July 17, 2012 by jmar198013
As we gather around the table this morning, I want to reflect on the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. This story, I believe, will give us insight into how Jesus breaks down walls. Moreover, this story informs the church’s task in light of the walls Jesus has broken down. But there are two things you have to know to get this story. The first is that in Deut. 23.1-6 absolutely excludes eunuchs and foreigners from the assembly of the LORD. The Ethiopian eunuch obviously fits both categories. The second is that Isa. 56.3-8 positively includes eunuchs and foreigners in the assembly and says God welcomes their offerings. In fact, Isaiah forbids eunuchs and foreigners from excluding themselves because they feel ashamed or worthless. According to Isaiah, God’s word on the matter is, “Don’t let foreigners who commit themselves to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will never let me be part of his people.’ And don’t let the eunuchs say, ‘I’m a dried-up tree with no children and no future’ … For the Sovereign LORD, who brings back the outcasts of Israel, says: I will bring others, too, besides my people Israel.” Let those with ears to hear listen for the word of the Lord.
As for Philip, an angel of the Lord said to him, “Go south down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and he met the treasurer of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under the Kandake, the queen of Ethiopia. The eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and he was now returning. Seated in his carriage, he was reading aloud from the book of the prophet Isaiah. The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and walk along beside the carriage.” Philip ran over and heard the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” And he urged Philip to come up into the carriage and sit with him. The passage of Scripture he had been reading was this: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter. And as a lamb is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. He was humiliated and received no justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, was the prophet talking about himself or someone else?” So beginning with this same Scripture, Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.
Now, imagine this eunuch. A foreigner who has committed himself to the LORD. He comes all the way to Jerusalem from the ends of the earth just to attend worship. And he is told, “I’m sorry, sir—you’ll have to stay outside. Deuteronomy 23.1-6 says no eunuchs and no foreigners allowed. Rules are rules, you know.” I wonder—did he hang his head in shame? Or did he say, “Oh yes, I understand completely,” keeping his chin up, fighting against the hidden rage as his heart was rent like a garment by rejection. Rejected by God! It’s enough to make you sick, really. Perhaps there were some patronizing people nearby who tried to put a congenial spin on it. “Mister, we’re sure sorry about that, really we are,” they might have said apologetically. “Of course, we don’t make the rules. They’re God’s rules and, you know, we’re sure he had a very good reason when he told Moses to pass them along.” Of course, I’m having to rely completely on my imagination here to reconstruct this scenario. Not only because Luke chose not to share these sorts of details when he wrote Acts, but also because I’m quite confident that none of us has ever seen or experienced anything quite like this in a church setting. Right?
Someone might correct me, of course. “Surely that’s not how it happened. Surely they let him in. After all, Isaiah 56 overruled what Moses said about eunuchs and foreigners. Surely the people knew about Isaiah 56.” Of course the people knew. Scads of people knew Isaiah. After all, the eunuch was reading from Isaiah when Philip met him. Jesus quoted Isaiah. The problem wasn’t that Isaiah was unknown. The problem was that he was still unwelcome in official religion. The high priests running the show at the Jerusalem temple only accepted Moses—and then only enough to use his laws to their political advantage. They didn’t do prophets. Prophets were agitators and troublemakers. You unleash a prophet on the people, next thing you know they’re all riled up and demanding justice for widows and orphans and an audit of the temple treasury. Where does Isaiah get off contradicting Moses, anyway? You tell foreigners and eunuchs that God welcomes them and their offerings, there’s no telling what that will lead to. They wouldn’t know any better than to bring crawfish or pork chops or something equally unclean. Probably use strange fire, too. As far as the Jerusalem high priests were concerned, Moses was in and that meant Isaiah and his foreign eunuchs were out.
Story says that when Philip met the Ethiopian eunuch, he was reading from Isaiah—Isaiah 53 to be exact. Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief, despised and rejected. That passage. And maybe the eunuch didn’t get Isaiah yet, but Isaiah sure got him. You know, Philip heard him reading, that means he was reading out loud to himself. “He was humiliated and received no justice.” You think the eunuch, with his useless manhood and different skin excluding him from the other worshipers felt humiliated? I bet he did.
Or how about this one: “Who can speak of his descendants?” You know that one pushed at a tender spot for the eunuch, who of course could have no descendants himself. That’s where Philip found him, and that’s right where Philip began telling him the Good News about Jesus. Isa. 53. Here’s the way I hear it in my head:
“See here, Mr. Eunuch, where it says people turned their backs on this guy, and looked the other way, and no one cared. Anything like that ever happen to you?”
“Yes Sir,” the eunuch replies. “Why just recently at Passover, when I was turned away from the temple because I am a eunuch. People despised me. They looked away from me. I guess it made them uncomfortable.”
“Right. Well, same thing happened to this other guy I know. Last Passover. In Jerusalem. The high priests rejected him. All his friends turned their backs on him. The high priests and Romans had him killed. Crucified—lynched, really. People just looked the other way. I guess he made them uncomfortable, too.”
“Oh my,” says the eunuch, “that is very bad news.”
“No, not at all!” says Philip. “No, it’s actually very good news. See what Isaiah says here. ‘It was our weaknesses he carried, it was our sorrows that weighed him down … He was beaten so that we could be made whole.’”
“How can that be?” asks the eunuch, who is perplexed but fascinated.
“Because, Mr. Eunuch—he has felt the sting of rejection that tears your heart like a garment. Not just yours, but everyone. He took your shame on himself and it died with him. He won, and his victory is also yours. He let himself be excluded so that you could be included!”
“I still don’t understand,” says the eunuch.
“It’s right here,” Philip replies, pointing to the scroll. “Tell me what it says.”
The eunuch carefully reads the words and says to Philip, “Isaiah says this was all God’s good plan. Because he let himself be exposed to that violent rejection, those who had been excluded are now counted as righteous. Because of what he did, he will have many descendants. Tell me, sir,” the eunuch continues, “who is this man?”
And Philip replies, “His name is Jesus. And you can be one of his descendants.”
We don’t know how Philip got from there to baptism, and maybe it’s not important. What’s important is that somehow as that conversation unfolded, the eunuch got it, mostly. He said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” That’s an interesting question—why can’t I be baptized? Almost as if he’s still expecting some catch. That’s not surprising for a man who’s always been told the reasons why he can’t be included among God’s people. The Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism was the fulfillment of Isa. 56. He became an embodiment of that prophecy—here he was a foreigner and a eunuch and God was accepting his offering. At last! Accepted by God. That is why what Philip told him was good news. That is why the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. He was no longer an outsider. He was living proof of Isaiah’s prophecy: “For the Sovereign LORD, who brings back the outcasts of Israel, says: I will bring others, too.”
As for Philip, what he did was break down some walls—walls of racial and ritual purity. In doing so, he was only imitating what he learned from Jesus. He learned to apply Isa. 53 to Jesus because he saw Jesus in it: a righteous man who takes on our uncleanness and the shame that comes with it so that no one can ever be called “unclean” again. Jesus broke down those walls, and Philip stepped right through the rubble and brought through an outcast who had been called unclean. I think Philip was able to help the eunuch fulfill Isa. 56 because he’d already understood Isa. 53. God was happy to accept the offerings of unclean foreigners because he’d already accepted Jesus’ offering on behalf of all unclean people. When Isa. 56 says that the LORD who takes in the unclean outcasts of Israel wants to bring in others as well, that’s a word about the task of the church. He was inviting Israel to do for foreigners and eunuchs what he had done for them. That invitation extends to the church now.
Are we willing to join Jesus in breaking down those walls, like Philip did that day on the road to Gaza? I warn you, it will not be easy. Because Jesus accepted the offerings of the unclean and the outcast, their shame fell on him and he was rejected. The same thing will probably happen to us today. There will always be those like the high priests of Jerusalem who will be threatened whenever those walls are broken down. They will reject us for bringing in rejects, and that rejection might well be violent. But this meal is an ever-present reminder that we are ourselves but the outcasts God has gathered through Christ. His word to us is, “Do for others what I have done for you.”
Bread: God, as we break this bread, let it be a sign for us of the walls broken down by Jesus when he was broken for us. May we never forget that he was torn so that we could be mended. Give us grace to mend others even if it means we are torn in the process. Amen.
Cup: As we share in this cup, God, may it remind us that no one is unclean because the blood of your Son has made all things clean. Amen.