Who is This Really About?
Acts 8: 26-40
Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch, Preacher
May 7, 2012
When Margaret and I were visiting in Israel several years ago, our guide was Lee, a brilliant, vibrant lady in her seventies who was originally from Chicago and seemed to have boundless energy. Lee’s day job was as a social worker helping assimilate Jews migrating to Israel under the aliyah, Israel’s “law of return.” The law of return means that Israel will accept anyone into their country as a citizen who can make any legitimate claim to be Jewish, whether racial, religious, or cultural.
Lee’s area of expertise was also one of the most difficult of the aliyah. She was integrating immigrants from Beta Israel, the term that is used for Ethiopian Jews. Though world Judaism is surprisingly diverse, comprising languages and ethnicities and skin colors of all sorts, Ethiopian Jews have run into prejudice because of their black skin. They’ve also had problems because people question their right to claim to be Jewish. For one thing, they have been largely cut off from world Judaism, and as a result some of their practices and beliefs seem alien and strange. Secondly, they arrive poor and often uneducated, and thus in need of support from the Israeli social safety net.
But for another, there are questions about their origin. The origin of Ethiopian Judaism, or the falasha as they call themselves, is lost in antiquity. Some claim that the Queen of Sheba, the famous consort of King Solomon, bore a son by Solomon who brought Judaism to Ethiopia. That would place their founding as far back as the 9th century BC, but that’s unlikely. Another theory places the rise of Ethiopian Judaism after the fall of the Second Temple, half a century after the death of Jesus. A third places it later still.
All this means that anyone with a puritanical or racist streak in Israel can find the falasha an easy target. Lee’s job was to make sure that the absolute mandate of the aliyah succeeded. As far as she was concerned, the falasha, Beta Israel, were Jews, no matter how anyone else defined Judaism, and they have a right to live in the Jewish homeland.
“This is about who Israel is, and who we will be,” she told us at one point.
There’s some scholarly confusion about who the Ethiopian eunuch is. And to give you an idea of the perils and frustrations of writing a sermon, I went into this one with a pretty clear idea that I would be talking about a eunuch, a victim of a barbaric practice of genital mutilation that was quite common in the ancient world. Often the slaves of rulers and the powerful were mutilated so that they could serve without threat to women in their charge, and without any family connections that might tie them into the complex political machinations going on around them. In many cases this mutilation happened when they were very young. Often eunuchs could rise to positions of great authority, as is the case of this Ethiopian eunuch, who served the Candace, or queen of Ethiopia.
So I was thinking, this poor Ethiopian eunuch! What a horrible life he’s been through! And my whole sermon was going to start from, “Woe be to the poor Ethiopian eunuch!”
Then I discovered that actually he might not be a eunuch at all! See, by the time of Jesus, “eunuch” had become a term for anyone who served a powerful person in an official capacity. It’s like the term nurse, which once meant a woman nursing a baby, but now can mean a male health care provider.
And actually it doesn’t add up that he would be a physical eunuch. A physical eunuch would have been unclean. He wouldn’t have been allowed in the temple. He would have known that. It would have been pointless for the man to have travelled all that way only to be turned away at the door.
Nonetheless, Luke, the author of Acts, wants us to understand that the Ethiopian eunuch is a fringe character. He places the conversion of the eunuch in between the conversion of Samaritans and the conversion of Cornelius, the Italian centurion. Samaritans were considered really fringe Jews. Cornelius is the first “official” Gentile convert. So the eunuch is something worse than a fringe Jew but not quite a righteous Gentile–a man from a faraway, mysterious country, who may be a Jew or may not be, who may be a eunuch or may not be, who is totally unlike anyone that has been evangelized before. When he arrived in Jerusalem, would he have been greeted as a celebrity, because he was so unusual, or viewed with suspicion, for the same reason? And if he was a true eunuch, did the priests sneer and laugh, or recoil in horror? Did he get to enter the Temple grounds or was he, like the modern falasha, discriminated against, perhaps even relegated to the fringes as a pretender?
What we don’t know about him seems far more loaded than what we do know. Who is this man? But the Holy Spirit seems to think that converting the Ethiopian eunuch says a lot about what Christianity is to become.
The Spirit whisks the apostle Philip to the side of the eunuch’s chariot just as the man is reading the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 53, one the great “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah. The eunuch is so grateful to have Philip’s help in interpreting this scripture, he invites Philip to sit in his luxurious chariot with him. And whatever else we don’t know about the Ethiopian eunuch, we now know this: the man is what we call today a seeker, somebody who longs to know God, whose heart is thirsty to discover who God is in the world. In that culture, as in ours today, there were plenty of seekers. As do seekers today, they often practiced what’s called “cafeteria style” religion–they’d take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and come up with a belief system that worked for them. But they are always longing for more. They’re always aware of what some have called “the God-shaped hole.”
He is a seeker, and the Holy Spirit has sought him out. In a kind of Divine aliyah, God has sought out the lost eunuch and said, “I don’t care how much on the fringe you are, Jesus Christ is your home. You belong to here, by my side. You belong to Christ.”
The passage that perplexes the eunuch is perplexing to many of us. “As a sheep before the shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth… In his humiliation justice was denied him…” This is one of five “suffering servant” passages that we Christians ascribe to Christ, but that Jews ascribe to Israel itself. The idea is that this servant is suffering for the sake of the sins of the world and by his suffering, the world will be saved.
If the Ethiopian was indeed a physical eunuch, this passage might have resonated with him in a powerful way. He would have been mutilated as child of ten or eleven, forced to live a life of servitude in which he ultimately rose to the top, but always with the awareness of what he’d lost. If he was a physical eunuch he would have found himself turned away from the Temple, viewed as a sexual deviant, a scarred half-human unwelcome by God; so to read that someone in the bible felt and was treated as he was would have moved him profoundly.
But what if he wasn’t a real eunuch? What if he was just a really rich guy who’d always had a good life?
Well, let’s not engage in class warfare here. Rich successful people suffer. Everyone suffers. Everyone has need. Maybe it’s physical or social, but it’s also spiritual, emotional, and mental. The servant passages move us because they meet us where we are. Here’s a servant of God, suffering. Why would a good person suffer? Why is there suffering at all?
German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer had more than his fair share of suffering and disappointment. By 1942, he’d sought unsuccessfully to resist the rise of Nazism and its anti-Semitic and imperialistic tendencies, first through the German Church and then through the ecumenical movement. Both had failed. He was by this point part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler and overthrow the government, which for him felt like a failure–he’d hoped he could overcome Hitler through nonviolence. Over the years he’d seen his friends and students arrested or killed in a war they were forced to fight. He would soon be arrested and ultimately executed. Bonhoeffer was an introspective man and had a slight tendency for melancholy, and he had every reason for despair. But he wrote his niece Marianne, who was going through confirmation, that,
There are so many experiences and disappointments that can lead to nihilism and despair, especially in a sensitive person. So it is good to learn early enough that suffering and God are not a contradiction, but rather a unity, for the idea that God is suffering is one that has always been one of the most convincing teachings of Christianity. I think God is nearer to suffering than to happiness, and to find God in this way gives peace and rest and a strong and courageous heart.
It was to the suffering God that Philip introduced the Ethiopian eunuch in that richly appointed carriage between Jerusalem and Samaria. “Who is this about?” The man asked, and Philip replied, it’s about Jesus–the son of God who is with us in our suffering, whether it is suffering because of cruelty or social norms or somebody’s definition of deviance or racism or extreme sensitivity to the suffering of others, or grief, or the overwhelming power of temptation.
God meets us on the common ground we all share. We often say that common ground is sin–but that’s the one thing God doesn’t share in common with us humans. What God in Christ shares most in common with all humanity is suffering. We all suffer, ultimately, because we’re so far away from our spiritual homeland, the Kingdom of God. We all sense that we are exiles, far from God. We are all, in that sense, seekers, as lost from our spiritual roots and true home as the Ethiopian Jews of Beta Israel, living far away and unconnected in Africa for hundreds of years, must have felt.
But God’s aliyah seeks us out and welcomes us back. God’s aliyah meets humanity not at the point of reward, or victory, or certainty, but at the point where we are most weak and most vulnerable and feel furthest from God–suffering.
It’s important for the church today to remember this. We live in a world of seekers–a world of Ethiopian eunuchs. They are as diverse and exotic and alien to us churchgoers as the Ethiopian eunuch seemed to the Jews of Jerusalem. They could also to us, appear to be just as unclean.
But we are agents of God’s aliyah. We don’t have the right to discriminate, because God doesn’t discriminate. We tend to want them to be like we think churchgoers ought to be. Part of the game we play with ourselves is to believe that somehow we are exceptional or special and have the answers and are at some level above the suffering of others.
But what the Holy Spirit wants us to remember is that we and the seekers of the world meet god at the same place–the point of suffering. We aren’t a fenced-in enclave for the well, but a hospital for the sick, and that hospital has an open-door policy. We’re servants of the Holy Spirit who sought out the Ethiopian eunuch who was seeking God, and if we’re going to serve Jesus who taught that he came to seek and save the lost, then we’re called to do the same thing–whoever those seekers are, and wherever they may be found.
 Robertson, Edwin. The Shame and the Sacrifice: The Life and Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: McMillan, 1988. P. 208.