Our text from Acts this morning finds us on another Easter journey, this time on the road to Gaza, of all places. Modern day Gaza has been a place of civil unrest for years. At this troubled place come two men with challenging situations and who together find transformation through the Holy Spirit.
Our passage from Acts tells us an Ethiopian Eunuch, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, was returning home to Ethiopia via Gaza. Although this Ethiopian is unnamed, there are several important pieces of information about him.
He was a man of power and of wealth. He was a court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, in charge of her entire treasury. The fact that he could read, in Greek, and that he had a scroll of Isaiah, and a nice chariot to boot, are clear indicators of his privilege and prestige. Not many people had any of these things in Jesus’ times. Judaism had been a presence in Ethiopia for many years. Indeed, Ethiopia has been noted as the first center of monotheistic worship on the African continent.
Mighty man though he was, the Ethiopian was a eunuch. Emasculation was common in some pagan rituals, with slaves, and in many royal positions, especially when dealing with women. No matter how much power a eunuch accumulated, he was always set apart, an outcast. Jewish law in Deuteronomy made clear that “No one who has been castrated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD” (Deut. 23.1) The severity of the laws obliged him to withdraw in the hours for common prayers, yet he was allowed to go alone into the Temple and there offer his sacrifice. Even though he was looked down up, denied full membership in the assembly, this wealthy, faithful man still made the 1,600 mile dangerous, difficult trip to Jerusalem.
Our text also introduces us to Philip, one of the first deacon/evangelists named early in Acts. Philip was friends with Stephen the first martyr of the faith, who had just been stoned to death. Philip experienced the persecution of the early Christians in Jerusalem, so he and others fled to that despised region of Samaria. –and there he helped establish Christian communities. It was in Samaria that Philip began preaching, and there were healings, and there was great joy. There Philip gets the call – to go south to the road that leads to Gaza.
Philip obeys. The Spirit leads Philip up to that fancy chariot and says something remarkable to Philip: go and join yourself to it. Philip is not just told to say: halt! Could you pull over? Stop the chariot! Or Can I talk to the guy in charge? Philip is told “Go over to this chariot and join it.” A powerful word here is used in the Greek for join: a word that implies a cleaving, a gluing, a connection that produces a deep, lasting and abiding relationship –to have a soul-knitted kind of friendship. Paul uses this word when he encourages us to in Roman 8:9 “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.”
With that context in mind, Philip hears the Eunuch reading the text from Isaiah 53, and so he asks, do you understand this? Philip assists this prestigious man who actually owns a scroll if he understands this text from Isaiah, to connect to the text. Intrigued, the Eunuch invites Philip into the probably very spacious chariot and asks for guidance. Who was this man, like a sheep led to slaughter? Who is this man who was silenced? Who is the man who was humiliated? Who was this man who was denied justice? Who was this man whose life was taken away from the earth? Who is the prophet speaking about? The eunuch asks these questions, because we can imagine, that even with all his authority and power, he was not able to go into common prayer in the Temple; he was excluded, he had no voice, he was denied, because as a child, he was forcibly castrated.
But this is not a barrier for Philip. Philip tells him. He tells him the good news about Jesus. How he came about to do good; to preach repentance of sins, and the kingdom of God. How Jesus too was rejected, humiliated by the authorities, left to die on a cross. How they found the empty grave. How he was Risen. How Jesus gave them a new commandment: that we love one another as he indeed loves us. Philip helps the eunuch to connect his life --- to join, to cleave, his life to Jesus.
See, I imagine, as Philip is sharing these things about Jesus, but he is also rolling the scroll a bit further along to show the Eunuch another passage from Isaiah at Isaiah 56:4-6:
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
The Eunuch stops the chariot and asks – what is to prevent me from being baptized? He is so used to rejection he has to ask this question, after all – being a eunuch keeps me from the Jewish assembly – am I allowed in the Christian community? Do I belong? The answer is yes, Jesus accepts you just as you are. Philip baptized him. The Eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Now he belonged.
It is notable that there has been a strong Christian community in Ethiopia since the first century; and many consider the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church the only pre-colonial Christian church of sub-Saharan Africa. Many believe Ethiopia is the only region of Africa to survive the expansion of Islam as a predominantly Christian state. The bond of love and friendship that the Spirit told Philip to share with the Ethiopian Eunuch is a vine that was planted in the soil of an ancient and noble civilization, and has borne much fruit, fruit that has endured two millennia.
We are called to learn from the very first followers of Jesus. From real people, people who were broken, who suffered, yet were able to connect to one another, find Jesus and ultimately joy in that encounter. Like Philip who saw a dear friend murdered and was exiled to a despised land, yet there he prospered in faith. Like the Eunuch, who could never experience full acceptance until he met Jesus, through the witness of Philip.
Imagine finding Jesus on your road to Gaza. Gaza which represents that place of mess, exile and conflict in us and around us. Gaza It is that wounded place where you have been rejected or hurt by the world. That’s where the spirit finds you today. What troubles keep you isolated, what hurts pull you down? God’s good news to you today is that in Jesus there is the power to heal, to connect, to belong, and forge a community of love and support through the name of Christ our Lord. You belong. You are whole. You are joined – to Jesus, to one another and there is nothing that can stop you. So in the name of Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, join yourself and find the wholeness, the belonging, that your heart seeks, there on your road, in the midst of Gaza, is the Lord, who also seeks to find you there. Amen.