One of my favorite stories, hands down, is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, not least because of the sense it gives me, as a reader, of being brought along on some magnificent epic journey. Certainly, one of the main characters, the titular “hobbit” from Tolkien’s other well known work, Bilbo is fond of singing “The road goes ever on and on down from the door where it began”. In the films based on the books, it is this song that Bilbo quietly sings as he departs out the door, in the dark, on his last great adventure. And, it is the wisdom this song expresses that Bilbo’s young nephew Frodo will later recall as he is in the midst of his own great journey. He remembers his uncle’s words:
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
I couldn’t help thinking of this exact quote as I read today’s first lesson in preparation for this morning. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch brought together by the Holy Spirit on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza expresses Bilbo’s warning, “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Indeed, the whole scope of the story encompassed in the Acts of the Apostles is that of a great adventure. The apostles are being pushed along by the wind of the Spirit, further and further into the mission of God, a journey that as we hear Jesus tell them at the outset, begins in Jerusalem but which promises to take them to “the ends of the earth.” In the Ethiopian eunuch it is as if Philip is encountering this promise in the flesh. A high ranking official from the court of Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopians, the eunuch would have represented, to Philip and to the first readers of Acts, a resident of the ends of the earth, quite literally a citizen from the edge of the known world.
But, I get ahead of myself. Before we get to the players, let’s take a few more moments to notice the stage, the road itself upon which the story is moving. If Acts is “part the second” of a two part story that Luke is telling, it is important to notice the trajectory of his story more completely. In the gospel of Luke, we follow Jesus on the way, a path that seems to lead inexorably toward Jerusalem. Along the way, he draws followers to himself, he seems to pull in the stories of his people, the curious, the needy, the broken and hurting, all come to him like threads being woven into a rope, like streams that find the river on its way to the ocean. All of Israel’s hopes are, from Luke’s perspective, merging into Jesus, and into his way, pointing into the heart of power, on a collision course with death. Acts then seems to flow in the opposite direction, like the dispersal of shrapnel following an explosion, the stories and people who followed Jesus on the way, are propelled outward in every direction, disbursed by the power of his resurrection, taking the good news wherever the Spirit sends it.
So it is that today’s gospel finds us and Philip, rocketed along on the journey outward from Jerusalem, outward away from the core of religious life, out away from the powerful center that Philip and the apostles would have known, without a map or a destination. Their encounter with one another, the profound questions the eunuch asks, the palpable sense of the Spirit’s nearness and potency hovering over and above this story, make it one of the most compelling vignettes in all of scripture, full of truth for us in our lives of faith today. I said earlier that the Ethiopian eunuch would have represented the embodiment of the trajectory of the Good News in Acts – someone from the “ends of the earth.” He is also representative of so much more difference. In his person, in his very body, are the intersecting points of several different stories, several different experiences. In his excellent commentary on Acts, Willie James Jennings reminds us that the eunuch has only just come from Jerusalem where he was worshipping, raising the question of not only his ethnic identity but religious persuasion. He notes,
“Here we must pinpoint the site of difference, because the Ethiopian eunuch is of Israel and of diaspora. Even on this road he is still within Jerusalem’s spiritual jurisdiction. His difference is marked by his origin in Ethiopia, the outer limits of the known world, and is even signified by his blackness. His difference is also marked by his sexuaility, neither male nor female.”
We are even left to ponder his place in society – is he powerful because of his position in the queen’s court, or is he nothing more than a glorified slave. And, all of these complexities and differences collide in him, like roads from far flung places they merge in his body, giving us a representation of true intersectionality. But, the Ethiopian is clearly much much more than mere representation, more than a storyteller’s ruse to move the plot along and make her point. He is being pursued by the Holy Spirit, God desires to be with him.
Luke tells us that the Ethiopian eunuch hears in the story of the suffering servant in Isaiah, and in Philip’s sermon for one as the chariot rolls along, he hears something of his own story. The Ethiopian eunuch can relate to the suffering and redemption of this figure, and as Philip relates the Isaiah prophecy to the story of Jesus, the eunuch finds resonance and perhaps even liberation – his life and the intersecting truths that are manifest in his body are now intersecting with and joining in the truth of Jesus and his body crucified and risen. Again as Dr. Jennings writes, in the Ethiopian eunuch, “the body of God will be seen where no one would have imagined or dared to look, at the place of humiliation and pain and on a eunuch’s chariot.”
The story that unfolds from here, assisted by Philip and empowered by the Spirit, the eunuch’s epiphany and conversion, his own recognition that his life and his body is worthy of dignity and love, the profound sense of delight and joy that follows, are something for us as the church today to attend to. In so many ways this story holds promise and insight for the story of us in this moment. This year in particular, we too have been pushed outward into the wilderness. The road of life and the call of faith in this year have made it difficult to “keep our feet” and we’ve been swept off into places we likely would rather not be. The pain and struggles of this pandemic, our isolation from one another, from the sacraments, from our loved ones, and the many attendant losses, deaths both real and symbolic, have us yearning to go backward. What’s more, this year has unveiled for many of us the oppressive realities of being black and brown, queer and trans, of the painful intersecting realities born in the bodies of many of our neighbors. We have been brought to this place and the Spirit is urging us outward into the midst of difference, out toward people whose stories bear in them the confluence of both beauty and pain, joy and loss, out further into the wilderness of unknowns and dependence on God. The Spirit brings us here not so that we might suffer, but so that we can join in with a world that is hungry and searching for God, yearning for a word of liberation, aching to know that the bodies we live in are worthy of God’s blessing and hope.
This morning I feel it in my heart of hearts, that the church is understandably yearning to go back to what was, to the certainty that can only come when the Body of Christ is firmly in our midst and we with it. But, as we heard in this morning’s faith formation, in order for us to be a blessing, something must be let go, and what we let go may well be our reliance on the certain knowledge of a path and a destination, even if that path leads to Jerusalem and the destination is death. This morning, to follow Jesus, to follow the way of Love, means our path has reversed course, it is now a path outward from death, empowered by resurrection, moving ever outward toward possibility and freedom, and joy – outward to the margins and to the unknown. Stepping out onto this road will require leaving certainty and perhaps even comfort behind. But, to go on this way, this story promises, we will be witnesses and participants in the richest and most lifegiving moments of blessing and healing, of liberation and the true joy that always follows in its wake. This morning, church, Jesus reminds us of our call to stay rooted and grounded in his love, to abide here, like branches abide in the vine, and promises us if we do that our lives will be conduits of such tremendous love, the world we touch might never be the same. Just remember church, to keep your feet, because you never know where the road or the Spirit might sweep you off to next!