“Philip asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading? The eunuch replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me? And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.” Acts 8:30-31
Sometimes when I’m eating in a restaurant, I notice a couple sitting on the same side of a table or a booth. It’s usually an older couple. I always imagine them to be long-married because their posture often conveys the comfort and familiarity of people who have known each other for many years. They’re no longer caught up in the giddy infatuation of love’s early days when all you want to do is gaze into the other person’s eyes. Now they’ve settled in beside one another, waiting for whatever life will bring and preparing to meet it together.
There’s something about sitting beside another person. I love to snuggle up next to my nieces when we read a book together, pausing occasionally to discuss why a character made that decision and what we think might happen next. At the times in my life when I’ve been most heartbroken, I didn’t really need anyone to offer words of wisdom. The best thing friends could do was sit beside me, put an arm around my shoulder, and remind me of their presence.
Sitting beside another person makes a statement: We are in this together. We have solidarity. Whatever comes at us, we can face it.
Of course all of the situations I just described involve the intimacy of those who already know and love each other, those who share a history. That’s what makes a particular moment in our First Reading today so shocking. The Ethiopian eunuch invites Philip to climb into his chariot and sit beside him. And Philip does it.
These two people have only just met each other, shoved together by the Holy Spirit.[i] It’s about the only way they could have met, given the different worlds from which they come. Philip is a guy working on behalf of the church. A couple of chapters before this moment, he had been chosen as an apostle and leader of the early church. He had been sent to Samaria to do some preaching so that more people would know about Jesus. Samaria was already pretty far out of his comfort zone, so when an angel sends word that he’s supposed to head out on a wilderness road to Gaza, Philip probably thought twice about what he’d signed on for. Wilderness roads weren’t a desirable place to hang out. Wilderness roads could get you killed.
But Philip goes. He goes down that wilderness road in spite of having no idea where it was leading. Along the way he encounters this court official who works for the Ethiopian queen. The official is also a eunuch, a man who had been castrated. Eunuchs were often given great responsibility in royal circles. For obvious reasons they reduced the risk of sexual impropriety at the highest levels of leadership. In this case the eunuch has been put in charge of all the money, so in spite of his other limitations, he is a person of power and status.
This man has gone all the way to Jerusalem to worship – a long journey that might even be described as a pilgrimage. And the heartbreaking thing is that he probably wasn’t allowed into the Temple when he got there. Eunuchs were forbidden from entering the house of the Lord.[ii] But in spite of what may have been an unfulfilled pilgrimage to Jerusalem, what do we find the eunuch doing? He is sitting in his chariot reading a scroll that includes this passage from the 53rdchapter of Isaiah:
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.
That’s what he’s doing when Philip comes along. Reading from the prophet Isaiah and wondering what it means. So he invites Philip to sit beside him and help him out.
I love that simple moment of encounter. I imagine these two men from impossibly different worlds sitting beside each other, heads bent over a scroll, running their fingers along the words and trying to make sense of them together.
It captures something that I described earlier this week when I had the chance to speak at the interfaith Abraham Lunch hosted by Chatham United Methodist Church. Each speaker was asked to name what we appreciated about the other two Abrahamic faith traditions. One of the aspects of Judaism that I discussed is called havruta. It’s from a word that means “fellowship” or “companionship,” and it’s the Jewish practice of having a partner with whom to study sacred text. In havruta partners dig into a text together, debate its meanings, push each other to think more deeply about it, ask each other questions, challenge what seems off-base. The idea is that two people can sharpen each other’s engagement with the text.
The practice of havruta rests upon something I have long believed – that we learn best in community, that others can push us to understand what is beyond our own limited perspective or experience.
In the case of Philip and the eunuch, we don’t have a full report of the conversation. But we know two things. It begins with the eunuch asking who the prophet Isaiah is describing. Who is this person who has been humiliated? Who has been denied justice? Who has suffered silently as he is led to his death?
And then Philip tells the eunuch about Jesus. We don’t know what he says exactly, but we know that it results in the eunuch’s baptism there by the side of the road. And now these two strangers have become siblings in the faith, forever part of the same family.
These two men are so different, but what brings them together is a shared interest in scripture…which becomes a shared identity in Jesus. Here we truly see an embodiment of that verse from Galatians: “In Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[iii]
Think of a person in your life who is different from you in some way, a person from whom and with whom you might learn something new. How might that happen? In what way might you be able to sit beside that person – if not literally, then symbolically? Could you sit beside that person at a table while you have coffee and talk? Could you sit beside that person at a place important to him or her? Could you sit beside that person digitally or virtually, through FaceTime or Skype or an old-fashioned phone call?
He recalled how much more diverse the police force had become during those three decades. His colleagues had increasingly represented many different races, cultures, religions, and gender identities. He reflected on how much he had learned from his colleagues because of those differences. They had challenged him to understand the world in new ways.
This retired officer came to an important conclusion. He said: “It’s about relationships over categories.” Relationships over categories.
He’s right. It’s in relationships that we learn to see people as more than labels. It’s in relationships that we grow by learning from people who have lived lives completely different from our own. And when our relationships with each other grow out of our relationship with God, then we are able to sit beside each other in solidarity and in love, facing the future together. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ