A eunuch rolls into a graduation ceremony on a chariot…

This sermon was preached by my colleague, Natalie Magnusson, at our graduation service for MRE graduates this past Saturday. Natalie is the Assistant Director of the MRE and has led our students in their pursuit of God-centered Identity through the use of a cohort Rule of Life. I asked if I could post her sermon on this blog for two reasons. First, it’s just a great sermon. Second, she began not with the topic, “graduation sermon,” but by taking a text from this week’s lectionary readings. Beginning there, she did a masterful job listening to both the text and our learning context to sound just the right notes for the day. Through intertextual echoes, she performed the text on the stage of commencement. To all preachers, go and do likewise.

Acts 8:26-40

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.) 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 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.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 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.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 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. 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

This might just be the first commencement ceremony ever to feature an Ethiopian eunuch! In typical MRE fashion, however, it seems fitting to call our attention to a stranger. To be compelled by the Spirit to run after and to be hosted by this stranger… 

The Spirit of God is wasting no time here in the book of Acts and is bringing Jesus’ final words into fulfillment, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Just before our encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, the persecution and scattering of the church in Jerusalem begins. We find Philip in Samaria proclaiming the gospel to a group of Jews who are considered impure. The Samaritans are not welcomed in the center of traditional Jewish life and worship, yet God welcomes them in, and they too receive the Holy Spirit! The inclusion of the Samaritans prepares us for what is next… 

An angel of the Lord sends Philip and us to the south. Luke makes sure that we know this is not the Santa Monica Freeway or the Dallas North Tollway. This is a wilderness road…more like an abandoned road in Nebraska. A road that feels like we’ve reached the ends of the earth. So we are surprised to see off in the distance another traveler on the road! As we approach closer, we are even more surprised to discover that this chariot is a royal chariot from a faraway land, a Lamborghini driving along the bumpy backroads of Indiana. The passenger is none other than an Ethiopian eunuch in charge of the queen’s treasury. While his royal duties no doubt offer him a significant social status, it comes with a price. In order to protect the wealth and the power of the queen, he has been castrated. His body has been mutilated for the sake of the crown. So…we are surprised to hear that he has just been in Jerusalem to worship, as Jewish law clearly excludes eunuchs from entering the temple! Why travel all that way to be barred from entry? Why read the holy scriptures of a religion that has closed you out? Yet this tension is the exact place in the narrative where the Spirit of God compels Philip and us to run, not walk, but to run to the eunuch.

His body has been mutilated for the sake of the crown…I can’t help but think of other bodies in our world who are mutilated and exterminated for the sake of the powers that be. The words, “I can’t breathe…” come to mind….Or the countless indigenous peoples who have been annihilated or removed from native lands, often by the hands of Christians. Or the African bodies that have been enslaved and exchanged as commodities for the sake of deepening the imperial, and then later, colonial purse, once again, often by the hands of Christians. Or the bodies of marginalized women around the world who are often sterilized without consent, forced to make our goods in sweat-shops, and trafficked as pawns in the sex industry. Or the bodies of Mexican and Central and South American children who are separated from their parents at the border for the sake of US immigration policy and control. Or the bodies of our transgender neighbors who are used in a large game of partisan politics. Or the Black bodies who continue to be brutalized and incarcerated at alarming rates for the sake of asserting white superiority. Sadly, these are no exaggerations…these are not mirages of chariots on the horizon. Human bodies continue to be treated as objects to be controlled and then humiliated and excluded based off of the narratives and rules we have assigned them. Those of us of privilege or in power have arranged, or at least participate in, a no-win situation. For those of us who literally hold the keys of our churches, we toss and turn at night wondering why people do not want to step foot in our doors. But maybe what we’re learning here is it’s not about getting people into our doors. Maybe it’s about running instead…

So as we find ourselves running headlong towards the chariot, we start to feel anxious about what’s next. Do we fumble around for our church’s brochure that features activities in which this eunuch couldn’t participate or feel comfortable? Do we anxiously scroll through our brains to find the top three evangelistic points to preach to an unlikely convert? Or my favorite, Do we wave from a distance and wish him the best in finding a community that is a good fit? Thankfully Philip and the Spirit have been at this longer than us. No anxious or awkward moves needed, unless you take running up alongside a chariot as awkward! We take our cue from Philip’s openness to the eunuch to appear on his own terms. Rather than acting out of assumptions and unloading all of his evangelistic zeal on the eunuch, Philip opens space so that the eunuch may express his particular needs and invite Philip to join him…to sit beside him. Philip’s Jewish upbringing has the potential to trigger fear and disgust in him, yet he chooses to risk close proximity. Philip could have asked the eunuch to stop his chariot and meet with him on his terms in the safety of the wide-open road. Instead, Philip, and us along with him, climb into the space of a reasonably friendly looking stranger, the space of one who has been degraded and shamed. The eunuch is now the host, and we find ourselves dwelling together in the ancient words of Isaiah.

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asks, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” Having just been in Jerusalem as Saul is ravaging the church, it is likely the eunuch has heard rumblings of a man named Jesus who was led to the slaughter. There is a chance he might already be starting to connect the dots from this Isaiah text to Jesus. He possibly has Jesus in mind as the “someone else,” but I wonder…if he’s holding out hopes that he too might be able to find himself in the “someone else.” The eunuch has also been silenced, humiliated, denied justice, and had his life taken away from him for the sake of the powers that be. 

We’re not sure if the eunuch has opened his scroll wider and skipped ahead in Isaiah in order to read Isaiah’s proclamation about eunuchs. It says:

…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 them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off.”

Philip no doubt has read this part of Isaiah. Luke has read it. The hearers of Acts have heard it. We have read it. The good news of Jesus that Philip proclaims is the good news of the eunuch being welcomed fully into the household of God! The good news is that the narrative, the role-centered identity, that others have written about the eunuch is not the end of the story. Just as the mutilated lamb of God has been raised up, the eunuch is being and will be made new in the eschatological redemption and resurrection of our bodies. He will no longer be cut off in body and from community, and God is already welcoming him in as he is. Humiliation and injustice do not have the last word in the kingdom of God.

The Ethiopian is so overcome in response to this good news, that he is compelled to find water for baptism! I find it striking that Luke phrases it this way, “both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away.” Of course, we could say that Luke is using the word “both” because Philip needs to get into the water to baptize the eunuch. But I think Luke is conveying something more here. It seems as though Philip and the eunuch have both experienced a conversion moment of sorts. Philip flashes back to those moments of his past when he has participated in forbidding eunuchs and others from entering into the house of God. Philip, too, is overwhelmed on this wilderness road with the expansive love of God. The kind of love that will run after a eunuch!

Perhaps you find yourself most in the Ethiopian eunuch. For much of your life you have felt taken advantage of, silenced, and excluded for the sake of those who seek to maintain control and supremacy. Opportunities and life have been taken from you because of things you cannot control, such as your gender, race, ethnicity, or physicality. You have had a yearning for God and for full participation in the people of God, but you have not known how to get past the key holders. You are so weary from the exclusion that you are about ready to give up. Today God runs after you in this wilderness space and is hosted by your curiosity, longings, and welcome. The God who was also humiliated and denied of justice sits beside you and listens attentively to your own humiliation and denial of justice. God welcomes you in a way you’ve never been welcomed before, and you go on your way rejoicing in your new vocation of hospitality. 

Or perhaps you find yourself in Philip or being called into the life of Philip. You are being sent away from familiar surroundings and spaces of comfort. The church is no longer as you’ve known it. It feels scattered. The Spirit keeps pressing you into encounters with people you once did everything possible to avoid. You are discovering that the welcome of God can occur in the wildest of spaces and in the people whom you think have nothing to offer. In fact, you are realizing that the very people churches have most often excluded, because of their bodies, are the ones who are displaying the openness, curiosity, and welcome of Christ. You find yourself sitting alongside and listening to the voices of those you’ve sought your whole life to silence. You are humbled and feel the power of the Holy Spirit baptizing you into the embracing life of the Triune God all over again. 

Some of you might be afraid I’m doing an altar call and that we’re about to wheel up a baptismal tub right here and now! That would certainly be an eventful way to end our time together in the MRE! As much fun as that would be, my hope is that through this narrative the Spirit is compelling each of us to run after and sit beside any person who has been silenced or taken advantage of for the sake of control. That we will have the humility to repent of the ways we have participated in exclusion and trust the Spirit who leads us into wilderness spaces, spaces that seem abhorrent to us. May our eyes become attuned to the lamb of God who is most apparent in those who have been humiliated and denied of justice. And may we choose not to look away but instead choose to risk close proximity. As graduates of the MRE, may you go forth from here continuing to yield to the Spirit of God and find yourself always hosted by the stranger.  

About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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