And the Doors Were Opened: A Reflection on the Ethiopian Eunuch

One of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, is Acts 8:26-40, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. This story has always been one of my favorites from the book of Acts, but lately, I have come to see a deeper meaning to the story than I heard preached during my formative years in evangelicalism.

The unnamed eunuch is a servant in the Ethiopian Queen Candace's court. He is in charge of all of the treasury. He is a high-ranking official in Ethiopia, however in Jerusalem, where he is departing, he is an outsider. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship, but he would not have been allowed into the Temple. He might have faced exclusion and humiliation when he made the attempt to worship Yahweh in Jerusalem, but we nevertheless see that he made the attempt. On his way home, he is reading from the prophet Isaiah, struggling with the passage, trying to understand who exactly this servant is of which the prophet speaks. This is when Philip, lead by the Spirit, inquires of the eunuch if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch invites Philip into his chariot and they ride along as Philip explains to him the story of Jesus, the culmination and fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures, much like Jesus had done on the road to Emmaus.

Coming to a body of water, the eunuch asks Philip: "Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?" Some early manuscripts include verse 37 here: "Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' The eunuch answered, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,'" but most manuscripts do not have this verse. Philip doesn't give an answer in most manuscripts. Instead, the eunuch commands the chariot to be stopped, and Philip and the eunuch go down into the water, where the Ethiopian eunuch is baptized, and welcomed into the Way of Jesus. Philip is taken away by the Spirit, and the eunuch continues on his way rejoicing.

African church tradition maintains that this Ethiopian enuch, named Bachos according to Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo tradition, was the first Christian missionary to share the Gospel in Africa.

What sticks out the most to me, as I read this passage, is the question Bachos asks Philip. "What can stand in the way of me being baptized?" Is he expecting rejection? He has almost certainly faced exclusion at the temple in Jerusalem. Does he expect Christianity to be the same? Unwelcoming to minorities, both racially and sexually? What is astounding to me is Philip's (most likely) non-answer. In that space of silence, nothing is found to prevent Bachos from being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. He comes as he is, and is welcomed into the body of Christ. No temple is needed to worship, no priests are required, simply an evangelist, the scriptures, and an inquiring heart and mind. God is already at work in reaching out to Bachos through the scriptures when Philip arrives. We can learn a valuable lesson from this passage. Rather than thinking we can "take Jesus" places, might our efforts be more fruitful if we trained our eyes to see where God is already at work, and joining that work? Might we be a better example of the Kingdom reality in the midst of the current systems of the world if we stopped excluding people from our fellowship because they (in our arrogant opinion) don't have it all together?

Another thing that jumps off the page at me is the passage which Bachos is reading as he travels along. "In his humiliation he was deprived of justice," quotes verse 33, referring to the suffering servant. The humiliation of the servant makes possible the welcoming into beloved community of the Ethiopian eunuch, who in humiliation was excluded from temple worship. And so we must take notice that the same is true for us. Christ died upon the cross, bearing the full weight of the world's wickedness, and then in resurrection defeated death. Our sin, brokenness, and humiliation are defeated at the cross, revealed for what they really are, powerless. It is through Christ's finished work upon the cross and his resurrection that anyone can be welcomed into the body of Christ. We join by being baptized into his death and resurrection.

Here we see an opening of the doors. Luke writes that the first non-Jewish (if indeed he is non-Jewish, as it is up for debate) convert to be baptized into the faith is a eunuch from Ethiopia. This man who would have faced exclusion from the religious folks in Jerusalem finds welcome at the feet of Jesus. May we never be so arrogant as to decide anyone is unworthy of that welcome.