Worship on The Land: May 1. 2021
Inspired by Acts 8:26-40
Let’s just say that the story of Philip and the Eunuch is a cotton candy fairy tale. Unlike every other conversion story ever told, this conversion story is nothing but butterflies and rainbows.
Two key ingredients ensure that this is a conversion story with a happy (aka: non-genocidal) ending. The first key ingredient is the placement of the outsider as the spiritual inquisitor and, yes, I used that term intentionally. Typically, conversion stories involve one person inflicting a belief system onto another person in a manipulative, coercive way which ultimately profits the converter and persecutes the converted.
In this story, however, it is the soon-to-be convert who initiates the conversion and the converter who resurrects prophecy to reflect the inclusive work of Jesus. Here we find the Eunuch as a spiritual pilgrim earnestly seeking to understand Scripture’s prophecy of God’s salvation. Deviating from the norm of conversion narratives, in this encounter, it is the converter who bends so that the new believer may belong.
The second key ingredient is a balanced accessibility to power and agency. Although Philip and the Eunuch may have different brands of power, they have access to the same doses of power. While Philip is an insider in the religious institution, it is likely that he was lacking in financial wealth and wider social standing. At the same time, although the Eunuch is excluded by law from full participation in the covenant community of Israel, in his own community he is a court official of Queen Candace in charge of her treasury. This means that despite the Eunuch’s exclusion in the religious community, he is privileged in societal status and financial means.
These two key ingredients set the stage for a healthy, hope-filled conversion encounter rooted in the prophetic voice of Isaiah. Commentators believe that the prophecy of Isaiah is likely referenced in this story because Isaiah references not only Ethiopia’s participation in the blessings of God but also God’s promise to gather the outcasts of Israel including those Eunuchs and foreigners. It is the prophecy of Isaiah which gives the Eunuch hope in a future different from the future inflicted upon him by official Israel. A future he desires to participate in prior to his encounter with Philip.
The hope in an inclusive future inspires the Eunuch to risk asking Philip, a man representing the institution of rejection, to interpret the prophetic words of Isaiah. The Eunuch’s question, “about whom, may I ask, does the prophet say this?” is not an intellectual curiosity. It is a personal inquiry inspired by the hope revealed in the prophecy of Isaiah.
In response to the Eunuch’s articulated vulnerability, Philip’s task is the essential task of every prophet. He is to clarify the membership requirements of those belonging to God in ways that redraw Israel’s boundaries to include the excluded. Philip listens and understands that the Eunuch is not asking what the text means to Phillip. The Eunuch is asking Philip what the text means for him and for his future relationship with God.
To communicate prophetic inclusion, Philip archives multiple past interpretations before reaching the good news the Eunuch so hopes and deserves to receive. Philip omits the nationalistic interpretation that was most common in the day which defined faithful Israel as the entity referred to by Isaiah. Similarly, Philip omits the interpretation which designates God’s eschatological prophet whom Isaiah himself represents as the reference for the passage. Instead of reciting an institutionally- approved, theologically tested interpretation, Philip opens his mouth so that God can speak the good news of Jesus directly to the Eunuch.
This divine deliverance of good news details the Eunuch’s full inclusion. This news incites the Eunuch’s public confession and participation in the sacrament of baptism. The Eunuch does not require a convincing argument to desire belonging. What he seeks is institutional affirmation that of belonging through prophetic interpretation. Philip does not force or manipulate a confession, nor does he qualify belonging with any specific behaviors for belonging. Philip does not function as gatekeeper but as conduit for prophetic invitation which inspires the Eunuch to voluntary and publicly declare his full participation in God’s unfolding salvific acts on earth.
This story symbolizes the inclusive nature of the religious institution taking form because of Jesus under the aegis of the Holy Spirit. This story is not simply rainbows and unicorns. This story is Easter, the full expression of the presence of Christ and the possibilities of the Holy Spirit in communities that remain convert-able. In a cultural framework absent of the doctrine of manifest destiny, this story bears witness to the true nature and intent of conversion. Here conversion is a mutual and continuous. Here conversion is a cyclical process through which one person’s participatory belonging makes way for the next and the next and the next as the institution itself is converted by each new participatory belonging.
More than a bible story with happy ending, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a proposal for our own institutional conversions. In baptism, a convert claims their place as a full participant as the institution washes clean stagnant interpretations that exclude and discount the affirmation of this participants rightful belonging. This prophetic practice requires the same spiritual dependence for us today as it did for Philip and the Eunuch.
Today, we continue to be dependent on the work of the Spirit to translate the Word of God in ways that are reflective of Christ’s full inclusion. The authority for inclusion is modeled in Jesus’ life and made possible through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Neither Philip nor the Eunuch nor the contemporary Christian church possess the authority to draw boundaries around God’s belonging. Instead, all who claim conversion as their place of birth must now translate prophecy through the presence of the Holy Spirit in ways that echo the life of Jesus and affirm the belonging of all people in the saving works of God.
This morning we read a story that represents not only spiritual fulfillment but institutional rebellion. To affirm the belonging of all people through scripture and sacrament is an act of prophetic resistance. Prophecy is resurrected to reflect the good news of Jesus where all people not only belong but participate in God’s salvific acts on earth. This is not simply a story of one person now converted belonging to an institution. This is the beginning of a wider religious participation which is meant to transform the religious institution from one that converts to one that is being converted continually by the inclusion of each new voice.