I want to go back to our first reading, the story in Acts, this kind of strange encounter between Phillip, one of the apostles of Jesus and this Ethiopian eunuch. Now Acts, as you know, takes place mostly after Jesus’ ascension. It’s about how the church got started—what those early followers of Jesus did to spread the word.
And reading Acts, you get this sense of this rag-tag band of apostles, fueled on zeal and the Holy Spirit, following wherever God led.
God chooses Phillip, tells him to go out, go on a journey, get the word out. Sent down this wilderness road. Nobody around, not really knowing where he’s going, not sure where he’ll sleep that night. And I can picture him getting a little discouraged—I mean, who wouldn’t be? I mean, people don’t usually make it a habit of listening to vagabond preachers on the side of the highway.
Yet, poor old Phillip, trudges on in the beating sun. And in the corner of his eye, he sees this chariot—a real nice ride, kind of this black sedan with the tinted windows and the chauffeur. And it pulls up beside him, and the window is rolled down. And here’s this strange rich man. Phillip can tell from his accent that he’s not from around here and by the way he’s dressed that he’s got some money and power.
The mysterious man pulls out a Bible and turns to Phillip with questioning eyes: “What does this mean? Can you help me understand?”
“Finally!” Phillip thought. And he gets in the car and the driver pulls away.
Now, we can infer a lot from this story, just based on what we know about the time. Really, Phillip and this Ethiopian should not be speaking to one another.
The big thing was the fact that the Ethiopian was a eunuch. Most likely, at a young age he was castrated so that he could serve on the female side of the court, he could serve the queen without being a threat to her chastity, so to speak. The ironic thing here is that the Bible is very clear about the place of eunuchs: They’re unclean, they’re unworthy of being in the temple. As one scholar puts it: “They were seen as scarred, defective men, unable to be fruitful and multiply (Baker-Fletcher, 456-458).”
An entire group of people—shunned, outcast, their lowly status written into the laws themselves. Phillip and the Ethiopian did not belong together, the barriers were simply were too high, the divisions too deep.
This week, I was reminded of all the barriers and divisions we have today, all the ways that we prevent a meeting of hearts and minds such as the one we hear about in Acts.
There is a crisis in the city of Baltimore, division in the streets. It’s become this all-too familiar pattern. There’s an incident between police and a member of the public—usually a young black male. Something goes wrong, and the young person dies. Protests emerge, most of them peaceful, but there is violence around the edges. And all too quickly, that violence consumes everything, it becomes all we see and all we talk about. And we take our places, we create our divisions. One side decries the police violence against the people; the other the people’s violence against the police.
Borrowing Jesus’ image from today’s Gospel, I wonder: What kind of world bears the fruit of violence and riots? What kind of society bears mistrust and anger? When we see one another as animals, as threats to our safety and wellbeing…what does that tell us about the rest of the vine?
It’s easy for us sit on one side and judge, to walk away resigned, to change the station and not even think about it. And Phillip could have done the same, too. What did he have to gain from talking to this eunuch? And it would have been easy for the Ethiopian to just swoop on by, not even risking rejection.
But God’s spirit brought Phillip and the Ethiopian together. Phillip met the Ethiopian right where he was at. This enabled the scriptures to be opened before them, for God’s Word to move them and shape them. The miracle of this event was that understood one another, in spite of their differences. In that short time, this unlikely duo forged a new relationship built on mutual trust, on humble service, on the life-giving gospel of Jesus.
And in that moment, the Ethiopian asks a very bold question: “What is stopping me from being baptized, right now?”
The answer, Phillip knew, was absolutely nothing.
The Ethiopian, the eunuch, deemed unworthy of even being in the temple to worship was suddenly welcomed into the fold, anointed and granted God’s blessing. They pull over the car at the river crossing and he is baptized. These two strangers became joined into one community through water and the word…and all because they simply stopped and met and listened to one another.
What is stopping us from listening to one another? What is stopping us from getting up and going out, out into the unknown like Phillip did? What is stopping us from understanding the plight of our neighbors?
Before we cast judgement or assume we know the solution, we need to ask ourselves a few questions: Do we really know what it’s like to live in a decaying neighborhood of Baltimore? Do we know what it’s like to fear for our child’s life as they walk to school, every single day? Or what it means to have one in three chance of winding up in prison? To have an entire generation lost to drugs and poverty, countless lives taken away from the earth?
In the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, we can see a new model for living, God’s model for living. It’s a challenge to stop and listen to one another and, through the spirit of God, through those waters and that table, to forge a new community, united as one with the Risen Christ.
On Monday night in Baltimore, about one hundred members of the clergy—some of them Lutheran pastors I’m proud to call friends—marched onto the streets, linking arms with others boldly pleading for peace and understanding. Like Philip, they embarked down the wilderness road, not knowing where it would lead them, but hoping that they would encounter someone who would listen to them and someone they could listen to.
They show us that we should not condone riots and mayhem—no we should resist that will all our moral strength. But instead, God calls us to empathize with the pain and the frustration of so many who suffer, so many who cry out today. Together with the Risen Jesus, we can stand in solidarity with those who are beaten down, who find their voices stifled and rejected, with those who fear on a daily basis. Like the pastors, God grants us the ability to offer words of healing, to bear that good news of Jesus, to counter violence and destruction with love and life.
This is the Spirit-filled life, the resurrection life, the kind that led the Ethiopian to pose that bold question and Phillip to take bold action. And it sent each of them on their way rejoicing.
So let’s live that life, too. In our own way, in our own words and actions, let’s build relationships with others, even when it seems impossible. Let’s listen to one another, even when the words are hard to hear. Let’s understand each other’s lives, even when it’s difficult to fathom. Let’s let the Holy Spirit change us and unite us in a new community.
We know that the Spirit of God leads us, even if it calls us down that wilderness road. What’s stopping us? Absolutely nothing!
Citation: Karen Baker-Fletcher, “Theological Perspective: Acts 8:26-40” in Feasting on the Word, Year B vol. 2, eds. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown-Taylor (Louisville: John Knox Westminster, 2008), 456-458.