Sunday, April 28, 2024

Fifth Sunday in Easter

“A New Way of Seeing” — Rev. Brent Gundlah

First Reading (Acts 8:26-40/NRSVUE)
Gospel Reading (John 15:1-8/NRSVUE)

Acts 8:26-40

For the fourteen years I was in Boston, I worked in one building; it stood at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Summer Street, which just so happens to be the busiest intersection in the city. Because it’s a place that gets a lot of traffic (vehicular and pedestian), this location draws no shortage of folks who are trying to make either a point or a buck (or, in some cases, both). And over the course of my tenure there I got to see a lot of them.

The small park on the northwest corner became the encampment for dozens of protesters during the Occupy movement; and during the morning commute, the southwest corner was generally where a guy dressed in a bear costume and playing a keytar, who was widely-known locally as “Keytar Bear” (go figure), tried to secure tips from passersby. And then there was this guy that some of my coworkers referred to as the “Bishop,” though I doubt that he’d actually been ordained or anything like that.

For years, mostly during lunchtime, he’d stand in front of the traffic signal on the median separating the busy east and westbound lanes of Summer Street. He had a long black beard and dressed in the black robe and headwear of a Greek Orthodox priest (hence the nickname, I guess). He would either wave or give a thumbs-up to folks with one hand, while holding homemade signs expressing his theological messages (things like: “Jesus Loves You!”) in the other. I don’t recall him ever soliciting or taking money from anyone — for him, the honks and waves of drivers and walkers, and the chance to evangelize to captive audiences waiting for the light to change, seemed to be reward enough.

What I also never saw was any of those drivers, most of whom were headed to lucrative jobs in the financial district, rolling down their windows and inviting him into their Beemers and Benzes in order to hear more of his preaching. Truth be told, they probably just wrote him off as another harmless crackpot taking up space on the streets of Boston (maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t). Funnily enough, though, this is pretty much what happens in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  

As the story begins, an angel of the Lord appears to Philip and tells him to “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” And so Philip gets up and goes.

On Philip’s path is “an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury,” but Philip doesn’t know this yet. The sentence that introduces us to the Ethiopian conveys the idea that he was a pretty big deal (he worked for an actual queen overseeing her vast fortune and had access to what, back then, would have been a really sweet ride). He’d come to Jerusalem to worship and is now on his way home; he’s seated in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah, another clue as to his high social status as the vast majority of people back then couldn’t read.

Then, none other than the Holy Spirit arrives with more instructions for Philip, telling him to go meet the man in the chariot, which, of course he does because that’s what you do. The Ethiopian invites Philip to sit beside him in his chariot for an impromptu Bible study. Philip explains the passage from Isaiah that the man was reading and goes on to proclaim to him “the good news about Jesus.”

The man is apparently so moved by this whole experience that he asks whether there’s anything preventing him from being baptized. Philip can’t seem to think of a reason (which we can infer from the fact that he doesn’t actually say anything in reponse) so he baptizes him. When they emerge from the water, the Holy Spirit whisks Philip away, and the newly-baptized man goes on his way rejoicing, never to be mentioned in the story again.

The Acts of the Apostles (written by same person who penned Luke’s Gospel) is an account of the works of the early disciples of Christ in the period right after Jesus’s death and resurrection. Acts tells of the spread of the gospel beyond the small community of observant Judean Jews in which it first took root. And this Ethiopian Eunuch certainly fits that bill.

Ethiopia was seen as the hinterlands by those living in the ancient Mediterranean world, and so the fact that he comes from there most definitely fulfills Jesus’s call to the disciples to be his “witnesses to the end of the earth.”

This particular Ethiopian was also a eunuch and the fact that he was, for whatever reason, missing some of what people customarily associate with being male enabled him to secure his prestigious gig for the queen because he wasn’t seen to be an obvious threat to Queen’s virtue, but it would have made being a full-fledged Jew rather challenging.

You see, under a strict interpretation of the Law, such a person would not have been allowed in the temple, and could never participate fully in the community of Israel. And so Philip’s decision to baptize him despite all of this is a bold one because the early Christ-believers understood themselves to be rightly-observant Jews. Philip puts the essential beliefs of Jesus — that the spirit of the law is more important than the letter of the law, and that the gospel is truly meant for everyone — into practice, and this is pretty incredible.

It’s probably unsurprising, then, that a lot of reflections on this passage focus on Philip’s act of grace toward this stranger; I must admit that I’ve preached a few of those myself. Philip, appointed by the apostles, sought out by the angels, and directed by the Holy Spirit, finds this religious outsider, this person from a far-off land whose skin is likely a different color than his own, this person whose gender identity may be less-than-clear, and he shares with him the gospel and leads him to the communal waters of baptism. Inclusivity reigns and privilege falls; good on Philip, good on Christianity (even though it wasn’t even called Christianity yet). But, like a lot of things in the Bible, it’s not that simple.

For starters, we never actually hear Philip questioning this person’s religion, nationality, ethnicity, social status, or anything else about him for that matter. At that time, this region was fairly racially and ethnically diverse, so we shouldn’t necessarily infer that these things would have been issues for Philip (or for anyone else). But they are, most definitely, issues for us in our time, and so perhaps we’re inclined to read our own perspective back into this story, which can be problematic if we’re not aware that we’re doing it.

In addition, we shouldn’t take as a given that Philip would have known that this Ethiopian wasn’t Jewish because Judaism had existed in the Horn of Africa since the time of King Solomon. Heck, the Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia herself could have been Jewish for all we know. Once again, we can easily fall into the trap of making assumptions based upon our particular vantage point here.

And while this Ethiopian Eunuch’s gender identity and sexual status might have been concerns for him — specifically, in terms of his ability to be full accepted as a Jew under the Law — we don’t know whether Philip was even aware of these things. But we are aware, and so we might be inclined to make judgements about this story in light of this knowledge.

There is, however, one thing that Philip could easily infer about this person from what he’s able to observe: His wealth and high social standing. Does Philip have any idea that he’s speaking with the treasurer of the Ethiopian queen? We don’t really know. But, like I said earlier, he’s riding around in a chariot and can read, which are dead giveways. This might not seem like a big deal to us today, but it would have been to Philip (and probably the early readers of Acts) back then. And this is where this already interesting story gets even more interesting.

We perceive of this story from a twenty-first century perspective — one in which this small movement of Jesus-followers became Christianity, and Christianity became the religion of empires (Roman and others), and apostles became saints. Given such a perspective, we might look at what happens here and see this: Philip, a legend of the faith, setting aside his privilege and deigning to engage with this thrice-marginalized person.

But in that place and time it likely would have been seen as the other way around. Philip was a disciple of Jesus, who recently died a most undignified death on the cross; he was part of a fringe movement that was looked down upon by the powers-that-be and the society they controlled; he was walking around the region in his humble clothes and dusty sandals seeking converts. And this mysterious person of obvious means invites this evangelist named Philip to climb into his chariot so he can hear what he has to say. So, who’s setting aside their privilege here? Chew on that one for a while.

I guess what I’m saying is that our interpretation of privilege in this ancient story is necessarily influenced by the way we see and understand privilege today —and, frankly, by our privilege itself.

After this particular story ends, we never see or hear from the Ethiopian Eunuch again and so we’re left to wonder what happens to him. Does he go home (in his chariot) to his old job and the life he’d had before this whole encounter with Philip and the gospel? Or does he emerge from the baptismal waters and decide to give up his wealth and status in order to follow in the way Christ? It’s impossible to say, but I wouldn’t bet against God’s ability to change people’s hearts and minds, would you?

This is, after all, the topsy-turvy world of the Bible — where we can expect the unexpected; where worldly norms are dependably upended; where the whole concept of who’s in and who’s goes right out window; where the first become last and the last become first; where everyone is equal in the eyes of the Creator.

And so in our world — where needs and the ways in which we’ve historically met them are changing, where organized religion doesn’t have nearly the same influence in society that it used to have, where Christianity is no longer the only game in town, we, as the church, might want think about what it would be like for us to set aside our own sense of privilege about who we are (or who we were, or who we think we deserve to be) and just focus on doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with our God.