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A Guide to the Scripture (w/audio)

. Posted in Sermons

Acts 8:26-40

 Sermon:

As most of us have heard, a few weeks ago two African American men went to a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia to meet a colleague about business. They made what, for them, turned out to be a mistake as they waited—they failed to order anything. Soon they learned that 911 had been called by a Starbucks employee to summon the police. And the two men found themselves handcuffed and arrested. This very afternoon all the Starbucks stores in the U.S, about 8,000 of them, will be closed so that a racial-bias education program can be conducted for employees.

This incident happened about the time (earlier this month) that an African American man in Sacramento, California, was shot several times and killed by police while sitting in his grandparents’ back yard and made the mistake of reaching for his cell phone, which the police mistook for a gun.

These two incidents—the one at the Starbucks in Philadelphia and the other in the back yard in Sacramento—have prompted reflections by black men of what it is like to be in their skin, to be constantly under suspicion, to be taught by fearful parents at an early age to be careful when pulled over by the police, to be on guard when going into a business establishment not to raise suspicions, to endeavor to be polite around white people.

I was taught to be polite. But, other than that, these were things I was never taught by my parents. When I was pulled over by the police for speeding, as I was on more than one occasion as a teen, I didn’t worry about what I did with my hands or how I might arouse suspicion that could get me shot. I didn’t worry about that because I didn’t have to worry about that. I am white.

The scripture from the book of Acts that we just heard tells of a man who was in many ways an outsider in the world in which he had just been a visitor. To be sure, he was a well-to-do man riding in a chariot. Not something that your average person at the time could afford to do. He was also educated and able to read the Greek translation of scripture, a translation that was common in that part of the world at the time. He also had a scroll of scripture, which you couldn’t simply pick up at a local bookstore. A scroll was hand-written, copied by hand. In a town there was a scroll at the synagogue. Not in any of the homes. Someone who had a scroll from the prophet of Isaiah, as did this man in the chariot, had to be someone of means.

And he wassomeone of means. He served in the court of the queen of Ethiopia and was in charge of managing her treasury. In the world of which he was a part, he was a big shot. But not in the world where he had just been. Not in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the center of all things Jewish. And that’s what this man was. Or at least aspired to be. Whether he was a convert to Judaism or what was called a God-fearer (someone who sought to live and worship as a Jew, but was not a convert) we don’t know. What we do know is that he had just been to Jerusalem to worship at the temple there and was returning home.

We are told that he was reading from the scroll of Isaiah as he traveled home along a wilderness road in his chariot. But, if he had been reading in the scroll of Deuteronomy, he might have learned that people like him were not welcome in the temple at Jerusalem. First of all, he was a foreigner. And there was no pretending otherwise. His skin was black. He was from a part of the world, south of Egypt, that was bizarre and different to the people of Jerusalem. And the scripture was clear in Deuteronomy that foreigners were not welcome in the house of God.

Then there was something else this man had going against him. He was a eunuch. As a matter of fact, Luke (the writer of Acts) never gives us this man’s name. He simply calls him the Ethiopian eunuch. In other words, he was a part of a sexual minority. Eunuchs were castrated males. Or they might be males who had no sexual interest in the opposite sex. And, as was the case with this man in the chariot, they were often employed to work in royal courts around the females of the court where they would not be a threat. But Deuteronomy 23:1 makes it clear that such persons, eunuchs, could not be admitted to the temple of the Lord. They were strange. They were different. They could not follow the Biblical injunction “to be fruitful and multiply.”

So what we have pictured for us in this story from the 8thchapter of Acts is an outsider—a well-to-do outsider. But an outsider nonetheless. From a bizarre country, unknown to most people in Israel (even if many of its people, maybe even its queen, were Jewish). His skin color was different. And his sexuality was not the norm.

Have you ever felt like an outsider? I think most of us have. That we are not measuring up to the expectations of others. That who we are and who we have been created to be makes us unacceptable. That what we are going through makes us hardly fit to enter the house of the Lord and worship.

Have you ever seen others as outsiders and wondered what it must be like? To be a part of a sexual minority and know that in the eyes of many you are not fit to respond to a call of God to be a pastor or a leader in the church? To be a person who could be taken from your family at any time for being an immigrant without the proper documents and locked up or sent to a country from which you or your parents once tried to escape, maybe under very threatening conditions? To be a black male and subject to the suspicious stares, which prompt the suspicious actions, of others? To be injured in your body or your mind, and feel like there is no where you can go where people will accept you as being a normal person? To be an Ethiopian eunuch who comes a great distance just to worship the Lord only to be reminded that you don’t measure up?

Have you ever seen others as outsiders and wondered what it must be like? Luke reminds us in Acts that God sees such persons, and God acts to reach out to them. And the way God acts is that God sends messengers—an angel, the Holy Spirit—to people like Philip and to people like us. And those messengers say, “Go. Go to the outsiders. Remind them that they are not forgotten. Remind them that they are my children. Help them to see that they belong.”

So Philip, who was used to listening to God and responding, did just that. He listened. He responded. He went to the Ethiopian eunuch, trying to get home in his chariot on a wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza. Filled with the Spirit, Philip must have been a pretty good runner. On that wilderness road, he ran up to the chariot of that Ethiopian eunuch. We all know that texting and driving is a no-no. But reading a scroll while driving a chariot? That was what Philip heard this Ethiopian eunuch doing. Silent reading was not the way in those days. When the scripture was read, it was read aloud. And what he was reading was from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. And they were words from the fourth Servant Song found in the 52ndand 53rdchapters of Isaiah: “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 Ethiopian eunuch is reading in the scroll of Isaiah about someone who is rejected, about someone who is humiliated, about someone who is denied justice. And Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” he responds. Being who he is, he knows the meaning of rejection and humiliation. He knows what it is to be denied justice. But still the passage puzzles him. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip.

Philip sees these words from Isaiah through the prism of Jesus. They are speaking about Jesus, he tells the eunuch who has invited Philip to join him in his chariot. Jesus is this servant. Jesus knows what it is to be rejected, humiliated, and denied justice. In short, Jesus knows what it is to be the Ethiopian eunuch. He knows what it is to be an outsider. He knows what it is to die on a cross on the outskirts of town. But that is not the end of the story. Philip went on to tell the eunuch about the good news of the gospel. He went on to tell him about the resurrection and triumph of Jesus. He went on to tell him about grace and inclusion in the love of God for someone like him.

And so, as the two came upon a stream of water in that chariot where they were riding, the eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” It was not his race. It was not his nationality. It was not his sexual status. It was not that his kind had been seen as rejects by God in the past. There was nothing to prevent him from being baptized, at least nothing having to do with the love of God in Jesus Christ.

The Ethiopian eunuch stopped the chariot, and he and Philip went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. He was accepted. He was included in the household of God. He was a baptized child of God.

The Spirit’s work was done. Philip was then called elsewhere on the ministry of his Lord. But he left behind a man who took off towards home rejoicing at what had happened in his life. A man, Philip, saw him as he was. He wasn’t just an Ethiopian. He wasn’t just a eunuch. He was a person in whom God was present and at work. He was a person who yearned to have the scripture and faith explained to him in a way that reflected the love of God revealed in Jesus. He was a person who yearned to know that outsiders are being called to be insiders to God. He was a person who yearned to know that he had value and worth.

I am sure there are a lot of people who still need to know what the Ethiopian eunuch came to know through the ministry of Philip. May we find through the nudges of the Spirit in our own lives the calling to be about this ministry.

—William E. Warren, Cumberland Presbyterian Church of Germantown, April 29, 2018

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