May I Be Included?
Scripture - Acts 8:26-39
When asked by Philip if he really understood the Scriptures he was reading, the Ethiopian replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” As we prepare to read today’s Scriptures, ask the Holy Spirit to be your guide. Then, with the Spirit’s help, listen for the Word of God.
The strangest of all the stories that Luke tells is that of the Ethiopian eunuch in his chariot riding from Jerusalem to Gaza, the one to whom Philip spoke. He is an Ethiopian. I do not know if Luke wants us to take that literally or not. There was an Ethiopia, somewhere near Aswan, or Khartoum today, but
the word Ethiopia, since the days of Homer, had been sort of a nickname or a symbol for the end of the world. “They tell me he is from Ethiopia.” Ethiopia just meant a jumping-off place. Ethiopia meant the same as in our culture we say Timbuktu. We do not know if there was one or not, but we will say, “I wish she would go to Timbuktu.” That just means as far as you can go - & then a little more. The end of the world. Timbuktu.
Well in the literature of Luke’s day, that is the way Ethiopia was used. I mean how far out & away & distant can you be? “He is an Ethiopian.” And he is a eunuch. A eunuch is a man who either by accident or by surgery was rendered sexless. Usually such persons found gainful employment, & sometimes powerful & wealthy employment, in palaces, especially in the service of queens. By being sexless, they were not derailed by their own interests, harmless around the harem, never having to be late because they were driving the carpool that morning. No wife, no children, nothing to distract them. Devoted, single-minded, loyal, they were especially useful on such occasions. Plutarch says it was quite common. I think it was Josephus who said, “One nasty thing about Herod is that he had 3 eunuchs in his palace.” Even though the Jewish Scripture was clear. Deuteronomy 23:1: A eunuch cannot belong to the Lord’s assembly (my paraphrase). So, are there any questions? The eunuch shall not be permitted in the assembly of God’s people. Then what in the world does it mean when it says he had been up to Jerusalem to worship?
What kind of man is this who would walk around the outside, stand at the edge, look over the fence, & ask people what is going on? “How was the service? How was the sermon? What did the pastor do? Were there many people there today?” Peeking through knotholes, getting stuff secondhand, looking over fences, & walking on the edge of the crowd. He was at worship?
I ask you seriously. Why will any human being continue to knock at a locked door & stand there with bloody knuckles & refuse to go home? Why? The door is locked. Shall I read it again? You are not welcome. It is clear. Why does he not just make it easy on himself? Is he one of those people who thinks that if you rise to a certain level of power, or a certain level of wealth, then the rules do not apply to you anymore? He is a wealthy man. He has his own Bible, it says in our text; so, he must have been wealthy. He is in a chariot. He is in the service of Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopians. And he is the treasurer of the country. “Maybe the rules do not apply to me,” he thinks.
I do not know. I certainly wish he had made it easy on himself. He is simply increasing the pain. Lingering at the edge of the people of God with that verse staring at him day & night. Why does he do it? Even if somebody, even if a careless usher, even if somebody who did not know what it was all about admitted him, he would not fit in. The moment he got inside it would be obvious to everybody. “You do not fit in; you simply do not fit in. Even if we let you in, you do not fit in.”
Fred Craddock knows about not fitting in from his first church. It was up in East TN. He worked there as a seminarian & it was about 20 miles from Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge was booming. Atomic energy was centered there & folk were coming & constructing that little town into a city. They were coming from everywhere. Hard-hat types in trailers & little temporary huts & all kind of lean-tos. They covered those beautiful hills with temporary quarters, wash hanging out on the fences & little kids crying where all these things were parked.
His little church was an aristocratic little church, a white frame building, a beautiful little church. It was a nice church with wonderful people. Fred called the board together & said, “We need to reach out to those folks who are here. They just come in from everywhere & they are close by. Here is our mission field.” The chairman of the board said, “Oh, I do not think so.” Fred asked why. He said, “They won’t fit in. after all, they are just here temporarily, living in those trailers & all.” “Well, they may be here temporarily, but they need the gospel, they need a church.” “No, I do not think so.”
The board meeting lasted a long time. They called the next meeting for the next Sunday night. The upshot of it all was a resolution. The resolution was offered by one of the relatives of the chairman of the board & the resolution basically was: “Members will be admitted to this church from families who own property in the county.” The vote was unanimous except for Fred’s vote & he was reminded that he could not vote. “They just will not fit in.”
Many years later Fred took Nettie, his wife, around to the scene of his “early failures.” He had a hard time finding the church because I-40 goes through there, but he finally found the road, the county road, & back nestled in the pines, still there, shining white, the church looked just beautiful. Just like it was… except now cars & trucks were parked everywhere! And a big sign out front that read: “BBQ. All you can eat. Chicken, ribs & pork.”
Fred said, “Well, we might as well go in for lunch.” So, they went inside & they still had those beautiful oil lamps hanging on the wall. They still had the old pump organ, the one the kids always had to stand there & pump while it was being played in the service. A beautiful organ, but now it is a decoration.
The pews which had been cut from a single poplar tree were around the walls & people waiting for a table sat on them. There were a lot of aluminum legged plastic tables. And the place was full of all kinds of people. Fred says, “They are Parthians, Medes, & Elamites, dwellers of Mesopotamia.” And he said to his wife, “It certainly is good this is not a church now. These folks would not be welcome. They would not fit in.”
Now why does this Ethiopian eunuch keep doing it? You know what he is doing? You do it yourself; I do it myself. He is flipping the pages of the Bible to find his own name. Everyone in the world wants that. I want to find my name. I want to find a verse that says, “for me” & I will write it in the margin. Just a little promise, just a phrase, just something; he is looking for his name. We all do that.
And so, he is reading in Isaiah & he finds it; at least he thinks he finds it. It is almost too good to be true. There Isaiah says it: Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say, “The Lord will exclude me from the people.” And don’t let the eunuch say, “I’m just a dry tree.” The Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, & remain loyal to my covenant. In my temple & courts, I will give them a monument & a name better than sons & daughters. I will give to them an enduring name that won’t be removed (56:3-5).
And now he reads in Isaiah: Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter & like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he didn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was taken away from him. Who can tell the story of his descendants before his life was taken from the earth (53:7-8).
Philip asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” I think I have found some good stuff here. “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him.
“You mean he was cut off without any children? He didn’t have any other generations & grandchildren & people to keep his name?”
“No,” Philip said, “he was cut off from the land of the living.”
“Do you mean to say that this other verse up here, maybe, oh I know, I am just an Ethiopian & I don’t know how you feel about Ethiopians, but it says here, no longer let the foreigners say surely the Lord will say, ‘get out.’ I know I am a eunuch, & I know what it says in Deuteronomy, but it says in Isaiah: Don’t let the eunuch say, “I’m just a dry tree.” The Lord says: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, choose what I desire, & remain loyal to my covenant. In my temple & courts, I will give them a monument & a name better than sons & daughters. I will give to them an enduring name that won’t be removed.
“Philip, do you suppose it is possible, I know I am just an Ethiopian. I know I am a eunuch, but do you think it is possible, could I be a member of the church?” And Philip said, “I can think of 100 people who are going to be upset but, yes. I do not know how this is going to go over back home, but yes. In fact, I feel a little awkward myself because I have never been in this situation & I am not handling it well, but yes. In fact, I am surprised at hearing myself say this, but yes. Because the fact of the matter is, who am I to say no when it is clear that God has already said yes.”
Now, I ask you: Do we have to put it up to a vote in this group? Or may we accept him by acclimation?