May 3, 2015
In the name of the God of all Creation;
The God alive in each of us as God was alive in Jesus;
And the power of God known in the Spirit.
This story of the Ethiopian eunuch is relevant for today’s Church … this denomination of the Episcopal Church and other Christian denominations and other faith traditions. Over the past few decades faith traditions of all ilk have struggled with the issue of who to include … and who not to include … in the full life of the community. This community of St. Cyprian’s knows this all too well. Our recent history includes a schism in 2006 when a major portion of the congregation left the Diocese of Florida and the Episcopal Church over the role of gays and lesbians in the life and leadership of the Church. And, in many ways, it is still an issue in the Diocese of Florida. The Rt. Rev. John Howard, Bishop of the Diocese of Florida, has just called for a special meeting of clergy later this month to discuss same sex marriages in the Church in light of the fact that they are now legal in the State of Florida.
This story of the Ethiopian eunuch is also a story relevant to public events this past week. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments about the validity of same sex marriages, and Bruce Jenner … who won the gold medal in the decathlon in the 1976 Olympics as a male … announced that he is transgender.
Finally, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch is relevant to our mission here at St. Cyprian’s as we take seriously what Jesus took seriously.
According to the text from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, Philip was with Peter in Jerusalem until an angel came to him and sent him to the wilderness … the road heading southwest from Jerusalem to Gaza. It was there that he met an Ethiopian eunuch who was traveling along the road. In many ways this is a strange story … one of those that is a little hard to imagine actually happening as it is written. However, it is a good example of “just because it didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” And I think if we can hear it as one of those early readers of the Book of the Acts of the Apostle would have heard it, then we can see how it is very relevant for our time and our circumstances.
An Ethiopian eunuch: The story tells us that he was the Treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia. We can surmise that he was wealthy, powerful, and learned. He had traveled to Jerusalem specifically to worship in the Temple … however, he was not Jewish.
Here is what an early reader of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles would have known from just that much of the story: First, he was a foreigner. As an Ethiopian he was a black-skinned African … not just olive-skinned but black-skinned. Secondly, the fact that he had traveled to Jerusalem would have indicated that he was a “God-worshiper” … a Gentile who accepted the theological and ethical teachings of Judaism, and worshiper in the synagogues, yet without becoming full a convert. Thirdly, he was a eunuch: a castrated male and therefore, by Jewish purity laws, he would not have been able to be accepted into the community or much of the community’s common life. And finally, being a gentile, as well as being a eunuch, would have kept him from entering into the Temple precincts where Jewish men would be worshipping, in spite of his wealth and power. Thus, the reader would have known that his pilgrimage to Jerusalem had been in vain. He had been rejected by the very institution that represented the faith that he felt drawn to.
Yet the Ethiopian eunuch had not given up in anger. Even as he was journeying to his home he was still reading the Jewish scripture … a sign that he was educated as well as wealthy and powerful. That is when he encountered Philip. He asked Philip to assist him in interpreting a portion of the prophet 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.”
The Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip of whom the prophet was speaking, and at that Philip began proclaiming the good news about Jesus.
In his mission to Samaria, the apostle Philip had already broken through the ancient barriers of religion and race which bred tremendous hostility between Jews and Samaritans. Now he was prepared to take on a third serious barrier … sexuality.
Philip’s heroism and leadership is understated in the New Testament. He was an amazing man of deep faith and great courage. It is not at all difficult to make the leap of two millennia to see the need for just such heroes in our own time. The parallels are all too obvious. He not only baptized those whose race and religion were problems for the guardians of “right-religion” in Jerusalem, but now he gladly received into the Christian sect of Judaism a man whose sexuality was a problem for the temple elite.
Since the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from the prophet Isaiah it is possible that he had discovered the passage that refers to foreigners, such as Samaritans and Ethiopians, and also refers to eunuchs:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, "The LORD will surely separate me from his people"; and 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, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant-- these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel … (Isaiah 56:3-8a)
Remember that the Book of the Acts of the Apostles describes events that were happening in the infancy of what we now call the Christian Church, but at that time these followers of “The Way” were just a sect of Judaism. Today, we know baptism as a Christian ritual. But the act of baptism predates Christianity … remember Jesus was Jewish, and he was baptized by John in the Jordan River.
With that in mind the Ethiopian felt he had found found a way into the community of faith … Judaism … which he loved. Therefore, the question that pops out of the Ethiopian’s mouth was an honest one. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip responds to the Ethiopian’s query with bold action. Philip had proclaimed the good news of Jesus. Now, he makes a witness to his words: He baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch. And with that, the Ethiopian eunuch “went on his way rejoicing” for at last he had become a full member of the household of faith.
I think that this story from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles speaks loudly to the Church as it struggles to witness the good news to the world around us. If we are to take seriously what Jesus took seriously, how do we, as a congregation and as a larger church community, make room for those who are often marginalized?
You see, I believe the most important question before us is not about sexuality. It is about witness. It is about the question “What witness will we make?”
Our witness is the public affirmation of our faith. It is how we let the world see that we practice what we preach. This is our opportunity to be what we say we are. We witness to what we believe. We believe in the Bible. We believe in the Good News. And we believe in taking seriously what Jesus took seriously. In fact, we believe so strongly in all of these essential parts of our shared faith that we are not afraid to disagree with one another about what they mean to us. We welcome difference as the active presence of God's Spirit moving amongst us. Our witness is not to conformity but rather to community. As a community of faith that welcomes diversity we are not concerned that everyone in the pews believes exactly the same thing, in the same way, at the same time. Instead, we are concerned that no one is left out of those pews because of what they believe … or who they are … or where they come from.
Our witness is to the unconditional love of God. There are no gate-keepers at the doors of this church. As we proclaim in our Baptismal Covenant “we respect the dignity of every human being,” and are never ashamed of who sits next to us in worship. We are all the children of God.
We believe that God is at work in the world. We are not concerned that this world sees us as perfect, pure, or powerful. Instead, we are concerned that people see us practicing justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly with the God we believe loves us all equally.
Philip proclaimed the good news of Jesus to those of different race, religion, nationality, and even sexuality. He proclaimed the good news of Jesus. And then he included all in that proclamation by boldly witnessing to faith. May we … the people of St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church in the historic neighborhood of Lincolnville in the nation’s oldest city have the courage to do the same. And it is my fervent prayer that the Diocese of Florida will open the door to those clergy who are so inclined to include God’s blessing upon all who seek a life-long union … marriage … regardless of the genders of the loving couple.
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is about including someone who would otherwise be excluded. The Church and our society are struggling with that same issue today. We … in this particular community of faith … proclaim God’s unconditional love, and God’s unconditional love includes everyone and excludes no one.