Acceptance – No Matter the Difference
Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like “struggle.” To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here, right now. – Fred Rogers
So football season is about to start. And I am a big West Virginia University Mountaineer fane! But my wife’s family lives in Virginia Tech country. Folks that cheer for Tech call themselves Hokies. Do you know what a Hokie is?
The common understanding is that it is a male turkey who is…well…missing his reproductive parts. Apparently castration makes turkeys meaner! And I guess that makes sense cause if you did that to me, the I’d get pretty mean, too. And most of the men would probably agree.
Today’s story is about a Hokie. Not a turkey, but a human Hokie. Read with me from Acts 8:26-40.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
The story begins with Philip, an evangelist, who sees someone who is described with four words:
- Royal official (And the story makes clear that official royal capacity was the treasurer)
Out of all these descriptors which one stands out to you?
Well, in the story, aside from just saying “He said this or did that”, Luke refers to this person as eunuch three times.
That’s interesting. There must be something important there – or rather there is something important about what’s not there on this Ethiopian. There must be something more important about eunuch than the other aspects of his identity. And if you read bible teachers and scholars almost everyone calls this man a eunuch. Not Ethiopian, not man, not treasurer.
Now, I’m gonna try to be tactful and mindful of everyone listening today. There are some words that I may need to use that aren’t the most common words you here in church. Not bad words, just topics that are taboo in the church. But I am mindful that so much research today shows that people really want pastors to address stuff like this because no one else is willing to do so.
So here we go: What is a eunuch?
A eunuch is basically a human Hokie. Pretty simple. Well, not simple for us men in the room. But pretty straightforward, right?
Actually, it turns out it’s not so straightforward.
So let’s look at how the word is used in ancient times to see what it really means and how what we think it means may not be so accurate.
First, there are many writings in the ancient world that speak about people who are born eunuchs -both outside the Bible and in the Bible. For example, Matthew 19:12
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
There are people who are made eunuch and people who are born eunuchs. That at least tells us that eunuchs are not all hokies.
Second, both Roman law and Jewish writings discuss eunuchs who can procreate. This means that there were eunuchs who were not missing any parts. And that both confirms what Jesus is saying and throws a wrench in what we typically think the Bible is talking about. We are not simply talking about men who are hokies. Instead, the word eunuch defines something broader than anatomy.
This is getting a little complicated. It may be maybe uncomfortable for you. I know. Bear with me.
Let’s go back to Jesus’ words in Matthew. Move back a few verses and you see that Jesus was speaking about marriage and divorce between husbands and wives. Jesus uses the word eunuch to speak about people who do not marry because
- they were born a certain way, for example, without desire or attraction to marry,
- because they were made a certain way, for example, castrated and unable to marry and procreate,
- because they chose a certain way, such as celibacy.
Lastly – and this will really mess things up for you – Ancient Jewish writings even refer to women as eunuchs.
So, what we find when reading all these sources is that the word eunuch is not a specific term for men who have been castrated. Eunuch is a broad word used for many different people who have one thing in common: they do not conform to the normal path of marrying and procreating.
- They can be male or female
- Some can procreate and some cannot
- Some have had body parts removed, some have not
- Some have been born a certain way and others have been made a certain way or chosen a different way
- The one thing in common is that these people do not conform to the norm of marriage or procreation
In sum, eunuchs are different in terms of their sexuality. So you tell me all the different groups of people that could be considered eunuchs…?
Just to name a few….People who are infertile, people who are born differently (with what we might call abnormalities or defects), people who choose to live celibate, and – yes – people who are not attracted to members of the opposite sex, that is, people who are gay.
We don’t know for sure which of these the Ethiopian was. We do know that all of these are possibilities. The Ethiopian could have been castrated, and he could have been born infertile, and he could have been gay.
And I want to put some of this together to help you make sense of all this. Eunuch is a word that literally means “guard of the bedchamber.” The word itself was originally used for those who served in the royal court.
Just think about it. Royal families have lots of servants – male and female. And your need servants you can trust with all the women in the royal family. Well, how do you ensure that you male servants won’t get frisky with the royal women? You find people who aren’t interested in women, people who wouldn’t want to get frisky or take advantage. And if you don’t trust people and want to be extra precautious, then you perform a little snip snip surgery to ensure that there are no children that have fathers who are the royal servants.
So, you see, eunuch is a broad term for people serving in royal households. Kingdoms needed people they could trust to serve the women of the royal house, whether unattracted to women, physically incapable of procreation, or celibate. Eunuchs were those people.
Ok, so we finally have some understanding of what a eunuch is. Let’s get back to the story and recall what happens to this eunuch.
To start, the eunuch has traveled over 2000 miles from Africa to Jerusalem in his spiritual pilgrimage to the temple. He has spent a lot of time, money and resource so that he could worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem. And the trips takes him around 2 months through deserts, along the Nile river and through the Sinai peninsula.
And when he arrives in Jerusalem, at the end of this long, expensive pilgrimage, here is the painful truth: he is likely barred from entering the very place he came to see and worship in.
His chariot driver and his attendants: they are allowed to enter. But not this royal court official, not this trusted commander of the queens treasury, not this God-fearing pilgrim who has come to bow down to Yahweh. The authorities and scribes and saduccess and Pharisees will not let him enter.
Why? Because biblical law in Deuteronomy (for example, Deut 23:1) instructs that eunuchs are barred from the Temple, prohibited from entering the holy place, excluded from the presence of the living God, because they are abnormal, marred, and damaged.
So the Ethiopian quietly stands outside the gates and simply takes it all in. He takes in the beauty and grandeur of the holy temple, it’s the statues, musicians and priests, all the other pilgrims and merchants. He breathes it all in because outside is as close as he will ever come to the presence of the living God.
Eventually, he packs back up and heads home. Distraught, disappointed, excluded, outcast, and searching for a glimpse of hope.
Philip sees him reading as he travels by chariot. He runs to meet him, discovers he is reading from Isaiah, and asks him if he understands it. The Ethiopian says he cannot understand because one is teaching him. I love this! He doesn’t assume he knows what it means like so many people do today. He recognizes there is more going on in the words than he might know and he knows he needs a teachers, he wants a teacher!
I also love that he is reading Isaiah – a book that promises freedom for people. Isaiah often speaks against the rigidity of the law because of how people use the law to exclude, exploit, and marginalize people. And just a few chapters after what the eunuch is reading, Isaiah says this (Isa. 56:4-5):
For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (no pun intended…or maybe it is intended!)
It’s no wonder the eunuch is reading Isaiah. There is a message of hope for this eunuch in Isaiah! But what he is reading doesn’t match with what he experienced in Jerusalem. So how can he make sense of it. He wants a teacher to show him, maybe to confirm the truth of this message for him. And Philip obliges.
We don’t know exactly what Philip says. All we know is that the eunuch asks who the passage is talking about, and then Philip proclaims the good news of Jesus. The story implies that Philip points out to the eunuch that the words of Isaiah are, at least in part, talking about Jesus.
So at the end of their bible study, the Ethiopian looks at Philip and says, “I get it! I wanna get baptized! Is there anything to keep me from doing that right now?”
And what is the answer?
Does Philip condemn the man? No.
Does he exclude him because he is different in some way? No.
Does he question the Ethiopian about what makes him different, about what makes him a eunuch? No.
Does he check to see if he’s abnormal or whole? If he is gay or straight? No.
No, because none of that matters. What matters is that he has heard the good news of Jesus which welcomes the outcast, which frees those who are chained up, which accepts everyone no matter what the difference.
Philip does not say eunuch is wrong or sinful. None of that. Instead, he accepts the Ethiopian eunuch as the child of God he is, and Philip immediately baptized him. And on that blessed day so long ago the Ethiopian eunuch entered into the fellowship of Christians both then, and now.
Philip showed us 2000 years ago what Fred Rogers has more recently said:
Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like “struggle.” To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here, right now.
You see, if there were reason to keep people out of the fellowship of Jesus followers, then none of us would be here. For we have all done something that someone else in the world would shun us for. But the truth is this: we all start on the outside looking in, just like the eunuch. We start on the outside and God welcome us in to the family of faith by inviting us to come to his table to receive his goodness, to be fed and nourished.
The communion table is God’s table and no one will be left out of this fellowship meal. Everyone is invited to sit down, pass the plate and be set free.
During our worship time, we next shared the song below in worship and shared communion.