A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (02/05/21): Unlikely Eunuch Improbable Philipp

Unlikely Eunuch, Improbable Philpp

Acts 8:26-40

The Bible is full of improbable stories. Especially, there are stories of God bringing about unlikely outcomes from unpromising beginnings. We could make a long list of them: A child being born to Abraham and Sarah, when he was 100 and she was 90; The children of Israel delivered from slavery through a parted sea; The prophet Jonah swallowed by a big fish and spat out on dry land so he could preach in Ninevah; Jesus born in a stable to a virgin mother; Jesus crucified and raised to life on the third day. Christian faith in some measure is the belief that in some way these stories are true. It is the trust that God has indeed worked in that way. And it is the hope that God will bring unlikely outcomes from our unpromising circumstances.
Perhaps there are few more improbable stories in the Bible than that of the Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch’s very presence is a matter of curiosity. He almost doesn’t fit. He is a very long way from home. He certainly would have stood out in Jerusalem. You could almost picture him being followed everywhere he went in the holy city, at a safe distance, by a crowd of curious small boys. He is a man of importance. The finance minister of the Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. So he has power and influence and authority. He no doubt also has wealth, wealth enough to be in possession of a very expensive item, his own personal copy of the book of the prophet Isaiah. But what he has, his position and his authority and his wealth, he has at a price; “Eunuch.” Thinking about what that word really means is enough to make every man in the room wince. All that he has comes at the cost of having no one to carry on his name, no children and no grandchildren and no descendants. There will be no one to remember who he was and what he did, no one to pass on his achievements. Life’s circumstances, what happens to us, where we find ourselves, sooner or later pushes all of us to ask searching questions. These are the questions that philosophers would call existential; What is it all about? Why am I here? What is the meaning of my life? Is there a God, and if there is, which one is the real one? Is there something more, after this life? Perhaps the eunuch’s circumstances are rather more dramatic than most of ours. His “human condition” seems rather more acute. But it’s a difference only of degree, those are questions which eventually all of us find ourselves asking. Perhaps it is those questions which have taken the eunuch on his improbable journey to an unlikely destination, to worship at the temple of the God of the children of Israel.

And now he is on his way home. Maybe it is no accident that the eunuch has his scroll open at the passage that ends: Who can describe his generation? Whoever the prophet was speaking about has something in common with the eunuch. He has no descendants. At his death he will be cut off from the earth with no one to remember him, no one to carry on his name. Has the eunuch read that and seen the parallel with his own situation. Now his questions about the world and about himself and about God have only deepened. And this is when Philipp appears. The wilderness road, which is a road through the desert, is an unpromising location to be finding help. It would be difficult enough out here to find help should the chariot break down, how much more unlikely to find someone help you answer life’s questions. As spots for hitch-hiking go the road down from Jerusalem to Gaza is less than ideal, and as a place to preach the gospel even more improbable. But this is where God has sent Philipp, here and now. And as improbable as it seems, Philipp answers the eunuch’s questions. Starting where he was, troubled by the thought of his own mortality, at the intersection of his own experience with the scriptures, “who could describe his generation” Philipp guides him to understand where his questions and the story God is telling in the world fit together. Philipp tells him how in love for all the world, and in answer to our needs and our longing, God sent us Jesus. The improbable but true story of the way in which God brings new life for everyone out of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The answer to our questions are there too, all we need is someone to guide us.
At last, albeit already on the way home from a long journey, the eunuch has the answers he has been looking for. His experience is one of revelation, of all those pieces of life finally falling into place, of it all making sense. It is a conversion. “What is there to prevent me from being baptised,” he asks. Well normally in a desert the lack of water would be a big hindrance. But, lo and behold, just at that moment the chariot draws up beside an improbable pool of water sufficient for the eunuch to be baptised in. In his baptism, as in every baptism, the eunuch signifies his desire to be part of God’s people. He testifies to his recognition that the answer to his and all our questions is to be found in joining our stories to God’s story. In the unlikely location of the desert God provides the opportunity and the means for the eunuch to find his place in his kingdom. God provides the same opportunity at all times and in all places for all of us. The eunuch rides his chariot out of the Bible
We don’t know the rest of the story .

Descendants of a eunuch are pretty unlikely, generations of children and grandchildren are highly improbable. But what we do know is that Ethiopia, of all places, was one of the first nations to adopt Christianity as its religion. Did the eunuch found a church? Did he become the unlikely father and improbable guide to generations of baptised children? Was he followed by people who would remember why he had lived and give thanks. That is not less likely nor more surprising than Jesus’ resurrection and the new life in him. I don’t know whether our all being in church together today is as improbable as the encounter between the eunuch and Philipp. If we were to put together all the history, all the coincidences and chance encounters, all the accidents of circumstance in all of our lives that added together mean that we have ended up together here and now, maybe it would look just as unlikely. And maybe we would have to suggest that it took the action of the same Spirit that carried Philipp out of sight to Azotus to bring it about. And perhaps it would be wrong to suggest that we are less promising candidates to hear the good news than the Ethiopian. But he at least had his existential questions at the forefront of his thoughts. Probably we came into church with other things on our mind. We perhaps weren’t thinking about the questions whose answers lead to God. Whatever our questions, wherever our scroll happened to be opened today, the answer is the same; the Good News, God brings about surprising outcomes from unpromising beginnings, Jesus has died, is risen and will come again. It is improbable but true. And because it is, we like the eunuch can return home rejoicing.

Amen.

Unlikely Eunuch, Improbable Philipp by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.