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The Rev. Irina Dubinski

Illustration from the Menologion of Basil II of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

The Coversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch

Over the Eastertide, in preparation for Pentecost, we replace our Old Testament readings with those from the book of Acts, describing the church’s earliest days: the gift of the Holy Spirit, the rapid spread of the Good News, the crowds impressed by the apostles’ speeches. Yet, Jesus warned the first followers of this fledgling movement, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” (Matt. 10). Indeed, after the initial period of elation, growth, and bonding, the early Chrsitians were plunged right into the first wave of persecution. They lost each other’s trust as they lost control over their future, and they had no indication of when this situation would end. All but the first apostles left Jerusalem.

There’s got to be a parallel in this with our own liminal existence. In contrast to this time last year -- the early days of mobilization, helping the neighbour, protecting the vulnerable, looking for meaning in “ the new normal” -- now we have entered the stage of restless, fearful languishing. A place of frustration, barrenness, and loneliness; no clear timeline and no real results, despite our own personal efforts to “stay safe”. I also see an image of this in the beginning of today’s story from Acts.

Meet deacon Philip. Earlier, his job was to oversee the business side of the early church that was growing too fast for the 12 apostles to manage. Now, the new religious community was forced to disband, and he found himself on a dusty desert road, leading away from Jerusalem. He had felt an inkling in his heart to search for a new place to apply his vocation, and he followed the impulse; or maybe had no choice. On the road, he encountered an unlikely fellow-traveler, a high official in the Ethiopian court -- a eunuch.

This man had visited the Jerusalem Temple and was now going home, many weeks’ journey away. He was powerful, rich, and literate; yet, his life was quite tragic in at least two respects. The first is kind of obvious, but goes much deeper than a simple inability to “enjoy life” in the way that other men might: every one of his achievements would be confined to the length of his earthly life, as he had nobody to pass down his money, power, and status. The reason he even held such a high position of trust with his queen was not only that he was safe and “proper” to be alone with, but also seemed unlikely to lead a rebellion in light of his inability to establish a new royal dynasty.

His second sorrow was the lack of an inclusive opportunity for religious practice. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and had with him the scroll of Isaiah, which meant he was attracted to Judaism. While Judaism accepted foreign converts, they did not all achieve the same extent of community integration; depending on how long they had pursued the process, and etc. But apparently, a man like him was permanently ritually unclean, and would never be admitted into the Temple. Since he also said that he had never had any guidance in interpreting Isaiah, it seems that he never benefited from attending a synagogue either. And to come back to my previous point, his inability to father an heir might have been even more marginalizing in the context of Judaism, which equated eternal life to living, metaphorically, through your children.

I wonder if this man’s Jerusalem visit, which he might have eagerly anticipated as an opportunity for fellowship and growth in faith, has instead highlighted to him just how undesirable he was in so many aspects of life. He saw that the Temple gave everybody their own place within its multi-court structure, reflecting their worshipping rights: to the Jewish men in the inner court, to the women and children -- in the next one outward, and the Gentiles -- in the outer one. But there was no place for people like him. Belonging and fulfillment are amnong our fundamental psychological needs, but I’m sure we have all at times experienced rejection, inability to grow and function to our full capacity, and a lack of opportunity to pursue vocation and life’s purpose. That first wave of Christian persecution robbed deacon Philip and other early Christians of their own sense of safety, belonging, and fulfillment. How much worse it is, however, when your own people exclude you based on something you cannot and shouldn’t have to change. Unfortunately, our own church is no stranger to doing just this to some groups of people.

For this Ethiopian man, reading Isaiah 53 on the way home must have felt like looking in a mirror. This chapter, about a “man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”; despised, rejected, unjustly treated, and lacking a family, prompted the eunuch to ask himself and Philip, “is this written about a prophet, or about someone else”... about me, perhaps? And what did these verses say to Philip, but remind him of his fellow-believers’ fate? Yet, he did not close Isaiah here, but instead pointed out to the Ethiopian the verses a little further in the text: “cut off from the land of the living... it was the will of God that... he shall see his offspring”. And, a little further (Is 56): “let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “the Lord will surely separate me from His people”, nor let the eunuch say, “behold, I am a dry tree”… to the eunuchs who... hold fast my covenant, to them I will give in my house... an everlasting name which will not be cut off”.

How: a dead man and eunuch shall see their offspring - shall see fulfilment? By God's grace: from death - new life; from barrenness – an everlasting inheritance; from exclusion - belong. The healing hinted at in these verses was embodied in the one person of Jesus, but offered to the entire world. And the Ethiopian’s response: “look, there is water, what is to prevent my being baptized?” Apparently, nothing; not ethnicity, impotence, or newness of faith. How did he realize that his baptism should be the next stop along the way? Maybe Philip told him about Jesus’ baptism with which his ministry began; maybe he knew of 5000 or so who had joined the early church. Either way, he heard God’s voice, which announces his presence to each one of us well before the font is filled with water. Philip had heard this voice and, witth God's help met the lonely traveler on the desert road, and many more after. By God's grace, the many barren women of the Bible went on to find purpose and inclusion in the birth of their children. By God's grace, from this roadside puddle, the eunuch went on to have multitudes of spiritual descendants where he couldn’t have any physical ones (according to the tradition, he became the very founder of the most ancient church of Ethiopia).

And by God's grace, in the chaos of the first wave of persecution, the church’s first evangelists traveled much further and reached more diverse populations than they would have if the church continued to grow peacefully in Jerusalem. In the shifting landscape of the pandemic world, which sights and fellow travelers have you encountered that you wouldn’t have otherwise? How are you rediscovering a sense of purpose in the seemingly paralyzing context of today? Who are your spiritual children, and which treasures are you hoping to pass down to them, “with God’s help”?