Sunday, July 3, 2011

Discipleship with Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

I have quite a pile of books waiting to be read. But I won’t be taking all of them away on holiday with me. I guess holiday reading is rather special. I have one thriller lined up – it’s the last in the Martin Beck series, the original Swedish crime novels. I might take a book of biographies away with me, I’m not sure, but it is written by my old history teacher, so it’s quite an attraction. And then there’s the story of I’m sorry I haven’t a clue. I mustn’t forget a geology book or three … Oh … and maybe one of those theological books I have waiting to be read. And I won’t forget my Bible.

How fortunate we are to have access to books.

Things weren’t like that in the time of Jesus.

Books were far more difficult to come by. The cost of papyrus, the length of a scroll. They were being produced in Jerusalem – a hoard of them was discovered more than 60 years ago in caves at Qumran just by the Dead Sea.

That’s what makes this story so fascinating.

With the martyrdom of Stephen the persecution of the Jerusalem church intensified under the leadership Saul who was before very long ‘ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women and committing them to prison.

There was, as far as Saul was concerned, an unintended consequence. Wherever people scattered there they took with them the good news of Jesus.

One of those who fled Jerusalem was Philip, another of the seven deacons with a passion for bringing practical help to people and an equally strong passion to share the good news of Jesus. He found himself going down to the city of Samaria. A little while later he sensed the guidance of God and felt impelled to travel the road from Jersualem to Gaza, a road that runs through wilderness terrain.

Luke tells what happened next …

Acts 8:26-40

What a fascinating glimpse of the church’s missionary activity.

This was no ordinary person.

Treasurer in the Ehtiopian court, this was clearly a person of some wealth.

He must have been to have got hold of a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

That’s quite some substantial piece of writing.

Here is a wealthy, powerful man who has the money to invest in a scroll, and here he is reading from it.

It’s a story that makes me want to ask why. Why has this court official got hold of this particular scroll. Was it one he happened to pick up? Was it one of many he had acquired.

He clearly was sympathetic to the Jewish people, had been worshipping God. Had he been commissioned to get hold of a scroll of the prophet Isaiah to supplement the scrolls in a synagogue back home in Ethiopia?

Was it a personal interest he had? Why choose this scroll, the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah?

Why is he reading where he is reading?

Is it something very personal?

Has he deliberately chosen to read from Isaiah? Does something draw him to this particular prophet?

Luke is at pains to tells us that he is an Ethiopian Eunuch.

That’s something quite alien to our culture.

The place of a eunuch in the royal court of a queen is something we are not used to. Indeed the whole notion of, was it voluntary, or was it forced castration is something that we would rather not think of.

What does that make of the person who is a Eunuch?

There were cultures that had great reservations about castration and the place of the Eunuch. And one of those cultures was in some part to be found among the Jewish people.

There is a key verse in Deuteronomy 23 that is pretty draconian as some words in the Books of the Law can be. The removal of a man’s sexual organs means that he shall not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. That stark prohibition is absolutely clear.

One of the things we sometimes don’t realise is that the Hebrew Scrptures don’t simply work as a mine for proof texts which establish exactly the line that should be taken on all issues and in all circumstances.

The Hebrew Scriptures reflect changing thinking about God and God’s ways with the world. Sometimes one part of the Hebrew Scriptrues will be in conversation with another.

If you are a Eunuch and you are fascinated with the Jewish God then Deuteronomy 23 verse 1 is a major difficulty. But it is not the last word on eunuchs.

Indeed one book in particular takes the story further.

And interestingly it is the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

Might it be that the Eunuch knew that. That this is what attracted him to this particular book? Who knows … but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. Had he never read these words before? Or was he re-reading words that for him were very special.

By the time you reach Isaiah 53 and the words that the Eunuch is reading in his chariot you reach new ways of thinking of the Messiah. They are new and strange ways. Isaiah 53 thinks of the Messiah as a Suffering Servant. Not an easy concept, one that Isaiah introduces into the thinking of Jewish people. Read on beyond 53 into 54 and that tells, in the words of the NRSV headings, of the eternal covenant of peace that the suffering servant establishes. Chapter 55 then extends ‘an invitation to abundant life’ to all with those wonderful words …

Ho, everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;

Then comes chapter 56.

The heading says it all.

The Covenant Extended to All Who Obey.


To be part of the covenant the way is clear …

Maintain justice, and do what is right,
For soon salvation will come
And my deliverance be revealed.

Who can be part of this?


Yes, indeed.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
The Lord will surely separe me from his people.”

Foreigners can be part of the people of the eternal covenant under the suffering servant messiah.

That’s a thrill for the treasurer of the Candance, the Queen of the Ethiopian Court.

But then comes the wonderful next insight.

Do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
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 the sons and daughters.
I will give them an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.


That is quite some place for the Eunuch of all people. What a massive statement. So powerful, so important it would go a long way towards explaining why this particular Eunuch had invested in this particular scroll.

Deuteronomy had been quite explicit – never a place in the assembly of the Lord.

This turns that on its head and gives a place for everyone,. What’s more the Eunuch is to to have a place within God’s house, and a name better than the sons and daughters.

No wonder that this Eunuch wanted to find out more about who this Suffering Servant was.

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,

No wonder the Eunuch should ask Philip “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?”

Then notice what Philip does.

Philip began to speak and starting from this scripture he proclaimed the good news about Jesus.

What is good news for the Ethiopian Eunuch about Jesus?

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.

All inclusive. The Gospel is for everyone?

But could it possibly include a Eunuch?

Would Philip have been aware of jesus’s view. Jesus had come to fulfil all the law and the prophets – to bring the whole story to fulfilment. That meant Jesus was with Isaiah on this one.

In Matthew 19:12 in the context of relationshipis and having children, marrying and not marrying, Jesus says some curious words, words that are all embracing as much of the Eunuch as of anyone else.

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of hevean. Let anyone accept this who can.

A great, enigmatic saying of Jesus.

But one thing is certain.

The Eunuch is accepted.

And of that Philips is absolutely sure.

But look at the actual question that the Eunuch asks.

Even after hearing all the good news about Jesus from Philip he still wonders … can he be accepted?

Look here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptised?

Perhaps he thought Jesus would have stuck with Deuteronomy 26 without moving on and taking into account Isaiah 58.

No nothing stands in the way.

He commanded the chariot to stop and both of them, Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

I don’t believe you can simply lift texts from the books of the law and apply them to today. You have to see how thinking moves on within the Hebrew Scriptures, you have to take into account the conversations that happen. But most important of all you must look to Jesus to read the Scriptures of the Old Testament knowing that he has brought them all to fulfilment.

That’s why as a disciple of Jesus I want to base my response to another group of people who in some parts of the church know the exclusion that this man feared, those who are homosexuals, not on the half dozen or so texts from the books of the law and the couple from Paul and Peter, but on the inclusiveness of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ and disclosed in the Gospels.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

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