Philip, the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Practice of Resurrection

(I thought you might enjoy and appreciate this article. We get most of the publications from other Catholic Worker communities in the mail at Samaritan House. This is from the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. Their newspaper is called Hospitality and this was in the April 2013 edition. It can be found online at http://opendoorcommunity.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/02/april-web-2013.pdf . Sarah)

By Peter Gathje

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go south down the road which runs from Jerusalem to Gaza, out in the desert.”

Philip arose and began his journey. At this very moment an Ethiopian eunuch, a minister and in fact the treasurer to Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, was on his way home after coming to Jerusalem to worship. He was sitting in his carriage reading the prophet Isaiah. The Holy Spirit said to Philip, “Approach this carriage, and keep close to it.”

Then as Philip ran forward he heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah, and he said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

And he replied, “How can I unless I have someone to guide me?”

And he invited Philip to get up and sit by his side. The passage of Scripture he was reading was this: “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he opened not his mouth. In his humiliation his justice was taken away. And who will declare his generation? For his life is taken from the earth.”

The eunuch turned to Philip and said, “Tell me, I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this — is he speaking about himself or about someone else?”

Then Philip began, and using this Scripture as a starting point, he told the eunuch the good news about Jesus. As they proceeded along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, here is some water; is there any reason why I should not be baptized now?”

And he gave orders for the carriage to stop. Then both of them went down to the water and Philip baptized the eunuch. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away suddenly, and the eunuch saw no more of him, but proceeded on his journey with a heart full of joy. Philip found himself at Azotus and, as he passed through the countryside, he went on telling the good news in all the cities until he came to Caesarea.

— Acts 8:26-40

Not long after his resurrection, Jesus departs from the disciples and is no longer present in his resurrected body. The Acts of the Apostles begins with his ascension into heaven.

As the disciples look upward, wondering what this might mean, two men in white robes tell them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11)

Indeed, why do they stand around looking up to heaven? Perhaps they are paralyzed with anxiety and fear. They likely asked, as we would, “Now what do we do? Jesus is gone.”

We know the disciples needed the power of the Holy Spirit to get them moving past their anxiety and fear. And that happened on Pentecost. Acts tells us that from Pentecost onward, the disciples, with the help of the Holy Spirit, were on the move, living out the meaning of the resurrection, practicing resurrection.

We need to let that same Spirit work in us through the stories we share to deepen our practice of resurrection. And one such story is that of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.

Like Philip, we are in that time after Easter when we are learning how to practice resurrection. And, like the disciples, we need to begin by no longer looking up into the heavens.

Instead, we have to get moving. We have to get moving in a way that is faithful to resurrection, faithful to overturningthe powers of sin and death. We have to get moving by resisting those powers of sin and death that divide in order to dominate and that prey on our fears in order to foment hate. We have to get moving in the power of the Holy Spirit to pursue and find Jesus and the new life. This is practicing resurrection.

The story begins with movement: “Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go.’ ” Practicing resurrection means not standing still. Corpses do not move; Christians get up and go! The dead are stuck in one place; the living grow and go!

Philip, even before this angel told him to get up and go, had been on the move. He is among the Seven Deacons chosen to care for the poor in Jerusalem. You can’t care for the poor and stay where you are; you have to get up and go out to them.

And Philip goes out to the despised. He goes to Samaria to share the Gospel. And Samaritans, as we know, were not a favored group.

And this is where we pick up the story of Philip in today’s Scripture. From his work in Samaria, in northern Israel, Philip is told by God’s messenger to “Get up and go south.” And there, in the south, on a wilderness road, he runs into the Ethiopian eunuch.

Turned Away From the Temple

Practicing resurrection does not mean simply getting up and going; it means getting up and going to places on the margins: the wilderness road. Practicing resurrection requires leaving the security of the tomb and heading into the wildness and unpredictability of life with God. God’s messenger doesn’t leave us in ruts; God’s messenger calls us to take risks.

Practicing resurrection, Philip listens to God’s messenger and travels on this wilderness road. And there on the margins, he meets the Ethiopian eunuch.

Why is the eunuch on this road? He’s been on the move, too. Not even yet a follower of the resurrected Jesus, he is nevertheless practicing resurrection. After all, the practice of resurrection is not limited to those who claim Christ. Practicing resurrection, he has sought to listen to God, to go and worship at God’s Temple in Jerusalem, even though this is not his religious tradition.

But, while in Jerusalem, he has run into and experienced something of the powers of death. He is a eunuch, after all, and the law, in Deuteronomy 23:1, was clear: “No man who is wounded in the testicles, or whose private member is cut off, shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” This kept him from entering the Temple.

What kept him from the Temple is what keeps some people outside many Christian churches even today: he is declared by a passage in the Hebrew Scriptures to be outside the boundaries of what is considered normal gender and a normal sexual role. In the ancient world, eunuchs were viewed much as homosexuals are today, as outside the norm in terms of gender and sexuality. So, just as homosexuals today are denied full inclusion in most churches, the Ethiopian eunuch is denied entrance to the Temple.

But remember, he is practicing resurrection. So he will not let being turned away from the Temple make him give up on God. He will not let the powers of death turn him away from the Source of Life. He will not let one reading of a part of Scripture turn him away from the Word of God.

So when Philip, on the move practicing resurrection, meets up with the Ethiopian eunuch, also on the move practicing resurrection, Philip finds him reading the Prophet Isaiah. And Isaiah is a prophet who certainly pointed to and practiced resurrection. He knew and proclaimed that God’s grace is not limited to a particular people. This probably appealed to the Ethiopian eunuch.

Moreover, Isaiah shares a vision of a new creation, a time when all will gather to worship God together, when the lion and the lamb will lie down together, when justice replaces hatred and harm. This probably appealed to the Ethiopian eunuch.

And, even more, for Isaiah, true worship is not defined by gender or sexuality or ritual purity; it is defined by inclusivity, welcome and justice. This must have appealed to the Ethiopian eunuch given his experience in Jerusalem.

Joy in the Good News

But what is he reading from Isaiah? It is a difficult passage, for it speaks of death and the power of death. “He was led as a sheep to the slaughter…. In his humiliation his justice was taken away…. For his life is taken from the earth.”

Perhaps the Ethiopian saw something of his own experience in Jerusalem in this passage. And he wants to know, who is this passage about?

And here another important part of practicing resurrection comes into view: it requires community. Philip asks the Ethiopian, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Yes, we need each other to practice resurrection; we need each other’s experience and wisdom. We need a faith community to guide us and listen to our experiences.

Philip reflects this faith community in action as he shares “the good news about Jesus.” The passage in Isaiah is about Jesus and how he is killed.

But the good news that Philip shares is that Jesus is risen. And that is good news for the eunuch, because the powers of sin and death, the powers of exclusion and domination, are defeated. The powers that use one’s sexuality to deny one’s relationship with God are rejected.

And so the Ethiopian responds with joy, “Look, here is some water; is there any reason why I should not be baptized now?”

Philip doesn’t answer by quoting Deuteronomy 23:1. He answers by going into the water with him and baptizing him.

In this baptism resurrection is practiced, and the eunuch is fully affirmed and recognized as a member of the Jesus movement. And from this baptism both Philip and the Ethiopian continue to be on the move in the Spirit. They continue to practice resurrection. “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away suddenly” (he is off to other strange lands), and the eunuch “proceeded on his journey with a heart full of joy.”

As with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, our practice of resurrection requires that get up and go: go to the margins, go to the wilderness road, go to where God directs us. As with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, our practice of resurrection means we get up and go away from anything that seeks to divide us or harm us or humiliate us or deny us justice.

And finally, as with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, our practice of resurrection means that we keep going in joy, we keep sharing with one another the good news: Jesus is risen, the powers of sin and death are defeated, there is a new way of life, a way of peace, a way of justice, a way of joy, a way of courage and grace and hope, a way of resurrection.

Peter Gathje is a professor and assistant dean at Memphis Theological Seminary, a founder of Manna House, a place of hospitality in Memphis, and a longtime friend of the Open Door. This article is based on a sermon he preached at Prescott Baptist Church in Memphis last May.

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