Sermon preached by Angela Rayner, ordinand at Westcott House
Have you ever sensed God calling you to act? Was it immediate, as with St Philip and the direct instruction of the angel on the road? Or, did it come through a slow alignment of people, time and place, as you began to see how your gifts might benefit others? Perhaps you’re still waiting for the Spirit in the wilderness. “Why is it”, you wonder “everyone else seems to know what to do with their life or which job to apply for, or how to spend their retirement, except me?”. If you’re called to something big – giving away all your possessions, marrying someone, becoming a chemist or a nurse or a teacher, you might discern alongside others. But, what about the little things? Befriending a neighbour? Writing to a stranger? Getting in a taxi, and witnessing to the power of the gospel? (Oh, c’mon! Surely not! Don’t you know, we’re Church of England!) Yet that’s what happened to Philip the Evangelist. He dared to speak of Jesus Christ in public. Any commuter here will know that if there’s one thing people don’t want to hear about on a crowded train before 9am, it’s religion. But Philip knew that without ordinary people conversing about the work of God in their lives, there’d be no gospel.
It is tempting to to turn this Spirit filled moment into a message about inclusivity. The Eunuch’s ethnicity, his gender minority status and his existence on the edge of Judaism might demonstrate how St Philip teaches the church to be radically inclusive. But inclusivity, at least for its own sake, is not a virtue. The global market is pretty inclusive. Those giant online bookstores and auction sites do not care what you buy, or when you buy it, just thatyou do. The market doesn’t mind about your character, but God does. He calls the saints to be, like the Eunuch, not just included, but transformedby the Spirit inanticipation of Pentecost.
Over-emphasizing inclusivity can lead to minimising holiness; the call to be distinctive through perfection in charity. The Eunuch didn’t need a seeker-sensitive Eucharist; he wanted the fullness of the Kingdom. We can see he’d have been familiar with Isaiah 56, “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who… hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house… a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name…”. The Eunuch already held these Scriptures in his hands, saying “Tell me more about the humiliated one to whom justice was denied, this one with whom I can identify.” He was not not settling for inclusion, but praying for the fire of Pentecost.
Does a recovery of the vocabulary of holiness and transformation mean a return to the church of yesterday? No! I’m not suggesting that inclusion is bad, but that it’s inadequate. The gospel does not require that an already-existing “we” be inclusive of a yet-to-be-included “them”, but insists that through baptism, the logic of “we” and “them” is overturned, for Philip and the Eunuch are both now “us”, and insofar as that is not embodied, the Kingdom of God is not manifest, and Pentecost has not arrived. The gospel demands more than inclusivity. It requires a reshaping and upturning of our lives, one that ultimately might be worthy of the description of “salvation”.
I believe that eunuchs still exist at the margins of every community. Yet they, like the Eunuch in Acts will only be able to ask “how can I [understand the Scripture]?” if they see in us what he saw in Philip; a people whose lives are shaped sufficiently differently from the surrounding Greeks that they are a people worth joining. And so we come to a question that makes me nervous, “how are, we, the (mostly?) baptised any different from our non-church going neighbours? Do we contrast in any way with those who do not profess a crucified and risen saviour?”
Even if we shouted “hosanna” on Palm Sunday, watched through the night on Maundy Thursday, kissed the cross on Good Friday and sang our Alleluias on Easter Sunday, Easter sometimes comes to feel old. We’ve reached the fifth Sunday of the season, and other than having become a little rounder through eating all the chocolate, are we changed? Are we breathing a sigh of relief that it’s all over for another year, or are we anticipating Pentecost?
I suggest that we cannotwitness the resurrection and remain unchanged, however we might feel. Through the sightings in the garden and the empty tomb, we are reassured of a God who keeps his promises. We are propelled by the Spirit to trust one another and to speak more openly of the love of the Father. The risen Jesus collapses the self-sufficient island of “you” and the ever-wary peninsula of “me”, challenges the insidious individualism of our time, and calls us always to be one. If our baptism is to make sense, we must, like the Eunuch, admit our need of one another. We cannot draw close to Christ in a way that neglects his body, the Church. That doesn’t mean we’ll all be best mates. It’s not a wave of the magic fairy wand that will cause the hurts and betrayals we carry to fall away overnight. I wish it did. But this is not Disney; it’s the risen Lord. And since he’s risen, we can trust that he will continue to make us good and perfect our lives. We needn’t fear admitting that we are all works in progress.
That said, and having warned of the danger of promoting inclusion over holiness, we cannot ignore that one of the first of the baptised is Ethiopian and black. The belonging that we are awarded through baptism must be allowed to challenge the supposed naturalness of ethnicity or national borders. This allegiance to our fellow-baptised must be granted over and above any affinity to kin or country. Christianity, if it is faithful, will represent a border-challenge, especially at the times when a polis attempts to deport people for not having the right paperwork. We recognise our neighbours because we have broken bread with them, regardless of their ethnicity, and if that leads to us posting the host through the doors of Yarl’s Wood as we insist upon shared fellowship, then we must let it.
As well as being black, it is significant that one of the first of the baptised is a Eunuch. “Eunuch” sometimes just means court official, but it’s more likely that “eunuch” here means “mutilated man”. He is identified as a Eunuch five times within this short story. We never even learn of his name. This is significant because in the Ancient Mediterranean World, even when eunuchs rose to positions of power, “they still remained under a cloud of suspicion and scorn”. Deuteronomy was insistent, “no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”. “His ambiguous sexual identity, ‘neither male nor female’ denied him a distinctive place on the purity map of the social body”.
This account, then, indicates a subversion of masculinity, and that, I think, is good news for men, and by association, everybody else. It is good news at a time when male suicide is rising precipitously. It is good news at a time when men are in the headlines for driving trucks into crowds because of their resentment at being involuntarily celibate. It is good news because it indicates there is more than one way to embody masculinity and still be included within the Kingdom. It suggests the fulfilment of the vision of Isaiah 56, in which the eunuch; the one without possibility of generating offspring, is given an everlasting name. That name is granted in the passage explained by St Philip. For even when the male body was endangered, when it seemed “weak”, when it was marked by “uncertainty”, when it appeared as “a sheep” that “was led to the slaughter”, when it looked like “humiliation” and “the denial of justice”, it was most capable of redeeming the world. In Christ, powerlessness enabled the salvation of all Israel. The Eunuch’s final question, “What is to prevent me from being baptised?” granted him a place in the Kingdom of Israel, fulfilling Isaiah’s universal vision. Perhaps it is telling that following the eunuch’s baptism, even St Philip vanishes!
I cannot say I’ve ever experienced a direct instruction from God, and I can’t promise you will either if you haven’t already, but I believe I once bumped into an angel on Baker Street. “It was already late enough, and a wild night and the road full of fallen branches and stones”, but after a Pentecost encounter, I knew what I had to do. If, like St Philip and the Eunuch, you pray for the courage to speak to strangers in chariots, I believe that you will too.
For this point, I am indebted to p113 of Parsons, M. C. “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8: A Reply to Professor Morna Hooker” in Bellinger, W. H., Farmer, William R.(1998). “Jesus and the suffering servant : Isaiah 53 and Christian origins.”
Isaiah 56:4-5. The Holy Bible : New revised standard version : Containing the Old and New Testaments with the Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books. (Anglicized ed.). (1995). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
p108 Parsons, M. C. “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8: A Reply to Professor Morna Hooker” in Bellinger, W. H., Farmer, William R. (1998). “Jesus and the suffering servant : Isaiah 53 and Christian origins.”
p156 Scott Spencer, F. (1992). The Ethiopian Eunuch and His Bible: A Social-Science Analysis. Biblical Theology Bulletin: A Journal of Bible and Theology, 22(4), 155-165.
p110 Parsons, M. C. “Isaiah 53 in Acts 8: A Reply to Professor Morna Hooker” in Bellinger, W. H., Farmer, William R. (1998). “Jesus and the suffering servant : Isaiah 53 and Christian origins.”
From p38 “The Journey”. Oliver, M. (1986). Dream work.