Last week, I popped in for coffee break on Tuesday afternoon with the stupendous Soup’s On volunteers, and I asked them a question.
“When you’re at church on a Sunday morning, do you like the sermons to be challenging or comforting?”
The week before I had preached about climate change and how some scientists say that we’re living through the 6th mass extinction our planet has seen, with the last one being the when all the dinosaurs died, so I thought they’d say, “Comforting.”
Turns out I was wrong.
They said “Challenging. With some good insights into the Bible.”
“Perfect,” I laughed. “Because I’m preaching on Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.”
If you don’t know the story, now would be a good time to read Acts 8:26-39.
Here at Grace, the texts we preach during worship are part of a 4 year cycle called the Narrative Lectionary, where over 4 years we’ll cover most of the major stories throughout the Bible.
And this week is the story about Philip being led by the Spirit to baptize the Ethiopian Eunuch.
And I cannot assume that we all know what a eunuch is.
A eunuch is/was usually a male who had been castrated. Although for some eunuchs, they would been born without testicles, but for most of them, the removing of their testicles as children would have been intentional.
Why would people do this?
Well, sometimes it was to ensure that they could sing really high.
Other times it was because a slave or servant was to guard the royal harem because it was assumed that a man who couldn’t have sex likely wouldn’t sleep with one of the king’s women. They were called “Bedroom Guards.”
And sometimes, the non-first born males of royalty were castrated. The thinking was that many kingdoms had rules against eunuchs not being king, since they couldn’t have children, so any sibling of the king who was a eunuch was considered to be trustworthy, since they couldn’t become king if they tried to kill the king.
In this story, we don’t know why the Ethiopian was a eunuch, whether it happened at birth, or was intentional. All we know was that he was one.
Now, here’s where we get to ask the question: Why does that matter? Why do we have this story about the Ethiopian Eunuch?
Well, the Soup’s On Volunteers wanted biblical insight, so back to Deuteronomy we go!
Deuteronomy 23:1 – No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
According to the law, this eunuch was not allowed to go to the temple to worship. Banned. Forbidden. Here are the rules, they are very clear, and you are on the outside of those rules. Tough nuts, eh? (Or I guess I should say, “No nuts.”)
This, is a great example of where people quoting Bible verses to other people, especially ones from the Old Testament, especially out of context, might not always be the best.
Because I could read Deuteronomy 23 and go and tell the eunuch that he is not welcome and still be following the Bible. But what we might miss is that Isaiah, still in the Old Testament, actually kind of undoes Deuteronomy 23, by declaring the following:
This is what the LORD says:
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
It’s like God saying “Here are the rules”, and then God saying “And here’s how we’re going to break them.” It’s like God makes the rules, and then God breaks the rules.
And this happens quite often.
I’ve heard sermons on Deuteronomy 5:8, about how God punishes our children and grandchildren and great grandchildren for our sins, but those sermons seem to also have neglected Ezekiel, where he says that God is no longer punishing children for their parents sins (Ezekiel 18:20).
I’ve heard sermons about how if we follow God’s law, we’ll get blessings, like health and wealth, and how if we don’t, we’ll get curses. And these are all based on long lists of blessings and curses found Deuteronomy 28.
But then Jesus comes and undoes that in Matthew 5 by telling us that God causes the rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous, because if we only love those who love us, what kind of people are we?
Or the time Jesus undoes “an eye for an eye” by telling us to love our enemies, or how some food is unclean and then it’s clean, or when Philip baptizes a eunuch when the eunuch was clearly an outsider?
So when we, as Christians, quote Bible verses at each other as proof that we’re right, and that others are wrong… Sometimes it can be us who’s quite wrong.
But here’s the beautiful thing about Christianity… here’s the beautiful thing about the Bible.
We still have Deuteronomy 23. And we still have Isaiah 56. And we have Acts chapter 8. We could look at these contradictory stories and say it’s all a bunch of hogwash and walk away from it all.
Or we could look at it and say: “Our story is a story about growth. Our book is a book about movement. Our faith is a faith that is alive and going somewhere.”
We do our best to discern who God is, what God’s doing in our world, and how we get on board. And because we’re human and have terrible memories, we usually write it down. But we need to remember that whatever we write down, God’s probably going to find ways to get around our rules and our creeds and our constitutions. God is going to help us make the rules, and then God is going to help us break the rules.
Because our story is about growth. And our book is about movement. And our faith is alive and going somewhere.
But where’s it going?
Well, that is a good question.
The book of Acts is about the story of Jesus changing people’s lives, and then those people taking that story outside of Jerusalem, to all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth.
So the story of Jesus is going to the ends of the Earth, by hook or by crook. Or by the Spirit.
Now, when we read the word “Spirit”, those of us who consider ourselves somewhat logical and down to earth get a little quiet. We don’t always know what to do with this character named “Spirit”.
I mean, like, we know what we don’t want to name as Spirit. Teenagers breaking up with each other and saying God told them so… yeesh. Kings and Queens and Presidents and Prime Ministers consulting God before they declare war (and conveniently God seems to always says “Yes” to them) – Yeesh.
We are rightfully skeptical when people claim God’s leading or intervention in all sorts of ways, and I think what we tend to do, or at least what I tend to do, is to just drop the phrase entirely.
But when we do that, when we stop talking about Spirit leading, I think we risk missing something life changing and life giving, because, maybe it’s the Spirit that drives our growth, our movement, and is taking us somewhere.
Philip was one of the 7 chosen to wait on tables so the other disciples could preach the word of God. And what does Philip end up doing? Preaching the word of God to the Ethiopian.
The same thing happened to Stephen, that we read about last week. Chosen to distribute food, he ended up preaching the word of God.
Phil was told by an angel to stand out on a desert road. And then the Ethiopian drives by.
And then the Spirit tells Philip to go near the chariot.
And the Spirit was present when Philip was baptizing the Ethiopian.
The Spirit seems to be doing all sorts of things. Things we’d expect, things we wouldn’t expect… my best summary of this in the office this week was with throwing my pen in the air, saying “Spirit’s gonna do what Spirit’s gonna do.”
But, oh we try to get things right, don’t we? I do all the time.
We like to have answers and familiarity and a way to do things and routines and predicable processes.
Here’s a great example of this: If you go home and read Acts chapter 8, you’ll read verses 34, 35, 36, 38, 39 and 40. Our Bibles skip verse 37!
Why do our Bibles skip verse 37?
Verse 37 was added to the manuscript centuries later, because the early church was trying to get a hold on this whole Jesus movement, which books to include in the Bible, how the whole baptism thing worked, and what the core beliefs of Christiantiy were, how Christians were to respond to Empire… And they decided that a verbal confession that Jesus is the Son of God was required for baptism. They probably got that idea from Romans 10:9, “If you declare with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will saved.” So after the question, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” they added verse 37: “If you believe with all your heart, you may. The eunuch answered: I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (Here we go again, writing things down and figuring it all out.)
BUT… the original story doesn’t have the Ethiopian making any sort of verbal statement. So what’s stopping him from being baptized?
Actually, the baptism story of the Ethiopian actually runs against much of what we do in the today’s Mennonite church. There’s no membership for the Ethiopian, there’s no church there to receive him with open arms, there’s no mutual submission, there’s no liturgies to say together, there’s no catechism or faith exploration classes or mentors. There is nothing but Philip and the Ethiopian and the Spirit.
And Spirit’s gonna do what the Spirit’s gonna do.
And so Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, the sexual minority who was once excluded, and, 2000 years later, some historians attribute his work to the both the creation of Ethiopian church and the Sudanese church, which all thrived for centuries without European missionaries.
Spirit’s gonna do what Spirit’s gonna do.
It all feels a little bit loosey goosey, doesn’t it?
Loosey Goosey probably describes the books of Acts quite well. Loosey Goosey also describes the early church quite well too. And probably even Grace Mennonite church.
When we stop to think about it, maybe our lives are all a little bit loosey goosey, aren’t they?
We have things figured out, and then they change. We have some answers, and then we don’t. Life’s humming along, and then it’s not. Life is really hard, and then that passes too.
But I think it helps to remember that the Christian story is a story that allows for movement, for change, for growth… From Deuteronomy to Isaiah to Acts, the Spirit is nudging us somewhere.
And that nudging seems to center on the story of Jesus, and its effect on our lives and our communities. That the story of Jesus, somehow, is good news to the world.
And when the loosey goosey nature of it all it feels like a lot, when it feels like we don’t know what’s solid rock and shifting sand, when it feels the carpet has been pulled out from underneath us, when the Spirit is nudging us to grow in ways that we don’t understand, I think it’s helpful to remember:
The early church was messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful…and God was there and God was faithful.
And our church is messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful… and God is here and God is faithful.
Our lives are messy and beautiful and tragic and hopeful…and God is here and God is faithful.
And if we remember that, we’re probably on a good road together.