John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Inclusion of a Sexual Minority in the Family of God

InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

In Acts 8 we see the early church beginning to face persecution from a man named Saul, and the apostles are forced to move outward from Jerusalem. The Apostle Phillip is directed by a message from an angel to set out on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encounters a man who is outside of the parameters of acceptance into God’s people, according to Phillip’s Judaic upbringing.

This man is a sexual minority, a eunuch, who is also an Ethiopian. Males were commonly made into eunuchs for particular government roles to keep their loyalty undivided with a family, and this one was the royal treasurer. He had come on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, even though according to the Law he was prevented from being a part of worship due to his physical body.

“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
 — Deuteronomy 23:1

The blessings promised to a faithful Israel were described as the possession of land and the promise of descendants, consistent with ancient Near East cultural values. Yet being a eunuch meant that you had no descendants, and therefore no one to pass on your land to. You were quite literally cut off from the blessing of God (which also shows how painful infertility would be).

This very powerful individual, treasurer to the queen, made a pilgrimage in an upper class chariot all the way to Jerusalem (1,582 miles by air, 2,733 miles by foot according to Google Maps, maybe a two month-long journey), only to be excluded from worship.

Note that we don’t know exactly how this person is a eunuch, since Jesus referred to those who are born, made, and choose to be eunuchs as all under that label. But it’s likely given the man’s position that he has been made a eunuch surgically.

Phillip is compelled by the Spirit to approach the eunuch’s chariot, and as he does so he hears him reading from the book of Isaiah:

“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people.”
 — Isaiah 53:7-8 (NRSV)
“like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?”
 — Isaiah 53:7-8 (ESV)

Phillip asks him if he understands the passage, and the reply is “How could I, unless I have someone to guide me?”. The eunuch urges Phillip to join him and explain what he is reading. He asks: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34).

Why might this eunuch be so interested in this particular passage from the Prophets? 

Maybe the language of shearing and being cut off would resonate with him. The passage speaks of one who has his future taken away (no progeny?), in a perversion of justice. Maybe he would identify and relate to this imagery in a deep way, and wonder who the prophet could possibly be referring to in such validating language: “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;” (Isaiah 53:12)

Phillip takes this cue to relay the gospel of Jesus. Here we see a man who was rejected by his people, stripped and humiliated, cut and wounded with scars that do not fade, one without physical descendants.

As they go along, the eunuch spots some water and asks:

“Look, here is water! 
What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Can you imagine that question being asked in a trembling, insecure voice? As from one who is desperate to be included, yet knows that tradition and Scripture are against him as both a foreigner and a eunuch. He had just returned from Jerusalem where he would have been denied entrance into worship. As an Ethiopian he would have been limited to the Courts of the Gentiles, yet as a eunuch even that would have been denied to him. After a two-month journey of devotion, he would have been forced to stare into the temple in longing, but feeling rejected by the God he was pursuing.

Author Brian McLaren, from whom I first heard this application, paraphrases the man’s question:

“I have just been rejected and humiliated in Jerusalem, but you have told me of a man who, like me, has no physical descendants, a scarred and wounded man who like me has been humiliated and rejected. Is there a place for me in his kingdom, even though I have an unchangeable condition that was condemned forever by the sacred Jewish Scriptures?”
 — Brian McLaren, “A New Kind of Christianity” p 183

Phillip’s reaction in the text is breathtaking in its simplicity and audacity. As the horses are pulled to a stop in swirling dust and creaking of wood and leather, he answers not a word, but immediately leads the eunuch into the water to be baptized in equality before God.

They emerge dripping into a Spirit-filled new reality. Phillip is whisked away to the seashore by the Spirit of the Lord while the eunuch boards his chariot for home, rejoicing in this amazing and unexpected inclusion into the family of God.

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
    “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
    “I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
    a monument and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that shall not be cut off.
— Isaiah 56:3-5

Photo credit: "Priest at Ientelos Iesus on Lake Tana, Ethiopia" — SarahTz on Flickr