by Jason Micheli
Acts 8.26-40 (click to see Scripture text)
My friend and mentor Will Willimon writes in his memoir, Accidental Preacher, of a divine disruption the Holy Spirit foisted upon him when he was sixteen years old. Will’s conversion happened when he was sent by his church to an ordinary, unpromising youth conference at Lake Junaluska in the mountains of western North Carolina. “I grew up in an unashamedly, legally white-supremacist culture,” Willimon writes, “Each day I boarded a Greenville busy that bore the sign: South Carolina Law: White patrons sit from the front. Colored patrons sit from the rear. Nobody questioned that sign, especially those who preached to me on Sunday.”
Arriving at the retreat and signing in at the registration desk, a church lady asked the teenage Will if he would consider bunking with a negro. Ever eager to please, Will said yes and was assigned to room with another sixteen year old from Greenville. Recalling their encounter, Will writes:
“When I walked in, there he sat on the opposite bed, better prepared for me than I was for him. We were strangers, even though his Methodist Church was less than a mile from own Buncombe Street Methodist Church; he went to school four blocks from Greenville High and played on ball fields where we never ventured. I recall nothing of what was said by the guest preachers and speakers from the podium that weekend, but I’ll never forget our conversation that lasted until dawn Saturday night. Charles told me what it was like to worship at John Wesley rather than Buncombe Street. He described in detail attending a school worlds away from mine, and asked me about life at my school, from which he was legally excluded. To paraphrase Langston Hughes, my Greenville was never Greenville to him.”
Lying on their dormitory twin beds and staring up at the ceiling, Charles— or rather, the Holy Spirit— preached to Will.
“Does it bother you,” Charles asked him, “that there are laws that separate us, keep you in your place and me in mine?”
“I guess I never thought about it.”
“Don’t you see,” Charles said, “They want to trap both us.”
“By sunrise,” Will writes, “I had my world skillfully cracked open, exposed, infinitely expanded, disrupted…” by the Holy Spirit conscripting someone to take me where I couldn’t have gone without help. I left Lake Junaluska better than I was bred to be.”
Before heading back to their separate worlds, Charles confessed to Will, “When I saw that the church had forced me to room with you, a white guy, I was scared shitless.”
“Only the Holy Spirt could pull a stunt like that,” Will concludes, “egging on Charles for risky, color-courageous witness in service to my conversion and only the Holy Spirit could force me to room with the other who might also be my savior, coaching me through a disruptive second birth.”
The Holy Spirit cracking open settled worlds, disrupting contented lives, exposing our lack of imagination, and infinitely expanding the horizon of salvation— that’s about as good a dust-jacket summary as any for Luke’s sequel to his Gospel.
Despite the prophet Isaiah promising that the Messiah would lure to himself people from all over the world; even though Jesus of Nazareth taught that the Kingdom of God would draw people from east and west, from north and south; in spite of the fact the Risen Christ makes it plain in his Great Commission that the disciples—now apostles— are to venture forth and make disciples of all the ἔθνη (ethnics), nonetheless the Book of Acts documents in embarrassing detail how the gravitational pull of the human heart is to draw lines between us and them, to make distinctions between insider and outsider, and to hunker down into our homogenous tribes.
The reason the Gospel of grace is revelation— a gift from outside of us— is because it is not in our nature to be so inclusive.
Jesus tells the apostles at his ascension in the beginning of Acts. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Jesus warns them, “and then you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem [Jerusalem’s nice], and in all Judea [Sure, Judea’s our stomping ground], and Samaria [Hold up, Jesus. We hate Samaritans], and, after Samaria, to the ends of the earth [The ends of the earth? That’s like saying the Gospel is for the ungodly.].” The fact is the first Christians had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a Gospel “where we are one in him who has broken down the dividing walls between us.” They had to be pushed into a Gospel where “there is now neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male and female.” The Holy Spirit had to skillfully crack open the parts of their world that even the resurrection had left intact; so much so, in fact, the primary protagonist in the Acts of the Apostles isn’t any of the apostles.
The primary protagonist is God the Holy Spirit.
Like a lot of sequels, Luke’s sequel to the Gospel has a terrible title. It’s not the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the Acts of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Christ, the Living God on the Move.
The apostles are acted upon.
Look at Phillip. Phillip in no way chooses this encounter with a eunuch from Ethiopia on his way back from Jerusalem. Phillip has just been preaching to thousands in Samaria, converting whole crowds, when— out of nowhere, for no discernible reason— an angel of the Lord says to Phillip, “Get up and go out to the desert at noon.”
Not that he had much choice in the matter, Phillip obeys.
And when Phillip sees this eunuch’s chariot roll past, the Holy Spirit speaks to Peter, orders Peter, compels Peter, “Go over to this chariot and join it,” which, to be clear— ridiculously— means Phillip has to run alongside it.
Phillip is not the active agent in this story. Luke describes Phillip entirely with the passive voice. Phillip is led. Phillip is directed. Phillip is told. Phillip’s mouth is opened and he’s given words to speak. Again, it’s like a scene from a comedy. The Holy Spirit makes Phillip run alongside a moving chariot.
In other words, we are so recalcitrant when it comes to the inclusive scope of this exclusive claim of the Gospel— we are so stubborn and tribe-minded— that Jesus has to take the wheel. A Jew going out to the middle of nowhere during the hottest part of the day in order to meet a Gentile, a black man from the edge of the known world, an apostle baptizing a sexually suspect foreigner into the Body of Christ, only the Holy Spirit could pull such a stunt.
By contrast, for this eunuch to happen upon an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ is as miraculous as discovering water in the desert.
If you’ve seen Game of Thrones, it might not surprise you to learn that the word eunuch (εὐνοῦχος) in the Greek is the same word for prime minister, chamberlain, royal administrator. In the Ancient Near East, voluntary castration was the surest, safest way to ascend to governmental power. Royal families need not jealously guard their thrones from those who could not produce an heir of their own. This eunuch, Luke reports, is the CFO, the Secretary of the Treasury, for Queen Candace of Ethiopia.
So what do we know about this man in the chariot?
He’s a big shot in the cabinet of a powerful first century empire. He’s made no small sacrifice for the sake of his career, and it’s paid off. He’s climbed just about every rung on the ladder someone without royal blood can climb. He has power. He has prestige. He has authority. That he’s got his own personal copy of the Isaiah scroll shows he’s got money to burn.
And it’s not enough.
At some point, the empty light blinked on on his spiritual dashboard. How else do you explain the extraordinary journey he embarked upon, traveling from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. The distance is over fifteen hundred miles one way. I don’t know the average highway speed of a chariot, but the estimated travel time by car is over fifty hours. Not only is such a journey dangerous, by being absent from the office for months he’s essentially forfeited his position of power. He’s traveled an unimaginable distance on his dime, possibly forsaking the life for which he gave the ultimate sacrifice, in order to connect to the true and living God.
And now he’s on his way back home.
What Luke doesn’t tell you, what Luke skillfully leaves unsaid, what Luke expects you to know is that when he finally arrived at the temple, exhausted and filthy from months on the road, he was turned away.
You can’t come in here.
You can’t be a part of the congregation.
Ordinary Gentiles could only venture as close as the outer court of the temple, back where they stuck the unseemly stuff like the money-changers’s tables.
But eunuchs were forbidden entirely. If he’d owned more than a Isaiah scroll, he’d know. It’s in the Mosaic Law: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Not only can he not participate in the worship life of Israel, he cannot even make an offering to the Lord. No one with crushed testicles can draw near to the altar of the temple or make an offering. To do so, says the law in Leviticus 21, would be to defile and profane the Lord’s sanctuary.
Look, I’m sorry, one of the gatekeepers told him, it’s in the Book of Discipline. You’re incompatible with Jewish teaching.
About ten years ago, I got a call one Saturday morning from a friend and former colleague. Andrew had served as the youth minister on my staff for a number of years. He was baptized and nurtured in a Methodist Church. He’d been active in his own youth group and, later, campus ministry so when he graduated from William and Mary he felt called to serve as a youth pastor. And he was great at it and great to work alongside. A Bible nerd, during Holy Week one year, Andrew had the youth build an exact replica, scene for scene, of the passion story out of Legos. Andrew could unpack difficult points of theology for confirmation students. When one of those confirmands committed suicide, I trusted Andrew to do the pastoral care and funeral with me. His call was clear and the fruits of his ministry were many.
Still, there was always a sadness about Andrew I couldn’t name.
Eventually, Andrew left to study theology at Yale. He started the ordination process and served a tiny congregation near New Haven that loved him.
Then one Saturday, just two years into his studies, Andrew called me to tell me he’d decided to finish early with a different degree.
“But why?” I asked, “You’ve still got a third of the credits you need for ordination.”
“I’m not going to pursue ordination.”
“Not going to pursue ordination? What happened?”
And then Andrew came out of the closet to me.
After we talked for a while, Andrew brought it back to ministry. “I’m not going to go on this long journey to ordination only to be told at the end of it, ‘You’re not welcome.’”
I tried to dissuade him. “If the Holy Spirit’s really calling you,” I said, “do you think the Holy Spirit gives a rip what sort of bylaws the bureaucrats in the United Methodist Church try to put in your way? The Church has never been able to stop the Holy Spirit before.”
But that probably sounded as unlikely as finding water in the desert because after saying goodbye to me he said good riddance to the church.
He was on his way back home.
You can see from our text today just why it is that we have these fights in the church. On the one hand, scripture does have these laws and limitations. On the other hand, fidelity to scripture also requires we acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is free to act in ways that seem to contravene those laws and limitations. Or rather, the Holy Spirit is the preacher who proclaims that all those laws and limitations meet their end in Jesus Christ.
There’s a reason why, despite having been turned away by the Church— I mean the Temple, this Ethiopian eunuch is so personally invested in reading the prophet Isaiah. Remember he’s reading a scroll. It’s not a book whose pages you turn. It’s a scroll you unwind. And that means as he unfurls the Isaiah scroll to read the portion Luke quotes, he would see just below it— it would’ve been in his view— this promise:
“Do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs…
5 I will give a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”
According to the prophet Isaiah— no, according to the Holy Spirit who spoke through the prophets— the lamb who is slain abrogates and overrides the Torah teaching on the exclusion of all those who are broken and blemished, defiled or unclean. Or, as the Apostle Paul paraphrases for the Church in Rome, “Christ Jesus is the end of the law.”
Can you imagine this eunuch reading, “To the eunuch…I will give a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name…?” He’s got to be thinking, There’s no other way to pass on your name but sons and daughters. What is this everlasting name that will never be cut off?
All through this part of the Isaiah scroll there is a strange, enigmatic figure the Lord calls “my Servant.”
A Suffering Servant.
And did you catch why a eunuch would take an interest in the passage Luke cites? This Servant is “led like a lamb to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so that he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken. And who can speak of his descendants?”
Who can speak of his descendants?
Isaiah is promising a Servant who voluntarily becomes like a lamb that is slain and voluntarily becoming like a eunuch. Luke doesn’t quote it but it’s the very next line in the Suffering Servant song, “For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.”
And at the precise moment this eunuch is sitting there in his chariot wondering “Who is this? Who is this Servant that ends my exclusion? Who is this Servant who can give me an everlasting name apart from sons or daughters? Who is this Servant who made himself like a eunuch, cut off for the transgressions of others?” at the very moment he’s wondering “Who is this?” Phillip runs up alongside the chariot and asks, “Say, do you need any help understanding what you’re reading?”
The Holy Spirit has choreographed this converting conversation down to the split second.
“Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” he asks Phillip.
Someone very else.
Someone absolutely singular.
Phillip, Luke says, then proclaims to the eunuch the good news about Jesus, born in a manger and died on a cross, who became a lamb who was slain, who became a leper to the leper, who became a eunuch for the eunuch. The message of the Isaiah scroll that the eunuch’s been reading is that Mosaic Codes about clean and unclean, inclusion and exclusion, holiness and sin, point to the deeper spiritual truth that measured by our own merit, under God’s law, we all deserve to be excluded. We’re all eunuchs. We’re all incompatible with God’s teaching. Because of Sin, not one of us loves God will all our heart, mind, soul, and strength neither do any of us love our neighbor as ourselves. None of us can earn our inclusion. We all deserve to be excluded but Jesus Christ was excluded on the cross so that we might be brought in. He was made unclean so that we might be cleansed. He became sin so that we might become righteous.
We could never make it ourselves.
We could never cleanse ourselves of sin.
We could never make ourselves righteous— we could never be good enough.
But Jesus Christ has done it for us.
That’s the good news about Jesus.
And that’s why there’s nothing that hinders this unclean, defiled, excluded other from full inclusion into Christ’s Body. There’s nothing he must do or undo because everything has already been done.
The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the glad and surprising news that makes this eunuch look for the first puddle he can find, is that the inclusion that is impossible for you has been gifted to you by grace, fully and permanently, unconditionally and irrevocably.
The Book of Discipline notwithstanding, in the United Methodist Church we’ve gotten pretty good at using that word inclusivity. You can go to denominational gatherings and just about hear no other word but that word, inclusivity. Unfortunately, we’ve become less adept at communicating how that word relates to the Gospel word. We’re not as clear that all are welcome not for the sake of all being welcomed or because we want to tell ourselves we’re a friendly church. All are welcome because the message of mercy and the forgiveness of sins is for everyone to the ends of the earth. All are welcome because all need to hear the news that apart from the merit of Jesus Christ alone, our substitute lamb, none are included.
Our inclusion is possible solely on the basis of his exclusion in our place.
It’s not just a Methodist problem.
Scott Anson Benhase is the Episcopal bishop in Georgia. In his book, Done and Left Undone: Grace in the Meantime of Parish Ministry, he writes:
Years ago when I was recruiting at one of our seminaries, I ended each interview by doing a role-play. I asked each seminarian to tell me why I should join their church.
They all mentioned community. I said I attended AA. I had all the needed support.
They mentioned outreach opportunities. I replied I was an active member of Rotary. I was already fully involved in helping needy folk.
Lastly, they mentioned the glorious music program at their church. I responded I had season tickets to the local symphony. I already enjoyed plenty of great music.
I waited patiently for some mention of how their church could meet my greatest need, namely, to be reconciled with God through Jesus by his cross. Never came.
One did mention Jesus would be a good exemplar for my life, so I gave him points for that.
Churches aren’t social clubs, community service providers, or concert halls.
We got one thing and one thing only: God’s grace in Jesus.
We’re stewards of the Great Narrative of Redemption. When we busy ourselves with other tasks, we’ll lead, but it won’t be missional leadership.
Like the churches Jesus addresses in John’s Revelation, we’re focused on the wrong thing.
We’ve lost track of “the main thing.” We think evangelism is convincing people to adopt our positions on social issues. Now, let me just get this out of the way. I’m onboard with the stances the Episcopal Church has taken in my lifetime, whether on human sexuality and gender issues, addressing our need for racial reconciliation, justice for immigrants, reducing income inequality, etc.
BUT none of that is the primary mission of the Church. The ONLY thing we have other groups don’t have is “Jesus Christ and him crucified” for every last one of this world’s sinners (i.e., people like you and me).
If we lead with anything other than the need for Jesus’s cross to reconcile sinners to God, then why would anyone join our churches? They can get everything they need (but that) from some other organization. And those organizations are probably better at it than we are.
A few years ago, after the United Methodist Church’s latest front page squabble over sexuality, I asked a woman in my congregation, who ushered every Sunday, a lesbian, what she made of all our pearl-clutching and political gamesmanship over the LGBTQ issue.
“I think we talk about it way too much,” she said.
“Too much? What do you mean?”
“Frankly, pastor, I’m sick and tired of people like you constantly going on about how people like me are welcome here.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, “I assumed you’d want to know you’re included.”
She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “No. All it does is reduce me to an identity— Gay Woman. I’ve got a bigger identity that needs addressed.”
“A bigger identity? What’s that?”
And she looked at me like I was the slowest person or the worst preacher in the world. “Um, SINNER. I don’t come here because I need to be reminded I’m gay. I need to be reminded I’m forgiven.”
And as she handed me that morning’s worship bulletin, I felt like I’d just had my world skillfully cracked open.
8:26 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.)
8:27 So he got up and went. 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
8:28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
8:29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”
8:30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
8:31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
8:32 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.
8:33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
8:34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
8:35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
8:36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
8:38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
8:39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
8:40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
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