Sermon–April 29, 2018


Easter 5—B–April 29, 2018

William Bradbury

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

An Ethiopian eunuch? Really?

There are two common mistakes made about the Bible: First, some believe that the Bible is so clear and straightforward that it presents the simple and clear cut will of God. Therefore, as the bumper sticker says, “God said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

This has appeal because there is something in each of us that sees the world in a simplistic, black and white way: there is right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and good people and bad people and the Bible tells us which is which.

Recent decades we’ve heard those quoting the Bible to support their view of God’s will regarding sex and gender. Take Deuteronomy 23:1 which reads: “No one whose testicles are crushed [that is a eunuch]…shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” That’s pretty clear, isn’t it?

So the Ethiopian Eunuch who goes up to Jerusalem to worship in the temple should be refused entrance based on the clear word of Deuteronomy 23:1.

A second mistake is to believe the Bible is too old, complex and compromised to have any relevance for their life, so it’s better not to read it at all. Instead of seeking wisdom, truth, and spiritual direction from the Bible, they get it from Facebook, Netflix, Twitter, and advertising. That is, they get it from the spirit of the age.

Those who hold this view may have 5 Bibles at home, but they are covered in dust, so if they were inclined to use a bumper sticker it might read, “God didn’t say it; I don’t read it; and that settles it.”

 The life and teaching of a Jew who lived 2000 years ago, along with his backstory found in the Old Testament, deserves to gather dust in the homes of modern, sophisticated people.

I want to suggest there is another, better way. Rene Girard, historian, social scientist, and literary critic, calls the Bible a “text in travail.”

It’s a text in travail because the Bible is slowly giving birth to a new humanity and is therefore filled with confusion, struggle, and suffering.

So when we struggle with this text in travail we discover Isaiah says something very different from Deuteronomy 23:1. Isaiah 55:4-6 says: “…Do not let the eunuch say,

“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
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 the Bible goes one step back and then two steps forward, as the Spirit pulls humanity ever more deeply into loving the world as it is and not just as we wish it were for me and my tribe.   

Today on Facebook people my age post nostalgic scenes from 60 years ago which can be fun to look at. But sometimes someone will wonder why the world can’t be like that idyllic time: why can’t we go back to the world of “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father knows best”?

One reason is because in the “good ole days” people of color were so marginalized they weren’t allowed to go to white schools and restaurants and were rarely seen on TV, and then only as servants or criminals. During that “idyllic” time women were locked up in the prison of patriarchy so they couldn’t use their gifts outside the home.

Another “simplicity” we are still trying to overcome is that of male and female. On a fabulous podcast called “The Bible for Normal People” host Pete Enns, biblical scholar and seminary professor, interviewed an expert on the Bible and intersex. Intersex?

I had never heard the term “intersex” before. The definition taken from the Intersex Society of North America website defines intersex as, “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born…in-between the usual male and female types….or a person may be born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY….”

How many folks are intersex, you might well ask? The website says: “If you ask experts at medical centers how often a child is born so noticeably atypical in terms of genitalia that a specialist in sex differentiation is called in, the number comes out to about…1 in 2000 births. But a lot more people than that are born with subtler forms of sex anatomy variations, some of which won’t show up until later in life.”

The eunuch is intersex, so Deuteronomy rejects him because he is outside the cultural ideal, but Isaiah accepts him because the love of God is for all creation and not just the parts that we label as ideal.

In our story today, Philip is led by the Spirit to the Ethiopian eunuch seated in his chariot reading out loud the prophet Isaiah. The Spirit says to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

This is the humility of a person who desires to go beyond what he already thinks and believes. The eunuch is very successful, yet he still yearns to understand life on a deeper level, so he is willing to struggle with this text in travail.

Philip addresses his questions, proclaims the good news about Jesus, and ends up baptizing him into the Risen Christ.

Philip is a clear example of what Jesus is talking about when he says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Philip is also willing to be pruned by the Father, who prunes the natural desire to hang around people like himself, so that he is willing to go strike up a conversation with this strange man, who is the wrong color, the wrong religion, and the wrong sex. Yet the Risen Christ means to bring him into the Kingdom of God.

Or better, to use Tripp Fuller’s word, into the Kin-dom of God, the kindred of God that is based, not on nostalgia for blood, race, class, sex, gender, marriage, family, geography, or nationality, but on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is now part of the “text in travail”, moving from Deuteronomy to Isaiah to Jesus, reminding us that abiding in Christ calls us beyond either proof-texting the Bible or ignoring it. So, as the collect near the end of the church year says, we “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Bible. –Not so we can find simplistic answers to complex issues, but so we can let the Father can prune and transform us into a people who gladly share the Kin-dom of God with those who don’t yet know that they too abide in the vine, who is Christ.