Philip, Ethiopian Eunuch, You and Me (Part One)

Stephanie Spellers Connect with Diverse Neighbors, Connect with God Leave a Comment

By Rev. Canon Dr. Stephanie Spellers

Read part two.

This post is taken from a sermon delivered at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly on August 6, 2019, in Milwaukee.

Acts 8:26-38: 26 Then 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.) 27 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 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 

29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 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.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
    Who can describe his generation?
        For his life is taken away from the earth.”

3The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.  36 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?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

Part One

Once upon a time, I was a religious wanderer. I grew up down South but managed to stay on the margins of church. I refused to be baptized. I didn’t trust Christians – they were always so full of judgment, though they were as flawed as anybody else. Honestly, I was happy to reject Christians, because they rejected me and people I loved first. 

I remember Sarah, my best friend in high school. We did everything together: show choir, debate, student government. Junior year, I was at her house as much as my own, and her parents always welcomed me. Until the day Sarah came to school in tears, because her parents had said they were tired of having me in their home, tired of pretending it was alright for a black girl to be daughter’s best friend. Not in their “Christian” home.

I remember Wayne, my best friend in college. When he came out of closet, his Christian family kicked him out. As simple as that: don’t come home for Christmas. My mom – a single black mother in Kentucky who was working too much to have time for church – said, “Bring that boy to our house. There ain’t enough love in the world to complain about where anybody finds it.”

So no, in those formative years, I threw up a wall between me and Christianity. And yet … God would not let me rest. The spiritual questions, hunger, longings, had me in their grip. So I hovered. Majored in religion. Sang in a gospel choir. Got saved a few times, but never made it as far as joining church.

I went to Harvard Divinity School to study Buddhism and liberation theology. I was proud to graduate divinity school and still not be baptized. Likely Gandhi was speaking for me when he said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” I always figured, “If I ever see Christians who embody the loving, liberating, life-giving God they say they follow, I’ll come in. But I don’t want to give them the power to hurt me.”

So I understand the Ethiopian eunuch. I imagine him on the wilderness road, heartbroken and confused. He came to temple in a chariot. This brother had truly arrived! A court official of the Candace, he rolled up with all his power, education and status. Maybe he got as far as the outer courts before someone stopped him. Deuteronomy 23 makes it clear. You are a eunuch. You have been castrated. You cannot be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

Still, it must have stunned him. He had also heard about the God of Israel, the God of great power and mercy who sets captives free and claims the outcast … but not him. I imagine the shame, fear and loneliness that came rushing back. Like so many eunuchs, he was likely captured and enslaved young, castrated before puberty. He was no threat, exactly the one you wanted guarding the harem or the queen or any women you needed to keep safe. And while it sometimes stung, he knew he mattered. He had a place. Until he came to the temple, where he was greeted as “no man.” 

Not just that, but he was a dark-skinned “no man.” It’s helpful for us to know the word “Ethiopian” here was a general term for any dark-skinned African. Today’s racial categories don’t apply, but clearly, for the teller of this story, the Ethiopian eunuch occupied the margins of gender, sexual and ethnic identity. He was the very icon for difference. 

And now he’s heading back on the wilderness road, a desert road, reading the scroll of Isaiah. It’s no surprise Philip hears him reading this passage:

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

Isaiah’s words mirrored the eunuch’s own despair and humiliation. Somebody had to show up – the Spirit had to send somebody – to let him know, this pain is not God’s will for you. That’s not the whole story.

For the Ethiopian eunuch, that somebody was Philip. For me, the wily Holy Spirit sent Lutherans. She sent me Kerrie and Brad, Paul and Kathryn and Joanne and more. Who knows how long I would have hovered at the edge? But these companions ran up on me. They heard my questions. Plied me with theology and beer. When I asked, “What’s this Jesus and grace stuff about?” They said, “Come and see for yourself.” 

And I – the one who had hovered at the margins of church my whole life – I finally walked inside. And then the Spirit, she gave me Resurrection Lutheran, an ELCA church in Boston that was a blessed mix of cultures, races and classes. That’s where I saw the Jesus I had wondered about and yearned for. 

I saw Jesus in our music director, an HIV+ gay man and fierce lover of Jesus. His Swedish family spent generations at Resurrection. The neighborhood changed; he stayed. He kept bringing the love, kept learning to turn when the Spirit said turn. He would play gospel and Caribbean rhythms on a Casio keyboard, and then run up to the organ loft to thump out “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

I saw Jesus all over this ragtag community of professors and foster children, lawyers and former drug addicts, suburbanites and homeless people … and if it sounds like the kingdom of God, well, then you’re getting the picture. 

They were – you were – my Philip. And I have to tell you, if you’re gonna run up on somebody’s chariot, do it like Philip. He gives us a primer on evangelism. He makes so much room for the eunuch, lets him lead the way. “What are you reading?” “This scroll.”

“Do you know what it says?” “Well, actually, um … no. Can we talk about it?” 

As they do, that old gospel magic happens. The eunuch discovers that maybe there’s a connection between God’s story and his story. Once the connection is made, the wall falls down, the love pours in, and for the Eunuch, it’s on! “We just passed a pool of water in the desert. What’s to prevent me from getting baptized now?” He has waited his whole life and now he wants this healing, this union. “I assume we can do this?”

Now you and I know what Philip and any other good Jew knew. “Why can’t I get baptized?” The list is long. Remember that Deuteronomy text? He’s a eunuch. He’s ritually impure. But you can’t stop the Spirit. What’s to prevent us? Not a thing. In the Spirit, the answer is always yes. 

It reminds me of my baptism at Resurrection Lutheran. I so remember that day in May 1998. Pastor Heinemeier had this shell, and I mistakenly thought, “Oh good, not a Baptist dunking; my hairdo will hold.” Ha! Don’t know how, but that shell became a bottomless vessel, and he dumped what felt like buckets on my head. In photos of that day, I look like a drowned rat, albeit a really radiant and joyous drowned rat.

Now please remember, I was 28. I had plenty of reasons why I should not get baptized. In that moment, with this body of Christ, with you, all those no’s were overpowered by the Spirit’s rowdy, wonderful “Yes!” 

In your midst, I learned to serve, follow and preach Christ, crucified and risen. In your midst, I learned to drive a van full of youth in the snow and to organize faith communities for public action. One summer, I even went on pilgrimage to Door County, Wisconsin. I found myself saying, “Ya, sure, you betcha” at the strangest times. Laughing at Sven and Ole jokes. And I ate a lot of hot dish. Never lutefisk. I was never that Lutheran. 

But I found Jesus with you. And just like that Ethiopian eunuch, I couldn’t wait to go out praising God, helping other folks to find their way home to the God who really is all about love, freedom and abundant life.

About the Author

The Rev. Canon Dr. Stephanie Spellers is Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation and Creation to the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

She is the author of several books, articles and resources focused on embracing emerging cultures and Episcopal traditions, including Radical Welcome and The Episcopal Way (with Eric Law). She is a former Episcopal Church Foundation fellow. She graduated from Episcopal Divinity School with a Masters of Divinity; Harvard Divinity School with a Masters of Theological Studies; and Wake Forest University with a Bachelors in Religion, where she began organizing for justice and peace.

Photo by Julia Caesar on Unsplash


You might also like

Share your thoughts