Every Wednesday a group of people gather in person and on Zoom for the “rector’s Bible study,” which is really a misnomer. It is the “people’s Bible study,” and my role is to facilitate rather than to instruct. The wisdom is in the folks around the table, in how we listen to the scripture and to each other, and the “teacher” is the text. Yesterday we read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), and among other things, I was struck by this character as a steward of gifts. Like each of us, he is both benefactor and beneficiary, healed by his connection to others.
Some background: Because he has been to Jerusalem and is reading Isaiah, the eunuch is probably what was called a “God-fearer,” invited to stand in the narthex, but behind a screen, welcome to listen to the services, but excluded from the ritual life of the Temple, and so, the social life of its people. He is a curious outsider that “proper folks” are trained not to see or hear or engage with in any way, as they push past him to get to where they are going. He is the other that societies tolerate when their members are feeling safe, perhaps, or the stranger that we turn on when the world feels chaotic and when we are looking for someone to blame.
So he is a test, if you will, of anyone who says that he follows Jesus, the one who is the embodiment of love that heals every human separation. What I mean is, if we say that we believe in the one who has broken down walls that exclude… if we say that we are followers of the one who has confronted systems which privilege a few and diminish so many others, then this story asks “How will you be a part of that movement?” Now that we have a taste of being healed ourselves, the text wonders, how will we be healers? Let’s look at the disciple Philip:
The eunuch is riding in a chariot, going over the scripture out loud, when Philip happened to overhear him and asked if he understood what the words were all about. The eunuch said he could use some help on one passage in particular:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before his 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.” (Isaiah 53) Who is the prophet writing about, the eunuch asks? Is he describing his own situation or someone else’s calamity?
The eunuch doesn’t have to say who he is. There is no mistaking the trappings of a royal servant—able to read, sumptuously dressed, but still bound inside his golden cage. His high voice, softened features, and access to the queen communicate without words that he is a person on a threshold, neither fully in nor totally cast out, kept in his place if you will, relegated to the suspicious margins of that culture. No wonder he is drawn to the prophet’s words about a lamb without a voice who is cut off from his generations, humiliated by sacrifice, and denied justice. No wonder he wants to know who the prophet is writing about. I imagine he also wonders if the prophet could care for a person like him who has been warped by the system. Is there room in the family for his kind of wound?
Philip gets it, and the miracle is that he sees the eunuch, and stops to hear him, and sits beside him the way peers do, or friends do, and shares the story of his life and his conversion. “Isaiah is writing about a Suffering Servant,” Philip might have told the man, “a glimpse of the holy one who is broken and vulnerable like we are, and who shows us that God is present with us even in our poverty and our agony, and that the wounded one that we are likely to reject is the very child of God. And I have met this child of God, he says, the son of Mary and Joseph, and he has seen God in me—in all of us—and when I follow in this way, embracing the God in you and the God in me, the God who makes dust of every wall of separation we build, then salvation comes. Living this way repairs the world, and it heals me in the bargain.” So no wonder Philip’s companion wants to be baptized, to put down an old way of being and put on a whole new mind.
And then even more social and religious lines are crossed. In those days converts would be baptized naked, so the royal figure must have taken off all of his finery and the symbols of his office, exposing his physical mutilation in the process, not to mention his black skin and Philip’s brown skin, and apparently both he and Philip are fine with that. They go down into the water together, stripped and vulnerable and wet with living water, both being born again. And that intimate, embodied conversation is the gift of this story, and an image for each of us to carry.
This is the call of any who would follow Jesus, it says—unlikely partners brought together, willing to open up to each other, both healing, able to see God in themselves and in each other, across seemingly unbridgeable divides of race and class and sexuality and country of origin (maybe even political party!), through the work of mutual respect fostered by taking the time to listen deeply. That’s what goes on in this story: they listen deeply to each other. They share their stories with each other. There’s no shortcut to knowing each other. That’s how we’re healed. That’s how systems are changed. That’s how the world is repaired.
And this is the mission that your annual pledge to Redeemer enables. Like the eunuch, we are stewards of gifts, managers of abundance that is not ours, finally, but God’s. So as you are able, please increase your pledge this year, of time and talent and treasure. Now that we have a taste of being healed, how will we be healers ourselves?