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Affirmation: Part One

“And on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch”

The transcript of a sermon preached here at the Stamford Church of Christ almost four years ago on April 26, 2015 and still available on our website under that date.

This morning we pick up on our series of talks on “A New World in the Morning,” in recognition that change is happening all around us; that more and more people when asked to state their religious affiliation are choosing “None – none of the above” and this is especially true of those under 30; and that more and more young people see the church as judgmental, hypocritical, out of touch and politicized.

Specifically they see the church as anti-gay. And more and more of them will not go to churches that are anti-gay. Some of them are LGBT. Many, many others have friends who are LGBT; that is, they have friends, family, colleagues and co-workers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. And they know their stories, stories of prejudice and discrimination, of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, of shaming, ridicule and rejection. They know that people have been killed in our nation simply for being gay. They know that many gay people, feeling the rejection of family and friends and church, have taken their own lives. They know the suffering of being LGBT. Increasingly we all know the suffering.

And so this morning I want to talk about this and I want us to open up our hearts and minds to consider what is kind and loving and compassionate and caring, and to consider – with such time as we have – what Scripture really says about this. And as I thought about this I began to hear a resonance from Scripture, a word from God, a sense that the early church had been here too. And I started thinking about a very familiar text in Scripture, Acts 8:26-35, and it became my text this morning.

This is the story. An early church leader named Philip is leaving the region of Samaria. He is directed by an angel of the Lord toward the desert road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. “So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch,” sitting in a chariot reading, it turns out, a scroll of Isaiah the prophet. And something tells Philip – he realizes it to be the Spirit of God – to go to the chariot and “Stay near it.” So Philip listens as the man reads Isaiah. People back then always read out loud so medieval cloisters, for instance, were not the still, silent places of our imagination. In addition to the laundry hanging out, there was always the steady hum of people reading to themselves out loud.

Anyway, Philip hears the eunuch and asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” which leads the eunuch to reply, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” And he invites Philip to come up beside him and sit. So, in verse 35, Philip began with the very passage the man was reading, which turned out to be Isaiah 53, the Song of the Suffering Servant, and told him the good news about Jesus – how he was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and how his punishment brought us peace and his wounds healed us. And they came to some water, and Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.

But who was this man? This Ethiopian? He was, we are told, an important official in the service of Candace, queen of Ethiopia, “in charge of all the treasury.” Ethiopia then was that region along the upper Nile from Aswan to Khartoum, much of it in The Sudan today. So the Ethiopian was black. Luke’s audience would have been fascinated with this man because he was, to them, so exotic! Homer’s Odyssey speaks of “far-off Ethiopians the furthermost of men” (1:22-23). They come from the edge of the world. Their blackness is a source of wonder and astonishment and perhaps not a little fear.

This man was also a eunuch, that is, he was castrated, as was typical of high officials in the court of the queen for her security. That means he was probably not a Jew or a proselyte. According to the Torah (Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1), as a eunuch, he could not enter “the assembly of the Lord.” So here he was, having “gone to Jerusalem to worship,” traveling hundreds of miles across deserts, in blistering heat, by “covered wagon” without shock-absorbers. Let that sink in. It’s the reason Philip keeps up with him on foot. But he travels all that way only to stand on the fringe of temple worship, as an outsider, an excluded one, looking in. He cannot enter “the assembly of the Lord.” And now he’s reading Isaiah 53. Of all texts, he’s reading Isaiah 53.

Now consider this text, and see it again. Maybe see it for the first time (as Jack Miles in his book Christ once led me to see it). An Ethiopian eunuch had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And now the passage of scripture he is reading is this [Listen closely. Hear it as he heard it.]: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” Can you hear what he heard?

Listen carefully to this man’s question, this eunuch’s question, this castrated man’s question, this man who cannot enter the assembly of the Lord, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” His own castration still scars his soul as it mars his body. Was he castrated when he was just a lamb? Did he open his mouth before his shearer? In his humiliation was he deprived of justice? And who can speak of his descendants? Hadn’t he, in fact, been pierced for the transgressions of others, crushed for the iniquities of others, the sexual fears of others? So when he asks (in what tone of voice?), “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about?” whom does he have in mind? “Tell me, please, is he talking … about me?”

And so this eunuch sees that there is one who understands, one who knows what he’s experienced, one who fully identifies with him. And now he need feel humiliated no more. So in our time we consider our brothers and sisters who are LGBT, who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They’re not eunuchs, but for a long time they’ve not been able to enter “the assembly of the Lord,” at least not openly in most places.

– Dale Pauls

Part Two (of Two) next week

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