Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
To put this story in context, the author of Luke-Acts has been moving the story toward radical ideas of inclusion from the very beginning of his account. In Luke 4:18-19 he describes Jesus first sermon as the fulfilment of a passage in Isaiah 61; the Spirit of the Lord is on me and anointed me to preach good news to the poor. And this motif shapes the ministry of Jesus to those on the margins. Then we arrive in Acts: Jesus has gone, the church has begun, and we see this same kind of inclusive movement where people share their lives with each other, begin to care for the poor and the sick and so on.
And Acts 8 begins with a story that is in direct contrast to what we see in Phillip and the eunuch later in the chapter.
“On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.”
At this stage in his life, Paul’s faith is one in which you have to be ‘right and in’, and he saw Christians as ‘wrong and out’. His version of faith is constricting him. His faith is narrow and it turns him into a exclusionary – and even violent – kind of person. And then we have this immediate contrast with this story of Phillip. An entirely different kind of encounter with demonstrates a fundamentally different orientation and approach to faith, to life, and to people who were different from you.
Phillip meets a Gentile, an African a eunuch. A eunuch who serves royalty like this was typically taken, castrated before puberty and trained up as a slave or servant. Although they could accumulate power within this hierarchy, it was only because they were dependent on their masters due to their conflicted social identity, and they were no threat to the monarchy because they couldn’t procreate and create rival dynasties. So here we have this Ethiopian eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah and trying to make sense of it. It’s an interesting thing to have a eunuch interested in YHWH, because the Torah itself – as outlined in Deuteronomy, isn’t so keen on eunuchs.
Deut 23:1 - No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.
And yet interestingly, he’s reading in Isaiah, a passage that Jesus uses to refer to himself. The suffering servant. The one who will be killed, laying down his life for others. And scholars wonder whether he’s also read on a little bit further – perhaps its Isaiah 56 that is also interesting to him:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
So although the original Torah was exclusionary to the eunuch, the Jewish prophet Isaiah says that we need to move past that way of thinking. God is more inclusive than we thought.
Phillip jumps up on to the chariot with this foreign servant of the Ethiopian queen with a publicly ostracised and shunned identity and says: hey, this is good news about Jesus, and it’s for you. This is the complete contrast of the Paul story from earlier in the chapter – Paul’s version of religion closed him down, narrowed him in and led to exclusion and violence. Phillips version of religion opened him up, opened up the story, so that even for a foreign, castrated slave there is absolutely no barrier to becoming a part of the community.
This kind of story should challenge us. Does our faith open us up or close us down? It asks us what kind of faith we want to have. Do we want the kind of religion we see in Paul or the kind of religion we see in Phillip? This story reminds us that the whole idea of healthy Christian faith is not about closing us down, but opening us up. Opening up to God, opening up to others, opening up to creation that we are a part of and immersed in. We are challenged here to recognise that the Spirit is at work outside of our defined categories and in/out groups. Can our faith be something that opens us up to the world, to those around us, to truth wherever we find it?