The Eunuch’s Outrageous Response

HOMILY—3 May 2015—“That Outrageous Eunuch”

In the name of the holy and undivided Trinity, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

We were often asked when we were studying at Dio which scripture stories best exemplified our personal sense of calling.  For me, there were two: the first was the Road to Emmaus from the end of Luke’s gospel, and the second was the story of the Ethiopian eunuch from the Acts of the Apostles that we have just heard.  Coincidentally, these are both attributed to Luke.  It also struck me when I was writing this sermon that they both take place in the context of a journey: the despondent apostles are travelling to Emmaus and Jesus suddenly appears walking with them on the road, while the studious Ethiopian eunuch is returning to his country from Jerusalem and Philip appears out of nowhere ready to explain the prophecies concerning Jesus.  Maybe it’s the sense of the fantastic that I find appealing, though I think something much deeper is at work for me in these two stories.  I like the intimacy of the settings.  And I like the fact that teaching and learning are involved.  For me, faith grows best in this sort of mutual give-and-take.

We can say many things about the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, from many different perspectives.  Most often, preachers who are not shy in preaching on this passage from Acts will emphasize the figure of the eunuch as the first real Gentile convert, even going so far as to credit him with founding the Ethiopian church—one of the oldest Christian churches, in fact.  Others will choose to put the stress on the fact that the eunuch was already a sort of believer, someone familiar with the Jewish scriptures (he was reading Isaiah, after all) and who was returning from worship at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Others might simply not want to preach on this text.  The fact that its main character is clearly a person marked by gender ambiguity might unnerve them.  On the other hand, more recent scholars, and especially those concerned with the inclusion of gender diversity in the church, have tended to re-appropriate the Ethiopian eunuch, pointing to the fact that the gospel was preached to such an individual: someone who was both a foreigner and a symbol of impurity in Mosaic law.   The Ethiopian eunuch thus becomes a stand-in for the inclusion of sexual minorities.  This speaks very powerfully to me and to many, many others about our own sense of inclusion.

But it’s quite interesting how such a minor character in scripture can be the source of such a broad gamut of interpretations, addressing a variety of needs and expectations, and open to a multiplicity of hopes and desires.  Actually, it’s not all that unusual when you think about it.  Isn’t that how we tend to relate to scripture and to its large cast of characters, including to Jesus himself?  We try to understand what they might mean to us in the here and now, given our circumstances and our particular challenges.  We want to uncover their meaning and their relevance to us.  That makes perfect sense; otherwise they would remain lifeless characters from the past, unable to speak to us today with any sense of urgency about our faith.

And so, what might the Ethiopian eunuch have to say to us about our faith?  Let me begin by telling you how I visualize this character in my mind: a sort of preacher’s artistic licence, as it were.  I tend to see a thoughtful individual, somewhat brooding and intense, someone who asks the sorts of questions that I like to ask myself.  This is also a person of exceptional power.  He (I say “he,” but can we really ever be sure that he saw himself in such a gender-exclusive way?) – he is a court official.  Obviously, he is familiar with the ways of the world; he is not naïve, either about secular power or about religion.  He is curious by nature, asking questions and expecting answers.  Physically, I like to see him in a rather grandiose way, and even a bit “campy” around the edges.  This is someone who might have a sharp and funny tongue.  What I see most of all, however, is an outrageous and excessive personage: outrageous in his convictions, outrageous in his passions, outrageous, above all, in his faith; here is someone who is not afraid of taking risks.

Outrageous about one’s faith.  Have any of us ever really thought about our faith in that way—as something outrageous?  I mean as something bold, startling, even something daring?  The Ethiopian eunuch shows us how that might be done.  Consider the story once again.  Here he is riding along, minding his own business, diligently reading the Hebrew scriptures.  Already, this is someone who doesn’t quite fit the mold, someone who does things differently, who moves beyond his own cultural comfort zone.  Suddenly, a complete stranger appears on his path.  The eunuch is not afraid of engaging this stranger, inviting him to sit beside him and explain the text from Isaiah.  There’s no guarantee that this teaching will happen, yet it doesn’t take long for the Ethiopian eunuch to believe.  So much so, in fact, that when they come across a body of water by the side of the road, the eunuch simply can’t wait to be baptized in this new Jesus faith.  “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  It’s a wonderful, enthusiastic question, and it’s quite obvious what the response should be: nothing prevents you.  Yes, there is instruction before baptism, of course, but you get a real sense that the eunuch is so outrageously sure of his faith that absolutely nothing will be allowed to stand in his way.  And it doesn’t.  Philip knows full well that he is dealing with a true and deeply committed believer.  And to make things even more outrageous, Philip’s sudden disappearance doesn’t faze the eunuch in the least.  He just keeps going along, rejoicing.  We can only assume that he returned home to Ethiopia quite changed, no doubt outrageously so.  Or that’s how he probably would have been perceived, as someone who had experienced an outlandish life-changing journey.

The Christian faith certainly placed new demands—fairly dramatic ones—on the Ethiopian eunuch, and he responded in kind: by being secure in his zeal, and forthright and boundless in his enthusiasm.  The very idea of a roadside conversion might strike us as being somewhat suspicious, perhaps even phony.  Where is the long and arduous journey of faith, we might ask?  But that’s not what the Ethiopian eunuch teaches us.  Quite the reverse: the eunuch can teach us that the faith journey can also be one of unexpected and fervent discovery, and that the roadside conversion is a genuine moment of encounter with God.  It’s interesting to note that in the Book of Acts, the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus follows immediately after that of the Ethiopian eunuch, as if to show two different ways of how it’s done: one confident and joyful, the other uncertain and stilted.  So when it comes to faith, it’s all a question of how outrageous, and perhaps even cheeky, you want to be.  That campy eunuch can show us how it’s done.  After all, he was not afraid to jump into the nearest pool to be baptized.  He had nothing to lose, and he gained everything.

There is something else that the Ethiopian eunuch can teach us, and that has to do with a sense of joyful inquiry about our faith, an inquiry that is grounded in a healthy acceptance of who and what we are.  He was a confirmed seeker.  Quite obviously, he was willing to move beyond the expected, religiously and culturally. And his own sense of gender identity, whatever that might have been, certainly did not prevent him from doing that; in fact, it might have helped him.  I think that he welcomed Philip in a genuine spirit of openness, as the voice of a new and fresh—though as-of-yet marginal—way of understanding faith.  Philip gave shape to the Ethiopian eunuch’s yearnings, but, equally important, the eunuch himself had already been pushing the limits of his own discernment and inquiry.  The marginal path that Philip proposed was thus able to take root in the defiant marginality of the eunuch.

As outrageous as the Ethiopian eunuch might have been in his acceptance of the Christian faith, the author of the first letter from John is equally so.  In this text, Christians are called to love excessively, no two ways about it, for that is the mark of God’s love for us.  Now, how outrageous is that?  Totally.  It’s certainly not the way the world would expect us to love.  No, we should be measured and cautious about it; after all, we don’t want to be taken in by false hopes and dashed dreams.  We don’t want to be taken advantage of.  But that is love driven by fear, and not a genuine Godly love.  If there is one thing that the Ethiopian eunuch was not was fearful.  If there is one thing that John’s letter asks us to do is to behave like God behaves, without fear.  Because we have been loved outrageously, so must we love in return.  The Ethiopian eunuch would surely have understood that, in his own confident and cheeky way.  I suspect that, as a new and proud follower of Jesus, he would have been rather extravagant in his love, just as we are all called to be extravagant, and, yes, also a tad cheeky.

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