Some people call them "thin places," locations where the gulf between heaven and earth narrows and we fully sense God's presence. Many people find these thin places in nature. Others discover them in the familiarity of a favorite book, a worshiping community, or a touching song. Though these thin places are inherently unpredictable, we can aid in their creation. Like Philip in Acts 8, we can run to join what the Spirit is already making possible.
Taking A Chance
Philip did not know what to expect next. An angel of the Lord had told him to take a certain road, "a wilderness road" from Jerusalem to Gaza. Without protest, without questioning, Philip "got up and went" (Acts 8:27).
What did Philip expect to find on that wilderness road? He already had been involved in several unexpected Spirit-filled moments. In Samaria, when Philip preached about Jesus, people were miraculously healed of their diseases. Even a local magician, amazed at the great power of Peter's holy signs and miracles, asked to be baptized.
What holy surprise would be next for Philip? He did not know, but already he had been primed to expect new and wondrous works of God.
Walking down that wilderness road, we might imagine Philip's frame of mind to be similar to someone today anticipating a flash mob or Occupy protest. Often protests and other out of the ordinary events catch us off guard and cause us to reassess our world as it is. The comedy group Improv Everywhere specializes in creating these novel spaces, glimpses of another way of seeing and living.
As Peter makes his way down the road contemplating what might be next, another character appeared, odd and surprising in his own right: the Ethiopian eunuch.
What? A Eunuch!
Bible commentators disagree as to which aspects of the Ethiopian eunuch's character are most noteworthy. Some argue that racial ethnic background would not have been an issue for Philip; it is only modern readers who assume race plays a major role. Others explain class would have functioned as a major distinguishing factor. The Ethiopian eunuch rode a chariot, was in charge of the queen's treasury, and had in his possession a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This was not some peasant hoofing it home from a factory job, but a high government official riding in a Bentley.
So yes, he was from Ethiopia and wealthy, but we cannot forget that he was also a eunuch. In fact, Luke, the writer, calls him "the eunuch" five times!
A eunuch is a human male who has been castrated. Most often, this happened before puberty. Because of their lack of testosterone, eunuchs were seen as fit for attending female royalty. At several points in the Old Testament, eunuchs are banned from entering the temple (Deuteronomy 23:1, Leviticus 21:17-21). Though he was wealthy and relatively powerful, due to his sexual situation, the Ethiopian eunuch was most certainly understood as an outsider.
When prompted by the Spirit, Philip immediately ran to the eunuch's chariot. When he caught up to it, surely gasping for breath, Philip overheard the Ethiopian eunuch reading aloud from the prophet Isaiah.
"Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked the eunuch.
"How can I, unless someone guides me?" he responded (Acts 8:31-32).
If you were Philip, at that point, what would you have done? He was on a wilderness road talking to a foreign rich guy with no testicles about complex Biblical exegesis. I surely would have done my best to avoid the conversation in the first place, but were I invited to start the Bible study, I would have tried to change the subject. Not Philip, though. He responded brilliantly.
Philip explained how he understood the Isaiah passage was connected to the story of Jesus. And when the Ethiopian eunuch understood and believed, Philip embraced a strange situation that was turning even stranger.
When he saw some water, the Ethiopian eunuch asked if there was anything that might prevent Philip from baptizing him. And, of course there was! They were in the middle of nowhere, the eunuch was not welcome in the temple, he had just heard about Jesus, he was from another country, he obviously needed help to understand scripture, and, oh yeah, he was a eunuch -- one of "those people."
But none of these reasons gave Philip any pause. He baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Right then. Right there. And the Spirit, obviously pleased, came and took Philip away as "the eunuch went on his way rejoicing" (8:39).
Embracing The Chance To Be Different
A friend of mine gives away bumper stickers of a favorite phrase of his: "Keep Church Weird." By that my friend means church -- or any gathering recognizing God's lovely, strange people -- is a place where we might break out of our ordinary expected un-weird culture and be, well, weird.
Those Improv Everywhere participants -- weird! Those Occupy protesters -- weird! Artists, community activists and politicians who refuse to accept the status quo -- weird! Religious folks like those organizing the Wild Goose Festival 2012 -- definitely weird!
And Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, most certainly, were open to the Spirit moving in weird ways neither of them could have ever predicted.
Last week an estimated 40,000 Norwegians gathered in an Oslo square to drown out the message of mass-murderer Anders Behring Breivik with a song. Together they sang "Children of the Rainbow" by Norwegian folk singer Lillebjoern Nilsen, an adaptation of Pete Seeger's song "My Rainbow Race."
At his trial, Brejvik described Nilsen as "a very good example of a Marxist," brainwashing Norwegians with a chorus that sings: "Together, we will live, each sister and each brother, small children of the rainbow and a green earth." Yvonne Haugen, an Oslo resident, tweeted of the protest, "Norway could easily react with hatred, but instead [we] choose to sing about children, rainbows & solidarity."
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch would have been quite proud of that gathering in the Oslo square; it was a weird, Spirit-filled scene.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.