It certainly hasn’t been a great week for the bible! You can’t tune into any kind of media right now without hearing the Attorney General of the United States quoting the bible to support the draconian practices of the US Justice Department. It’s not the first time that evildoers have used biblical quotations to justify the unjustifiable and sadly, it won’t be the last time. On this Pride Sunday, we are all too aware of the age-old practice of weaponizing the Bible. I know that there are many people in the queer community who would like to abandon the bible all together. During times like these, I too struggle with the reality that the bible contains some pretty weird shit. But as annoying as some of the stuff in the Bible is, I know that there is some amazing wisdom that I’m not prepared to give up just because some throw-backs to a bygone era can’t seem to read beyond their own narrow mindedness. The current narrow-mindedness of the abysmal administration of our neighbours to the south serves as a case in point. While the bible does indeed say, that we should obey the law, if you read a little beyond the quote that was bandied about, you will find, just a few lines later that the bible also says, and I quote: “Love your neighbour as yourself. Love never wrongs anyone—hence love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
Like any book, when you isolate a small section of text, and fail to take into consideration the full context from which that isolated section has been drawn, you run the risk of abusing the actual intent of the original authors. The bible is a collection of books, brought together over hundreds of years in order to create an over-arching narrative. Those of us who have found value in the biblical stories, we have a particular responsibility to ensure that evildoers do not get away with abusing people with quotes from the very Bible that seeks to set all people free from false narratives. Sadly, many of us simply don’t know many of the biblical stories that make up the over-arching narratives of freedom, of justice and of peace. This morning, I’d like to draw our attention to an all too often hidden gem of a story that is particularly relevant to us as we celebrate Pride in all that we are created to be.
Our story begins when a messenger of God directs the apostle Philip to go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. On this road in the desert Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch. Now I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a really odd way to introduce someone; no name, just an Ethiopian eunuch. The author must have thought it was important because he tells us not once but five times that the Ethiopian was a eunuch. I know what an Ethiopian is. Philip has encountered a black African man in the desert. Now that in and of its self is pretty remarkable.
You will see later that this black man was the first missionary to Africa. So, what exactly is a eunuch? According to the most current scholarship, in the first century a eunuch is one of two things. A eunuch could have been a man who had been castrated. Now for those of you who didn’t grow up on a farm to castrate means to remove a male’s testicles. So, this particular Ethiopian could have been a castrated male, or he could have been a male who wasn’t like most males. According to the scholars, men who showed a preference for other men or displayed little or no interest in women, or who were in anyway effeminate, in the first century these men were called eunuchs.
At this particular time in history, Eunuchs had three major roles in society. Because it was either physically impossible for them to father children, or because of their preferences highly unlikely that they would father children, eunuchs were often employed as military officers, domestic servants, or treasury officers. Without the responsibilities of children, it was thought that eunuchs would be fiercer soldiers because they wouldn’t be worried about saving their own skins so that they would be around to take care of their children. Without children of their own to worry about eunuchs were also free to be domestic servants and because of their lack of interest eunuchs were considered safe to employ around women. As they were unlikely to father children, rulers believed that eunuchs wouldn’t seek hereditary power, so they were often entrusted with positions in the treasury because they didn’t need to amass wealth to pass on to their children.
This particular Ethiopian eunuch was a court official to the queen of the Ethiopians. Remember the Queen of Sheba, she was a queen of the Ethiopians. At the time Ethiopia was a wealthy and sophisticated place. An Ethiopian queen was called a Candace. This particular Ethiopian eunuch was a court official in charge of the entire treasury of a rich and powerful queen.Eunuchs we’re popular employees with queens, who didn’t want anybody casting aspersions on any of their offspring. Now, even though rulers entrusted eunuchs with certain key positions, they were pretty much shunned by the rest of society. Eunuchs were outcasts.
According to our story, this Ethiopian eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home. Now the Bible is very clear on the subject of eunuchs and worship. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, which contains the law as it was laid out by Moses, eunuchs were forbidden to worship in the house of God. Deuteronomy 23: “A man whose testicles have been crushed or whose male member has been cut off is not to be admitted to the assembly of Yahweh.” Eunuchs weren’t welcome in God’s house.
Mind you, according to the Bible none of you are welcome here in God’s house. The Bible forbids the wearing of more than one type of cloth at the same time. According to Leviticus 21:20, anyone who is wearing glasses shouldn’t be here either, because one should not approach the altar of the Lord if you have a defect in your sight. Did you know that it is an abomination before God to work on the Sabbath and according to Exodus 35: 2 anybody who works on the Sabbath should be put to death? Those of you who cut your grass yesterday, which according to the Bible Saturday is the Sabbath, those of you who worked around the house yesterday, well the bible says, you should be rounded up and executed.
Any women out there who are having their period according to the Bible you ought to leave right now, because you are unclean and you’re making the rest of us unclean as well. And you men needn’t bother smiling, because any of you who have had your hair trimmed, including the hair around your temples ought to know that according to Leviticus 19:27 this is strictly forbidden. As near as I can tell, the penalty for those haircuts of yours is death by stoning.And if you don’t believe me, well then you are in a whole heap of trouble because the bible clearly states that for the crime of not listening to what a priest says, and as a called and ordained minister, I am a priest, and Deuteronomy 17:12 says failure to listen to the priest is punishable by death.
Now don’t go telling me that the New Testament means that the laws of the Old Testament are no longer valid, because in the New Testament Jesus insists that he has not come to abolish the law, for Jesus said, “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” According to the New Testament the law stands.
Now lucky for you, I don’t take the Bible literarily otherwise…. what am I saying if I took the Bible literally…I’d have to keep my mouth shut, women are supposed to keep silent in church and lesbians, well we lesbians we ought not to be welcome here either! All I know is, if you take the Bible literally then we’d need a pretty big pile of stones and very few of us would make it out of here alive. As our friend Dom Crossan teaches, “it is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are no smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.”Fortunately for us, our church, together with most of the mainline churches like the Roman Catholic, Anglican, United, Mennonite, Presbyterian, and many others does not teach or preach that the Bible is to be taken literally. Literal interpretations of scripture belong to those denominations and faiths that are called fundamentalists. Christian fundamentalism is just as perverse and just as dangerous as Jewish and Islamic fundamentalism. Fundamentalist Christians represent a small but vocal minority within the Christian church.
We are not fundamentalists. The next time someone asks you if you believe in the Bible, the answer is no, believing in the bible is a form of idolatry! We don’t believe in the bible. We believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel can be found in the Bible, but the Gospel cannot be contained by the Bible. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reveal the nature of our loving and gracious God. Like Jesus we are free to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Like Martin Luther, we teach that Scripture should always be interpreted in the light of the Gospel and the Gospel is summed up in the LOVE of our neighbours.
LOVE is the reason that I can say that all of us, are welcome here in God’s house, despite your haircuts, your impaired sight, your multi-materialed clothing, or the state of your gentiles.LOVE is the reason, I can stand here, as a woman, as an out and proud lesbian, without wearing a hat, wearing my glasses, and proclaim the Gospel, wearing I don’t know how many different types of material on my body.LOVE is the reason, none of you will have to go home from here today and drag your children out into the town square so that for the crime of not properly honoring their parents your kids can be stoned until they are dead, as per the instructions laid out in the Bible.
The over-arching narrative of the bible teaches us that God is LOVE and nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and all of the Law can be summed up in the only Law that matters, the Law that insists that we should love God and love our neighbours as we love ourselves.But just try telling that to the religious authorities in Jerusalem at the turn of the first century. You can bet your bottom dollar, that the Black African, gentile, Ethiopian, Eunuch, wasn’t welcome in the Temple. So, he left Jerusalem and was on his way back home, riding in his chariot, reading aloud. That he was reading the scriptures aloud is not the remarkable part. You see the concept of reading silently in your head, hadn’t been invented yet, all readers read aloud in those days. We know from Augustine that up until the fifth century, people hadn’t figured out how to read silently! In fact, when people first began to read silently in their heads, the religious authorities thought that it must be the work of the devil and more than a few of those quiet readers were burnt at the stake.What is really remarkable is that the Ethiopian eunuch actually had to read at all or that he actually knew how to read. This Ethiopian eunuch must have been fairly well off because he was reading from the book of the Prophet of Isaiah and one of those scrolls would set you back quite a bit at the turn of the first century. So, we know he is a man of some wealth and importance, because not only can he afford his own scroll but he actually knows how to read it, not in his native tongue, but in Greek.
I can just imagine him riding along, ticked that he wasn’t welcome in the temple because of his identity as a eunuch, reading of all things the book of the prophet Isaiah. Somehow, we’re not told how, the Spirit tells the Apostle Philip to run after the chariot and join it. Philip goes after the chariot and he must have heard what the Ethiopian eunuch is reading and recognized it, because Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. Apparently, he must have been having some difficulty because he invites Philip to hop in and explain. The passage the Ethiopian eunuch was reading was about the Suffering Servant of God, who was “cut off” from the people of God. It was no accident he was reading this. Surely, he was trying to figure out why he himself was being cut off from the people of God because if he was reading this passage, he likely also read the neighboring passages where God promised to bless all those who had been excluded and cut off because they were different. Isaiah writes: “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!”…”and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree….I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off…Thus says the Most High God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel…” (54:1;56:4-8) Yahweh declares: “eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and follow the covenant will have an everlasting name and blessing, better even than sons and daughters, an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Just imagine how powerful these words were in a time when the whole promise of eternity hinged on sons and daughters, something a eunuch could never have. It was as if Isaiah was speaking directly to the Ethiopian eunuch. Foreigners and eunuchs were supposed to be welcomed at God’s table! Those who had been excluded were supposed to be included, despite the fact that the religious authorities were hung up on the rules that were laid out in Moses’ day.
The Apostle Philip shared the Good News of Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch. This Suffering Servant the eunuch was reading about was someone he could identify with. This was a Messiah who had been cut off, just like him. Suddenly the labels that prevented this man from full inclusion in the assembly of the people of God are overcome…and not even the arid desert can defeat them, for suddenly there is some water and the man asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”Well according to the rules, Philip should have answered “there’s everything to prevent you from being baptized.” First of all, the Ethiopian eunuch hasn’t confessed what it is he believes. He hasn’t been to baptismal classes. Philip isn’t an ordained minister, this is not an emergency and he doesn’t even know how to baptize. Anyway, the church hasn’t yet approved the baptism of gentiles let alone foreign black eunuchs. The church needs a little good order. Without the rules where would we be? Surely, we can’t just baptize anyone and everyone who asks for baptism? Besides the bible says…
But what does Philip do when the eunuch asks him, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip jumps into the water and baptizes the man. No, messing around, no consulting the rules, to see if it’s all right. Philip doesn’t answer the eunuch with any religious concerns, he doesn’t ask the Ethiopian if he is an open and practicing eunuch or if he’s a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of eunuch. Nor does Philip qualify his response with reservations, he doesn’t say: “well, we can baptize you, because we can love the sinner and still hate the sin.” The Apostle Philip doesn’t offer platitudes, Philip acts!
The Ethiopian commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Philip just hops out of the chariot and jumps into the water and boldly baptizes this inquiring, scripture-reading, eunuch.
Maybe, just maybe we can learn something from Philip’s radical act of LOVE. According to the story, when they came up out of the water, the Spirit snatched Philip away and the eunuch saw him no more, and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. All because someone felt LOVE’s call to cross the traditional boundaries that had been established by religious authorities. Those traditional boundaries could be supported by quoting scripture and yet Philip is compelled by LOVE to cross those boundaries anyway.
The over-arching narrative of the Gospel is not a respecter of boundaries. It doesn’t matter what religious establishments say, no one is cut off from Gods’ love. Scripture insists, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
The Spirit of such LOVE drives us out into the world. We are not sent into the world to judge the world or to condemn the world, but to offer the good news that whatever this Mystery that we call God is, this God is LOVE. If there is one thing we know about this LOVE that is God, it is that there is nothing in heaven or upon earth that can separate us from the love of God…it says so in the very same book that the evil-doers are so fond of quoting right now. We are compelled by the LOVE that Is God, not to allow the evildoers to have their way. LOVE compels us to proclaim freedom, to seek justice, and to strive for peace.
The bible, is an imperfect collection of books, an imperfect collection of writings that point us to a much bigger story, a story so big that it cannot be contained by the pages of any book, not even the bible, a story of the MYSTERY that lies at the very heart of reality, a MYSTERY that is LOVE. LOVE is the source of our being, LOVE lies at the very core of who we are. We are made by that LOVE and of that LOVE, so let us be on our way rejoicing, rejoicing for we are fearfully and wonderfully made! Created for LOVE by LOVE. Rejoice and be glad!