First Thoughts on Year B First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary

Easter 5

William Loader

Easter 5: 3 May Acts 8:26-40

Some people saw eunuchs as not fully human. They were faulty forms of the human race. They were impotent males, unable to procreate. Some were like that because they had been castrated or had castrated themselves. Some had been disendowed from birth. Such men were often forced to the margins of society. In some cultures they had a reputation for immoral behaviour, often in relation to sexual behaviour. For while they could not procreate, they still had sexual passion. That sometimes put them into contexts where they could be exploited. They could be made to serve others' sexual ends "safely" and we read of them engaging in sexual romps, both heterosexual and homosexual. They were often associated with the latter as "deviant" and abnormal. They often appear in other roles, especially as government officials, such as this eunuch from Ethiopia. There, too, they were safe to have in court. They could be trusted not to cause chaos through sexual misbehaviour. Some were out in charge of harems, where they were similarly "safe", though frequently sexually active. Their presence in the courts of rulers became so common that the word, "eunuch", sometimes simply means something like civil servant without any connotation with regard to sexuality.

While some biblical traditions preserve legislation which excluded them from holy places (Deut 23:1), there are others which held out the prospect that one day they along with foreigners could belong (Isa 56:3-5). Jesus may well have been defending himself against accusations that he did not marry and instead embarked on mission, when he declared that some of us make ourselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God (Matt 19:10-12). It was typical for him to identify himself with the marginalised. Luke has probably chosen this story with the hope of Isaiah in mind. The gospel is, as Acts 1:8 predicted, reaching out beyond Jerusalem and Judea to the uttermost ends of the earth - at least as they saw it. This eunuch was most likely a foreigner who had been attracted to Judaism, either a full convert, i.e. a proselyte, or one who embraced Jewish belief in one God and the commandments without becoming fully a Jew and being circumcised. He may have had other business, but seems to have intentionally travelled to the temple to worship. The story also assumes he possesses a scroll of Isaiah. Not many people did, so this may reflect a level of prosperity. The fact that he could read it also suggests literacy. He was probably reading it in Greek.

People read out loud, even when they were reading just for themselves, so Philip did not need to look over his shoulder to see what he was reading. Whether legendary or real, the eunuch just happens to be reading what has always been a favourite text to which we return each year, especially in relation to Good Friday. We hear the text of Isaiah 53 so often that we most naturally focus on the way it came to be read as a prediction that Jesus would suffer for our sins: "he was wounded for our transgressions" (Isa 53:5). While Isaiah 53 in its historical has been variously interpreted as referring to the people as a whole in its suffering or to a special servant of God, it became a favourite location in which to find one of the early ways of expressing the gospel. As happened in the ancient world, people read what was written in one context as not only applicabkle but as also intended for their own context, whereas we might speak rather of patterns repeating themselves and hopes finding new fulfilment.

People saw Jesus and his death as doing what the acute suffering of a good person or what sacrifice could achieve: creating a surplus of goodness which made up for and covered the sins of others. "Christ died for our sins". Later generations woukd try to work out how, mostly with unfortunate consequences which entailed implications that God could not love and forgive without a price being paid or a substitute being punished. The point of the early confessions is not such explanations, but the affirmation that from Jesus' life and death God's love and mercy flowed out to people and invited them to be embraced in forgiveness.

Luke's story does not have the eunuch read the verses in the passage which came to be used to depict Christ dying for our sins. Instead he reads verses which focus on the suffering alone. This is rather typical of Luke who depicts the first apostles as putting the emphasis on Jesus' life and on his death as rejection which God reversed and on the basis of which Jesus' message of forgiveness could now be proclaimed with confidence to all. Luke leaves us to read between the lines about what Philip might have said to the eunuch. In substance it would have been the kind of thing Luke had shown in the summaries of speeches earlier in Acts. It included openness to include a person whom others might have despised or marginalised. God's generosity is not confined to those with "normal" sexuality, but extends to all people. Little wonder that many gay Christians find that they can identify with eunuchs in the ancient world.

The eunuch came to faith and was baptised. Elsewhere Luke mentions the coming of the Spirit, and causes confusion by listing the coming of the Spirit, baptism and belief as three events which might occur in almost any order. That is because they belong together as three aspects of one event. As people responded in faith by letting John immerse them in the Jordan, thus immersing themselves in the life and grace of God, so Christians baptised such believers, but now in the name of Christ whose fuller message they embraced and in association with the openness to the Spirit - modelled already in Jesus' baptism by John. Embracing whole families meant sometimes baptising infants and children for whom their baptism signalled a basis for a faith they might make their own and by which from infancy they were shaped.

Luke's story allows a reading which sees something magical in the sudden disappearance of Philip, but it may not have been intended in that way. Off went the eunuch. Off went Philip. We hear what Philip did, but not what the eunuch did. There is a major Christian church in Ethiopia still today which traces its roots to this event, a legend of origins. Small apparently insignificant chance encounters filled with the Spirit of love can change the course of history. It is like water in the desert. Watch for what might grow. Our task is not to make the magic moments - only history will tell us what they are - but simply to be attuned to love and sing its song.

Gospel: Easter 5: 3 May John 15:1-8
Epistle: Easter 5: 3 May  1 John 4:7-21

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