What Is To Prevent Me?
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
5th Sunday of Easter
12 May 2006
Once upon a time Menelik worked in the palace of the queen. In Ethiopia they called their queens the Candace. The Candace was believed to be the descendant of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
Like many of his kinsman, Menelik was a worshipper of Yahweh. Long had the Ethiopian people shared the faith of the people of Judea. It had been a dream of Menelik’s to travel to Jerusalem and worship Yahweh in the Temple.
But Menelik was only a servant. A eunuch in fact. As a eunuch he was trusted to serve the Candace, but was not treated as a real man by other men. As a young man, when it was clear that he was not attracted to women, Menelik was taken to the court to serve the royal women. His genitals had been mutilated in order to assure that he could not cause a royal embarrassment.
Menelik, however, had proven himself to be a dutiful and loyal servant. He had moved up the through various offices controlling the household and the other servants. The Candace respected Menelik’s abilities and eventually named him the Royal Treasurer. Now he was not just managing the Candace’s household, but the economic affairs of the entire country. A servant had become a prominent, powerful man.
After a particularly successful year, Menelik approached the Candace with a request. Before visiting her, he prayed for God to fulfill his lifelong dream. The Candace granted Menelik an audience.
“Oh great and noble Candace, Queen of Queens of Ethiopia, Conquering Lion of Judah and the Elect of God, you have been gracious to your servant, bestowing upon him offices and titles beyond his worth. With great humility I come now before you to make a request.”
The Candace looked at her trusted official and answered, “My faithful and loyal Treasurer, you have proven yourself worthy of all you have been granted. Because of your diligence, we find ourselves in prosperous times. Speak, that I may hear your request. And be assured that if it is in my power, you will have what you wish.”
These words put Menelik at ease and he asked, “Most noble Candace, it has been a lifelong dream to travel to the home of your ancestor King Solomon and to worship our God at his Temple in Jerusalem. I ask that you allow me to fulfill that dream. May I go as your representative to bring offering to the Temple? In that way I could do honor to your name while fulfilling my lifelong dream.”
The Candace was pleased with this request and approved the Treasurer’s plans. Weeks were spent arranging the caravan, collecting the temple offering, and preparing documents to exchange with Roman and Judean authorities. Finally Menelik left on his trip, full of excitement and joy.
The Ethiopian Treasurer arrived on the outskirts of the great city of Jerusalem, where the crowds were bustling with excitement. It seemed that there was much going on in Judea. He heard rumours of dissidents being hunted by the Jewish authorities, and of rebels being executed by the Romans. But these local political problems didn’t detract from his excitement. As he road into Jerusalem, he marveled at its ancient walls, its bustling streets, and then he noticed the Temple, sitting high aloft the city. It shone with brilliance. People were lined up streaming into the Temple. It was greater than he had ever imagined.
But first he had to visit the Roman authorities. He brought letters from the Candace and gifts of goodwill for the Governor, including some to be passed on to Rome to Caesar himself. The conversations were diplomatic and political affairs, necessary, but not the real reason he was there.
Finally Menelik was free to visit the leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin, including the High Priest. He was bringing a temple offering from the Candace and had gifts and letters to also exchange with these Jewish leaders. He was hopeful that they would give him a tour of the Temple and allow him to participate in the rituals of worship.
Menelik was welcomed into the meeting hall of the Sanhedrin where greetings were exchanged and the offering and gifts were accepted by the religious leaders. They discussed matters of world affairs, the state of the Ethiopian kingdom and its religious practices, and some of the recent goings-on in Jerusalem. Finally, Menelik asked if he could be taken into the Temple to worship God. He told the authorities that it had been his lifelong dream.
The priests and elders looked at one another. Menelik was confused. After a long, awkward silence, one of the authorities looked him up and down and asked simply, “Are you a eunuch?”
Menelik had risen to such authority in his own kingdom that he was surprised by the question. It had been a long time since someone had treated him differently because of his status. Menelik was confused, but felt that he must answer truthfully since these were God’s men. “Yes,” he answered.
Then another man, a scribe, said, “Are you unfamiliar with the Law?”
Menelik answered, “Which law?”
The scribe said, “Why, the Torah, of course.”
Menelik was still confused. He was no scholar, but he felt that he knew the essence of the Torah -- the ancient stories of liberation, God’s covenant with a chosen people, and God’s mighty acts on behalf of those people. Unsure how to answer, Menelik said that he wasn’t a scholar but was just a humble servant of Yahweh.
The scribe lifted a scroll and said, “In the Book of Deuteronomy we read ‘No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.’”
Menelik’s spirit was crushed. He sat there unsure of what to do or say, humiliated in the presence of these men. One of the priests then said, “So, you see, we cannot admit you into the Temple. You are welcome to pray outside, you are welcome to hire someone to make offerings for you, but you yourself may not enter. It is God’s word.”
Menelik retired to the place he was staying. He was confused and bewildered by what had happened. His lifelong dream to worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem was not going to come true. All his life he had worshiped God, but now he began to question whether he was worthy of God. These thoughts alternated with anger toward God, mixed with doubt about all that he had ever learned. Menelik was experiencing a crisis of faith.
There was a knock at his door. A servant entered and said, “There is a young rabbi to see you.” Menelik invited the rabbi in.
Somewhat nervously the young man said, “Respected Treasurer of the Noble Candace of Ethiopia, I am here because not all of us agree with our leaders. What happened to you today was very upsetting for many of us. We hold to a different view as taught to us by the great prophet Isaiah.”
“And what does Isaiah say,” Menelik asked.
The rabbi quoted
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord,
to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord,
and to be his servants,
all who keep the sabbath and do not profane it,
and hold fast my covenant –
these I will bring to my holy mountain,
and make them joyful in my house of prayer;
their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
Thus says the Lord God,
who gathers the outcasts of Israel,
I will gather others to them, besides those already gathered.
Menelik began to cry, but they were tears of joy. This young rabbi had saved him from his crisis of faith. These words of Isaiah were a blessing. Menelik, both a foreigner and a eunuch, would be welcomed into God’s temple, a house of prayer for all peoples. Surely he was one of the “others” that Isaiah spoke about.
Menelik hugged this rabbi and kissed him and thanked him. He begged the rabbi to show him the words of Isaiah. With Menelik’s wealth, he was able to do what few were able to do, he purchased a rare scroll of Isaiah from the house of the scribes. He determined to study this scroll during the weeks he would be traveling home.
After a few days Menelik left Jerusalem and was journeying through the south of Judea. As he rode along in his chariot, he was reading the scroll. He had read and re-read the words the rabbi had quoted to him. From there he began to read the passages surrounding that excerpt. Just a few inches away he found some lines that read:
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.
These words also spoke to Menelik, but he was unsure of their meaning. These lines were part of a passage that spoke of a servant suffering on behalf of others, “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities.” This servant was “despised and rejected of others;” he “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” Menelik felt a kinship with this servant who had suffered in many of the ways he too had suffered. What was Isaiah speaking about. Menelik was reading out loud, when suddenly a voice said, Do you understand what you are reading?”
Menelik looked up from his reading and saw a man walking alongside the chariot. He hadn’t noticed anyone there a minute ago. Who was this stranger who was approaching a royal chariot of Ethiopia? Yet, Menelik was not concerned, this man had a spirit about him that made him immediately trustworthy. Menelik responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And Menelik invited this man to sit and talk with him, somehow he knew that this man had the answers he needed.
The man introduced himself as Philip and told a little about himself. Menelik asked Philip who Isaiah was speaking about. Philip smiled and began to talk with excitement and joy. He told of one Jesus of Nazareth. Menelik had heard this name mentioned when he was in Jerusalem. Wasn’t he that rebel recently executed? Aren’t his followers being hunted by the Jewish authorities, especially that guy named Saul? Yes, Philip answered, but there is so much more to the story.
And Philip told the most amazing stories. Of Jesus healing blind men and lepers, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He told about feeding five thousand people with just a few loaves and fishes, of spreading the good news of God’s reign to Gentiles, women, tax collectors, and prophets. Philip kept turning to passages in Isaiah and talking about how Isaiah’s vision of God’s reign coming had finally begun to happen. Philip spoke of Jesus’ baptism in the wilderness and how the heaven’s had ripped open and God’s Spirit had been set loose in the world and how most recently God’s Spirit had come upon all the followers of Jesus and that even now they were being led by that Spirit to spread the good news of Jesus to all the world.
Then Philip said that he too had been led to this place by the Spirit. That he had been preaching a revival in Samaria where many were accepting God’s good news when the Spirit told him to travel this lonely road. When Philip saw Menelik’s chariot, the Spirit had told him to come speak to Menelik.
Menelik heard all of this with wonder and excitement. He trusted this Philip and sensed that God was at work in this moment. So, Menelik decided to reveal his deepest pain. He looked at Philip and told him that he was a eunuch and shared with Philip what had just happened to him in Jerusalem.
Philip looked with compassion upon Menelik. Then he remembered that Jesus once addressed the issue of eunuchs. Philip looked at Menelik and said, “It’s okay. Jesus said that you too are worthy.” Menelik tentatively was filled with joy. “Is this true? Tell me!”
Philip recounted how once the religious authorities were trying to trap Jesus. That particular day they were raising questions about marriage, divorce, sex, and religious traditions. The disciples were also confused and asked Jesus questions. In response Jesus said something even more puzzling,
Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. Let anyone accept this who can.”
Philip looked at Menelik. "I’ve never understood before what he was saying, but I think I get it now. Just as some men marry women, others do not. Some don’t because they choose not to, others because they have been mutilated and are unable to, and still others because they are born not wanting to be with women. And Jesus is saying that all of these are acceptable, but that many will hear him and not understand. Menelik, I think this means that you are welcome into God’s reign, just as Isaiah and Jesus said.”
By now Menelik was crying uncontrollably. This stranger had restored his faith with this good news. In his excitement, Menelik saw a creek. He looked at Philip and remembered what he had said about baptism and the Spirit of God and said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip looked with compassion and said, “Nothing.”
My friends, I don’t know if this Ethiopian was a gay or transgendered man, though he may well have been; there is significant evidence to point that way. My retelling is just one possibility among many.
But what I do know is that this story in the Book of Acts is there for a reason, and its purpose is to convey the welcoming, universal, inclusive nature of God’s reign. The story speaks loudly across the centuries, “Even Ethiopian eunuchs are welcome, so are you.”
Christianity was deeply embedded within Ethiopia. It was the national religion for thousands of year, with a church that can claim to be as ancient as the Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox. It is the church historian Eusebius who calls this Ethiopian “the first fruits of believers throughout the world” and records that he was the first person to return to his home country as a missionary of the good news of Jesus.
And Will Willimon, who ignores the queer reading of this text, writes, “in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people.”
So, this is what we can draw from this story. A twofold truth. First, that we, no matter who we are, are welcome in God’s reign. And secondly, that we must be open to the Spirit leading us to share this good news with the most surprising sorts of people.
What prevents your life from being filled with God’s power and glory? Nothing outside of you. Though others may try to rob you of these gifts, in truth, they cannot. God’s power and glory are yours if only you will open yourself up to them. Like Philip and the Eunuch you must submit yourself to becoming a follower of Jesus. That means becoming a part of the compassionate, grace-filled, liberating community of faith, engaging in genuine fellowship and friendship with one another and true ecstasy of worship. This story teaches us that our own salvation comes when we learn to love one another as God has loved us.