When people ask me, “how are things going at the Old Dutch Church?” my standard response is, “we are running as fast as we can to keep up with what the Spirit is doing.” Not just in the Church, but running to keep up with what the Spirit is doing in our larger community. This morning we have heard the story of deacon Philip running to keep up with the Spirit—literally dashing on foot to catch up to the chariot out ahead of him on a dusty wilderness road.
In this one story Luke tells us pretty much everything there is to know about what the Spirit is doing in the world. She is overcoming all of the divisions that exist within the human race. The Spirit is laboring to repair the separations, and wipe out all of the tribalisms that tear God’s one human family apart. The whole huge story of what the Spirit is doing is revealed in this encounter between deacon Philip and the person who is riding in the chariot. Who is the person riding in the chariot on this wilderness road?
He is an Ethiopian eunuch. This little two-word description carries a whole heap of meaning. On his body are written the tribal markers that continue to divide us as human beings. He is Ethiopian. He belongs to a nation other than Israel. He is from Africa, which means he is probably black. He belongs to another race than the people of Israel. Even way back in the first century, people in the Middle East associated black people with darkness and evil. As concerns his religion, as far as we can tell, he does not belong to the Jewish faith, although he knows something about it and is clearly curious to know more. He has traveled all the way to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple, and he has own scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Who is the person riding in the chariot on the wilderness road? Someone from a foreign nation, of a different race, an outsider to the Jewish religion. He carries all these markers that create the “us and them” separations. And, on top of all that, this Ethiopian is a eunuch.
When I preached on this text five years ago, I said, “There is no way to talk about this delicately. A eunuch is someone who was physically castrated sometime prior to reaching adolescence. His body was mutilated so that his male hormones were shut down enabling him to serve royal women without being sexually aroused.” There is a good chance that this eunuch was also once a slave since it was common practice back then and there to castrate male slaves so they would be more subservient. Now this eunuch is in charge of the Queen’s fiscal treasury, a good position, but he carries the trauma of being enslaved and subjugated. And as a eunuch he is socially stigmatized because he isn’t fully male, and he isn’t female. The eunuch doesn’t fit into society’s “proper” gender categories.
Luke tells us that this man had come to Jerusalem to worship. This was his intention, his hope and longing. But the Temple greeters would have stopped him at the door because Jewish law taught that eunuchs were profane, not natural, impure, and not allowed to set foot in that sacred space. So now he is travelling back home all alone on a wilderness road.
Over the past week, this question kept expanding in my heart: Who is the person riding in the chariot on the wilderness road? Who are the people in our communities suffering because of national practices and policies on immigration? Who are the people in our neighborhoods bearing the wounds of racism? Who are the people still being excluded by family, church, and society because of their gender identity or sexual orientation? What kind of welcome do our Muslims brothers and sisters experience in the Hudson Valley?
These are the kinds of questions the Spirit is asking us through this story. How will we join the Spirit in transcending the kind of tribalisms that are dividing this nation? How will we pledge our allegiance and live as citizens of the commonwealth of God? How will we continue to join brothers and sisters who are travelling a wilderness road in search of home, acceptance, equality, respect, and security? None of these questions is easily answered, and you know that answering them with your own life will cost you something. So this morning, I invite you in the words of poet Rainer Rilke’s to just “Try to love the questions.” Stay open to the questions, know that they matter, receive them as a prompt of the Spirit, let them live and stir in you. You don’t have to respond like Philip who goes tearing down the wilderness road to catch up with that chariot with absolutely no idea who is riding inside.
There is no hesitation from either of these men, complete strangers in this Spirit arranged encounter. Here they are together, an unlikely pair having Bible study in a moving chariot. The Ethiopian man is puzzling over this story in Isaiah about someone who was led like a sheep to slaughter. Someone unjustly condemned, humiliated, someone whose life was taken away, someone who could leave behind no generations. “Who is this story about?” he wonders.
To the eunuch, it feels kind of like his story—a person stigmatized, humiliated for who he is, someone he didn’t choose to be. A person who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere. Someone excluded from the Temple who couldn’t find the words to say, “I am a human being created in God’s image, with a deep longing to belong.” But now Philip has joined him on this wilderness road. I imagine their arms touching as they read that Isaiah scroll together—each feeling the warmth of the others’ body in the confined space of that chariot. Bumping along that road, Philip tells him the whole story of Jesus, God’s suffering servant, who came to join us in our human being. To be God with us, to live God’s lovein a body. Jesus welcomed the excluded, touched the lepers clean, was unjustly accused but did not defend himself, was rejected and betrayed, crucified and buried. Then he rose from the dead, and came speaking peace and offering new life in the Spirit to all people. The Ethiopian’s parched, thirsty soul drank it all in.
Seeing a deep pool of water on that wilderness road he asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And in that moment, deacon Philip transcends all of the tribalisms of nation, race, and class; transcends all the religious rules and requirements, and all the judgments about gender identity. These two go down together into the waters of acceptance, belonging, and unconditional love. And while this story is typically called the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, maybe it should also be called the conversion of deacon Philip who joined a stranger in a chariot on a wilderness road, shared his pain, and embraced both his questions and his full humanity. And in this Spirit synchronized encounter Philip comes to realize that sometimes organized religion creates and tolerates the worst kind of tribalisms. And he comes to see that the Spirit is always moving, in love, to transcend the separations, repair the breaks, and create one new humanity. Then Philip, and his new brother, and the Spirit all go on their way rejoicing with great good news for all people.