a sermon on Acts 8:26-40
It’s kind of amazing, really. We gather every week around a book whose newest parts are over nineteen hundred years old. We trust that these texts written by very different people from a very different cultural context can and will guide us and support us in our own life and living. We hope that these ancient words we offer us good news for our world today, and they usually do. When we are set in the middle of this world as clearly as we are, it is so easy to forget how surprising and amazing it all really is.
Even more amazingly, the transformative power of scripture is nothing new. Our reading this morning from Acts describes an incredible encounter with scripture on a road from Jerusalem to Gaza, where the Holy Spirit joined with an Ethiopian eunuch and the apostle Philip to open these words for new life.
The Ethiopian eunuch was traveling back to his home after a visit to the temple in Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship. The book of Acts doesn’t give us his name, but we learn a lot about him from just a few details. First of all, he was Ethiopian—in that day, something that didn’t necessarily mean modern-day Ethiopia, but he was certainly a darker-skinned man from the mysterious lands of Africa south of Egypt. Then, we learn that he was a eunuch, that is, that he had been castrated at some point, likely before he could have any say in the matter, so that he would be a more valuable servant in the royal household because it was felt that he would pose no sexual threat to the women there. Acts goes on to give us even more details, that he was a trusted court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. His wealth and status meant that he could travel by chariot, carry his own copy of religious books, and read the Greek that was the main language of that day.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, this man was also intrigued by the world of Judaism. He had traveled a long way to worship at the temple even though he would not be fully welcome there. If he was a Gentile, he would have been excluded from the inner court of the temple on that basis, and if he was a Jew, he would have been kept out because he was a eunuch. Still, scripture was clearly a gift to him. He spent his trip home reading the words of the prophet Isaiah, trying to figure out what it meant and whether or not this faith and practice could have any meaning for him. These words, written at least five hundred years before his own time, to people who lived very differently from him, in a way that was often interpreted to exclude him, managed to penetrate his own life, and he wanted to respond.
So by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit, Philip shows up in this eunuch’s life. Philip had set out on his own journey along this same wilderness road, and by the guidance of the Spirit, he caught up with the chariot, heard the eunuch reading Isaiah, and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The eunuch invited Philip in to help him with that interpretation, and together they explored how these words stepped beyond their original context in the exiled people of Israel and into their lives.
They were reading and discussing a passage from Isaiah 53, words that point to “a sheep… led to the slaughter,” “a lamb silent before its shearer,” and one “in his humiliation justice was denied him.” The eunuch asked Philip directly, “About whom is the prophet speaking, himself or someone else?” He was wondering out loud if this text might connect to someone in his own situation, someone who knew what it was like to be humiliated, to be slaughtered a bit, to face the denial of justice for himself. Philip then connected these words not just to the eunuch but to Jesus, invoking Jesus’ experience of suffering and injustice in his lowly and outcast state, connecting the eunuch not only to the prophet’s words describing the experience of Israel in exile but to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. By the power of the Holy Spirit, these amazing words reached beyond their original time and place to not only resonate in the life of one who knew what it was like to be cut off but to describe the incredible possibility of new life that has come to all humanity in and through Jesus Christ.
From here, the eunuch could do nothing more than to respond in joy. He wanted to be a part of all this for himself, to connect this message to his living in the royal court, to seal it on his life for all the days to come. So when they came upon some water along the side of the road, the eunuch asked Philip if he could be baptized, and so they shared in this ritual cleansing that led them both into new life. Even after Philip was “snatched away,” the eunuch went on his way rejoicing, for these words he admired so much were finally now connected to his life, and he could live in joy and praise all his days.
Scripture should be such a gift to us, too, to send us on our way rejoicing. Just as it broke into the world of this Ethiopian eunuch, scripture speaks into our time and place, into our lives and our world, as we see and hear God responding to the things around us. Scripture breaks into our lives to show us God present in the pain and hurt of our lives, to offer us God’s voice speaking out against the injustice of our world, and to remind us that God steps in again and again to transform brokenness into new life. Scripture challenges us to connect these ancient stories into our own world, to sort out how God’s presence among a backwater people who were never all that important in their own day and age matters for us today, to connect God’s affinity for the poor and outcast of scriptural times with the oppression of people in our own time, to look for God stepping in to bring new life in places where disaster seems to be all around.
In these days where we face the challenges of everyday life and living, where we wonder what kind of justice can settle in our nation amidst so much conflict, where we cry out “How long, O Lord?” because of the depth of pain and suffering around us, we need scripture to speak to us more than ever. How can we see God in our individual lives when things turn weird and everything seems to be going wrong? How then are we to understand how God is present amidst those who have been humiliated or denied justice in our world? How can we imagine that God will step in to bring relief to those who know the deep horror of destruction in the face of natural disaster?
Scripture assures us that we need look no further than Christ himself, who stepped in to bring comfort and peace when things went weird and wrong, who knew for himself the pain of systematic brutality and the horror of unjust punishment, who offered comfort and compassion to those who suffered so that all might flourish and go on the way rejoicing.
So may the Holy Spirit inspire us too along our way, that like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch we might know and understand God’s call in our lives and world, remaining present with those seeking a new way, walking with those who need a word of faithfulness and hope, and looking for scripture and the Holy Spirit to continue to speak to us so that we can join the eunuch and so many others and go on our way rejoicing. Thanks be to God! Amen.