A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 2 May 2021 by Revd Sally Hitchiner.
Readings of address: Acts chapter 8.26-40
I wonder which part you would say is the heart of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Would it be our wonderful choir or the Sunday International Group? Would it be a particular service or small group? A particular person? Our Acts reading today helps us with that wondering. Let’s turn to it now.
It was swelteringly hot, a strange time of day to be on the move. Who takes a trip through the desert in the heat of the day? Philip, one of the first deacons, commissioned to reach out to those on the edge in the early church, should have been at home dozing in the shade, but he had felt compelled to wake up from his siesta, to travel out south down the road away from Jerusalem.
It was a strange time generally. It was not long since Pentecost, when Jews who were born elsewhere in the world, had heard the invitation to accept Jesus as their Messiah, not in Aramaic or Hebrew, the languages of Jerusalem but in their native languages.
But this was in contrast with the religious powers. A chapter before we see Stephen speaking out, declaring the Jewish identity of being the chosen people of God was now fulfilled by the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. Their response was violent and public. Stephen was executed and Saul and others set out to purge the faith of these dangerous new pollutants.
And as the dust settled, Philip is called by God to wake up from his midday slumber and to walk, in the heat of the day, south on the road out of Jerusalem.
Philip wasn’t the only person on this road at this strange time.
We may perceive this other man on the road differently to Philip. This man is African. The account in Acts refers to him as Ethiopian but it is the area we now call Sudan. Many African-American scholars have highlighted the colour of his skin but point out that people from this region at that time were revered as a noble and aspirational race. Homer talks in the Iliad about the “blameless Ethiopians”. Others talk about them as the tallest and most hansom people of all humankind, that the sacrifices offered by the Ethiopians were offered with such piety that they must be the most acceptable by the gods. In the Hebrew scriptures, the Cushites (as they were called then), were thought of as rich, thoughtful, and dignified. The promise of the Old Testament prophets speaking to little Israel was that even the Cushites would come to worship the Jewish God. This man in our story fits all those stereotypes.
He rides a state of the art chariot; he is chief of a famous queen’s treasury. He is intelligent. He can read Hebrew (and probably a dozen other languages) and he carries with him a scroll of Isaiah that he seems to have bought in Jerusalem. People did not carry around personal pocket bibles in those days. This man is rich enough and intellectually curious enough to have bought a piece of Hebrew scripture for himself to take home. Part of Isaiah has captured him. Before he even gets home he is trying to understand it. In spite of the heat he asks his driver to slow down to a little more than walking pace so he can concentrate. He reads it aloud, wondering if it will help him to understand it better.
But not all is well. There’s a level of frustration in his lack of ability to find someone who can help him access this text. You begin to wonder what happened in Jerusalem. Had he found the faith leaders there snooty? Willing to take his cash but not willing to help him understand their holy book?
Mahatma Gandhi tells a story of when he was a youth, he went to an Anglican church to ask about this person Jesus who he was so impressed by. The priest told him to go home to his own people and his own religion. I cannot imagine how many times this has happened to other people who don’t fit.
But there is a specific problem with Philip accepting him. Unlike for Gandhi, it is not as direct as the colour of his skin or the country of his birth. There is only a passing reference to those (and those references are positive), but five times he is described as the Eunuch. Other Godfearing gentiles are given names but this one part of his body is the definition of who this whole man is.
There were three reasons this was a problem for Philip helping him engage with his faith.
In being a eunuch he had rejected the Jewish understanding of the role of humanity to subdue the planet through having children. “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” was the first commandment in the Jewish scriptures. What use could a eunuch be to God?
Even in secular terms, when we’re told about his current job it’s preceded by saying he’s a eunuch. These two things would probably have been related. For him to work so close to the monarch men had to be castrated. Partly so the queen could not have illegitimate children but also in a world where life spans were short, he was not going to be tempted to seize power and set up his own dynasty. However rich and powerful he seemed now, in ten or twenty years his reputation would die with him and his name would be lost. His life is simply to serve a woman. What use was he as a man?
And he did not have the specific part of his body needed for the Jewish initiation. Non-Jewish men did occasionally convert, but even boys born to fully Jewish parents if they did not have genitals or if their genitals were damaged could not be fully Jewish. No verifiable circumcision, no Jew. Even if Philip’s community wanted him, how would he do it?
However devout this official is, because of his body, he will always be non-Jewish. He can never be the people of God with the call of God.
So why on earth has God sent Philip all the way in this midday heat of the desert, to this man?
Remember, Philip has been told by God to wake up and is walk out of Jerusalem on the road south, towards Africa. It is so hot the ground almost hums it’s the time when mirages are seen, but Philip sees a chariot travelling relatively slowly and he hears a voice with an African accent reading in his language, Hebrew, reading his scripture aloud. The voice repeats the verse over and over, trying to see it from another angle.
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.”
The official is stuck, not on any old passage, but on a passage in Isaiah that talks of the rejection and humiliation of an individual. He is struck by an individual who does not look like the pompous, rejecting religious leaders he had just encountered in Jerusalem. He had seen a lot of top leaders and seen what good and bad leadership looked like, but this was something else.
“Do you have any idea what you are reading?” Philip asks – perhaps surprised that someone like this is reading his scripture. The response of this rich, intelligent, powerful official, is surprisingly humble. “How can I unless someone guides me?”
As they travel the penny drops, they pass some water and the Eunuch says “So what would prevent me from being baptised?” At the start of this story, the answer would have been “Quite a lot” – his inability to bear fruit – his inability to be a man – his inability to do the required ritual.
But the penny hadn’t just dropped for the Eunuch. When we read scripture with different people we see new things. The Jewish Philip and this Ethiopian/Sudanese official went on a journey through scriptures together and found something that transformed not just their lives but our lives and the lives of every one of the millions of Christians around the world attending church this morning. Without their encounter, or an encounter like it, most of us here who aren’t Jewish and those of us without children would not be here in church. Philip had not been sent to save the Eunuch, to help him find God. Philip had been sent to join with the Eunuch in being saved together.
Because exclusion, whether it is racism or transphobia or misogyny or any other type of rejection of another person’s humanity is rooted not in what we think about human beings but what we think about God. “Who is this man who is gentle and humble to the point of death?” is a question all of us should ask when confronted with exclusion, particularly within the church. “Have we fallen into believing that the Messiah, our Saviour, Almighty God is something else?”
God’s primary identity is not fury but friendship, not exclusion but embrace.
We may think that Christianity is irredeemably drenched in domination and exclusion of others – colonialism and racism or transphobia and misogyny. We may think our generation has just discovered these evils and are starting to tackle them, but look here, it’s there right from the start. The church has a terrible, terrible history and I would understand anyone who walked away from us because of it. But if we push away the human sin, what we see behind it all is a God who creates space for difference, rather than excluding or oppressing it.
It is worth noting that when the first white European was invited to discover Jesus, it was an invitation to join a faith that already had decades, maybe even hundreds of years of tradition of educated black Africans and gender queer people like this man.
God does not care to keep religion pure as if it is fragile and could be broken by someone’s difference. God draws near to humanity, and all the while creates space for us to be who we are, even to the point of not blocking humanity’s self-expression to kill the God they seek to protect. God holds patience even for the faithless religious leaders who didn’t have the time for this man sincerely seeking God.
God is not about sending people to hell just because they don’t know about the right religion or can’t bring themselves to join a corrupt church. Rejection is not what God does. God is not the mean God represented by the religious leaders the Eunuch might have met, or some religious people today. God is always about gentleness to all humanity. God is always about love.
That’s the Good News. The bad news (if you want to call it that) for the religious leaders of their day and any other religious people who narrow Christianity down to one thing that makes you in or out, is that God is interested in more than just your private parts, or your public parts, or whatever religion’s latest obsession is. The new initiation into faith, baptism rather than circumcision, is about the whole body, the whole person dying and being resurrected with Christ. This is what Stephen shouted about and was murdered for. God, revealed as Jesus, is human so the whole of humanity is of interest to God. The whole human race and the whole of your humanity. God does not want you to violently sacrifice part of yourself for him. God does not want to circumcise you. God wants to cleanse you. God does not want to banish you. God wants to baptise you.
The truth is that Philip did not understand that Isaiah passage either. He had to wake up, to get out of Jerusalem to a place where the scriptures about Jesus were held not by people like him but by a person not like him, in order for him to see who Jesus really is. We need each other and we need people who are not coming to our church yet if we are to discover and rediscover Jesus as he is.
To live as a Christian is a whole person commitment to forgetting the word normal. The church is impoverished if we see a type of people as the centre of faith, our church is impoverished if we see a part of our church as the centre, not only because we will experience a reduced church community but because we are likely to experience a reduced God. The only centre of our faith is Jesus, and Jesus welcomes all people, not to forget their difference but to baptise them, and as whole people to form a more whole body of Christ… together.