour or from sexual minorities read this story they see it, for what it is, a transformative moment in church history, the first time that the early Jesus movement reached out to someone different to themselves.
We can tell how important this story is from the meticulous attention to detail that Luke embeds in his writing. Indeed much of the insight I’ve been given in preparing for this service comes from looking at why Luke has included details that, at first sight, appear inconsequential.
One of the commentaries I was reading suggests we know more about the eunuch’s identity than any other character in the Bible. Let’s start off with the aspect that drew me to this story. He was black. Ethiopia as a country or region didn’t exist at the time. Ethiopian was then a generic term for an African negro. The term is composed of two Greek words meaning , burnt by the sun. He was a eunuch. His parents would probably have presented him for castration as a boy in order that he could become a servant in the household of an aristocratic female and thus guarantee him (and them) economic security for the future. It worked, he was now a high ranking official in charge of finances for the Queen of his country. He was a gentile, this isn’t stated explicitly but we know from Deuteronomy (23:1) that no-one who had been castrated could be or become a Jew. He was educated. He was reading the Scriptures, probably in a foreign language, at a time when few people were able to read at all. He was rich. We don’t know exactly what his “chariot” looked like but it was sumptuous enough to allow him to read and talk with someone else during the course of a journey. He felt rejected. He clearly sympathised with Judaism, he was reading the Jewish scriptures and returning from a pilgrimage to worship in Jerusalem, but he would not have been allowed to worship in the temple with the other men because he was a eunuch. He wanted to part of God’s Kingdom, but the majority Jews told him that his identity prevented that.
Why does Luke tell us all this? He tells us all this because it is the point of the story. The point of the story is that the eunuch is about as different from Philip, and the other followers of Jesus, as it is possible to get. Philip was Jewish, the eunuch was gentile. Philip was a Palestinian, the Eunuch was an African negro. Philip was male, the eunuch was, well, a eunuch. Philip was probably neither wealthy nor particularly well educated, the eunuch was both. Philip was part of the majority ethnic group, the eunuch was an outsider.
What on earth have these two got in common? How does Philip even start a conversation that results in the eunuch being converted to Christianity? You might think that he would start by telling the eunuch about his (Philip’s) experience of God. I think we often regard the role of the evangelist as being to tell other people about how he or she (the evangelist) sees God. Philip does exactly the opposite, he asks the eunuch what he is reading. His starting point is listening to the experience and viewpoint of the other.
There is then another instance where Luke appears to give us more information than we need to know. He quotes the exact passage that the eunuch has been reading (Isaiah 53:7-8):
32“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth”.
Luke goes on and gives a further apparently unnecessary detail in remembering the exact question that the eunuch asked of Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” So take a moment to re-read the passage, who is it about?
Pause to allow reflection
If you are one of us, born and bred in the church, a well informed twentieth century Christian, then you will probably assume that the passage refers to Jesus. But what if you were a 1st century eunuch? Was he (the eunuch) like “a sheep led to slaughter” when his parents presented him for castration? Trusting in their best intentions for him did he “not open his mouth” in protest? Had the eunuch been deprived of justice when he was prevented from worshipping in the temple because of his earlier “humiliation“. “Who can speak of the descendants” … of a eunuch? He must have had times when it felt as if his life had been taken from him through that act (at least metaphorically).
I think the eunuch was studying this particular passage because he identified with the description that Isaiah was outlining. When he asked Philip who the passage was about, he was wondering if it applied to himself.
Philip could have reacted by telling the eunuch that he was wrong, that there is only one way of interpreting that passage and that there is only one way of relating to God. He didn’t, he “began with that very passage of scripture and told him the good news about Jesus“. The good news for the eunuch is that this passage relates the experience of both the eunuch and Jesus. Jesus knew what it was to be rejected and humiliated and so did the Eunuch. Through this shared experience the eunuch was able to enter into a relationship with Jesus in a way that was quite impossible for Philip who, like, us would probably have had much more limited experience of either humiliation or rejection. Philip is learning that there are more ways of relating to Jesus than those experienced within the early Jewish disciples.
But the significance of the passage doesn’t end there. If you continue reading for a couple of chapters, you come across this quotation (Isaiah 56:3-5):
…let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” 4 For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”
Lo and behold what Philip and the eunuch discover, through exploring scripture together, is that the eunuch should not consider his condition as cutting him off from God, of excluding him from worship. This passage offers exactly the opposite, it is offering him a memorial within God’s temple and a name that will endure forever. The eunuch has felt excluded, beyond the reach of God, for as long as he can remember. When he and Philip explore the passage they find that it it is saying, “No, despite what the majority culture says, God has a special place for you in his heart”. No wonder he orders the chariot to be stopped. No wonder he asks Philip to baptise him.
Before I finish I want to make one further point that brings us back to where we started. We often assume that the primary point of this story is to record the conversion of the eunuch. There is, however, a very strong argument that it is also, and perhaps more importantly, about the conversion of Christianity. Before this story the early followers of Jesus had been in a bubble. They were all Jewish and probably only ever mixed with Jews. They all shared similar perspectives and life experiences and had a shared, Jewish, view of the world and of God. They regarded Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, the saviour of the Jewish people (just read Peter’s two early sermons [Acts 2:14 -40 and 3:11-26] if you’re in any doubt). Whilst the early Jewish Christians remained in this bubble then their essentially Jewish view of the world and of God remained unchallenged and unchanged.
It took one encounter with someone from outside to burst that bubble, for that view of the world and God to change forever. From that time on the disciples came to realise that Jesus was not the Jewish messiah, the saviour of the Jewish people, he was the Christian messiah, the saviour of us all. When Philip steps outside his comfort zone, when he starts to explore the words of scripture and the nature of God from the perspective of someone who is different to himself, a miracle happens. The world has never been the same since.
Like Philip I want to encourage us all to explore the nature of this world and of our God by listening to the stories, perspectives and histories of people who are different to us. This particular month let’s focus on the stories and histories of those from black or minority ethnic backgrounds. My personal pledge is to finish reading this book (“Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race“) … as soon as my wife let’s go of it.
Who knows? Miracles may happen. They are unlikely to be as profound and far reaching as that experienced by the early church, but perhaps like Philip, we will grow to understand and relate to God in a new and different way. Perhaps we will discover a bigger God than we could ever previously have imagined.
O Lord, send your Spirit to us today. Burst our bubbles.