April 29, 2018
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Why does this story matter? Is it simply an account of how the church’s membership and mission initially opened to Gentiles, or to people, like the eunuch, who were considered ritually unclean? If that’s all it is, then the writer of Luke-Acts would’ve spent far less time filling the story with such rich, literary details. Is it a rejection of exclusive, Jewish legalism? Surely not, for Philip himself was a Jew, having been born and raised in a Jewish family, in a Jewish culture, and was a leader–a rabbi–in a Jewish congregation, based in Jerusalem, that claimed to follow a Jewish Messiah–Jesus of Nazareth. Could it be a liturgical explication of the rite of baptism for the infant church? No again, because the language describing the eunuch’s baptism is neither liturgical nor prescriptive, unlike other baptismal accounts in Luke-Acts.
What’s the point, then? Why are we here, today, reading this obscure story about a Jewish Christian rabbi named Philip and his highway encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, of whom we literally never hear word again? What could possibly be the significance of this eunuch, to whom Philip teaches, preaches, and baptizes, and who simply disappears, rejoicing, into the void of silent history? The strangest part of this story is the Isaiah text he’s reading: As a sheep to slaughter he was led away, and as a lamb in the presence of his shearer he was speechless, thus he does not loose his speech. In his lowliness the justice was taken away from him; who will describe his generation? For his life is borne away from the land? Slaughter. And injustice. And death. And somehow Philip preaches good news to him from this text? I’m no evangelical, and I bristle at the notion of proselytism, but if I had to do it, is this the text to use? Surely there’s one with…I don’t know…a little less slaughter? But here we have this Ethiopian on his way from Jerusalem, reading an obscure passage from Isaiah about a dude who’s trying to serve God, but gets the life beat out of him, suffers at the hands of injustice, is despised and rejected by everyone, is eventually murdered by a mob, and whose body is then discarded in a pit reserved for dead rapists, killers, and thieves.
At first glance, it would appear that either Philip was an evangelical-ninja-Jedi who could control people’s minds, or the eunuch was a devout masochist–because, you know, who doesn’t want a little more death and slaughter in their lives…?
Like this Ethiopian eunuch in the first century, we too are acquainted with violence and death in our world and in our lives. Just this past week, the headlines included, but were not limited to, the following: Largest Child Sacrifice in History Discovered in Peru; Officers Not Charged in Death of Mentally Ill Man They Tased in Shower; These are the Victims of the Toronto Van Attacks; Israeli Forces Kill Three Palestinians Amid Protests Along Gaza Border; Are We Prepared for a Killer Flu Epidemic?; Ten Teenagers Dead as Flash Floods hit Israel and West Bank; How Many Children Have Been Impacted By School Shootings?; ‘I Want to Be a Doctor so I Can Help in a Chemical Attack,’ Syrian Seven-Year-Old Says; Nine Pupils Stabbed to Death in Revenge Attack; Man Jailed for Boys’ Hit-and-Run Deaths; and, straight to the point, Violence is Their No. 1 Killer.
Not only do we read of violence and death around the world, but we experience it in our lives. Perhaps we’ve grown accustomed to it, or perhaps we’ve learned to tune it out, but it’s always there, shaping the way we live our lives–where we live, what cars we drive and what streets we walk, how we vote and where we buy our groceries. When I stop and think about it, I’m profoundly shocked by how much of my life has been designed to avoid at all costs the violence and death of this world. Perhaps you’re bewildered by this in your own lives, as well, for this is, indeed, a world of violence and death.
Toward the end of the sixth century BCE, the Israelites had lived for a generation as captives to the Babylonians. They were humiliated, enslaved, exiled, hated, beaten, and often murdered by their oppressors, and were only beginning to learn how to cope with life amidst such odds. Within this context, the prophet Isaiah gives his people a word of hope in the midst of their suffering: Our God–the same God who was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian war gods, and believed to be long gone–is back from the dead. Our God, this YHWH, has conquered death itself. So if you know of violence and death in your life, rejoice! For YHWH is near. The great Servant of YHWH suffers awful violence, and the most horrible death imaginable, and yet this Servant will prosper, in the end. The Babylonians destroyed the high and mighty god of the temple, but our God, this YHWH, could never be held in the high and mighty places, but can always be found among the poor and destitute.
Incidentally, the prophet never discloses the identity of this great Servant of YHWH, but for the Israelites that didn’t matter. They understood, as a profoundly Jewish affirmation, that the value of a servant depends not on the value of the service rendered, but on the value of that which is served. The great Servant of YHWH, whoever that person may be, is a great servant because YHWH is great, and for no other reason. So the Servant is oppressed and tortured and killed, rendering his service otherwise useless and futile–except this Servant didn’t serve himself, he served YHWH, and YHWH is great, even in poverty and oppression and death. Even when it seems we’ve already lost to violence and death. Even when it seems all hope is lost–especially when it seems all hope is lost.
But this leads to an important question: what does it mean to serve YHWH? Should we all start flogging ourselves, sleeping on stone floors, and wearing burlap underwear? In fact, Isaiah and the prophets remind us over and over again what it means to be a servant of YHWH: those who would serve YHWH will, “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow (1.17b).” We tend to think of this refrain merely as a nice, moral imperative, like, “Be good little boys and girls, wash behind your ears, say please and thank you, defend the orphan, etc…” But this is far more than a moral instruction–it’s a compass pointing toward the heading of God in this world, and a lightning rod conducting the Spirit of God in our lives. It’s a literal identification of God’s dwelling as being with the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow; with the weakest and most vulnerable members of society; with the least of these. It answers the question, “where is YHWH in the world?” The great Servant serves YHWH because the great Servant serves the least of these. And, in serving the least of these, the great Servant suffered at the hands of a violent world because of his identification with the least of these.
And so we find ourselves on the road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza–a road that, to this day, runs against a background of violence and death. The eunuch, a man of some means, education and status, is presumably on his way home to Ethiopia after participating in worship at the temple in Jerusalem. He wasn’t a Jew, nor could he ever become one, but he was apparently entranced by YHWH, and so he undertook an incredibly long and difficult journey to pay homage to this God. He had acquired a scroll that included the book of Isaiah, and was audibly puzzling over the prophet’s strange song regarding this great Servant, when rabbi Philip just happened upon him reading these lines, and was moved to join him in his endeavor.
The eunuch’s questions seem quite sensible, if not understated: “How can I understand what I am reading unless someone teaches me? About whom does the prophet speak these things–about himself or anyone else?” We can almost hear the anxious curiosity in the eunuch’s question: “Is this life of suffering meant for only the prophet, or is it for anyone who would seek to serve this YHWH? I ask, because I really enjoy my life of moderate luxury, my status in my political culture, my safety net of wealth that helps me sleep at night, and while I’m not a complete stranger to hardship–I am a eunuch, after all–I generally prefer to suffer less than to suffer more. It’s just this thing about me, you know?”
As readers we aren’t privy to the details of the rabbi’s response. We’re simply told that, starting from this scripture, rabbi Philip preached to him the good news of Jesus, and baptized him. And apparently this news was so good that the eunuch went away rejoicing! It’s tantalizing for us, isn’t it? This good news from rabbi Philip. This good news of Jesus. But what, in particular, is good about this news of Jesus, and what does Philip say about this Jesus, and what he has to do with Isaiah’s great servant?
We of course could never know for sure, but if early church traditions have any bearing on our reading of this text, then what rabbi Philip told the eunuch was that the prophet’s words were, unbeknownst to the prophet, about a man who would live and die about five hundred years in the future, when God’s people would suffer under the yoke of yet another oppressive, world superpower. This man was called Jesus of Nazareth, and not only was he, in his life, the great Servant of the prophet’s song, but in his death, he has proven, once-and-for-all, the power of YHWH through, after, and over death. And so death has lost its sting. It can cause an ending, but that ending can never be the ending. We may suffer–and we will suffer, if we serve this YHWH–but that suffering is definitively not the end of the story, in light of this Jesus. In the face of such news, everything is changed for the eunuch; the only response is to dive in–literally and liturgically–to a resurrection life; a life in service of others which is service of YHWH; a life of participation in the suffering and rejoicing of God in this world.
In the sacrament of baptism, rabbi Philip and the eunuch affirmed this life, and, today, we do too. Because in a world of violence, oppression, death, and destruction, the only thing that could make any news good is the assurance that the violence, oppression, death, and destruction have lost already. And this assurance comes by way of a word from the Lord, an annointing of the Spirit, a communion of two strangers on a highway. The prophet called this kind of meeting a “faithful remnant” of the “people of God.” For Philip, and for us here, today, this kind of meeting is called “ekklessia,” or “church.” UPC is one such meeting, as is the Presbyterian Campus Ministry. I’m forever grateful for my time this year; for, as a wayward and often-weary traveler, I’ve been met by this community on the tiresome byways of my busy life; and in this midst of my struggles and difficulties, you all have given me assurances that my suffering and failures are not the end of the story. You all have proclaimed the good news to me that, however far away and alone I may feel, YHWH is near!
Do you know of violence and oppression, death and destruction, in your own life, or in the life of a loved one? If so, then there is good news for you, in the midst of your suffering: YHWH is near. And by the resurrection life of Jesus, the violence and oppression, death and destruction will never be the end.
Grace and peace.