May 2, 2021
One of my friends and clergy colleagues, now retired, tells the story of baptizing the infant child of a somewhat troubled couple. I don’t remember the specifics of their difficulties, but it was a small town and a small church and everybody knew everybody’s business. So, whatever the issues were with the young couple, everyone was well aware of them.
The church mother of this little congregation was forever giving my friend fits, mostly because of the grip she seemed to hold on almost everything the church did, but also because of her uncharitable and judgmental attitudes. When my friend introduced the baby to the congregation and announced the baptism the woman whispered to her friend, “Good, that kid’s going to need it.” The thing is, her hearing had declined and what she heard as a whisper the rest of the church heard loud and clear. Unfortunately for my friend, there was no acting like he didn’t hear the comment. It had to be acknowledged, and so, in a moment of inspiration he responded, “Exactly right! Who here doesn’t need it?”
That’s always struck me as a pretty remarkable save. Who here doesn’t need the grace of God’s embrace? Who here doesn’t need the love of a community to see past their failures and carry them along?
My friend’s story came to mind as I reread the book of Acts up to today’s passage. What struck me this time around was the way in which the formation of community from the very start is the primary response of the people to resurrection. From the rolled away stone and the bewildered disciples hiding out together, to their worshiping together in the temple after Christ’s ascension, to their gathering at Pentecost, to their preaching to all the Jews in their native tongues, to the thousands added to their numbers, to the mission to the Samaritans, to today’s passage where the Holy Spirit leads Philip to offer the Good News to the Ethiopian Eunuch. It’s all the formation of a new kind of community and therefore a new kind of people.
This Ethiopan Eunuch is an interesting character. On the one hand it is possible that he’s of Jewish descent. We’re told that he’s returning home from the temple, where presumably he worshiped. We’re also told that he was reading from the prophet Isaiah, which would indicate some level of connection to the Jewish scriptures, though clearly he doesn’t understand them. But, of course, he was also Ethiopan and a high ranking one at that. In charge of the Queen’s finances and riding along in a chariot, he was a person of power. Despite that, he was also a servant, intentionally mutilated in order to be considered safe for service in the Queen’s court. Obviously, he would never have the community of marriage and a family, and here he is on a “wilderness road” somewhere between the temple and his home. It occurs to me that he was a man with no true belonging anywhere – not fully Jew, nor fully Egyptian. His physical location (I think) is an indication of his being in general, his sense of identity and belonging in general, that is, until the Holy Spirit directs Philip to go to him. Phillip says, you are worthy of the Good News, you are welcome, with Christ and his people you are home, and so once again what happens in response to the resurrection is the building up of community.
Another interesting component of the story is that it was the Eunuch’s idea that he be baptized. You would think that Philip would have thought of that, but he didn’t. The Eunuch sees the water and says, “what’s to prevent it from happening for me,” and Philip decides that indeed there is nothing, nothing at all that should prevent his inclusion. And then “together” they go down into that water. As I read the passage that word “together” really stood out.
Maybe that’s the case because “together,” – being with one another, – has been such an impossibility for so long. That mutual “stepping into” Philip’s baptism stands out because we’re hopeful that soon our stepping out together will be more and more possible. I think that one of Covid’s curses has been not just the limitation of social activity, but the loss of real community, of giving and receiving, that happens when we’re able to “go there” together. We need action for there to be community and we need community for there to be faith and we need faith for there to be hope and love.
Meister Eckhart writes, “When we cannot be who we are our divine senses become mute, mute and sick from the insanity of judging what God made Immaculate.” Something happens when we strive with one another for community. The Spirit works, and in this case (as is so often the case) though Philip is the one extending the hand it is the Eunuch, the recipient of that hand, who leads them both into that sacred plunge of inclusion.
I think of that work-group I brought down to Appalachia. Our team fought the whole time. Nothing I did could keep the adults from bickering and the kids from taking sides. It was miserable and when we arrived at the home we were repairing I felt sorry for the owner who had to deal with us. But instead she was so grateful that we were there. She asked us onto her porch, had us hold hands, and thanked God that God had brought us to her to help her with what she couldn’t do herself. And, it was remarkable how that prayer changed us, put a damper on our bickering, and helped us live into being the people she saw us to be.
But, this is the pattern that happens all the time when we live in response to resurrection’s call for community. How many times have you volunteered somewhere only to find that you received more than you gave, or to find that your wants then shifted, or to find that the work of love in action is what you most needed after all? That just seems to be the way that God’s Spirit works, which is part of the reason why social distancing has been painful and part of the reason why when we emerge from this situation more fully it’s important that we reclaim with a kind of urgency our call and capacity to be community with one another and beyond.
There’s another aspect of the story that I think bears lifting up. Preaching professor, Tom Long, says it perfectly. “Here is a man with a royal job in a worldly court, who could have gotten the impression from the Bible that he was unwelcome in God’s court. The Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 23: makes it plain that no one who is sexually mutilated ‘shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.’
But the eunuch is not reading Deuteronomy; he is reading Isaiah, and the prophet gives a more hopeful word… Isaiah promises that ‘eunuchs who keep my sabbaths’ will be welcome in the house of God and will receive a ‘name better than sons and daughters.’
So which is it? Deuteronomy or Isaiah? In or out? Is he welcome in the household of God, or is he not? If he has only the written words of Scripture, it could be argued either way. How can this man know what is true, how can he understand, unless someone guides him? What he needs is someone who not only knows Scripture, but also knows the God of Scripture. He needs someone to teach him who has felt the embrace of God, who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s Spirit. He needs, as all of us do, a Philip to guide him.”
We all need a Philip to guide us. But, not just “a” Philip, but rather lots of Philips. We all need people of faith to help us see that our faith is real too. We all need people who know the warm light of God’s Spirit to help us interpret not just the words of scripture, but the events of our lives. In other words, we all need the gift of sacred community. Thank God it’s been given to us. Thank God it’s ours to share.
 From “Love Poems from God,” by Daniel Ladinsky. “Jerusalem,” by Meister Eckhart, page 97.
 Feasting On The Word, Year B, Volume 2, page 456.