To tell the truth, there are some things I wish were not in the Bible, and some of them are in this text.
For instance, Philip is told by an angel to make an evangelism call on the road that goes south from Jerusalem to Gaza. No name. No address.
What would you think if the chair of the evangelism committee at your church told you that she or he had been told directly by an angel to make an evangelism call on I-465 South? No name. No street address. Not even an exit number. Just I-465 South.
Then when Philip arrives, what is the Ethiopian doing? Reading the Bible. Let me ask you, honestly, have you ever knocked on the door of prospects, only to find them reading the Bible? I’ve had them hide the can of Budweiser under the couch, stare comatose at the TV, recite the full history of every meeting of the Lions Club which they have attended since 1938, but ask me to interpret the Bible?
And did you notice that Philip didn’t make the call in the home? He ran up beside the Ethiopian’s chariot, and banged on the side and climbed in. I have seen some pretty wild stuff in the modern evangelism programs, but nothing that recommends what we might call “intersection evangelism” — running up to cars stopped at the intersection and banging on the window and then hopping in.
Then it’s all over; the Spirit catches Philip up and takes him away to Azotus. When you make a call, and get a decision, sometimes it is like you have wings on your feet. But if anyone here has ever been transported by the Spirit in this way, please see your pastor after the service today.
Then there is that reference to the Ethiopian’s sexual condition: he was a eunuch. In our culture and in our time, sexuality is such a sensitive and confusing matter. It arouses deep feelings. Masters and Johnson. Homosexuality. Child pornography. AIDS. Just the mention of his sexual condition makes some of us uneasy, nervous.
So here we have a strange story. Sometimes I wish it were not in the Bible. But after living with the passage for some time, I have also come to believe that it has a strong and positive word to say about evangelism for us today.
Let us begin with the Ethiopian. What do we know about him?
First, the obvious. He was from Ethiopia. Very likely he was a person of color, a black person. Ethiopia itself was regarded as an exotic, far-off place. The kind of place they put on travel posters. Much like we might think of Hawaii or Alaska.
Ethiopia was nearly the end of the civilized world. Civilized, yes, but a country of strangers to the living God. (That is why, according to
This man was in charge of the royal treasury in Ethiopia. The ruler of Ethiopia was usually a woman, called the Candace. So here we have a kind of Malcolm Baldridge of the first century, who ran the software for Nancy Reagan.
He is riding along in what the Bible generously calls a chariot. I say “generously” because when we use the word chariot we think of Ben-Hur. But outside the coliseum people rode in square carts pulled by oxen, and called them chariots.
But there is still something missing. Exotic? Yes, Powerful? Yes. A person of means? Yes. But, still he was a eunuch.
As a young man, probably involuntarily, he went under the knife. And from that day forward his life was different. I do not mean to make light, or to be cute, still less do I mean to be risque when I say that he was cut off. Cut off from possibilities for life.
As a eunuch, there were certain jobs open to him that were not open to others. For instance, a fair number of government officials were eunuchs. But even though this Ethiopian managed incredible sums of money, it never belonged to him.
For obvious reasons, eunuchs were used by the wealthy in order to manage and protect their harems. The eunuchs were considered “safe” in the sense of “harmless,” impotent. Sometimes the women in the harem would taunt the eunuchs reminding the men of what they were no longer.
The book of the Wisdom of Sirach, which was written a little earlier than the book of Acts, describes a person who is afflicted as one who,
sees with his eyes and groans,
like a eunuch who embraces a maid and groans
The option of a family is no longer open to him. So I can imagine what it would be like for this man to sit in his brother’s family room and look at all those pictures over the fireplace — the honeymoon picture taken on the shore of the Mediterranean, the first baby in the little zoot suit, the school pictures of all the children, the graduation pictures, the wedding shots, the grandchildren. I can see him sitting there in the platform rocker, thinking of what could have been.
How would you feel?
Small wonder, then, that the prophet Isaiah describes the eunuch as a “dry tree” (
And so, here he is riding along in a box shaped wagon pulled by an ox. And what is he reading? The book of the prophet Isaiah. And did you catch the words he was reading?
As a sheep led to the slaughter,
or a lamb before its shearer is dumb,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation, justice was denied him
“As a sheep led to the slaughter.” As “a lamb before its shearer …”
I see a knife. I see a knife cutting down a sheep before its time.
Do you think it is an accident that Luke has the Ethiopian eunuch — who has gone under the knife himself — reading these words about a sheep being led to the slaughter?
The passage which the traveler is reading comes from
So Philip begins with this Scripture and tells the eunuch that the lamb who went to the shearer is Jesus, and the good news is that though Jesus was cut off, God raised him from the dead. And now, God freely accepts each and all (or as Luke would say, forgives sin). God pours out the Holy Spirit to give life to all, and God has created a community in which all are valued and accepted and loved.
Can you imagine what this meant to the Ethiopian eunuch? He could never have back what he had lost. But Philip tells him that he can grow again, that he can bloom again, that he can be generative and bring forth. No wonder some early Christian writers called the cross “the tree of life.”
And wouldn’t you know, right there in the desert is water. The Bible doesn’t say whether it was a wadi or a beach or a swimming pool at the Holiday Inn. Doesn’t matter. It was water. And water makes things grow.
Notice, please, the role of Philip. No brochures. No decision card. Not even a flashlight. All he had was the gospel story and all he had to do was to know when to tell the gospel story. When the eunuch received it, that story had the power to send the eunuch down the road, rejoicing.
What does this story have to say to us?
At least this: there are many people, many situations, and many communities in the world today, who are like the Ethiopian eunuch. Cut off. They have lost the power to bring forth. They are like a dry tree whose branches pop and crackle and crumble. But when they receive the gospel, they grow and bloom and bring forth.
The movie Ironweed takes place in the depression of the 1930s and focuses on two homeless characters. Both have that greasy, grimey look which makes you want to go home after the movie and take a bath yourself.
Helen had been a gifted concert pianist whose life has taken a series of bad turns and she has ended up a wino, wondering where she will sleep from night to night. Her greatest fear is that she will have to sleep in the weeds, down by the railroad yard. Dried up.
Francis had been a former big-league ball player. He was changing his baby’s diapers and he dropped the baby; the baby landed on its head, broke his neck, and died. “I can still see him,” Francis says, “lying there on the red and yellow linoleum, all bent up, funny-like.” Francis left home, abandoned his wife and his other children, disappeared. He sleeps in the weeds, down by the railroad yard. Cut off.
We had a conference at the seminary a couple of years ago when black students had a chance to tell what it was like to be a black person in the USA and to be a black student at Christian Theological Seminary. After a long procession of words like “alone,” “frightened,” “intimidated,” “put down,” “kept off,” one of the students got up, and pointed in a big circle all around the room, and he said, “Look around, man, even the walls in this building — every single one of them — is white.”
Have you seen, or seen pictures of, persons with AIDS? In the last stages of the disease, their bodies just seem to wither up.
Sometimes the people I know and love — sometimes they just seem to be cut off from who they really are, or who they started out to be.
And sometimes it’s me. Sometimes when I have another lecture to prepare, another sermon to give, another paper to write, and I start to pump the well, nothing comes up. As they say out in the Midwest, it’s a dry hole.
There are days when it feels like the whole world is going dry. The violence, the drugs, the injustice. The failure of my own heart and mind and will. It’s like our world has lost the power to bring forth.
But the sheep was not spared the slaughter. The lamb went ahead to the shearing. And the witness of the church is that the good news which was demonstrated by this story still has the power to send the eunuch down the road rejoicing. It still has the power to cause the dry tree to bring forth.
The text says Philip told the eunuch the good news of Jesus. The eunuch is accepted by God. The eunuch is given the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the power of new life. And the eunuch is welcomed unconditionally into a community of love and acceptance.
Told by a church which lived out this story, what do you suppose it could mean to Helen as she looks for a place to sleep? How would this story help Francis as he remembers his little baby lying there, funny-like, on the red and yellow linoleum?
Don’t you think this news offers something fresh to a world in which the color of one’s skin is in direct proportion to one’s worth and which thinks that missiles are the means to power and security. A world which seems impotent to change itself.
Can you imagine what it might be like to be in a hospital bed, connected to a dozen IV tubes, and a monitor that is measuring how fast your body is withering up, and to feel that you were a part of this story?
I never had the courage to call him Myron. His name was Myron Singer and he claimed to be five feet tall. He must have known better because he volunteered to become a mobile pulpit for me; he would strap my sermon notes on his head and he would wander around the sanctuary, with me right behind. And he would stop in front of the people whom he thought most needed the sermon that Sunday. Interesting model for evangelism.
He and Emma had been married in the neighborhood of sixty years when we began our ministry in Grand Island, Nebraska. And they were what you would call Mr. and Mrs. Sunday School.
On Sunday morning, you could always locate Mr. Singer because there was a buzz of children around him. Partly I think this was because of his height: the children liked an adult who was their size. Partly I think this was the result of his pockets: although his suits seemed to be just ordinary suits, the pockets seemed to have an endless supply of peppermints and lifesavers. And to my knowledge, he never ran out. (Captain Kangaroo would have been jealous of those pockets.) And partly I think the children just knew love when it was standing around in the hallway at church.
Those were the days when some of the other churches in town were using goldfish and transistor radios to get children to come to Sunday School. We figured lifesavers were not such a bad symbol of what is supposed to go on at church.
Mr. Singer was a jolly kind of person and he wasn’t given much to serious talk. But once we were over sitting on their big wide front porch and he got to reminiscing about his life. Growing up. Going to college. Becoming a coach. Winning the state basketball championship in 1923 at Goner, Nebraska. We tried and tried, but we could never have children. (Pause) I guess I’m like my Dad. I want to leave a little something behind … and I don’t want to die alone.”
Mr. Singer got sick. I went to call on him and he did not seem greatly cheered by my arrival. Now bedside manner has never won me any awards, but I would have expected this old saint to be a little glad to see one of his pastors.
“Gee, Mr. Singer, you look pretty tired,” I said with remarkable insensitivity.
“Tired?” he said, “I’m in the hospital. Why shouldn’t I be tired? And besides, you’d be tired too if every kid you ever had in Sunday School had trooped in and stepped on your oxygen line.” And then he winked his Mr. Singer wink.
When he died, and it came time for the funeral, there were only four surviving family members. Emma, her sister and two cousins. But the church was filled — 450 seats.
Who would not remember the promise of God to those who have been cut off.
I will give in my house and within my walls
a monument and a name,
better than sons and daughters,
I will give them an everlasting name
which shall not be cut off (
I like to think that Mr. Singer went on his last way rejoicing.
Of course, it does not always work out quite so neatly or with quite such drama. But the promise is that wherever the gospel is set free, the eunuchs of the world can come to say, “I am no longer a dry tree.” And that is why we evangelize.