This week’s readings are here.
The Acts reading (Acts 8:26-40), the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, is one of the great stories in scripture. Philip is one of the men who was selected as a deacon to serve the hellenistic community (his name is of Greek origin). He had gone to Samaria, where his preaching met with great success (Acts 8: 4-8), but now an angel of the Lord takes him away into the wilderness. Here he comes upon an Ethiopian official who has been in Jerusalem to worship. As a Gentile, he was an outsider, but as a eunuch he could not participate in temple worship. He is reading from Isaiah, but can’t understand it. Philip helps him, and suddenly, miraculously, they come upon some water in the wilderness, and the eunuch asks, “What prevents me from being baptized?”
This is one of a series of conversion stories in Acts (Paul, Cornelius the centurion follow this one) in which the Holy Spirit works to transform individuals and also to transform the community of those who follow Jesus Christ. The group of disciples, Galileean followers of Jesus, is expanding to include members from other religious and ethnic groups and in so doing, the commandment to spread the gospel to all the nations is already being fulfilled.
But there’s more. What prevented the eunuch from being baptized? Well, all of the Jewish laws of purity did. As a eunuch, he was by definition outside the holy community; he could not approach the altar or even enter the temple (Deuteronomy 23:1). But nothing prevented him from being baptized, and so Philip did.
There are at least two important issues raised by this text. The first, of course, is that of inclusion. We see hear the expansion of the Gospel, and of the Christian community far beyond its original Jewish and Jerusalem setting. Philip, a Greek or at least Hellenist, preaches first in Samaria, then converts an Ethiopian eunuch–it’s difficult to imagine a figure more exotic, more other, more non-Jewish than that.
But there’s another theme that I find equally compelling. The eunuch is reading scripture and can make no sense of it. He needs help, and Philip provides or explains it to him. We often assume that the sense of scripture is clear, indisputable, and available to anyone who can read, or can hear it being read. But it’s not. Reading and interpreting scripture requires the help of others, of a tradition, of a community in which that scripture is a living organism, and in which the community wrestles with its meaning in a particular historical and cultural context. Philip helped the eunuch understand, and by understanding, the eunuch came to request baptism.