3 June 2018, Sherando Presbyterian Church
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.
So What’s the Deal With Jesus?
This story brings us up against the fundamental question every Christian has to answer sooner or later, which is: So what’s the deal with Jesus?
Most of us don’t face that question very often, because we travel in circles where most people are pretty much like us, and in that context basic premises are taken for granted. When we do run into people who are not like us, conversation usually doesn’t reach the level of “So what’s the deal with Jesus?” Not for me, it doesn’t
But isn’t that question always looming in the background — when we ask a blessing on our food, or think about our children, or lay ourselves down at the end of another day — 21,275 days behind me now, with maybe 10,000 left, if I’m lucky.
So what’s the deal with Jesus?
I thought seminary would answer that question for me. The first time you all invited me to lead a service here, I had just started seminary; now I’m half way through, and I begin to realize that instead of answering that question, seminary is going to ask it, again and again, until I find a way to answer it myself: what’s the deal with Jesus?
How would you answer that question?
Let’s say an Ethiopian eunuch walks through that door right now and says, “So what’s the deal with Jesus?” What do we tell him?
Two things stand out about the guy who asks that question in the passage we just read. The first is that he isn’t like us. He is referred to repeatedly as “the Ethiopian eunuch”— that’s how the story wants us to see him: a castrated African. I don’t know any castrated Africans. Do you?
The second thing is that he appears to be disillusioned, maybe even angry. He’s reading a passage from the prophet Isaiah which says, in effect, “In his humiliation, justice was denied him. He went to the slaughter like a sheep, without so much as opening his mouth.”
I acknowledge that I may be inclined to project anger, disillusion, and frustration backward onto that castrated black man. We don’t know, after all, what actually happened when he went up to Jerusalem. How was he received in the temple?
It’s true that the prophet Isaiah later envisions a time when people from every nation and race will go up to Jerusalem, when the God of Israel will become the God of everyone. Maybe the reference to Isaiah here is supposed to suggest that the Ethiopian has gone up to Jerusalem in pursuit of that vision. If so, he was probably halted by the temple guards at the Court of the Gentiles, an outer gallery beyond which non-Jews were not allowed to pass, because the time of all people unified under one God had not yet come, nor has it still.
It’s also possible that the Ethiopian was actually a Jew. There has been a small Jewish community in Ethiopia for at least 15 centuries, and possibly since Philip’s time, so maybe he wasn’t automatically excluded on the basis of his race. If not, he would have been excluded on the basis of his gender, or his lack of gender: the Holiness Code in Deuteronomy decrees that castrated men are not allowed to join the congregation.
That would explain why he’s reading a passage about humiliation and injustice. In his humiliation, justice was denied him — he went to the slaughter, or the castration block, like a sheep, without so much as opening his mouth. Christian theologians would later read the “he” in that passage as referring to Jesus, but the Ethiopian seems to think it refers to him: “Who’s he talking about?” he asks Philip. “Is he talking about me?”
The theologian James Cone, who launched a movement known as Black Liberation Theology, would assert that whatever may actually have happened at the temple in Jerusalem, or on the road to Gaza, matters less that what happens here, in this church, when we read that story. Suppose a castrated black man — disillusioned, frustrated, angry — walks through that door and says, “Who’s he talking about? What’s the deal here?” — what would we say?
There must be a way to deliver that man from humiliation and injustice so completely that he insists on being baptized, right now — something we can say. But the story doesn’t tell us what that something is. All we’re told is that, beginning with that passage from Isaiah, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus.
I think we’re going to have to be more specific than that.
Since this is an after-Easter story, maybe we’re supposed to assume that Philip said something like, “Hey, Jesus conquered death! He was dead, but now he’s alive again, and if you accept him as your personal savior, you can be alive again, too!”
But that language is too vague to change anything. I think Philip must have said something harder to handle, something that includes humiliation, injustice, and slaughtering sheep. Something like this: God decided to become a person.
And I’m like, wait: what?
God decided to be born, to a teenaged girl who wasn’t supposed to be pregnant, who faced humiliation and disgrace because of God’s decision — she called it a blessing. She was already engaged when God made her pregnant, engaged to a nobody — a nobody engaged to a nobody. When she went into labor, they couldn’t even get a room. Apparently, God wanted to be weak, and poor, and unimportant. Not the kind of person who would have a reservation. Not the kind of person I would choose to be.
Apparently God wanted to grow up in Looserville — Nazareth was a backwater town where no one was expected to amount to anything — lousy schools, no sports, lead in the water supply. God-the-person showed a lot of promise as a child — he’d go into the temple and say things about Isaiah that left the experts sucking gas, but his parents couldn’t pay for tutors, so whatever gifts he had were shelved. By the age of fifteen, he was working with his dad, when there was work, and when there wasn’t he was down at 7-Eleven with all the other laborers, hoping to be hired for the day. His mother would pack him a lunch, probably the kind of food that makes it hard to think and gives you diabetes. No friends to speak of. Nothing going on with girls, or guys. The buried life. Five years, seven, ten. Like everyone. Like me.
And then his cousin John started telling people to turn around and live their lives in the reverse of how they had been living, and that made people mad, especially the high mucky-mucks. For example, John told Herod to stop sleeping with his brother’s wife, so Herod threw him into prison, and then cut his head off. Jesus spent a long time in the desert after that, on a vision quest of sorts, at the end of which he went back into town and started saying pretty much what John had said: Turn around! His family thought that he had lost his mind.
Why do normal people think the person God decided to become has lost his mind?
Well, it’s partially because he does things we don’t do. He chooses the company of people we avoid: beggars, prostitutes, tax collectors, migrant workers. He quits the family business to walk from town to town with no money, no itinerary, no agenda other than telling people to turn their lives around. How’s that going to work out for him?
He also does things that we can’t do — things he shouldn’t be able to do either, if he’s a person. Like cure leprosy with nothing but words, or blindness with nothing but spittle. He takes seven loaves of bread and a few fish, and he breaks them into enough pieces to feed five thousand people, with seven baskets of pieces left over. Now, we could say that story is symbolic — the number seven represents perfection for the ancient Hebrews, so we’re supposed to read that story as symbolizing perfection come to earth in the person of Jesus. But if we tell the eunuch “This is just symbolic,” he won’t say, “Then baptize me right now!”
Then there’s that whole category of things that Jesus tells other people to do, things that no one wants to do, like find fault in yourself instead of looking for it in somebody else. If someone hits you in the face, let him hit you again. If someone tries to take your wallet, give him the keys to your car as well. Get a bucket full of water and go downtown and wash the feet of every beggar you can find. Have you ever washed somebody else’s feet? Do you have a bucket? Sell it, along with everything else you have, and give the money to the poor, and then follow me from town to town, with no itinerary, and don’t bring anything to eat.
He’s lost his mind.
For some reason, people who have no intention of ever doing any of those things hang on every word he says. Why is that? That doesn’t make any sense. We could say God-the-person has escaped the limitations of the world that values making sense; we could say that we hang on his every word because we want to escape those limitations too.
Go ahead and say that to the castrated African. See if that kind of language makes him want to be baptized, right now.
I would be inclined to tell him that the deal with Jesus is incredibly sweet — love, forgiveness, redemption, salvation, life eternal, good friends, good food, and a nice church. Those are the parts of the truth that I value, the parts I want him to know about.
If I held up those things in front of him, he’d glare at me, and then he’d spit and walk back out that door, justice having been denied him again.
Philip must have said something else.
Maybe Philip said the deal with Jesus is that the person who works for an hour at the end of the day gets the same pay as the one who’s been sweating since dawn. Are you comfortable with that? The deal with Jesus is that the person who denies all knowledge of Jesus whatsoever, not once in a momentary lapse of integrity, but three times — that person gets the most important seat at Easter breakfast. Are you comfortable with that?
No, I’m not, the Ethiopian would say. And Philip would nod. The Ethiopian would glare at him a moment; then he’d say, all right then, baptize me right now.
The deal with Jesus isn’t comfortable. The mystery of God’s decision to become a nobody from Looserville is bigger than any truth that you or I will ever be able to tell, but this much we can say for sure: when we come up against that question — What’s the deal with Jesus? — the answer can’t be limited to what we like. If I’m going to tell the kind of truth that has the power to change the human condition, which includes humiliation, degradation, and despair, I have to acknowledge that God doesn’t choose what I choose, or value what I value.
God decided to become a nobody from Looserville.
I guess God wants to live our life.
All right, then: baptize me right now.