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The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch

Or the Conversion of Phillip?

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

New Testament Reading: Acts 8:26-40

For Sunday, May 6, 2012 Year B—Easter 5

In my childhood Bible, this text was titled “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.” I was always told that the message of this text was that we should tell everyone we meet about Jesus because in doing so we might save them. We might convert them. We might change them into being us.

But today I’m not so sure.

Stuart

One Sunday a few years back, my parishioner Stuart showed up to liturgy wearing slacks and button down shirt rather than his iconic Grease Monkey jacket and jeans.

Earlier that day he had stood as godfather and baptismal sponsor for the child of his friends, a straight couple who have known Stuart for a number of years.

Apparently, after the baptism, there was a little reception back at this couple’s house. To Stuart’s surprise his friends got all of their guest’s attention so they could say a few words about why they had chosen Stuart as their child’s godparent.

“We chose you Stuart,” they said, “because for most of your life you have pursued Christ and Christ’s church even though, as a gay man, all you’ve heard from the church is that ‘there is no love for you here.’”

Being Converted—Again and Again

I heard that story as his friends saying to him “you, Stuart, convert us again and again to this faith”

This is what makes me wonder if this text was mis-titled in my Bible. Because if the Eunuch was reading Isaiah as he returned from Jerusalem having gone there to worship, then I would bet he was also familiar with Deuteronomy, specifically 23:1—“No one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (otherwise known as the very best memory verse ever).

This law strictly forbids a Eunuch from entering the assembly of the Lord. Their transgression of gender binaries and the inability to fit in proper categories made them profane by nature. They do not fit. But despite the fact that in all likelihood he would be turned away by the religious establishment, the Ethiopian Eunuch sought God anyway.

I wonder if, when the Spirit guided Phillip to that road in the desert, if she guided him to his own conversion.

The Hardest Question

Here’s the hardest question for me about this text: When Phillip joined this person who sought to worship God despite his exclusion, was it perhaps Phillip himself who was converted to the faith?

Was it perhaps even a mutual conversion? Maybe because they simply asked each other questions in the desert.

Look at the text again—the only imperatives came from the Holy Spirit. Phillip and the Eunuch only asked each other questions. The only command came from God and the command was go and join.

Go and join the other.

What we don’t know is if the Spirit also gave the Eunuch a command to invite. Invite this nice Jewish boy—representative of all that clings to the law and rejects you from God’s house. Invite him to sit by you.

Go…join…invite…ask questions.

Did Phillip, in his encounter with this gender transgressive foreigner, perhaps learn what seeking the Lord looks like?


Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. Nobody really believes she’s an ordained pastor in the ELCA. Maybe it’s the sleeve tattoos or the fact that she swears like a truck driver. Either way…she’s fine with it. Nadia lives in Denver with her family of four. She is the author of Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television (Seabury, 2008) and blogs at www.sarcasticlutheran.com and www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber . Connect with Nadia’s latest project, animate | FAITH, by going to http://www.facebook.com/AnimateSeries

Comments

  1. Scott McInnis says:

    I’m a very compassionate conservative that struggles with condoning homosexuality. Your thoughts on this weeks lesson….. have really impacted me. Very good stuff. A much better conversation to have than yes or no to homosexuality. Thank you.

  2. Michelle says:

    Stuart converted me, too. Last summer at Wild Goose.

    http://www.chewingonit.blogspot.com/2011/06/pondering-doxasoma-and-communion.html

  3. Scott McInnis says:

    Thank you Michelle.

  4. Kyn Barker says:

    Good…that it is Philip who is converted turns inside out the preliminary draft for my sermon this week. Easiest to think that Philip (and I) can find all the answers just by looking. Good that there is time yet before Sunday….

  5. Renee says:

    Just looked at your post, and I was starting to think along the same lines – here’s the guy who will never get into the temple blowing all of Philip’s worldviews to pieces.

    Thanks!

  6. Sue Whitt says:

    Or perhaps Philip was familiar with Isaiah 56:3-5 in which the Lord extends the covenant to foreigners and eunuchs

  7. Jason Guthaus says:

    Great insights on this passage! It’s very interesting that you point out that the only imperative comes from the Holy Spirit in this case. The traditional understanding of this simply being the conversion of the Eunuch only, as you indicated most of our childhood Bible’s would have eluded to, is certainly the “safe” reading of the text. I think by sticking with the “safe” reading, we are missing out on so much of what might really be happening in this story! There is so much of the conversation between Philip and the Eunuch that must have taken place that we don’t read. I agree that it’s very possible that Philip had some kind of conversion as well. I could see there being more to the conversation in verse 31, after the Eunuch’s reply and Philip being invited into the chariot, as well as Philip beginning a portion of the conversation in verse 35 and the two of them continuing as they traveled “along the road” in verse 36.

    Despite the the position of the church at the time, according to the text from Deuteronomy, the Holy Spirit sent Philip over to be included with him in his worship as the Eunuch read the text and to share in conversion with him. We can see this as an example of the Holy Spirit tearing down walls of separation based on gender/gender roles/gender stereotypes, something that many in the church today struggle with. We also see that it’s not just the traditional view of what Philip had to offer, it was also about the Eunuch and his invitation to Philip. Without the Eunuch’s invitation to climb aboard, Philip might still be running next to the chariot! Indeed, everyone has something to offer, no matter the barriers and stereotypes that may be present.

  8. The Rev Ken Hitch says:

    Amazing. Simply amazing. Thank you for sharing. You are a gift! Blessings.

  9. Brian Stoffregen says:

    I believe the same kind of “conversion” happens in Acts 10 — Peter (and those with him) go through more of a conversion than the Gentile Cornelius and his household. In fact, the Spirit takes extraordinary steps to change Peter — three visions, and the Gentile pentecost experience — where the Spirit-led speaking in tongues interrupts Peter’s sermon (see 10:44).

    Even after this, the Jewish believers in Jerusalem still had a difficult time with the Gentiles and their foods. They criticize Peter for eating with the uncircumcised (Acts 11:3).

    Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit pushes the believers beyond boundaries that they had set.

  10. The Working Preacher write-up for this story points out that Philip had, only two chapters earlier in Acts, been among the seven apostles designated for a ministry of feeding widows. This suggests that he should not even have been out doing the work of evangelism, that it wasn’t in his official job description, that the Spirit pulled him into this story quite unexpectedly. Philip was called to leave his important work at home, as designated by his co-apostles, to set out on a wilderness road for this very different adventure.

  11. I absolutely love this. I feel as if I know so many who have lived it.

  12. Peggy says:

    This is definitely a story about 2 people in relationship having a “Christ” experience. There are a number of clues that signal the presence of Christ in this relational event. Philip was in the wilderness, i.e. he was lost in some way, having a dry spiritual period. He meets this man who is willing to learn and grow and gain a new perspecitve. Philip is directed by an angel and the spirit togo to Gaza and to appraoch the Ethiopian. The Ethiopian offers Philip hospitality “he invited Philip to get in.” They read the prophet Is together. The topic of Jesus is covered and a baptism (a new perspective, new life, new consciousness) is attained. Ah! Then the spirit of the Lord ‘snatched Philip away.’ Where have you heard that before? Elijah? The Emmaus road story? Whenever Christ – the enlighted mind – is near, it disappears quickly. Our moments of enlightened consciousness, unity in God, Christ-mindedness, mystical experience – call it what you will, are fleeting, but nonetheless life changing. Philip brought the UNCONDITIONAL love of Christ in obedience to the spirit and so did the Eunich is his open heart of receiving it. Christ was in the relationship with/for both. Great story!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] the end of the story, the eunuch comes to believe in Jesus and is baptized. But this week my friend Nadia Bolz-Weber posed the provocative question: is it the eunuch that is converted here, or is it Philip, or [...]

  2. [...] [1] The Hardest Question, “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch” http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/easter5nt-2/ [...]

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