The Eunuch’s Story: Witness to Grace

28 Apr, 2024

By the Rev’d Andrew Coyle

Season: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:26-40 | 1 John 4:7-21 | John 15:1-8

On all the Sundays in this season of Easter, our first reading comes not from the Hebrew Scriptures but from the New Testament, from The Acts of the Apostles. And this is fitting, because The Book of Acts tells the story of what happens when God blows our minds with the power of the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. And what happens is this amazing broadening of the disciples’ horizons.

In the first chapter of Acts, when we read about Jesus’ Ascension – a story that we will hear in a couple of Sunday’s time, Jesus tells the disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). And indeed, one of the main features of The Book of Acts is the missionary activity of the apostle Paul, where the centrifugal power of the Spirit sends him charging backwards and forwards around the Mediterranean through what is now modern-day Syria, Turkey and Greece before ending up in Rome.

In The Acts of the Apostles, we see how The Way of Jesus becomes a missionary movement, expanding its horizons beyond Judea to the whole of the known world. But what is really significant about this geographical expansion is what prompted it. And what prompted it is an expanded awareness that God’s love and God’s grace is not confined to the people of the nation of Israel, but is for everyone. It is this internal shift in understanding, if you like, that leads to this external movement. And we hear that shift exemplified in the words of both apostles, Paul and Peter.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes words that may be familiar to many of you,

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

And what Paul is saying is not that those identities don’t matter but that they cease to be boundary markers for the inclusion or exclusion of people within God’s love. God’s love and grace are for everybody, equally and impartially. And Peter offers us a similar kind of epiphany in the text that we read every year on Easter Day itself,

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35).

The good news is for everyone.

Now while Peter and Paul might be described as the main protagonists in The Acts of the Apostles, there were, of course, others who were likewise caught up in the winds of the Spirit and propelled beyond borders and boundaries that had previously been taken for granted.

So, in today’s reading from Acts, we have Philip being sent by an angel to the road that runs between Jerusalem and Gaza. There, led by the Spirit, he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship. And, straightaway, there are some things here that we need to take note of:

First, this Ethiopian man is a God-seeker.

He has just made a difficult pilgrimage from his home country to Jerusalem, a distance of over 4,000 kilometres. I looked it up on Google Maps and it would take about 61 hours to drive that route now with our contemporary roads and technology. At that time, however, by chariot, it would probably have taken nearly a month. And in the eyes of those around him, travelling that distance would have marked him as a person of sincere and profound devotion.

The second thing we want to note, however, is that this man is a eunuch.

His genitals have been removed, which means that he would have been regarded as defective and defiled and thus forbidden to enter the temple in Jerusalem (Lev. 21:18-21; Deut 23:1). So, to have gone all that way, and yet been unable to worship in the temple, despite his sincerity and devotion – it might seem like a cruel blow to us, and we can only imagine what it would have been like for him – to have been so excluded despite his sincere faithfulness.

Maybe there are some temporary parallels?

What do you think that might have been like?

Can you think of any situations that are similar to that in your own experience?

A third thing we might want to note is that he is reading from The Book of the Prophet Isaiah.

Specifically, he is reding Isaiah 53:7-8, which is one of the so-called “Suffering Servant” passages that has often been taken as saying something to us about Jesus:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people” (Isa 53:7-8).

But as much as this text provides us with a lens through which we can see Jesus, it might also act as a mirror to us of the Ethiopian eunuch’s own life and experience: oppressed and afflicted… cut off from the land of the living. Those words just as accurately describe this man’s own marginalization by the faith tradition that has so attracted him. And yet, so captivated is he by Philip’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus that despite his recent experience he is able to say, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And those words and Philip’s whole-hearted response to them express for both of them the recognition that the good news of Jesus is indeed for everyone, despite all the ways in which we might try to partition it off from those whom we might regard as beyond the pale and deny its access to those whom we might see as undeserving. And, actually, try as we might to restrict and control the outpouring of God’s grace, that grace will yet overflow whatever barriers or obstacles we may attempt to put in its way. Indeed, we may quote scripture to support our exclusion of others from full participation in the life of the church, only to find that our efforts are subverted by scripture itself because God’s grace will always be more abundant than our efforts to restrict it.

A particularly apt example of this in relation to the story we have just heard is that in the Book of the prophet Isaiah in which the Ethiopian eunuch was so immersed, we find these words just a couple of chapters after the portion that he has been reading:

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and 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 to 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” (Isa 56:3-5).

The grace of God is for everyone and since we cannot ultimately contain God’s grace our best bet is probably just to get with the programme and get on with the loving. And perhaps in all of this, we will recognise that our job as people of faith is not to “convert” the whole world or even particular individuals to our version of “Christian”, believing that somehow we are the sole purveyors of truth and wisdom and that our task is to rescue people from their benighted existences and remake them into the image of what we think a Christian should be.

Perhaps our job is actually to recognise everybody around us as the beloved children of God, already known, already loved by God, and to bear witness to that reality and to help people recognise that truth about themselves. Our job is to be witnesses to God’s presence and activity in the world and to stand beside people in ways that support their recognition of their own belovedness. The Spirit of God is always working to expand our awareness of the uncontainable nature of God’s grace. The Spirit of God is always calling and empowering us to witness to this reality.

Back to All Sermons