Notes on Acts 8:26-40 for the fifth Sunday in Easter.
Everything about this story is incredible. Did you really expect to see an Ethiopian eunuch, a man at once powerful and marginalized? Add to this the fact he is either a very marginal Jew, or a God-fearer who has found in the God of Israel something that speaks to him. And speaks strongly enough for him to acquire and study the holy writings of Israel. Have you ever tried to read a Hebrew scroll while bouncing along a wilderness road? The appearance of the water itself is a surprising thing in the desert – but perhaps not as exalted or lush as painters have imagined it. We picture an oasis, but it might just as easily be a humble waterhole.
The eunuch asks: “What is to prevent me from being baptized”?
Well, almost everything. The eunuch is missing the sign of the covenant (circumcision) for Jewish males. And, missing his testicles, he would not have been permitted in the Temple to worship. He could never be a “full member.” Philip, who is not an apostle, is not clearly authorized to go out on his mission, or to baptize. (Note how in 8:1 the dispersion from Jerusalem is the result of persecution, not an apostle-planned mission strategy, and how in 8:44 the Jerusalem apostles follow Philip to Samaria to ensure that he is doing things right, especially regarding baptism.)
But the book of Acts is misleadingly titled. Its traditional name, “Acts of the Apostles,” is true enough – except the apostles are not the ones driving the action. One sees the apostles busy organizing a reform movement and new, communitarian institutions based in Jerusalem. But the book instead shows the Holy Spirit continually calling into action the people who make up this new assembly, blowing the breath of God into new and distant places and bringing new, boundary-pushing people into fellowship with Jesus. The Spirit, not bound by human constraints ("we've never done it that way before"), is continually pushing the limits of who God welcomes and where this good news is to be proclaimed.
It is interesting to note that the interaction between Philip and the eunuch is driven by questions:
+ Do you understand what you are reading?
+ How can I, unless someone guides me?
+ Who is the prophet speaking of?
+ What is to prevent me from being baptized?
One easily imagines that the eunuch is seeing in Isaiah and hearing in the Jesus story something of himself (echoes of the Samaritan woman in John 4), for his powerful position comes at a price, and he is cut off from the earth, in that he will die childless.
Yet what is impossible with humans is possible with God. This is a theme with Luke (see Luke 18:27, 1:37, Acts 2:24), but one might even more regard it as a canonical theme of the scriptures. Everything about the journey of faith that began with Abraham has been about God making space for divine transformation in the narrow places of human life.
It happened with Abraham and Sarah, laughing at the prospect of children, much less a nation flowing from their journey and remembering their stories. It happened with a young at-risk girl in the Judean hills who said "Yes" to an angel, to God, and to the new life that she would carry. In the background of this Acts 8 story, this holy reorienting is happening to a zealous persecutor (Paul) who would fall off his high horse and into a heaven which shocked him, and to an energetic apostle (Peter) who would be driven further into the unclean world of the gospel. And it happened to a eunuch on the road to Gaza, a sexual minority who is today revered as the father of the Ethiopian church.
There are unlikely apostles everywhere.
Listen. Listen to the Spirit telling you to go to that unlikely place. Listen to the questions and the stories of the people around you. Pay attention to the interaction between the words of scripture and words of peoples' lives, of your life. Share the goodness of God as you have experienced it. The Holy Spirit is still blowing, especially in the edgiest places of life. With the Spirit at work, what is impossible for humans becomes not only possible, but immediate, compelling, and real. Places and situations that might seem God-forsaken become the sites of revelation and blessing.
We might wonder where in our churches and in our communities the Spirit is blowing right now? Perhaps, for a hint, with the eunuch and Philip we might read again the words of the prophet - "In his humiliation, justice was denied him" - and go to the places where human humiliation becomes the opening point for divine glory. And that is a good place to ask a few questions.