A Promise for All People May 3rd, 2015
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21
On the Tuesday evening after Easter, my classmates and I met at Sanctuary Ministries, located in downtown Toronto. It is situated south of Bloor, between Yonge and Church streets, smack dab in the middle of where the majority of the city’s homeless live and the majority of the prostitutes work. It is near the gay community, as well as close to many of the city’s drug dealers.
Sanctuary is a Christian organization that seeks to create a healthy community in downtown Toronto. It’s based out of an old church building and offers support services such as a drop in centre, access to medical care, food, and clothing, as well as counseling and rehabilitation. As they state on their website, they strive to give “dignity, support and direction to people who want to reclaim healthy, meaningful lives.” The ministries main purpose and goal is to build friendships. They recognize that many of the people whom they encounter within the community have experienced abuse and rejection, and many have never experienced a loving relationship. The people that walk through the doors of Sanctuary are the outcasts of society, the lost, the forgotten, and dare I say the unwanted.
My classmates and I spent just over three hours learning about the lives, the struggles, and the realities of downtrodden people in the downtown core, some of which find a place of refuge at Sanctuary. It was heartbreaking to hear the reasons for homelessness, how children as young as eight or nine find themselves living on the streets and doing whatever they can to survive. We listened to our guide, who was once homeless himself. He shared horrific and graphic stories from his own experience of living on the streets and having to become a male prostitute so that he could earn enough money to survive. Our guide described the experiences of his friends who live on the streets, from the violence they encounter, to the awful conditions. To hear about what they do just to survive is appalling. In addition, it is maddening and frustrating to hear how society and the social system fail them. The evening touring around the downtown core, was an eye opening experience for sure, but what struck me the most from the night was the way in which people treat others. As I listened to the stories of how the homeless, the underprivileged, and the prostitutes are treated, I was shocked and upset, yet upon reflection I ask the question, am I any better?
When I’m walking the streets of Toronto I always see individuals begging for money, lying wrapped in blankets on a grate, or sleeping in doorways. Sometimes I will give them money if I have some change, while other times I walk right past. Often I find myself ignoring them completely. I’m not proud of my behaviour. In fact, I would love to give them all money or help them out with some food, but financially that just isn’t in the cards. So instead, I find myself looking away as I pass by, and in doing so, rejecting them. It’s no wonder that the homeless, the prostitutes, the ‘outcasts of society’ feel abandoned, forgotten, and abused.
As I was reading about the Ethiopian eunuch, my thoughts kept returning to my experience in Toronto. The Ethiopian in this story may have felt much like the outcasts of Toronto. In many ways, the Ethiopian was much better off, than those who live on the streets. After all he was a court official for the queen of Ethiopia. He held an important position, being in charge of the entire treasury. Therefore, he was not poor by any means. He rode around in a chariot, and must have had some wealth to possess a scroll from the prophet Isaiah. His position would have enabled him to live a life of comfort; however, the fact that he was a eunuch, and an Ethiopian who was studying Judaism, set him apart, and in many ways an outcast from those around him. He would have lived a solitary life, with people looking at him differently because of his physical condition. After all, he was castrated and therefore, not a ‘real man’ in society’s eyes.
It was a common practice in many cultures to have eunuchs as servants. Eunuchs often served in women’s chambers, although they also held military and other official posts. Many servants were castrated as young boys as a method of subduing or pacifying them, so that they would not be deemed harmful or a threat to the females they would be serving.
The eunuch also may have felt ostracized because of his studying of Judaism. Although he could read the Scriptures, as a castrated man he would not have been able to access the temple while in Jerusalem. In Deuteronomy 23:1 it states; “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” In Leviticus 21:17-21, the Law further states that, “No man who has any defect may come near…to present the food offerings to the Lord.” Although, this man travelled to the Holy City, he would have been limited in his religious practices. He was an outsider even within his own faith he looked to embrace. The Ethiopian eunuch was an outcast, pushed away from parts of society and his faith.
This is not a critique or attack of Judaism. The Christian Church has had a past of ignoring, neglecting, and even pushing people away. We are not blameless by any stretch of the imagination. As a collective, Christians have alienated minorities and groups within our own faith, for countless reasons. We have cast aside many of God’s children because of our own judgements, personal beliefs and biases. However, our history doesn’t need to define us! There is still the opportunity to reach out to those who find themselves on the outside of our faith, as well as society.
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a story of hope. It is a story of restoration. It is a story of embracing the Gospel, in which Christ calls us to share. This passage illustrates how the gospel transcends ethnic, racial, and cultural boundaries, constructed by hate, fear, and tradition. Here we have Philip, called by an angel of the Lord to go to a road leading south, where he finds an Ethiopian riding in a chariot, reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The angel of the Lord, tells Philip to join the chariot.
Unlike the teachings of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, which reject eunuchs, the prophet Isaiah speaks about how God will embrace eunuchs who have faith. (Isa. 56:4-5) What a contrast between these texts. The eunuch must have had questions. Which scriptural text is right, Deuteronomy or Isaiah? Is he considered in or out of God’s house? With only the written scriptures as references it could go either way. How was he to know where he stood in the eyes of God? He needed someone to teach him, someone who has experienced the love of God and could guide him. In response, God sent Philip to interpret the words of Isaiah.
The passage the Ethiopian is reading foreshadows the life of Christ. The eunuch is fascinated by this writing and asks Philip, “About whom….does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” I’m sure at this point the Ethiopian was wondering if this text was a Word of God for someone else or if it was a Word of God for him. Was there a message of hope for him? Starting from this scripture, Philip takes the opportunity to share about the good news of Jesus. Through Philip’s retelling of the story of Jesus the eunuch comes to know of how Christ also knew what it was like to be an outcast, and ostracized religiously. The Ethiopian learns, through the teachings of Philip, of the love of God. The eunuch discovers that he is truly loved and accepted for who he is and that he too can be a part of God’s family. So when they passed by water, he orders the chariot to stop so that Philip can baptise him. Despite the fact that he was a eunuch, despite that he was from Ethiopia, this man felt called to God’s family. In this story, Philip baptises the Ethiopian eunuch, who at the time was seen by many as an outsider. However, through God’s love and grace, this unlikely man, becomes the first Ethiopian convert as a follower of Jesus. This was the beginning of the Christian Church in Africa.
As we read the Bible, much like the eunuch, we may ask the question, ‘does this apply for me today?’ For many of us here this morning, we may be confident in our position and take comfort in the love and grace of God. However, what about those who walk through the doors of Sanctuary in Toronto, or other places like it? What about all those living on the streets that have to beg for food? What about those who sleep on the sidewalks and take the abuse of walkers by yelling and cursing at them? What about those who turn to prostitution because they don’t see any other way? What about those who turn to drugs and alcohol as a way to dull their pain, and as a way of trying to forget about their lives? What about those who make choices we don’t agree with, or live in ways that we can’t understand? What about those who feel alone, who feel invisible, who feel cast off? Have they heard the Good News? Or, if they have, do they know that they too are loved by God? After all, the Gospel is a promise for all people! And, they are people, children of God, despite their appearance and their predicament. They are our neighbours in which Christ calls us to love. Will we listen to God’s call and be like Philip? Will we welcome all into God’s community so that everyone can share the love and grace of God? I pray that as individuals, as a church, and hopefully as a society, that we may embrace and accept those who are living on the fringe as broken people, just as we are broken people, for we are all the children of God. Amen.