Acts of Welcome

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”

I still remember the first time I learned about eunuch’s.  I was in a middle school Sunday school class at the First Baptist Church of Powder Springs, Georgia.  Our teacher was Mike Wix, a rugged veteran fireman and father of one of my classmates.  It case you don’t know, a eunuch is a male court official who serves a female member of the royal family.  To prevent any temptations that may emerge between the sexes, eunuchs would have their genitals removed.  This was also seen as a sign of devotion and continual abstinence.  Can you imagine having such a conversation with middle school boys?  Poor old Mr. Wix…

This story is interesting for three reasons.  First, we don’t read much about Philip.  Philip was one of the first seven deacons appointed in Acts 6 and this story in chapter 8 is one of the few we have from his ministry.  This is one of the first moments we read about the spirit moving from the Apostles to others who have been called to do the work of ministry.  This should encourage us today as those called to continue that work.

Another reason this stands out is because it is one of the first times the gospel was extended to a non-Jewish person.  The eunuch in this story is Ethiopian.  There have long been traditions linking the people of Ethiopia to the worship of Yahweh.  Moses’ wife Zipporah was a Cushite (Numbers 12), perhaps from modern day Ethiopia, and some traditions claim the Queen of Sheba became a worshipper following her interactions with King Solomon (I Kings 10 and II Chronicles 9).  We’re not sure how or why this Ethiopian was in Jerusalem to worship, but he was seeking, and through Philip, the spirit was revealed.

Finally, this story marks a shift in the kind of person who could receive the gospel.  Again, this Ethiopian was a eunuch.  To use modern language, he lived a life of asexuality or gender dysphoria.  Born a man, the removal of the Eunuch’s genitals means his life was lived outside gender norms.  Depending upon the age of his royal procedure, there is a chance that this man came across as more feminine than masculine.  He was a sexual minority and far from the covenantal norms of a first century Jewish Christian like Philip.  Yet still, Philip, following the movements of the Holy Spirit, sat down beside the Eunuch in his chariot, and explained the scriptures to him.  Philip lead the man to Jesus and baptized him as a new believer.

It’s important to remember that there was no way this man could undo his identity as a eunuch.  That would be his bodily experience for the rest of his life.  But he left Philip rejoicing, for he had discovered a far greater spiritual reality that transcended how the world would have defined him.  This was, and continues to be, an act of great spiritual welcome.

Who are we called to welcome today?  Are there those we do not understand or whose lives seem different than our own?  What about those who at first glance might seem to live lives that are incompatible to the gospel?  How might we be like Philip and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit and welcome the unexpected to experience life in Christ Jesus?

The Spirit first came to the Apostles, then to the deacons.  Before we know it, the Spirit spread beyond the Jewish community to welcome the gentiles and eventually, marginalized people like the Ethiopian Eunuch.  May we continue to follow the Spirit and leave room for unexpected acts of welcome.