Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2nd, 2021

Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 2nd, 2021

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40
Rev. Phil Schmidt

There has been a lot of talk about how the pandemic has enhanced loneliness and isolation. However, loneliness and isolation had reached epidemic levels long before corona. In 2018 an international health organization did a survey among 20,000 adults in the US. 46% felt alone – either sometimes or always.

Administrators of one of the largest hospitals in America discovered that loneliness was a major reason for overcrowded emergency rooms. Parkland Hospital of Dallas, Texas, identified eighty patients who went to four emergency rooms 5,139 times in a twelve-month period, costing the system more than $14 million. Once they identified the names of these repeat visitors, they commissioned teams to meet with them and determine the reason. Their conclusion? Loneliness. Loneliness causes acute symptoms, and in an emergency room lonely people found attention, kindness, and care.

The situation in the UK is similar. In 2018 the government of Theresa May actually established a Minister of Loneliness. That is the official title: “Minister of Loneliness”.
About 2 million people over the age of 75 in England reported that they go weeks without any meaningful social interaction.

I think that loneliness is the background to today’s reading from the book of Acts. The Ethiopian eunuch might well be another example of isolation and what it can lead to.

The word “eunuch” is not a precise term in the Bible. The usual meaning is that a man has been castrated, which could happen when he became a servant to a ruler. Castration was a way of making a man subservient and non-threatening to the women of a royal household. In the Bible, the term eunuch could also refer to a person who by means of a birth defect or a disability was incapable of producing children.

As a working definition we can say that a eunuch was a person who would never marry and could never have children. A eunuch had to reckon that he would die a lonely death. The focus of the reading from Acts was “an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the … queen of the Ethiopians”. What the Bible calls Ethiopia was located in what is today Southern Egypt and Sudan. This means that the Ethiopian eunuch traveled at least 3,000 kilometers round-trip when he made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Apparently, he traveled alone without a companion.

It seems to me that he had to be desperate to undergo a journey of 3,000 kilometers – which included desert wilderness – in order to worship in Jerusalem. If he was a eunuch because of castration or if he was a non-Jew, he would have been prohibited from worshipping at the temple as part of a congregation. The book of Deuteronomy states clearly that eunuchs “shall not enter the assembly of the LORD”. At the huge temple plaza in Jerusalem, which offers space for 400,000 people, there was a barrier around the temple which kept all non-Jews and other outsiders a safe distance from the temple – which means, far enough away so that they could not contaminate the holiness of the house of God. If the Ethiopian had tried to cross this barrier he would have committed a violation which was punishable by death.

It would have been like wanting to enter a church to worship with a congregation and being told: you have to stay outside and you are not allowed to stand near the church because we regard you as a contamination, but you may look at the church from a distance. We have here a preview of what would happen to black people in America and South Africa. This Ethiopian was undoubtedly dark-skinned, because the Greek word translated as Ethiopian means literally “burnt-face”.

However, in Jerusalem he got hold of the book of Isaiah, and there is a specific reason why he would have been attracted to this book. It is the one book in the Hebrew Bible which offers a promise to eunuchs and foreigners – a promise which is breath-taking. (56: 3 – 5)

Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.

Three chapters before this passage is the description of the so-called “suffering servant”. When Philip joined the Ethiopian at his chariot, he was looking at the words:

“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. Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”

“Who can describe his generation?” is an ambiguous sentence. Three other translations offer a more specific meaning:

  • He died without children to continue his family
  • Who can even think about his descendants?
  • No one cared that he died without descendants

When Philip climbed onto the chariot, the eunuch did not ask: What do these words mean? But he asked: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” The Ethiopian is looking for a personal connection between himself and the suffering servant, because he can identify with the suffering servant, who will die like a eunuch – in loneliness and without descendants.

After the Ethiopian hears about Jesus as the fulfillment of the Isaiah text and after he is baptized he is full of joy. Something happened to him, so that he “went on his way rejoicing”.

The Biblical text does not give us any details. Perhaps it has something to do with the meaning of baptism. According to the Christian understanding of baptism: the baptized person is called by name to enter into an eternal fellowship with God. In the church there is no such thing as an anonymous baptism. Baptism is always personal. It is the moment when a person’s name becomes eternal.

In Germany there is one Biblical text which is often quoted at baptisms: Isaiah 32: 10

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine.”

This passage corresponds to the promise to eunuchs which Isaiah proclaimed:

 I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.

This promise is fulfilled in baptism, which gives us access to the immediate presence of God, which is no longer located in the temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by a barrier to keep out contamination, but in the crucified and risen Christ, who himself was regarded as contaminated when he hung on the cross.

Deep inside each of us there is something which yearns for eternal life. In this context, I have to think back to the year 2006, when the World Cup of Football, also known as Soccer, was staged in Germany. There was one game with a memorable penalty kick. Normally, a penalty kick is carried out with as much force as possible into a corner of the goal, so that the goaltender has no chance of stopping it. But one player completely surprised everyone by kicking the ball gently and directly to the middle of the goal, where it should have been easy to stop. But the goaltender had already committed himself to jumping to one side before he knew where the ball was going. During the half-time break the commentators talked about this kick and asked themselves: why did the player take such a huge risk? He would have looked incredibly foolish if the goaltender had waited to see where the ball was going and had easily stopped it.  One of the experts decided that this player wanted to make himself eternally unforgettable; he said: “That was a goal for eternity.” Speaking in Biblical language: this player wanted to give himself an everlasting name that would endure forever.

But this is something for which all of us are yearning, whether we admit it or not. We want to have an eternal identity, we want to be cherished forever. Above all, we want to cherish our loved ones forever. Christian baptism is God’s way of telling us: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, and you are mine forever.” Because of this, we can go through life like the Ethiopian eunuch, who went on his way rejoicing, knowing that he was no longer regarded as a contamination – but as someone precious in the presence of God. Amen.


First Reading: Acts 8:26-40

An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“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. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.