Fifth Sunday of Easter Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 66:1-11, 1 John 3:18-24, John 14:15-21
When Our Lord sent the Holy Spirit to fill his disciples and make them into his bride and body, the Church, they held all things in common and preached earnestly the Word of God to the people in Jerusalem, seeing thousands join their miraculous new life together. There were no poor among them, and the widows were cared for. They had in a short time established a system of just and fair distribution to those in need, through the ministry of the newly ordained Deacons. This seemed to be the inauguration of a new Kingdom, a new way of life, one which finally fulfilled the hopes of the Hebrews and embraced even foreigners amongst the people of God.
Yet this blissful state of the peaceful reign of Christ was short lived. In the face of not only this remarkable new life, but also great signs, healings, and wonders, those who held power in Jerusalem despised these followers of Jesus. They hated them because they preached that they needed to repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus, which culminates in the public martyrdom of St Stephen, one of the first Deacons. After his murder, the people of God were scattered from Jerusalem into the surrounding region. This could be seen as a disaster, the premature end of that beautiful fulfillment of the Kingdom of God on earth. But as St Paul teaches, God works all things together for the good of those who love him, and indeed Jesus upon his Ascension commissioned his disciples to be his witnesses not only in Jerusalem, but Judah, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
And so we find St Phillip called out of Samaria by the voice of the Angel who instructs him to walk the road southwest from Jerusalem to Gaza, a road in the desert. There he meets the treasurer of the Queen of Ethiopia, a Eunuch. A Eunuch is a male servant who has been castrated. It seems Eunuchs are assigned especially to serve noble women, and are sometimes taken from conquered noble families to ensure that their lineage will end. This servant of Candance, the Queen of Ethiopia was a man of faith, perhaps reminding us of that many generations earlier the Queen of Sheba had brought back the name and worship of the God of Israel after her encounter with King Solomon. He had been in Jerusalem to give glory to God, though he would have worshipped from far off, for the Law of God says in Deuteronomy 23 that “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”
The Law of God emphasizes bodily integrity as a part of worship. The practice of creating Eunuchs is a violation of God’s good creation, an act of grievous humiliating violence against individuals. The worship in the Temple is a foretaste or pattern of the coming Kingdom, that of a perfected humanity meeting with the God who made them in love, a foretaste fulfilled now in Jesus Christ. The Eunuch is not the only person who is prohibited from the assembly of the Lord. Gentiles, those who are not born of the Hebrew people, could not come near the Sanctuary, and even amongst Hebrew people there were various natural bodily functions which would mean someone would need to wait some time before coming to offer worship. The Priests also could not come to offer sacrifice if their bodies were blemished or harmed in any way, for the Priest of the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the Jesus the unblemished Priest who was to offer himself as an unblemished sacrifice to God for the forgiveness of sins.
But the Queen’s Treasurer doesn’t know that yet. All he knows is that he has to stand far off.
God’s call to St. Phillip is a call to become a companion, a friend, and teacher to the Queen’s Treasurer. Meeting the Ethiopian he notices that he is reading from the Prophet Isaiah, a poignant passage from what we know as the 53rd chapter, a poem about a man who suffers a gruesome death for the sake of sinners. In this poem the sacrificial lamb of the Tabernacle or Temple is a human being, who like the spotless animal dies bearing the sins of the people so that they may be forgiven.
In the poem from which the Ethiopian read and inquired the meaning of from St Philip, God raises up his chosen servant, but that servant is so abused, so wounded, so afflicted that those who would look on him would believe him to be accursed. This juxtaposition between this servant of God who is raised up to suffer and be rejected, this anointed one who is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, speaks to the life, suffering, and death of Jesus. From the earliest times Christians have read this poem about the suffering servant and have understood it to be speaking about Christ. The servant would be lifted high – on a cross. He would be pieced – By nails, and a spear. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, and Herod the King was stumped into silence by Jesus’ refusal to answer him. Like a lamb led to slaughter Jesus is led to Golgotha and he did not cry out or protest. He dies alongside two thieves and so makes his grave with the wicked, and is placed in the tomb owned by the wealthy man Joseph of Aramathia, and so is with a rich man in his death.
Perhaps this was how St Philip shared the good news of Jesus with this noble servant of the Queen of Ethiopia.
And so if the life, suffering, and death of Our Lord so echoes this prophetic poem, perhaps the mercy and forgiveness won by the suffering servant, is the mercy and forgiveness now granted to all those who put their faith in Christ now!
It’s Jesus who bears our sorrows, griefs, infirmity, sin, and guilt. He carries it to the grave, putting these things which afflict us to death forever. He bears the sin of many, and now makes intercession for transgressors.
Perhaps this is the good news St Philip announces while sitting in the chariot on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
And this is good news for all of us too. This is what was won for us by the suffering of Our Lord, and confirmed by his rising again from the dead.
But is this what drove this inquirer to halt the chariot and receive the sacrament of Baptism on the spot?
Folded within the details of this story is good news not just for all people generally, but good news specifically for the Eunuch who serves a Gentile queen.
The law of God prohibits all kinds of people from entering the assembly of the Lord, and even more people from drawing near to the sanctuary, and even more people from being able to offer a sacrifice in the Holy of Holies. The Law of God names the dissonance between the world as it is, and the world as it ought to be, namely that blissful state of humanity and all creation thriving according to the calling God has for them, and not marred by death and disobedience and weakness. We are not told of how this man came to be a Eunuch, but whether by his own choice or more likely because of someone else’s, the Law of God prohibits him from fully participating in the worship of the People of God at the Temple. Yet the same prophet who spoke of a hope of one who would bear the sins of many, speaks too of a hope for him.
Just a couple of chapters from this Servant Song from which he read, Isaiah announces:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and let not the eunuch say,
“Behold, I am 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.
If we may be permitted some poetic imagination, I do not suppose it is an accident that the scroll this Ethiopian man carries around with him is the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. Perhaps these are words on which he has meditated for many long hours, perhaps for years. And perhaps it is these words which bring him to Jerusalem to worship, despite how now finds himself excluded in some ways from the assembly of Israel, yet he believes there is a hope for him too. He trusts in these words, that God embraces him, that God has a place for him in the mysterious unfolding of his purposes.
In Jesus all of God’s promises are “yes”, as St Paul teaches. The Gospel is not less than this announcement that the things long hoped for are now here and available to all those who put their trust in Christ. A foretaste of the Kingdom is found here in these Prophetic words, that any person can know God and be known by him if they faithfully respond to God’s word. Isaiah specifies the keeping of the Sabbath as the means by which the outsider will come into the household of God. The Sabbath rest is of course the day we cease from work, so in a sense the call of God to the outsider, the foreigner and the Eunuch, is to do nothing at all.
Keep my sabbath.
Hear my word to you, and rest.
That Word of Sabbath rest, foretold in the Prophet, has now come to us in flesh and has dwelt among us. The perfect Priest has offered himself as a perfect sacrifice, atoning for the sins of the world and now calls all people to be joined to him by baptism and by faith. The Ethiopian man upon hearing the good news about Jesus in his chariot responds by asking “What prevents me from being baptized?”
There was so much preventing this man from experiencing a full inclusion amongst the people of God in the previous covenant, but the new covenant inaugurated by Christ knows of no imperfection that he himself cannot make up for. Jesus is the perfected Israel assembled to offer a holy sacrifice, and those who are joined to him through the waters of baptism are washed of all that hinders that union. He grants to all who believe as a gift the holiness that is his by right. And like that call to Sabbath rest, the call to be baptized is not a work we do, it is a ceasing from work. It is a giving up, an admitting of our insufficiencies.
And in Baptism that ceasing from work finds its response, as the hands of those who bear Christ’s name lower us into the waters, or sprinkle it upon our heads. When we hear Christ’s word to us our first response is to cease our own efforts and rely upon his. Or in St John’s words, we believe in his Name. There is no ambiguity, no chance we might not make it, no ritual defilement, no ailment, nothing anyone could do to us which would or could exclude us. Baptism into Christ’s name is for everyone, and all who are baptized are members of God’s own household, a family of love.
The Ethiopian Eunuch heard the best news he has ever heard on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, the Gospel that means he is no longer in the outer court of the Temple but now in the Holy of Holies, face to face with God, joined with the multitude of saints from every tribe and nation to share in Christ’s life of love which is for all people. Let us then like him rejoice in this good news today, and let us like Phillip tell this glad news wherever we are sent.