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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 5/10

          At the time of his Ascension Jesus said to his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  That’s the mission, starting in Jerusalem but then moving outward from there as Jesus emphasizes the expanding, inclusive nature of this mission. It’s good to keep this in mind as you read from the book of Acts because it more or less serves as an outline of the book.

The opening chapters do focus on what goes on in Jerusalem following Pentecost, particularly the rapid growth of the church, but Chapter 8, from which the story of the Ethiopian eunuch comes, starts with persecution against the church in Jerusalem as the success of the mission was seen as a problem by those in power.  This persecution causes Jesus’ followers to be scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, all of this still in the first verse of chapter 8, but you already can see the beginning of the move out of Jerusalem to the other places that Jesus had mentioned, even if it is persecution that spurs the move.    

Chapter 8 continues with a story of Philip preaching in Samaria, again indicative of that outward move, and then in verse 26, the beginning of today’s reading, an angel of the Lord directs Philip to head south from where he is and perhaps that puts him on the road that goes to the end of the earth, the end of the earth that Jesus mentioned in his mission statement.   In any case it’s a move that extends the mission even further and it’s on this road that Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch.

This individual is a somewhat complicated character.  He’s an Ethiopian which means he’s from someplace else, a foreigner, which emphasizes the widening mission.  He could be Jewish, we don’t really know that, but he could be.  The text says he was on the way back from Jerusalem where he went to worship so at least he’s a seeker, someone who wants to know more about Judaism.  He was in charge of the treasury of the Candace, the Candace being the queen mother back in Ethiopia and being in charge of the treasury would be a position of status.  The fact that he’s traveling in a chariot is another sign of status and the fact that he has a scroll of the prophet Isaiah would be a sign of his wealth so this individual has some things going for him.

But he’s also a eunuch and it’s his eunuch-ness that seems to be the characteristic we’re supposed to pay attention to.  The first time he’s mentioned he’s the Ethiopian eunuch but after that he’s just the eunuch, the Ethiopian part doesn’t seem to matter and while his foreignness makes him something of an outsider, it is the fact that he’s a eunuch that really makes him an outsider, precluded from entering the temple of the Lord according to the laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

That’s the background, but maybe to get at what this has to say to us about being followers of the Risen Christ in the fifth week after Easter the best thing to do is to look at the three questions the eunuch asks Philip.

Philip is running along beside the chariot and he sees and hears that the eunuch is reading from Isaiah so he asks if he understands what he’s reading and the eunuch’s first question is “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  Now that’s a question I’ll bet you can relate to; I can certainly relate to it.  The Bible is a wonderful book but it’s not always an easy book; it can be downright frustrating and confusing.  Luther sometimes talked about the plain meaning of the text but there’s lots of texts where the meaning isn’t very plain. 

We need people to guide us, people who know more about the history and the context and the literary style and so forth because knowing all of that adds to the meaning and the beauty of it and it also gets us closer to what the original authors were up to.  It’s not that you can’t read the Bible on your own and have it be very meaningful, but a guide can help to answer questions you might have, or (as people who come to Bible study find) a guide might raise more questions, hopefully questions that don’t scare you away but which ultimately deepen your faith.

It’s not clear how much of the Bible this eunuch has read but maybe he’s read Deuteronomy that says no one who is sexually mutilated shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, but maybe he’s also read Isaiah chapter 55 that promises that eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant will be welcome and will receive a name greater than sons or daughters.

So which is it, Deuteronomy or Isaiah?  Is the eunuch in or out because these two texts seem to contradict each other or has Isaiah reinterpreted Deuteronomy for a new time and place?  These questions still haven’t been answered but the eunuch needs a guide and he knows it; for now though, let’s move on to the second question.

What Philip heard being read was Isaiah 53, “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.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”  The eunuch then asks, “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?”  His question is understandable because the plain meaning if there is one certainly isn’t very plain but his question is also understandable because, as I said before, while the eunuch is not without status, words like humiliation and justice denied also have to be part of his experience, so what he wants to know is, does this have anything to do with me? 

Philip told the eunuch that this passage about a sheep led to slaughter was about Jesus and his sacrifice which is part of the answer to his question, an important part.  But what the eunuch would also want to know is that later on in chapter 53 Isaiah says that, “the righteous one, my servant, will make many righteous.”  That means that the humiliation and denied justice of Jesus, the righteous one, which are transformed through his death and resurrection also transform whatever shame and humiliation any of us lives with, thus making us righteous.  For the eunuch then, this is a passage of hope.  What happened to Jesus changes his life too; there is hope.

With that good news he then asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  No doubt there were some who would have answered, “Lots.  You’re not part of the people of Israel, you’re working for a foreign government and gender-wise who knows what you are.”  “But I’m on the journey; I’m reading scripture; I want to know more; I want to be baptized and follow this Jesus you and the scriptures are talking about.”  “Sorry.  Unless you can change all those other things Jesus doesn’t want you.”

That’s how it could have gone, that’s how it has gone and still goes sometimes with the barriers Jesus didn’t seem to care about being built higher than ever in order to exclude certain people.  But Philip heard a different voice whisper to him; the chariot stopped, the eunuch was baptized and for him, he was on his way rejoicing; his journey of faith and his journey home continued in hope as a baptized follower of Jesus.

The eunuch was lucky.  With his first question he recognized that he needed someone to guide him in interpreting scripture.  In Philip he found someone who not only knew scripture but someone who also knew the God of scripture.  Is the God of scripture angry and wrathful and judgmental or gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love?  Both sides are there in both testaments of the Bible, often existing in tension.  But I think you can see that whichever side of this you think best reveals God, angry and wrathful or gracious and merciful, is going to influence how you interpret scripture.

The God Philip knew and found revealed in Jesus was gracious and merciful.  That doesn’t mean that the tension of judgment goes away but it does influence how our journey of faith goes, it does influence how we interpret and understand those difficult passages of scripture, including those texts that seem to contradict each other like Deuteronomy and Isaiah.  We all need a guide, but let us be guided by those who know scripture and who also know the God revealed there, the God revealed in Jesus, the God who is gracious and merciful.

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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