The story does not begin with Philip. It does not begin with the Ethiopian eunuch. It does not begin with Isaiah or baptism. It begins with God. It begins with these words: “An angel of the Lord said to Philip: ‘Get up and go ...’”
God is the story’s protagonist, initiator and hero. It begins with God whose messenger instructs Philip: “Get up and go ... go toward the south ... to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.”
There is no reason given. It is no polite invitation: “Philip, the Lord and I wonder if we might trouble you to get up and go ...” No, this a divine command, an order from God. Philip, God bless him, gets up and goes.
No sooner does Philip get up and go then he chances upon an Ethiopian eunuch. Say what? An Ethiopian eunuch! What are the chances? How often do you come across one of those?
What’s more: this isn’t just any Ethiopian eunuch. This Ethiopian eunuch is a dignitary, a highly placed court official, in charge of the Queen’s entire treasury.
Here is what else we can surmise about this exotic personage whose name, by the way, we will never know. As an Ethiopian he speaks both Cushitic and Aramaic. As a highly placed official concerned with finances, with trade and politics, it is all but certain he speaks Greek and Latin. We are told he is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, so we know, 1) he can read, and 2), he can read Hebrew. If he can read Hebrew, it is a safe bet he reads Cushitic, Aramaic, Greek and Latin as well.
No, this is not your every day, run-of-the-mill Ethiopian eunuch.
This educated and exotic personage, this man of wealth and reputation undertook a dangerous, laborious, inconvenient journey of months—from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. Why? The text is clear. The Ethiopian eunuch is not on business. This is a personal undertaking, a pilgrimage. He has undertaken this journey and this expense to worship in Jerusalem.
He has traveled some 2000 miles to Jerusalem. If his entourage travels 30 miles a day, it is more than a two month undertaking, one way. Four months round trip, minimum.
Two months ago, he and his entourage started out. Heading north they following the White Nile, then the Blue Nile. They passed through the trade city of Khartoum and bore the winds and the sands of the Nubian Desert. Picking up the Great Nile they followed it to its source. Then, last but by no means least, they negotiated the great wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula before finally arriving, sun-burnt, dusty and weary, at their destination: Jerusalem.
Here is the terrible and painful, shameful truth at the finale of this arduous pilgrimage. When they arrive in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian eunuch—he who has undertaken this great journey for the express purpose of worshipping at the Temple—will be barred from entrance. They will not let him in.
His charioteer and livery: they are allowed to enter. His scribe and valet: they may enter to worship. But not this highly situated, wealthy, erudite, cosmopolitan, God-fearing court official. He is prevented from entering the Temple because he is a eunuch.
The Bible 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 marred, damaged.
Nevertheless, from the outside, the Ethiopian eunuch takes it all in. He takes in the marble and the statues, the musicians and the priests, the pilgrims and the merchants, the aromas and the colors. He drinks it in. It is as close as he will ever come to the presence of the living God.
While in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian eunuch purchases a pearl of great price, a true treasure: a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This is no small purchase; perhaps today’s equivalent of traveling to London to purchase a Jaguar. Such a scroll is the painstaking handiwork of a scholar-artist.
When we meet him, when Philip “happens” upon him, the Ethiopian eunuch is headed south, en route back to Ethiopia. He is embarked upon the long journey home. He is bouncing along in the back of a canopied chariot, surrounded by his entourage and he is reading aloud from his luxurious new purchase. He is reading aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Philip approaches. Without so much as a word of greeting or introduction Philip asks: “Sir: do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian Eunuch understands this: he understands that Isaiah is talking about someone not unlike himself: a person who has been harmed and humiliated.
Hungrily he turns to Philip, asking: “Who is this person about whom Isaiah is speaking?”
Then and there Philip pours out the story of Jesus. He tells this man who is prevented from entering the Temple that all are welcome at Christ’s table. What’s more, says Philip, the waters of baptism are a healing and an equalizing agent.
The story of Jesus pours out of Philip. It fills the hole in the Eunuch’s aching heart.
The eunuch sees some water. “Look!” he cries, “there is some water.” And then, challenging Philip, putting Philip’s Jesus to the test, the eunuch asks: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Nothing. Not one thing.
Philip tells him that in the waters of baptism there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, royalty nor commoner, male nor female, eunuch nor non-eunuch. Philip explains to the Ethiopian that the waters of Christian baptism are thicker than blood ... and that they wash away the wounds and the damage; they make us whole, render us clean, and make us one.
Do you remember who devised this story? Do you remember the one who initiated these unlikely encounters? Do you remember who it was who carefully orchestrated the meeting of Philip and the Ethiopian, who supplied the water at just the right moment? God.
God is the protagonist and hero. God is the author of this great project in diversity and hospitality, in welcome and in kindness, in equality and unity, that lies at the heart and center of Christianity.
It wasn’t that the early Christians stumbled on their own upon the idea of evangelizing Gentiles. The first century male followers of Jesus didn’t reason their way to respecting, loving and caring for women and children, orphans and widows. It was God. It wasn’t Philip’s idea to evangelize eunuchs. Not any more than it was Moses’ idea to free slaves. This is God’s doing. God is the hero of this Christian story.
Centuries later, others from Africa were led like sheep to the slaughter of slavery. They, too, experienced humiliation and were denied justice.
But like the Ethiopian eunuch, they too got hold of the scriptures. There they read stories of freedom. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, they too, asked for baptism. Indeed, they demanded baptism: the healing and equalizing waters of Christian baptism.
On Sunday, August 8, 1736 an enslaved black man named Scipio “owned the baptismal covenant” and was baptized, right here, in this house. Four years later he was admitted as a full member, with all the rights, responsibilities and privileges pertaining thereto.
Like sheep he too had been led to the slaughter of slavery, to the unrequited toil. In his humiliation justice was denied him. But by the waters of baptism, measures of dignity and equality were restored to him. These were restored to him not, let’s be clear, by the agency of his white Protestant sisters and brothers, but by the agency of God ... by the authority of the Bible ... by the authority of the waters of baptism.
On a Sunday in August of 1771, a young woman, a poetess, also stolen from Africa, also enslaved, came here for Christian baptism. It is no coincidence that in her poetry, this astute young woman described herself, not as black or African, but as Ethiopian. She knew her Bible!
Phillis Wheatley’s owners, John and Susanna Wheatley, were members of a different church. Yet, the eighteen-year-old poetess chose to be united with this church.
Why this church? Possibly because Old South baptized and welcomed into membership more people who had been stolen from Africa—they and their children—than any other church in Boston in the 18th century.
Why? How? They pointed to God: the protagonists and hero of this story. They said to the deniers and critics: don’t look at us. It’s right here in the Bible!
Notes & Sources
Ethiopia in the Bible: Sheba, who visited with Solomon, was believed to have been Queen of Ethiopia (1 Kings 10) Moses married an Ethiopian (Num 21.1) Ethiopia shall stretch out her hands to God. (Psalm 68.31) An Ethiopian eunuch is baptized. (Acts 8. 26f)
African American and Indian Church Affiliation: Old South Church in Boston, by Richard J. Boles, (2012) the George Washington University
“In every Breast, God has implanted a Principle which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance; and by the Leave of our modern Egyptians I will assert, that the same Principle lives in us.” –from a 1774 letter by Phillis Wheatley
From Phillis Wheatley; Biography of a Genius in Bondage, by Vincent Carretta (p. 57) “... appropriating the term ‘Ethiopians’ does much more than simply reveal Wheatley’s complexion, ethnicity, and probably status to her readers. By calling herself an Ethiopian rather than an African or a black in a religious poem, she claims an identity that grants her biblical authority to speak to her readers. Wheatley surely expected her readers to recall that Moses had married and Ethiopian (Numbers 21.1), and that Psalms 68.31 predicts that “Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands to God.”
Must Ethiopians be employ’d for you?
Much I rejoice if any good I do.
I ask O unbeleiver, Satan’s child
Hath not thy Saviour been too much revil’d
Th’ auspicious rays that round his temples shine
Do still declare him to be Christ divine
-from Deism, poem by Phillis Wheatley
New England first a wilderness was found
Till for a continent 'twas destin'd round
From feild to feild the savage monsters run
E'r yet Brittania had her work begun
Thy Power, O Liberty, makes strong the weak
And (wond'rous instinct) Ethiopians speak
Sometimes by Simile, a victory's won
A certain lady had an only son
-from America, poem by Phillis Wheatley
Sermon delivered at Old South Church's 57th Founders' Day Service at the Old South Meeting House.