Grace on a Wilderness Road
Our story from the Book of Acts is from a time in the life of the apostles when they have left Jerusalem in order to bring the gospel to non-Jews as well as Jews. They began in Samaria, and it was there that an angel told Philip simply to start walking – walking or riding an animal or anything – but to head in the direction of the far side of Jerusalem along the road that goes down to Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. He goes. He isn’t told why to go, but he must believe that the angel has for him a continuation of the plan for evangelization.
Philip is walking along that wilderness road when the Spirit tells him to approach a fine chariot that is going by. I wonder what its passenger thought when a stranger started jogging alongside and asked him how it was going with his reading today. In those days, reading was done aloud, even when alone. Some four hundred years later, St. Augustine experienced his total conversion to Christ’s service while reading aloud – he had heard a heavenly voice say of a nearby Bible, “Take it and read!” Philip was a Greek-speaking Jew, so he understood the eunuch’s reading, recognizing the verses from Isaiah from the Greek translation on the scroll.
The eunuch was well-off, it is clear. He was literate in Greek; he had a fine chariot. We learn that he was in charge of the royal treasury of Ethiopia. He may not literally have been from Ethiopia; that is how the author of Acts, thought to be the evangelist Luke, referred to all of Africa below the known land of Egypt. Was the eunuch a Jew? We don’t know. He may have been a God-fearer – not a convert but a believer nonetheless. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship there. If he was not a Jew, he could have gotten no closer to the temple than the Court of the Gentiles. If he were a Jew, he also couldn’t have approached the temple because of an injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy that banned from temple worship any who had been sexually mutilated. This man had probably been castrated at a young age, before he was old enough to really make an informed decision. Perhaps the decision was made by his family. In his society, as in many others, some almost to the modern period, castration was required of those men who would be in contact with the women of the royal or ruling family. Perhaps this man’s own family wished more than anything for him to have such a position of power. When Philip meets him, he is in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace – the queen mother of whatever is his country. The author of Acts doesn’t give him a name but keeps emphasizing that he is “the eunuch,” over and over. Clearly, this is an important element to the story.
Philip, jogging alongside the chariot, asks if the man understands the verses of Isaiah that he is reading. With total humility, the man says no – he would need a guide. Philip promptly jumps in to the chariot! The verses from Isaiah that the man had been reading refer to an anonymous “suffering servant” – a sheep led to the slaughter, silent in the face of its shearer, humiliated and denied justice. The eunuch says that he cannot understand these verses without a guide, but I think he brings a lot of human understanding to them. He, too, has literally been shorn. He has endured humiliation. He is considered altered and defiled. Philip then shares with him the good news of Jesus the Messiah, stating, we learn, with these verses on the Suffering Servant from Isaiah. In this, we learn of the early church’s interpretation of Christ as being that servant – that they considered Isaiah’s verses as prophesying the messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth. I wonder what the eunuch heard in the story of Christ that may have resonated with his own. I wonder if there is something we each can learn from Christ, and from the eunuch who comes to believe in him, about how to live with our own humiliation, or things about us that make us feel excluded from religion, school, family, whatever. I wonder if the eunuch heard that he was not alone, that even the one who is messiah was humiliated unto death, that suffering will be redeemed, that God is just, even or especially – when humanity is not, and that there is a community of God-fearers who will accept and love him exactly as he is. Let us hear that same message ourselves!
The eunuch asks Philip, “About whom does the prophet say this?” and Philip testifies to him about Jesus. But I think the eunuch is wondering, could salvation be for me? Could liberation even be for someone like me? And the good news – the best news in the universe, is that the answer is yes. “Could I be included, even me, amongst those who are being saved?” the eunuch wants to know. Yes – the beautiful answer is yes.
The eunuch then has a third and final important question. The chariot passes a body of water and he asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He is not asking a rhetorical question to say that he’s totally ready to hop into the water now, he really wants to know: are there any impediments to my joining the community of Christ? On his mind may be the following: his status as a mutilated person, or maybe his nationality, or maybe his wealth, or maybe his particular job, or maybe that he serves the wrong sovereign – the Candace, not the Christ. Philip tells him that nothing about him, nothing to do with his identity or politics or past or present, can obstruct his path to the water. The only thing that matters is that he is ready to make a confession of faith. The man does so, he rises up from the water and goes on towards his home country rejoicing, rejoicing for the rest of his life, I hope, so filled with love for Christ, and the beautiful knowledge of Christ’s love for him. The text doesn’t tell us his reaction to Philip’s sudden vanishing – the Spirit had moved him on in a split-second to a new region that needed the good news. The eunuch has his own blessed life to live, and the gospel to share with all at home. His story is that of the first introduction of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Africa. A lowly, yet lofty, eunuch is God’s choice as the first emissary.
Perhaps this eunuch’s story speaks to you through the very good news it shares about the redemption of your humiliation, your suffering, or societal challenges you may experience related to some aspect of your identity. I hope that we all hear and take away the good news of the radical inclusiveness of the community of Christ. That it isn’t practiced everywhere today is not the fault of Christ or his teachings but of the habits of some of his followers. Differences of worship styles, theologies, and rites are not a problem; they’re beautiful expressions of how different people manifest the faith that is in them. But through it all, we are to open wide the doors of our churches and our hearts to all who show us they are hungry for spiritual food, for the bread of life, for the life that really is life. Christ’s earthly ministry was one of radical inclusion, and he teaches us to do the same.
I hope, too, that we all learn from Philip and his new friend just how much grace can break out on a wilderness road. Philip and the other apostles were racing to share the gospel with as many people as possible, but he found himself sent not to a teaching city but to the desert. He went anyway. Wherever we find ourselves, especially if it is very far from where we think we ought to be, let us consider ourselves to have been sent there as an opportunity to help someone out. Our mundane days, our frustrating days, the days we consider “lost” because we have to spend our time on what we do not see as our calling – every day and every location provides an opportunity to share grace and love and acceptance with another in the spirit of Christ. No wilderness road, it seems, is too far out to be an opportunity to serve, to help, to save. Let’s be on the lookout for those chariots, and jog right up to them!
D. L. Bartlett & B.B. Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol.2, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008) pp. 454-459.