Many people I know, and I guess I’m the person I know best, live with a sense that there are lots of things they just can’t do or will never do and all sorts of reasons and forces preventing them from being what God might want them to be. We might think we live in freedom, but every day we find ways to tell ourselves that there are reasons why things have to stay as they are. I’ve heard people say so many times, ‘People don’t change do they..?’, or perhaps ‘I know I’ll never get over this’ or even ‘This is just how it’s got to be, I suppose.’ And I don’t mean things like being five foot two or having bad skin or needing lots of sleep, but things like being kinder to people, things like getting closer to God, or being a bit more Christ-like. There are some things where instead of saying ‘I’m stuck like this..’, we might begin to say, ‘What’s to prevent me?’ There are some things where instead of believing things couldn’t be different, we could trust God to change us and save us and help us.
And I’ve been thinking about this because that’s the kind of change that the man in the Bible story set for today actually made. He thought he was stuck with being an outsider, with being someone others had made him, a man in the wilderness of life, on the edge. But he found a way, on the desert road, to the water, to the water of life. He finally said, ‘What’s to prevent me… from being baptized?’ And he did it.
But let’s hear his story, because it’s a fascinating one. It’s not going to be quite the same as any of our stories, but I think there is a way that his story can reveal something even to us.
The man in the story was a eunuch, and he was from Ethiopia – or somewhere that was called Ethiopia then. And he was on his way back from a pilgrimage he had made to Jerusalem, sitting in his carriage reading aloud (as people did in those days) from a book called Isaiah that he was bringing back with him. We don’t know his name, but we know that he was an important man with an important job. He was something like the chancellor of the exchequer to the Queen of a country that was probably somewhere near where Sudan is today. He was African. He was good with money, with accounts and fiscal policy. And he was a eunuch. Eunuchs were (let’s not be shy) men who were castrated so they could be useful servants without any risk to the women of the court. He was a man without family, without children, who could devote himself to his work. But the story tells us that he had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to worship there – so he must have been at the very least sympathetic to the Jewish tradition. This was a long journey. There were no Easyjet flights and it would have taken weeks to get from the court of his Queen to Jerusalem… and then back again. He must have had some kind of extended leave. And he was using this leave to go and worship in Jerusalem. But the strange thing is that when he got to Jerusalem he wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the Temple courts. He would have had to wait outside while others went in. He would have got no further than the first gateway. And if you want to know why that was so, then you have to open your Bible at Deuteronomy 23:1. You can look it up in the pews to save me having to read it out. It’s a verse that might make the eyes of the men here water… Whether it was his clothes or his higher than normal voice, the Temple priests would have seen that he wasn’t like all other men and they would have stopped him coming in. He could have found the money to pay any entry fee they asked on his salary, but it would have made no difference. Eunuchs don’t get to come in, don’t get to worship God in the holy place. He must have known this, I imagine, before he set off, so perhaps he was somehow content with just hovering around the edges, watching the people who could go in, shopping for scrolls in the ‘book’ shops, just soaking up the atmosphere in Jerusalem. He would have been someone used to being not quite the same as everyone else. And perhaps he simply accepted that this is how things were. Deuteronomy 23:1. There were many things to prevent him going into the Temple. Perhaps he was all but Jewish, perhaps he was a Jewish sympathizer, a follower of the Jewish faith, but he wasn’t allowed in – that’s just how it was if you were a eunuch.
But then on the way home, on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza, he reads the scroll he’s bought in the market and someone asks him whether he understands it. He decides to take up the offer of some expert help and asks about the meaning of some verses from the scroll. There’s a verse about a lamb being led to the slaughter (and he must have seen some of that at the Temple) but then he asks about a verse that says,
‘In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’
He wants to know whether the prophet is writing about himself or someone else. Which, I imagine, is a way of saying, ‘I know what that feels like… that verse speaks to me.’ The African eunuch knows something about humiliation. He knows what it’s like to be sneered at by men who are whole, by men with deep voices and a houseful of children. He knows what it’s like to be refused entry to the Temple he had travelled hundreds of miles to see. He knows what it’s like to have no generations of children and grandchildren to follow him. He knows what it’s like to have his life, his virility, his future, taken away. He knows what that feels like. He knows what that’s like.
And then, the story tells us, Philip tells him the good news about Jesus. Wouldn’t it be great to know exactly what Philip said, to know precisely what good news Philip judged the eunuch needed to hear. But I think we can imagine. I think we can reconstruct it from what we know of Jesus. We can imagine, I can imagine, that Philip told him about the Jesus who welcomed those that many thought impure or damaged or not fit. I can imagine that Philip told him about the Jesus who welcomed those who had physical and mental problems, people who were not perfect specimens, and the Jesus who turned over the tables in the Temple and called for it to become a house of prayer for all nations. I can imagine Philip told him that when Jesus died the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, as though God was saying that there should be no barriers any more. I can imagine that Philip told him about the Jesus who went and pulled people even out of the graves and lifted them with him into a new and risen life. I can imagine he told Philip about when Jesus said that it’s what’s in our hearts that makes us who we are and not what our bodies are like.
And then, when this wounded, cut and castrated man had heard the Gospel, he said, ‘What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ There were things that prevented him from going into the Temple, things that prevented him from making a sacrifice there or offering his prayers or mixing with other worshippers. There were things that prevented him having children, or having a partner, having a family. But, what was to prevent him being baptized? He saw some water, right there in the desert wilderness. And he and Philip got out of the carriage. And he was baptized. There was nothing, nothing to prevent him being baptized. There was nothing.
It’s fascinating that in some versions of this story, in some of the manuscripts of Acts 8, a scribe has added that the eunuch said ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’ before he was baptized – there’s an added bit at verse 37. As though there must have been something that he needed to do to be baptized, as though there could have been something to prevent it. But in the oldest texts, in the first telling of this story, there is nothing, nothing to prevent him being baptized. This gender fluid servant of an African queen, this mutilated man, this foreigner from far away, this pilgrim from another world, this man who wrestled to understand the words of the prophet, there was nothing to prevent him being baptized. And there the story ends – and Philip and the eunuch go their different ways.
It’s a great story. Even the Gospel reading today seems to go against its quite radical message. The Gospel of John seems to say that the community of Christ is like a vine and that unfruitful branches will be pruned, cut away. But in this story, a human being who has been cruelly cut so that he can’t be fruitful, he is baptized and becomes part of the community. There was nothing, nothing, to prevent him being baptized.
So, I wonder how this story can speak to us, to you, today. What can it say to us when we have become used to things being as they are, when we are tempted to think that we are stuck in life’s groove, that we can live with all of life’s compromises and lowered expectations, that we have settled for what we think must be inevitable. We often say ‘There’s nothing I can do’ or, ‘ That’s just how it is’. But perhaps we could begin to say something else instead. We could begin to say, ‘What is to prevent me…. growing in faith… becoming more loving… being saved…. being baptized…letting God transform my life and the life of the world around me.. ?’
What is to prevent me… what is to prevent us… being washed clean, starting again, being raised from the deathly life we’ve got to used to…What is to prevent it..? There are many things that assail our lives. And we do not have perfect freedom to choose what happens to us. But there is nothing to prevent us being lifted up by God to a new and risen life, a life that can face whatever comes because we know, at last, that God loves us and walks with us and finds us the precious water of life, even on the desert road.
In one episode of Simon Schama’s brilliant TV series, The Story of the Jews, he meets Joshua Nelson, an African-American Jew who sings something called Kosher Gospel music – combining the sounds of Gospel music and Jewish Klezmer. It’s wonderful. And it reminded me of this African eunuch. He makes me think too of that old chestnut story about Sammy Davis Junior who was once asked by Jack Benny, on a golf course, what his handicap was. ‘Handicap?’, he said. ‘Talk about handicap. I’m a one-eyed black Jew.’ (or words to that effect). The Ethiopian eunuch was an African Jewish proselyte who had been castrated. He might have had a good job at the court of a queen, but there was plenty that was hard about his life. But there was nothing to prevent him finding new life in the desert. And the offer of new life is there too in every desert place of our lives. God is opening up the way to eternal life. And there is nothing to prevent you saying ‘yes’! Not because you are strong and can be brave, but because of what God never stops offering and giving. May you find that this is your story too. Amen.