Who does God love? A Sermon from Acts 8.26-40

Reading Time: 7 minutes

A minister and friend of mine was telling me about a transgender teenager in their church. The teen’s parents, especially the teenager’s father, was having a lot of trouble with this young person’s transition. My friend felt terrible for the teen and this difficult journey around transitioning. My friend also empathized with this young person’s parents because they experienced a sense of loss. The child they thought they knew was someone else now and used a new name.

There’s a lot to unpack in that story. The first issue is about the way our society deals with sex, gender, identity, and evolving norms. We, as humanity, can be resistant to change. We talk about Christ, sharing his love and grace, and reflecting it in the world, yet we struggle when someone doesn’t fit our expectations. The other issue relates to the parents. I hadn’t thought about the sense of loss when someone isn’t who we thought that person was. And, I never considered what it would be like to have a child say, “I have a new name.” What’s in a name? The Bible is full of named characters. It also includes stories about a lot of unnamed people. Just because the Bible doesn’t name someone doesn’t mean they didn’t have a name. Everyone has a name.

How do we learn?

The way we learn, the way we present someone, the way we look at the world—these factors all come together and shape the way we see God and experience Christ and the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we know what we are learning. We are intentional about it, like when we try to learn a new skill. That’s called an explicit curriculum. All around us, there are implied lessons. We learn one thing and, by negation or implication, we learn something else. This is an implicit curriculum. We also learn things through what is not taught. When a teacher ignores a lesson, either deliberately or unknowingly, the learner not only doesn’t know the lesson, but doesn’t know it exists. That’s the null curriculum, and the Bible is full of explicit, implicit, and null curriculum. 

In Acts, we meet many, many interesting characters. Peter and John are leaders of the fledgling church in Jerusalem. We meet Stephen in Acts 6, and he’s the first martyr in Acts 7. In Acts 8, Philip begins the ministry in Samaria. These named characters are part of the explicit curriculum. What they do is important. We should study them, but we shouldn’t ignore the lessons between the lines. We miss a lot if we don’t scratch at the surface and try to find the null curriculum. Acts 8.26 begins with the Holy Spirit (or an angel) draws Philip southwest toward Gaza on a dusty, remote road.

A Story about the Other

This is a story about the other. It’s not about the named superheroes. Philip is a character in the story, only he’s not the main one. The main character is an Ethiopian eunuch. It would be easy to read this story and focus on Philip. That’s not a bad way to approach it because Philip is clearly following the leading of the Holy Spirit. The main character is a double outcast in ancient Israel. He’s Ethiopian, and he’s a eunuch.[1]

First, he’s a foreigner and Israelites have a real problem with foreigners. In our time, and over the last several years, we have been dealing with racial prejudice. In the U.S., we have seen xenophobia vilify people seeking a better life on our southern border. We can look back in our history and see how racism has created great economic, social, and health disparities. Even during this pandemic, black and brown people in the U.S. have had more trouble getting the vaccine than white people. In Acts 8, the main character is from Ethiopia. He would have looked different. We don’t know whether he was a Jewish person who was trying to worship at the temple, or if he was a Gentile God-fearer. In either case, he was darker than Philip.

Some scholars, like Frank Snowden, argue that ancient people did not discriminate based on a person’s skin color in the same way we do today.[2] Others, like Robert Hood, trace the mythic concepts of race and prejudice to Greek and Roman ideas.[3] In either case, the null curriculum in Acts 8.26-40 makes it clear that he was an outsider by labeling him instead of naming him.

The second way the main character was an outcast is he was a eunuch. It’s a good thing he was reading Isaiah and not Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 23.1 says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” If he had been reading Deuteronomy, the exegetical acrobatics required to paint a picture of an inclusive God would have been incredible. He wasn’t reading Deuteronomy. He was reading one of the Servant Songs from Isaiah (52.13-53.12). This is the fourth and possibly the saddest one. He was reading from Isaiah 53.7-8, and as he read out loud, which was the custom until about the fourth century, he wrestled with the meaning.

Like a Sheep Heading to the Slaughter

He read, “Like a sheep, he was led to the slaughter…” He wondered, “Who is this sheep? Is it the prophet or someone else?”

Without context, the main character needed help understanding what the reading meant. Philip tells him about the passage. Philip reads it through a Christocentric lens and progresses from the Servant Songs of Isaiah to the fulfillment of prophecies in Jesus Christ. Between Acts 8.35 and 8.36, there is no commentary. In 8.35, Philip answers the man’s question. In 8.36, the man sees some water and asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” There’s nothing in between these two verses. There’s no 8.35.1. Philip does not tell him to conform to the prescribed gender identity norms. He doesn’t bring up the Deuteronomy prohibition against eunuchs worshiping in the temple. He doesn’t dehumanize him for being foreign.

Philip tells him about Jesus and must have told him about baptism and transformation in Christ. He invites him to change, not in some worldly way, but to change into the likeness of Christ. This man wants part that invitation. 

Is there anything that would prevent me from being baptized?

The unnamed hero of the story must take the initiative though. He is the one who says, “Is there anything that would prevent me from being baptized?”

No. There isn’t.

Each of us could ask: Is there anything that would prevent us from transformation in Christ?

No. There isn’t.

Is there anything that might prevent any person from responding to the good news and becoming a full participant in the family of God?

Not according to this passage. There are no caveats to exclude the people we don’t like. There are no provisos stipulating that only some people belong in the kingdom of God. There are no conditions. We are all sinners in need of forgiveness and the transformation that is reflected in the baptismal waters.

What do we know about the hero of this story? He was in charge of the queen’s treasury. He traveled by chariot, so that’s high class. He was in possession of a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, which means he’s pretty well off. Luke seems particularly concerned about his gender because each of the five times this passage mentions this man, it labels him “the eunuch.” Luke was trying to tell us something. Luke wasn’t tearing him down. Luke wanted us to know that God doesn’t exclude people.

Paulo Freire writes about the kind of dehumanization people do to one another in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He acknowledges that it’s a concrete historical fact, but argues that it doesn’t have to be.[4] We can push back against dehumanization. We can push back against the dehumanization that keeps the Ethiopian eunuch unnamed.

In Acts 8, it’s this other, this unnamed person who is only identified by his foreign-ness and castration, who initiates God’s movement. God values the other just as much as God values you and me. God loves the other just as much as God loves you and me. When we read this story and look carefully at everything it says and what it doesn’t say, we can hear God’s calling to share Jesus with everyone. That call to include all becomes loud and clear.

Today, in a world full of pain and suffering, in a world that tries to draw lines between insiders and outsiders, we can name the other. We can see people and draw them in. We can share the love of Christ the way God intended it.

[1] Robert W. Wall, “Acts,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 145.

[2] Frank Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

[3] Robert Hood, Begrimed and Black: Christian Traditions on Blacks and Blackness (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994).

[4] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th Anniversary ed. (New York: Continuum, 2009), 44.

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