While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
What Is to Prevent Me?
Scriptures: Acts 8:26-40
The Ethiopian Eunuch is a fascinating character, and Philip’s meeting with him is one of our earliest lessons in how we are to relate to others.
I use the term “others” here in a very modern way. We talk about “othering”, about pushing people apart from us, talking about them as if their differences are the most important aspect of their existence. To make someone “other” is dehumanizing; it makes it easier to treat them as things instead of people.
An example of this is the fact that this story doesn’t give us a name: the man is the Eunuch, nameless. He was a powerful court official, the queen of Ethiopia’s Chief Financial Officer, so he certainly had a name
and it might have even been slightly famous, but the focus is on his difference: the fact that he was a eunuch.
There would have been other differences: he would have had much darker skin than Philip and other features associated with Ethiopia, although that would not have been the kind of big deal then that it has become in our society today.
He would have been much richer and more powerful than Philip: the man had his own chariot; he certainly had a driver and probably bodyguards. You don’t travel as a court official from Ethiopia without official protection and Philip, like most of Jesus’ first followers, was an ordinary working guy, certainly not wearing fancy clothes. It’s remarkable that the man invited him in.
And in Jewish terms, the man was considered less than a man: he would have been castrated as a boy, so his voice would have been high; being so high up in officialdom, he would have been well fed; he would have been the stereotype of a eunuch: large and soft-looking, with a treble voice and no facial hair.
When he went to worship at the temple he would have been restricted to the women’s court, prevented from entering with the men. In any gathering for worship he would not have been counted as one of the 10 men required for the Minyan, the quorum for worship in Orthodox Judaism.
Further, in traditional Judaism at the time, the main concept of eternal life had nothing to do with a personal consciousness existing into eternity: it had to do with having children. Your future was in your offspring – that’s why it was considered to be a curse to be childless.
That makes the passage he was reading from Isaiah 53 all the more significant: it is part of the Suffering Servant writings, interpreted in Judaism to refer to the sufferings of the nation of Israel and re-interpreted by Christians to refer to the sufferings of Christ.
Part of what he was reading says “who can describe his generation?” which is also translated as “who can imagine his future?”. This would obviously be a matter of concern for a man who knows that he will not generate any offspring; that his line has no future.
It is actually a hopeful passage in Isaiah and concludes with a promise of many generations to come and a bright future. And Philip showed the man the Christian interpretation of how one moves from the suffering and hopelessness to the bright future and a time of hope.
The man got very excited at this new interpretation and the other teachings Philip shared, so that when they passed a body of water
he asked that famous question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
“Nothing” was the answer; and now we can look to the Christian church in Ethiopia as one of the most ancient branches of our faith.
“What is to prevent me?”
In these times of division and hatred, in these days when it is so easy to form camps, in these days of extremism when people won’t even converse with someone who disagrees with them, in these days where hatred and trolling are common and accusations fly without restraint, in these days when it is so easy to identify enemies and the commandment to love our enemies is laughed off, there are many things to prevent connections from being made.
What if Philip had held back because this man was of a different social class? What if Philip had been afraid of his skin colour? What if he’d been disgusted by the man’s sexuality? What if he hadn’t wanted to make the effort to get past the man’s foreign accent? What if Philip had lacked the imagination, or the empathy, to interpret the Eunuch’s concern about the Isaiah reading and the way it affected his own situation?
Any one of these could have prevented him from being accepted, from being baptized. What a loss that would have been!
This is a story for the 21st century!
It addresses dealing with foreigners; it addresses racism; it addresses issues of non-traditional sexuality; it addresses differences in social class and it casts it all in terms of who is acceptable to God and who we should welcome as part of our family of faith.
“What is to prevent me?” asks the Ethiopian Eunuch. “What is to prevent me?” is the question for so many today.
And the answer is: Me. I can prevent you if I look at you and reject you as unacceptable in some way; if I consider you less than me; if I give myself an excuse for rejecting you, putting you down.
Not just me as an individual, although it is good to start there, but we as a church, together, have the same power to exclude.
We can prevent; we can be the obstacle; we can be the ones who push people away if we think too narrowly; if we don’t make an effort to heal when other church people hurt others in the name of Christ.
One of the great complaints of the last 50 years within the mainline church is that people aren’t joining us; people are staying away. What is preventing them? Is it us? Our attitudes? Our silence? Our failure to follow Philip’s example and take the first step to cross the barriers that divide us?
What is preventing them?
People look at us and see the Establishment and they feel like they don’t belong. How can we persuade them that they do?
How can we welcome them – not just shake hands and offer coffee
when they come in our doors (whenever that’s possible again) but to the point where coming in our doors is something they will consider at all?
We know the theory. We sing “all are welcome” with enthusiasm and put it on our signs; we celebrate communion in which we re-affirm our connection with God’s people across all boundaries, despite all divisions; we proclaim that we want to be “warm and welcoming”. But how do we make all that real?
That’s our challenge now: to get past social differences; to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers, get past issues of race and sexuality to open our hearts and minds so that all are truly welcome and no one is prevented. Amen.