Sermon: Living into God’s Agenda

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Acts 8:26-40

My sermon from the 5th Sunday of Easter (April 28, 2024) on Acts 8:26-40


So I don’t know if you noticed but our first reading from the book of Acts appears to be missing a verse. If you look closely at the text as it was printed in the bulletin, we can see a series of numbers starting at 26 which signify the notation known as verses that appear all through our Bible. They were added centuries after these stories were originally written as a kind of marker letting us know where we were within each book. When we track the numbers, we can see number 33, 34, 35, and 36. But where we’d expect to find number 37, we instead 38. Now there are times during worship when we might skip a verse or two as a way to focus on one specific theme or idea. But today’s jump from 36 to 38 is something completely different. Scholars theorize that sometime during the first two or three hundred years of Christianity, a copy of the book of Acts might have had a few notes scribbled in the margin. These words were, most likely, used in the early church as a confession of faith during a baptism and it’s not hard to imagine someone scribbling those words next to a baptismal story in the Bible. But, later on, when that book was copied by hand, those scribbles ended up as part of the story itself. We could brush this off as a simple mistake that lingered past the point when verses were added to the Bible even though some of the earliest manuscripts didn’t include those words. Yet there’s also the issue that this insertion wasn’t really questioned since, in the words of the Biblical scholar Bruce Metzger, there was a “ feeling that Philip would not have baptized the Ethiopian without securing a confession of faith that needed to be included in the narrative.” When the Ethiopian asked Philip “what’s to prevent me from being baptized,” Philip’s silence was a bit too much. It didn’t seem possible that this Ethiopian official from the court of Queen Candace could become part of the body of Christ without doing something to prove they truly belonged. 

Now the book of Acts takes us along the journey as the followers of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the capital of the Roman Empire itself. The book is full of incredible moments of healing, hope, and joy but also plenty of challenges. There were all kinds of issues, including threats of violence from folks who didn’t really get what this Jesus movement was all about. And the Christian community itself struggled knowing what to do with all the people who kept showing up but didn’t match Jesus’ own identity as an Aramiac speaking Jew from Galilee. It’s in the middle of all this complication when we meet a Greek-speaking Jewish apostle named Philip. He had, right before our reading today, had success starting new Christian communities in the land of Samaria. But instead of taking time to shepherd those new communities, an angel of the Lord sent Philip to an isolated road in the middle of the desert. While there, in a place no one would expect to find anyone to preach to, Philip noticed a stranger riding down the road. We never learn this stranger’s name but we do learn a lot about him. They were, most likely, African in origin and they served as the chief financial officer for the queen of the Ethopians. This meant they were responsible for managing an incredible amount of wealth yet it’s also very probable they were enslaved. They were heading home after visiting the city of Jerusalem for religious purposes because it seems they considered themselves a god-fearer. While in the city, this official secured a copy of the book of Isaiah which – in those days – was really hard for a private individual to find or even afford. This person had a lot of overlapping identities that made them who they are. Yet the one identity the book of Acts highlights the most is their status as a eunuch. This identity allowed him access to all kinds of political and financial power because his sexuality and gender was no longer seen as a threat. They were, instead, viewed as a kind of deviant – a so-called “no-man” who didn’t fit in anywhere. Their status as an outsider not only shaped how they lived but also influenced the faith they were allowed to practice. In the words of Biblical scholar F. Scott Spencer, the eunuch “suffer[ed] [not only] widespread stigmatization in Gentile and Jewish society as a permanently emasculated, mutilated figure unable to procreate,” he also “remain[ed] ‘cut off’ by law from full participation in the covenant community, according to Deuteronomy 23:1.” The Ethiopian eunuch believed in God and yet because of the things that had happened to him, by choice or by force, he didn’t really know his place within God’s household. What he needed to know was if God’s community could, would, or even should, include someone like him. 

And that’s why this story has stirred the spiritual imagination of the faithful for centuries while, at the same time, made them feel incredibly uncomfortable. When we’re honest about what we’ve done, what we’ve left undone, and all the things that make us who we are – asking if this Jesus thing has a place for us is one of the most faithful questions we can ask. We wonder how the household of God can truly contain complicated people especially those who don’t fit the so-called “norm” that’s around us. Communities, including the church, also have their own ways of letting people know who fits, who matters, and who should run and hide. And while we can really believe the body of Christ is a pretty big thing that extends beyond all time and space, it can still feel as a fairly exclusive place. These questions can help us uncover a little more about what God’s love is all about but have also been used to justify all kinds of cruelty and suffering. That’s why, I think, the early Bible copyists didn’t really question why a baptismal confession showed up when the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized in the middle of the desert. They assumed he had done something to show why he belonged. But Philip, rather than following that very human agenda, made the choice in this moment to follow God’s. He noticed the passage the eunuch was reading, a part of the prophet Isaiah describing a shamed sheep-like figure to whom “justice” and the chance for an offspring had been denied. Philip quickly recognized how this passage not only pointed to Jesus but how it also included the eunuch too. Philip knew the good news he needed to hear. And so in words that were not recorded but ones we can assume were shared, Philip let this complicated treasury official know that in Jesus, with Jesus, and despite all the ways we do our best to claim who belongs and who doesn’t including through something as violent as crucifixion on a Cross – Philip let the Ethiopian eunuch know how the household includes even him since God’s grace was meant for all. 

The baptismal note, scribbled in the margins, wasn’t supposed to hint at what the Ethiopian eunuch was supposed to do; rather, it was a revelation of what he, with Jesus, would now get to do. The barriers built around him and those barriers he built around himself had already come tumbling down. The identity he had in Jesus would wrap itself around everything that made him who he was, shaping, informing, cherishing, and transforming his life to come. No longer would Queen Constance’s agenda, Philip’s agenda, or anyone else’s agenda have an overwhelming claim on his life. Rather, the Jesus who lived, died, and rose for him would be his – forever. I know that, for me, wondering if I truly belong will never really go away since I’m fully aware of all the  ways I fail to live out the kingdom of God. But I trust that it isn’t my calling to decide who does – and who doesn’t – belong. Rather, like Philip, we get to be honest about all our questions, all our wondering, and all the identities we claim as our own. And that’s when we can give ourselves and others the good news that we have a place with God because Jesus loves them, Jesus loves you, and Jesus promises to always bring you through.