Ethiopian Eunuch and Witnessing

April 29th, 2018

Preacher:  The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

The word I want to talk about today is witness.  The idea of witness is built upon the belief that if God is God, and God’s competence and knowledge and capacity

is a little more competent and knowledgeable and capable than our own, then wherever we find ourselves at any given moment in time, we have the potential of aligning our words with God’s greater purpose.

The witness is not about winning people for Jesus. The witnesses purpose is connecting people to the power and presence of God. This can happen by modeling through action, of course, but also through our words. That is the type of witnessing we’re going to be talking about today.

This spoken witness requires we ask ourselves: where am I?; what do I see?; and what should I say?  Where am I? What do I see? And how do my words connect with God’s purpose right now? The story about Philip from the Book of Acts will be our guide.

Philip somehow found himself on a wilderness road going down to Gaza.  Maybe he was just whisked there by angels, or maybe he missed his bus stop. But whatever happened, he found himself on a road gazing upon a regal entourage, and he suspected there might be a connection between this unusual sight and God’s greater purpose. So, he approached this venerable procession with courage not knowing what he was going to encounter.

Courage, I should note, is witness’s companion. It takes courage to approach; it takes courage to broach a God topic; it takes courage to risk rejection; it takes courage to know you yourself may be changed by the encounter. Being a witness takes courage because it requires vulnerability. So, remember this is God’s creation, and we are loved, and God never puts an end to anything God loves, so we are perfectly safe. Philip knew this, and it gave him courage.

So, he approached the opulent, well-guarded chariot, and as he did he saw a stately person sitting on pillows and heard him reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah.

Can you imagine hearing a person reading out-loud, in Hebrew, from the Book of Isaiah on a wilderness road leading down to Gaza? And an Ethiopian at that?

So, Philip called out: “Do you understand what you are reading?” And can you imagine hearing that question if you were sitting in the chariot on a wilderness road leading down to Gaza? Suddenly a guy appears out of nowhere, running up alongside you, past your soldiers, getting within earshot and yelling: “Do you understand what you are reading?”

That’s all pretty strange. But hold on. It gets stranger when the Eunuch replies: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” To understand how truly extraordinary this response is we need a bit of background on court governance and the nature of a Eunuch.

Let me say a few words about Eunuchs first: a person can be born a Eunuch; a person can be forced to become a Eunuch; or a person can choose to become a Eunuch.  As unusual as this last option may seem to us, to choose to be a Eunuch was often a career advancement choice.

The Eunuch we meet today is the Treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia.  That is the equivalent to the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury all rolled into one. You see, because Eunuchs lacked reproductive capacity, they were thought to be more trustworthy, so they were often put in positions of power in feudal systems.

No doubt the Eunuch was well educated, and clearly he could speak and read Hebrew. Who knows, he may have been Jewish. The Jewish relationship to Ethiopia traces its lineage to the friendship between King Solomon and Queen Sheba of Ethiopia, who visited Jerusalem to witness the great wisdom and wealth of Solomon.  To have a top administrator from the Ethiopia travel to Jerusalem would have been something akin to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia visiting the United States.

So, the Eunuch we meet was powerful, he may have been one of the brightest people in Ethiopia, and he was certainly one of the very few who had a formal education.  He reported to no one other than the Queen, which meant, in this hierarchical, feudal system everyone else reported to him.

And here is the really interesting thing: when Philip ran up to him and asked if he understood what he was reading, even if he didn’t understand what he was reading, you could see how he might have been egotistical enough to say that he did. He lived in bubble, after all, where people said yes to him, where he made the decisions, where he was the smartest guy in the room, or at least treated that way…And then, out of nowhere, a random guy audaciously asked him if he knew what he was reading… and the Eunuch responded: “How can I know if no one is here to teach me?”

Humble.  Vulnerable.  Accessible.  Open to the power of the Holy Spirit.  He saw where he was, and was honest about his lack of understanding, and he made himself vulnerable as he responded to the random (or shall I say providential) encounter with Philip.  He was open to being witnessed to.  So Philip, with courage, jumped into the chariot and began to explain how the Old Testament is a story that led to the person of Jesus.

Resurrection is the logical outcome to a story about a powerful and present God who loves the entire world.  So, the Eunuch must have asked, “How do I honor this resurrection love story?”  To which Philip replied…”Baptism.”  And so, the story goes.

But the point here is not the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch, the point is to witness with words to the power and presence of God.

To be a witness means responding to where God set you. To ask: “Where am I, right now?” To be a witness means paying attention to what you are seeing. To be a witness means wondering: “What should I say? How do my words connect with God’s purpose right now?”

I’ll give you an example from my life.  I was out walking the dog the other evening.  We were leaving the playground when a woman approached me.  I’ve never seen her before, but we entered into the dog conversation. Then she told me where she lives and asks where I live. I told her and she thought it might be where a friend of hers used to live. So, we walked back toward my house to check it out.   As we did we chatted and did that connection-connection thing and it turns out we have a mutual friend.

Then she said (here she made the witness invitation), then she said, “I’m a Catholic,” which parenthetically are words of courage in Seattle. To admit being a Christian in this city can feel vulnerable.

And she continued: “I suppose I’m in this conversation with you for a reason,” and she went on to say her faith had limitations, particularly around miracles.  And it was a stretch, she continued, to believe in the virgin birth. It tested her credulity, particularly given her propensity to see the world through a scientific lens.

So, there we have it. Courage. Humility. Vulnerability. Accessibility. And the question was: Do I have the courage to be a witness in response? I don’t know. It was sort of late. I had to walk the other dog.

But a friend said to me the other day…“If you are ever wondering if you should witness to the power and presence of God…if it ever crosses your mind, then the answer is YES, witness!”

So, I witnessed. I’ve done it before. Maybe you have. Maybe you haven’t. Here is my template.

1) Go big with God. What I mean is don’t get bogged down in the particularities. Go to 50,000 feet.  Think of the expansive, awesomeness of God. Be flexible about definitions as well…Why get bogged down trying to define something that can’t be defined?  Go big with God.

2) Work from their assumptions. Make a connection.  Plug into their framework, because if God is God, then their framework will fit into God’s creation.

3) Finally, find agreement.

So, return with me to my conversation with my neighbor. “Well,” I started, “I’m not exactly sure how to define God, but wouldn’t you agree that God is probably a bit bigger, and a bit better, and bit smarter than we are?” We agreed. Science, as I said, was her framework.  (Nothing new here in Seattle) So I asked, “Do you think there are things we have yet to learn about how the world works? That is sort of the point of science, isn’t it? A new scientific discovery probably happens every day.   We agreed.

Then I asked, “Do you imagine that within this vast expanse of time and space there are things that are actually beyond our understanding?  Beyond our capacity to know?”  She was wise enough and humble enough to admit that there are probably things beyond the scope of human understanding. We agreed.

“So, if there is a God a bit more capable than us, and if there are things we don’t yet know, and things we can’t know, then isn’t it possible that things happen that we can’t attribute to a particular cause or to a repeatable occurrence?” We agreed. “I call those things miracles.  What do you think?” She agreed. “Some might say,” I continued, “that the virgin birth falls into that category, others might not.” We agreed.

And that was it. That was my little witness moment about the bigness and the power and the possibility of God. I’m not sure what God’s purpose was in it, but it doesn’t really matter. It was blessing enough to have had the witness moment. We talked some more, and then parted.

That is my witness template. Go big with God. Take the other person’s framework and plug it into the bigness of God.  Connect. And then seek agreement. That is what Philip did on the wilderness road to Gaza when he met an Ethiopian Eunuch in a chariot reading the Bible.

And one last thing – remember courage. The Eunuch was an intimidating person, a person of wealth and of power, with armed guards, and a superior education, if not intellect. He was a person who took orders from the Queen alone and gave orders to everyone else. And as such, more likely than not, a lonely man without peers or conversation partners.  Philip stepped right through all of those barriers to meet a man in need.

You never know. You never know who is waiting to be witnessed to about the power and presence of God. If Philip can talk to the Ethiopian Eunuch, there is no one you can’t witness to: your neighbor, your spouse, your children, the random person you meet on the street, a guy in first class, or a woman riding around in a limousine.

Witness. Go Big with God. Plug into their framework. Connect. Find agreement. Be courageous.

And know that God is with you in the midst of the conversation connecting your words to God’s greater purpose.