I John 4:7-13
April 29, 2018
CATCH A EUNUCH
In 2010 the Presbyterian Church USA did not ordain gay and lesbian Pastors, but in 2011, after over 30 years of vociferous debate we voted at our national General Assembly to allow it. In 2013 the Presbyterian Church USA did not allow pastors to perform same sex marriages, but by 2014 after much acrimony it was permitted although not required.
Human sexuality is a magnificent gift from God. It is a grace and a wonder that should be appreciated and like all gifts it should be managed wisely. God calls us to be good stewards of our bodies and our sexuality. In 2018 more and more people are becoming aware of what scientists and psychologists have been saying for years: that when it comes to human sexuality there is a whole range of legitimate and genuine sexual identities and self-understandings that are grounded in science, in biological and psychological realities. So many things that were labeled as illness and sin 75 and 3000 years ago are now simply understood as differences and distinctiveness. The gender identities that we are assigned to us on our birth certificates may or may not accurately describe us.
Even though our denomination is light years ahead of many other churches in our nation and the world on these issues, there is still much learning required. In order to minister faithfully to all people, including LGBTQ people, many of us need to become humble and brush up on our biology and psychology. Medical knowledge and cultural perspectives have evolved considerably since my seventh grade health class and we are going to blunder and get things wrong but we must be earnest in our attempts to be compassionate, as Christ calls us to be. As students of the Bible, we also need to read scripture with fresh eyes, balancing order with love and grace.
Our Epistle reading this morning is about love. Just about every human being I know, often forgets that one of the primary calls of Jesus and our faith is to love other people and love all people. Jesus tells us that if we love, then we are his disciples. If we fail to love then we are falling short on discipleship. We live in a time when people frequently engage in public discourse in a way that demonizes people who think differently. This extremism has been modeled to us by our political leaders, especially those at the top and unfortunately it’s contagious. In the same way people who land significantly away from us on the gender identity scale, even though they look the same, have been ridiculed, humiliated and demonized by many cisgendered heterosexual people. There is no place in scripture where Jesus ridicules, demonizes and humiliates people. He debates and teaches from a place of love. This should be our model. Learn in love.
In the book of Acts, our man Philip is fully guided by the Spirit of the Lord. An angel tells Philip to go to the wilderness road, south on the way to Gaza. The same Spirit says to Philip, “Go over to the chariot and catch that Eunuch.” The Spirit of the Lord is calling the shots and Philip responds in faith.
As we read the book of Acts, which was written by Luke, we see that the Holy Spirit actively encourages the church’s first leaders to share the story of Jesus’ mercy, inclusiveness and love with an ever-widening circle of people. “Their world turned upside down by the Spirit is yet turning.”
Luke is very clear about his geography in the Book of Acts. Sharing the Gospel begins in Jerusalem, the inner circle. Then out to those darned hated Samaritans. Next Paul and other disciples will take the Gospel to Syria, Turkey, Greece and Rome and Spain. The circle of the Gospel grows larger and by the mid-sixties of the first century there are churches in every country of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Prostitutes and purists, pagans and foreigners, rich and poor, soldiers and civilians are drawn into God’s circle of love. The book of Acts is clear: the old rules no longer apply; God’s love knows no boundaries.
Today we come to the Eunuch. Philip preaches to an Ethiopian, an African who is travelling in Israel. The Ethiopian Eunuch is never mentioned by name, but Luke is very clear about the man’s sexual status and nationality. Luke tells us five times in fifteen verses that the man was a Eunuch. His testicles had been removed, probably as a requirement for his service to Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. Powerful and wealthy, he was a court official in her monarchy. He owned a chariot and sat in it and read aloud, while his driver did the work. In fact this Eunuch was extraordinarily wealthy: he could afford his own hand written copy of the scroll of Isaiah. And he was learned. The book of Isaiah would have been written down either in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, not the language of Ethiopia.
Powerful, wealthy and learned, the Eunuch was still a sexual outcast. Like many gay, lesbian bisexual, transgender and queer children and adults of our day, the man had suffered all the teasing and blunt harassment for being different. To his face he commanded respect, because he worked for the Queen. Behind his back he was the laughing stock, the child with the “kick me” poster taped on his shirt. He was different, and it was readily obvious in his high tenor voice and his androgynous appearance. Although powerful and rich, he was a man who suffered humiliations. This is perhaps why he is drawn to the words of the Servant Song in the scroll of Isaiah.
To approach the Eunuch and get into the chariot with him was for Philip, to take a risk. Eunuchs according to the laws of Deuteronomy and Leviticus were not permitted to convert to Judaism, nor were they allowed in the inner part of the Temple in Jerusalem. Eunuchs were loathed by the faithful and pure: it was scripture that labeled them unclean. It was the Torah that named them unworthy and hence the visceral reactions.
This is where we in the church have one of those “oh my gosh” moments. What’s up with the Holy Spirit? Has the Spirit lost all sense of propriety? Hasn’t the Holy Spirit read the bible? Here we find that one of the twelve Apostles is directed by the author of Pentecost to hitchhike a ride with a Eunuch. He becomes a spiritual mentor to an unnamed outcast. He teaches him that yes the promises of the prophet reformer Isaiah are fulfilled in Jesus. He teaches this gentile outcast the Gospel. On top of that and beyond all belief, setting aside all decorum, he goes down into the water with this misfit and baptizes him.
Now we are in a jam. Now we have a real dilemma on our hands. The Holy Spirit has guided a follower of Jesus to do something which the Torah forbids. Philip has welcomed a sexual outcast into the church, a foreigner at that. The Holy Spirit has leapt up with grace and welcomed the “unwelcomeable” into the fold. The rules are set aside and rewritten and the Spirit makes it clear that human prejudice does not box God in. A slugfest ensues and the books of Acts and Isaiah do the number on Deuteronomy.
Suddenly all those sexual miscreants, those physically challenged people, and the various assorted other unclean abominators, like menstruating women, are recipients of grace. Yes I said menstruating women. In the good old days and Bible times – they were not permitted to attend worship. Suddenly the Holy Spirit knocks down the walls of prejudice and all God’s people are welcomed to the table. The gospel circle of love is drawn wider in every chapter of the book of Acts.
The fight between purity and welcoming the outcast has been waged in Judaism and Christianity as long as we have been religions.
Slowly but surely Jesus is winning us over. Some Presbyterians see homosexuals and transgendered people as the outcast and some of us see them as we see the Ethiopian Eunuch, part of the fold. Many churches are struggling to understand and heal the devastation of racism. Other churches are arguing about the ordination of women. Scripture as a body is not consistent and in many cases is completely unaware of the things we who inhabit the 21st century know. Wherever you have conflict in the church and biblical debate, the love and grace of Jesus and the wide open loving arms of the Holy Spirit must take precedence. Love and grace break the tie. Always err on the side of love because Christ commands us to love one another. In my mind it is quite clear – to say that the bible forbids homosexuality and homosexual marriage, is to a large extent untrue. All of scripture must read in light of the Gospel, the acts of Jesus and his disciples. Sexual anarchy is not promoted, far from it. We all must be good stewards of our bodies and sexuality, but human beings are far more diverse than we once believed. For Jesus and his disciples, all were welcome at the dinner table, the communion table and the baptismal font and today we must be clear that that includes LGBTQ people.
We are called to share the good news without partiality or prejudice. “Thus as the Gospel moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away and forgotten.” Philip, directed by God, catches up with a Eunuch, a foreigner and a sexual outcast and he baptizes him, he loves him as a brother, he welcomes him into the circle. Justice and joy overflow and the walls of prejudice and hate come tumbling down.
~ Pastor Tim Stern