Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter V, May 3, 2015
[The Ethiopian eunuch] had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:27-29)
Before she retired, my mother, who has a nursing degree, worked as the office manager for four OB-GYN doctors in High Point, North Carolina. Once in a blue moon, I’d get to ride along in the car with her as she drove to work and hang out at the doctors’ office. But the most interesting part for me, each time, came on the way there. I’d put my face against the car window, anticipating something that we’d always pass by. It was the Bentley dealership on Main Street.
There, behind a facade of glass, several Bentley and Rolls Royce motor cars were guaranteed to be on full display, brightly illuminated. And even though that’s as close as I ever got to a Rolls Royce, it was still a bit of a thrill, a brief glimpse at something very much out of the ordinary for a young boy from a nearby small town.
In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, Philip, who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, has a similar experience. He wasn’t, however, walking down Main Street in High Point and oddly seeing a Rolls Royce. Rather, he was walking down a road in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza. And what he sees there on the way is a chariot, not at arms’ length, behind glass, but up close and personal. The person of power and privilege in the chariot is an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Ethiopian queen, “in charge of her entire treasury.” I’ll bet his robes were rather nice, too, especially compared to what Philip was probably wearing.
This would have been like hiking along a remote dirt road in West Texas and being surprised by the sight of a fully-charged Tesla parked off to the side. And sitting inside the Tesla is someone who turns out to be not only a person of color and a sexual minority but also the personal assistant of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The whole thing is actually pretty bizarre, long before you get to the part at the end about Philip vanishing, whatever that means. It would make a strange movie on the big screen, as though you had become lost on the road to the Twilight Zone. And yet, this entire scene — all of it — is somehow directed by the Spirit, by the mysterious presence of God at work in the world around us.
Our text tells us that Philip had been sent to travel south on that road by an angel, a messenger from God. And when he sees the Ethiopian eunuch reading the words of the prophet Isaiah from a scroll, the Spirit tells Philip to go over to the chariot. He had been reading about “a lamb silent before its shearer” that was humiliated and slaughtered and denied justice. Philip asks him if he understands the meaning of those words. The Ethiopian eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And that’s when Philip, perhaps to his astonishment, is invited to climb into the chariot and sit down beside this exotic stranger from a distant land.
Philip talks to him about the good news of Jesus, who died innocently at the hands of religious and political leaders before being raised from the dead and vindicated by God. In Jesus, God suffers like we do. In Jesus, God embraces not only our suffering but us too. And then things get even weirder. While they’re traveling in the chariot through the wilderness, the Ethiopian eunuch spots something. He says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Well, actually, lots of things — things that many, many people, perhaps including Philip, would have said prevent him absolutely, in the name of God, from being baptized.
Author Rachel Held Evans has made her own journey through the wilderness that has brought her into the Episcopal Church, not out of but with her evangelical identity. In her newest book Searching for Sunday, which describes that journey of faith, she reflects at one point on this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Pondering his question about baptism, she writes:
We don’t know how long that question, brimming with such childlike joy it wrenches the heart, hung vulnerable as a drop of water in the desert air. At another time in his life, Philip might have pointed to the eunuch’s ethnicity, or his anatomy, or his inability to gain access to the ceremonial baths that made a person clean. But instead, with no additional conversation between the travelers, the chariot lumbered to a halt and Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find. It might have been a river, or it might have been a puddle in the road.
Philip got out of God’s way. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in. Nothing could prevent the eunuch from being baptized, for the mountains of obstruction had been plowed down, the rocky hills had been made smooth, and God had cleared a path. There was holy water everywhere.
There are several things that are amazing to me about this whole story. The first is the devotion of this Ethiopian eunuch. He’s an outsider who’s interested in Judaism, as evidenced by the fact that he had gone up to Jerusalem to worship. We might be tempted to think of him as the first Gentile convert to Christianity. But that distinction goes to someone else in the pages of scripture, Cornelius the Centurian, who appears a couple of chapters later in the Book of Acts.
So the Ethiopian eunuch is treated here more like a Jewish convert to Christianity. And his devotion is remarkable in light of the fact that the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, for example, strictly forbids a man who has been sexually mutilated from joining the assembly of the Lord and, presumably, from entering the inner courts of the temple. He was too profane to be allowed to get too close. And yet he eagerly sought this God whose presence he could only experience from a distance and whose representatives ensured that he knew his place there on the outside.
I also marvel at the reality that there’s more than one conversion taking place here. It’s not just the Ethiopian eunuch who’s being converted but also Philip. In her memoir entitled Pastrix, Lutheran pastor and certified forgiven-sinner Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about this mystery that speaks, I think, to all of us here today:
Perhaps Philip, in this conversation with a gender-transgressive foreigner — which consisted only of questions — learned what seeking the Lord really looked like, in a way that could only be learned from someone who did it in the face of so much opposition and rejection.
“I started to think,” she writes,
. . . that maybe I couldn’t actually understand what it meant to follow Jesus unless I, too, had a stranger show me.
Whether you agree with Nadia Bolz-Weber about Philip’s conversion, it’s clear from the text that God, not Philip, is behind everything that unfolds in this story. I don’t know about you, but I find it to be exceedingly good news that a miracle like this comes from God’s strength rather than my own. I simply pray that I will be led by the Spirit in the same way that Philip was led and that, most importantly, I’ll trust the one who’s leading me, with or without a fancy chariot, on this wilderness road.
The most astonishing thing of all, of course, is the truth that not only does the Ethiopian eunuch get brought into the household of God but also me . . . and you, and the person sitting next to you, and the man across the aisle whom you admire, and the woman several pews in front of you whom you honestly don’t think deserves to be here, and the babies who cry out the way that we really want to cry out to God ourselves, and the children who get restless and ask questions and have the kind of faith that God requires of all of us.
The Spirit has somehow brought us together in this place and time to follow Jesus together, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when we can’t comprehend the wideness of God’s mercy that embraces us and the whole world in arms of the Crucified One — all of us, Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, those with a faith that runs deep and those with hardly any faith at all.
The Spirit is at work in our midst in ways that we can barely believe to be true. And yet it is true, breaking through the glass wall that separates us, not from a Rolls Royce, but from one another. And for that, we can only say, “Thanks be to God.”
1 BACK TO POST Acts 8:27.
2 BACK TO POST Acts 8:32-33.
3 BACK TO POST Acts 8:31.
4 BACK TO POST Acts 8:36.
5 BACK TO POST Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nashville, Nelson Books, 2015) 39.
6 BACK TO POST Acts 10:1-48.
7 BACK TO POST Deuteronomy 23:1.
8 BACK TO POST Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013) 93.
9 BACK TO POST Bolz-Weber 93-94.