Odd couple in a chariot
The Bible storybook image of this odd couple is a curiosity. Philip, the insider, dressed in drab beige, runs beside a jewel-studded chariot carrying a colorfully dressed royal Ethiopian. The educated Ethiopian eunuch is reading an expensive scroll. Picture Oprah Winfrey with Shane Claiborne.
Philip and the Ethiopian are from contrasting ethnic groups and mismatched cultures. Most agree the Ethiopian is Gentile, which adds another layer of tension. These two come from opposite economic classes. Philip, a worker from the widow food center turned traveling evangelist, is riding with a queen’s chief financial officer. As if this doesn’t create enough barriers, the Ethiopian is a eunuch.
Questions punctuate this story. Philip begins, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian responds with a question. “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
Philip connects the Isaiah passage being read to Jesus. Details of the conversation aren’t provided. Then comes the Ethiopian’s weighty question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Is he expecting Philip to recite Deut. 23:1? Is he expecting to hear an explanation of how the Law of Moses prevents him from participating in community rituals?
Philip doesn’t have a cellphone to check with Jerusalem headquarters to see if he can baptize this fellow. The wind of the Spirit blows, and Philip baptizes the eunuch.
Does Philip have second thoughts? Is eunuch inclusion a hot-button issue? Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber asks whether Philip is also converted when he encounters the eunuch.
We don’t know the details of the Philip-Ethiopian encounter, but we do know conversations across borders convert us. Native tribal voices help us see a less sanitized version of history. Black voices help us hear racial discrimination. Immigrant voices remind us we are all sojourners. Courageous feminine voices clarify the costs of abuse. LGBT voices among us keep talking, but we have conflicting responses.
Which way is the Spirit blowing? Careful reading of certain texts doesn’t necessarily lead to agreement. Ego and power are hard to separate from the lens through which we understand Scripture. How do we open our ears to hear the Holy Spirit?
Can conservatives, separatists, moderates, transformationists, or whatever labels you prefer, sit at the same table? What if the Spirit blows and we find ourselves sitting with someone who makes us uncomfortable? What if the Spirit blows and we are riding in a chariot with a person from a different neighborhood, a different class, a different gender orientation? When the Spirit blows, the excluded may end up at our table.
The Ethiopian eunuch and Philip return to their journeys, trusting that the Spirit is going to continue to work in their lives. How do we rely on God’s Spirit to transform all of us?
In Journey Towards Holiness, Alan Kreider reminds us of Paul’s insight from 2 Cor. 12:9-10: “We are far more likely to meet the Holy One when we are living in faithful insecurity than when we are clinging to human security. God’s power is not made perfect in us when we are powerful; it is when we are weak.”
The time seems right to embrace weakness. When we are weak, it’s easier to converse across differences. When we are weak, we are more open to the Spirit transforming us and our church.
Hope comes when mismatched people ride together. Now I’m hoping God is not calling me to ride in a jewel-studded limousine with some confused corporate financial officer.
Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.
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