Sermon: The sons and daughters of the eunuch

Sermon for Williamstown

3rd of May 2015

Acts 8:26-40

The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose”. (Romans 8:28) God is able to take things that may not in themselves be good and create good out of them. Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, comes from a time when the early church was being persecuted in Jerusalem and the Christian community (not yet called by that name) was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Interestingly, among those most zealous in persecuting the church was Saul, the man who would later become the Apostle Paul. All things work together for good, and the author of Acts tells us that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word”. Phillip was one of the scattered, and while exiled from Jerusalem he preached the good news in Samaria extremely successfully. Then, as we heard today, an angel of the Lord told him to leave Samaria and head south to the wilderness road that ran from Jerusalem to Gaza. There Phillip encountered an Ethiopian eunuch.

One of the commentators I read on this story began his commentary by describing the first time he heard about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch. He asked his Sunday school teacher what the term ‘eunuch’ meant, and she said a eunuch was a person who was in charge of the royal treasury. It wasn’t until he was in college and taking a course on the Bible as Literature that he discovered that a eunuch was a man who had been castrated and was correspondingly shocked. (Peter J. Paris, African Heritage Sunday Lectionary Commentary, Sunday, February 8, 2009, p. 3.) But in one way his Sunday School teacher was right. Being castrated as a child enabled a man to be employed in a court; eunuchs were considered to be more trustworthy than other men. They could safely be used to guard women; but they were also thought to be able to safely guard treasure, because they didn’t have spouses, children or in-laws with whom to share stolen wealth. The “complicated gender” of this eunuch would have made him the perfect treasurer for a queen.

However his complicated gender, which might have improved his social status, would have caused him difficulty in his religious life. We don’t know whether the Ethiopian eunuch was a member of the Jewish diaspora or a Gentile god-fearer. Ethiopian tradition is that the Queen of Sheba returned from her encounter with King Solomon pregnant; and that their son went to Jerusalem to meet his father, and then returned to Ethiopia with Jewish companions. The fact that this man was Ethiopian was unlikely to have been a problem for him when he went to Jerusalem to worship. The fact that he was a eunuch, though, would have caused him difficulty.

The Jews were surrounded by cultures that practiced castration, but it was anathema to them. Jewish sexual morality, as we can see in writings like the Holiness Code in Leviticus, was all about ‘being fruitful and multiplying’. Eunuchs, whether made or born, could not be fruitful. And so they were forbidden from worshipping in the temple. Deuteronomy says quite clearly: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 23:1) When the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” it isn’t a rhetorical question. Whether a Jew or a Gentile god-fearer, the eunuch would have been seen as a scarred and defective man, unable to fully enter into Jewish worship.

But the Ethiopian is reading from the prophecies of Isaiah and, according to Isaiah, the Lord foresees a time to come when: “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.” (Isaiah 56:4-5) For this particular Ethiopian eunuch, that time is now. Being of complicated gender; being unable to fulfil God’s commandment to be fruitful and multiply; being excluded and marginalised by the Holiness Code; none of this matters any more. Another commentator I read this week points out that: “Phillip does not tell the eunuch that if he only confesses Jesus Christ, receives water baptism, and prays hard, then God will give him gonads and a desire for women”. (Karen Baker-Fletcher, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2, p. 458.) All Phillip tells him is the good news about Jesus; that the one led silently to slaughter; the one humiliated and denied justice; the one who would understand the humiliation and denial of justice that the Ethiopian experiences as a eunuch, is also the glorious resurrected Lord. In the good news of Jesus, suffering can be transformed into exaltation.

There are still eunuchs in the world today. The most common reason for a man to become a eunuch is as the result of an operation for advanced prostate cancer. I’d be fascinated to know whether biblical literalists welcome these people into their worshipping communities, given the clear biblical prohibitions. I hope that they’re able to overcome any desire to reject eunuchs on the basis of Deuteronomy [23:1] and Leviticus [21:20], perhaps through their reading of Isaiah [56:4] and this story in Acts.

Ethiopian Eunuch by Paul GoodnighThere are still churches that don’t allow people who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual to receive the Eucharist or be church leaders. There is still disagreement within even the Uniting Church about whether people in same-sex relationships can be ordained as ministers, although we have made it very clear that gay, lesbian or bisexual people are fully welcome as members of the Church and are always and warmly welcome to the Lord’s Table. The Commonwealth laws and religious rules that say that marriage is only between a man and a woman not only deny marriage to same-sex couples, they also deny marriage to transgender and intersex people. Tony Briffa, who was the Mayor here in Hobsons Bay in 2011 and 2012, was born with Partial Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome and has a birth certificate from the state of Victoria that doesn’t classify Tony as either male or female. Because of that, Tony had to go to New Zealand to be married because marriage in Australia is only permissible between a man and a woman, and Tony, being neither, wasn’t eligible. The Ethiopian eunuch has descendants in the church today; sexual and gender outsiders who also face religious rejection.

One of the reasons that I love the Uniting Church is that we are at least on a journey towards full inclusion of GLBTI people. We’re not there yet; people in same-sex relationships can still be refused ordination as ministers and we’re still discussing questions of same-sex marriage. But we are a lot closer to full inclusion than most of our ecumenical siblings. It is definitely a difficult journey. The Uniting Church is a multicultural church and the acceptance of GLBTI people differs markedly between cultural communities. But we are journeying together.

We’re able to journey together because we are a community created by God’s love. As I said last week, love always begins with the God who loved us so much. In today’s reading from the First Letter of John the apostle reminds us: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch show this love to each other; Phillip by approaching the eunuch; explaining the Scriptures to him; and baptising him; the eunuch by welcoming Phillip into his carriage and listening to his teaching. Their love led to Phillip welcoming a new Christian to the community and the Ethiopian eunuch going on his way rejoicing. Their story reminds us to do the same; welcome the people who are different from us and rejoice. Because God loves us and so we can love each other. Let us love one another, remembering the Ethiopian eunuch. Amen.

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