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The Current Scriptural Schism in Christianity, or
What We Can Learn from the Story of the Ethiopian Eunuch
Larry Reimer
October 22, 2000

Similitude: One thing that resembles another; counterpart; facsimile; similarity; likeness; resemblance

Acts 8:26-40

Sandy and I had a wonderful time last week. We saw each of my sisters - Jean in Virginia Beach - and Jane in Massachusetts. We also attended the Yale Divinity School Convocation. This is an annual event where the heavy hitters of the biblical and theological world are invited to give major groundbreaking addresses. It was a very stimulating experience.

I am preaching this sermon today because all summer I watched as major denominations of the Christian Church refused to officially welcome gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual people into all arenas of fellowship and ministry.

A prominent minister in Gainesville, from of one of those denominations, said that while he was sympathetic with the plight of gay people, in the end, he had to stake his belief on the bible, on scripture. He believes, I think, that scripture ultimately forbids gay and lesbian sexuality.

When people say this, they are usually referring to what are known as "The Big Three": that is three passages in the bible clearly condemning sex with a person of the same gender. One passage is in the Old Testament, in Leviticus 18:22, saying essentially that if a man lies down with a man as with a woman, it is an abomination. Second, Leviticus 20 says those who do this shall be put to death. Third, in the New Testament, in Romans 1:26, Paul condemns those men and woman who give up natural intercourse for intercourse with their same gender.

Those three passages are the only unequivocally negative statements about same gender sex. If you want to be consistent in following the Old Testament passages, then you need to put gay people to death. And Paul, who thought all people were straight, was talking about straight people doing what was unnatural for them. The concept of homosexuality was not available to Paul's world. Thus, by his theory, people who were gay and forcing themselves into heterosexual behavior, would be doing what was unnatural to them.

The larger point here is how we use scripture in ways that are faithful to its intent and to our own integrity and faith journey. Remember that there are many passages from Leviticus and from Paul that we do not believe or follow.

This morning, I want to talk about this very strange story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, a scripture story I've heard interpreted in a number of ways. I thank Barbara Lundblad, a creative, dynamic, Lutheran pastor and author now professor of preaching at Union Seminary in New York, and the shining star of my week at Yale, for sharing her work on this passage.

How many of you remember hearing of this story? How many of you have ever heard a sermon on it?

The book of Acts describes the beginning of the Christian church. Luke wrote the book of Acts, the same person who also wrote, obviously, the gospel of Luke. Luke records experiences that happened to his friends and to him.

Our story begins when an angel directs the apostle Philip to go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Then in parenthesis we are told that this is a desert road. Remember that.

On this road Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch. This man was a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He was the Alan Greenspan of Ethiopia. And, we are told 6 times by Luke, he is a eunuch.

What exactly is a eunuch? He is a man who has been castrated. His testicles have been removed. There are two kinds of eunuchs, those castrated at birth and those castrated at the time of coming into their manhood. Eunuchs had three major roles. They were domestic servants and tutors. They were military officers. And they were given jobs in the government bureaucracy like this man in our story. Because they could not father children, rulers could trust that eunuchs would not seek hereditary power in these positions.

While they were entrusted with certain key positions by rulers, eunuchs were shunned by the rest of society. They were outcasts, both in ____________ and in appearance.

This eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship. He was a seeker. And he was returning home to Ethiopia in his chariot, reading, of all things, from the prophet Isaiah chapter 53, verses 7 and 8, which say "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."

Isaiah 53 is known as one of the suffering servant songs. Listen to how this passage begins. "He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering… Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows… He was wounded for our transgressions.. and by his bruises we are healed."

Now think of this eunuch from Ethiopia, who had come to Jerusalem to worship. Undoubtedly he was not allowed to enter the synagogue, because according to Leviticus 22, no one with crushed testicles was allowed to enter into the temple of the Lord. And then he reads this passage in Isaiah that speaks of how an outcast has been chosen and blessed by God.

Meanwhile the story says that God has sent Philip to join this man. The eunuch asks Philip who this person is that Isaiah writes about. The Jews had often interpreted this suffering servant to be a symbol of themselves as a people. Philip, maybe for the first time, says, this is a description of Jesus. I remember coming to the same conclusion about Martin Luther King, Jr., when I read this passage from Isaiah on the day King was assassinated.

Remember, Jesus was not mentioned or understood to be in this text. But suddenly Philip, a follower of Jesus, sees Jesus as the suffering servant in this scripture passage. It was like the moment Luke records of the risen Jesus explaining scripture to two people walking down the road to Emmaus.

And if we can assume that as Philip hopped in to the chariot to keep reading this passage with the eunuch, they came to Isaiah 56, which includes foreigners and eunuchs in the blessings of heaven. Specifically, Isaiah 56 reads: the "eunuchs who keep the sabbath and follow the covenant will have an everlasting name and blessing, better even than sons and daughters, an everlasting name that shall not be cut off."

Imagine how powerful these words were in a time when the whole promise of eternity hinged on sons and daughters, something a eunuch could never have. Now why in the world am I even preaching on this story today, let alone claiming to be excited about it? What does this story say to our time?

This text has become quite compelling to gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people even though it is not about homosexuality and the writer, Luke, didn't even know what homosexuality was.

The principle for understanding this passage as having to do with gay and lesbian sexuality is called "Similitude". Similitude: One thing that resembles another; counterpart; facsimile; similarity; likeness; resemblance.

By using similitude, one can find scripture that helps us understand God's welcome of gay and lesbian people. Look at the eunuch. He is a man who is seen as something other than a man by his culture. He has great responsibilities, for the whole treasury of his country, but he his still seen as something other, accepted as long as he stayed in his place. He is defined by his sexuality whether or not he was sexually active. Eunuchs, believe it or not, were constantly charged with sexual promiscuity. You can see that there is a similitude between this Eunuch's life and those who are seen as outside the realm of normal society as based on their sexuality alone.

The way Philip interprets Isaiah in the book of Acts gives us a model for interpreting scripture. When the Eunuch asks Philip who Isaiah was talking about, Philip doesn't read scripture literally saying Isaiah may have been talking about the military hero Cyrus, or maybe the Jewish community itself. Instead Philip sees a similarity, a similitude, between Isaiah's description of the suffering servant of God and Jesus. Philip is doing what we are all called to do, interpret a text, and let it come to life. And when Philip saw that text, he saw Jesus in it.

This is not the New Testament overcoming or contradicting the Old Testament. It's not the love of Jesus flattening the Jewish moral code. We can see that Isaiah had already included the outsider the eunuch in the love of God.

This principle of similitude, of looking at what the scripture is like today reminds us that church and scripture live by interpretation, not petrification. Acts 8 is a gift to all people by similitude.

Philip and Isaiah help the Eunuch see that Jesus was one like him, one without family or children, who was welcomed by God. Philip and Isaiah show the Eunuch that through people like Jesus and the Eunuch, God heals the rest of us. Philip and Isaiah and the Eunuch have uncovered a truth: that foreigners, eunuchs, all those broken into categories by human standards are all cherished in God's world.

So people who go back to those three anti-gay passages of scripture and say they must believe in them because they have been around so long are missing the major thesis of scripture altogether. If the bible teaches us anything, it is that longevity doesn't assure faithfulness. It is possible to be wrong for a long time.

If you remember anything today, remember that words written down ask us to see beyond the words written down. The spirit of God hovers over the words of scripture calling us to find more there than we had first imagined, not less.

And then, our story continues, "As they were going along the road, they came to some water…" Water? Remember earlier, this passage takes place along a desert road. Water is not common in the desert. This water may be a miracle. The Ethiopian eunuch says, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

Literally, Philip might have answered, "Everything. You haven't told me what you believe. You haven't been to baptismal classes. I'm not an ordained minister. I don't know how to baptize." Instead Philip must have answered, "What's to prevent us? Nothing. Last one in the water's a rotten egg."

Both Philip and this proud Ethiopian, keeper of the entire treasury of Candace of Ethiopia, jump in. Somehow God makes a river in the desert where there is no water, where all is parched and dry.

This is how we became an Open and Affirming Church. The spirit hovered over us, and suddenly made a river of flowing water in our midst - and we all jumped in - and in that river there is acceptance, there is grace, there is salvation.

So if anyone tells you that scripture forbids homosexuality, tell him or her that true scripture points to holy water where there was none. It welcomes strangers who have always been left out. And it heals us if we let it speak to what is most dearly on our hearts today.

On your way out today, stop at our gathered water in the foyer - and baptize yourself again. Give thanks that God's spirit flows here like a river, changing all of us, changing everything God touches.


Updated: date - hto