This is the reflection that the Rev. Elizabeth Raine gave at the monthly gathering of Rainbow Christian Alliance at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 12 June 2022.
You may well be asking yourself the question: Why would I start a reflection with a title “the Kingdom is binary”? Good question and I am glad you asked it.
I know this story of the eunuch has probably familiar to you and has been done to death in many circles. But I thought it worth revisiting and looking at why it was such a big deal.
So we will start by considering Acts 8. The backdrop is one of great violence. The story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch comes after the stoning of Stephen. Saul, the instigator of this act, has launched a campaign of terror against Christians. Peter and John are waging their own campaign of oppression against alleged wicked magicians. Saul’s dramatic conversion follows in the next chapter. But before Saul’s conversion, we have this curious story of the Ethiopian eunuch.
Why is it here and how are we to read it? In its own way, this story is as dramatic as Paul’s conversion. We find Phillip, one of the apostles, chasing down an Ethiopian chariot. Even for the first century, it’s a bizarre image, and one that has some danger attached to it – after all, the Ethiopian eunuch is a high ranking official in the Ethiopian court and could order violence against this stranger pursuing him.
But as luck would have it, the official just happens to be studying Isaiah in his chariot, giving Philip the opportunity to explain that the redemption Isaiah anticipates has come in Jesus. The official is convinced by Philip’s understanding, they happen upon a convenient water source and the limousine screeches to a halt. The official says “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”
To us, it probably seems a reasonable question. But just imagine for a moment the sort of prejudices that might have been present in the first century….
Well, there are a number of things we need to be clear about, Mr Official, before proceeding. There is the tiny matter that you are a gentile from beyond the bounds of the empire, and you are alien to us and we have heard that your people are enemies of the empire. And we cannot be sure of your attitude to scripture, or how you plan to use it. And your place of work – do you still plan to continue in that den of iniquity they call a court in Ethiopia? And of course, there is the little detail of your dubious gender. You are, without doubt, in a minority of people of dubious sexual orientation, and Deuteronomy 23:1 clearly states that you should be excluded from God’s people. It’s so important for people to know their place, and yours is, well … not the same as ours. We need to have a few decades of dialogue about your place — you can just wait over there.
Fortunately for the eunuch, Luke tells us that this is not the response he got from Philip, who did baptise him, and the text says that the eunuch then went on his way rejoicing.
So why is this story such a big deal? In the Hebrew Bible or OT, Deuteronomy 23:1 states that “no one who has been emasculated [i.e. had their genitalia removed] by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord”.
The words used here are very stern—emasculating, severing, crushed. So by virtue of this definition, our friend the eunuch would be barred from participating in the faith. In the ancient world, eunuchs – that is, anyone whose genitalia looked different or whose genitalia were made different – were thought to suffer from a disability. After all, they couldn’t father children, which was the primary aim of life in the Ancient Near East and a source of social shame.
Before Luke challenged this notion, it had already been taken up by the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 56, the prophet states:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the Lord say, The Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’ For this is what the Lord says: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me, and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure for ever.
Just to give some background to this text, it was written after the exile in Babylon and the chance for the exiled Jews to return to their ancient homeland had been extended by the Persian king. This raised the question of who was welcome in this soon to be reestablished community and religious environment. Was the old to be adhered to?
Isaiah says no, God is doing a new thing, and everyone is welcome in this community. The kingdom of God is open to all. Isaiah is presenting a unifying theme for not only Israel, but anyone else who wants entry into God’s kingdom.Salvation is available to all in this fully inclusive religious community.
Luke, who uses the prophet Isaiah heavily in his narratives about Jesus and the early church, uses the story of Philip and the eunuch to demonstrate how this particular part of Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled. Luke underscores this by hisdescription of the Holy Spirit, who pushed Philip right out of his familiar comfort zoneto a new places with different practices.
This encounter will ultimately reform the early church as it currently exists into a new and diverse assembly, where genderdoes not matter, where sexual orientation does not matter and where the state of someone’s genitalia does not matter. It is indeed a radical move. God is doing a new thing, here it has sprung up, and all are welcome in this blossoming out of the kingdom of God.
This is a Holy Spirit that demands the church think in new ways. It refuses to allow tradition, familiarity and ‘comfortableness’ to get in its way of a radical inclusiveness.It does not allow us to lapse into ‘what we have always known’ and let our thinkingbe dominated by past beliefs, factual errors, misunderstandings and downright bigotry.
The last passage I want to look at is from the gospel of Matthew, in Matthew 19:12, Jesus says:
For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others – and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.’
What are the implications of what Jesus is saying here? Firstly, we note that Jesus acknowledges that people are born eunuchs—is he describing intersex people here perhaps? It is an acknowledgement that the binary male and female paradigm does not always apply in society or even the kingdom.
Jesus is probably also describing boys who were carried off into captivity and castrated as they were brought into the service of the conquerors (Dan 1:3). Others were simply sold into slavery and either set to guard harems or made eunuchs to keep them in an ever-present state of societal shame and subordination.
Lastly, some decide to chose celibacy, or become eunuchs for the sake of God’s kingdom. Jesus’ statement, simple as it is, acknowledges all of these “eunuchs” have a place in the kingdom.
Jesus has effectively destabilized the normative categories of his time, ‘queering’ scripture in relation to gender, sexuality, and roles in society. J. D. Hester (in “Eunuchs and the Postgender Jesus: Matthew 19:12 and Transgressive Sexualities”, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 28.1 (2005): 13–40) asserts that the only way to read this Matthean pericope today is the inclusion of those who transgress normative categories of gender and sexuality.
Hester believes that the eunuch was a social identity radically undermining the foundational assumptions used to reinforce the conservative heterosexist reading of the Bible, precisely because eunuchs and their social identity threatened the allegedly sacred boundaries between male and female. Jesus, by affirming the inclusion of eunuchs in the kingdom is stating the kingdom itself is non-binary.
What would we do today when confronted by our modern-day equivalents of eunuchs and Ethiopians? Do we show such people the love of God and actively welcome them into our church, community and country?
See the UCC ad Ejector Pew:
The church has not been good at hiding our prejudices. The church claims to accept everyone equally, but the reality is the traditional church likes some folk better than others, finding some people to be cleaner, more articulate, more socially acceptable than others.
But while sometimes we might despair and think that people cannot change, churches cannot change, and even perhaps that society cannot change, I ask you to remember that if this was true, we should remove a good percentage of our New Testament, as many of the letters we treasure were written by a man who not only changed from being a persecutor but was also converted to become a zealot for those he persecuted.
That the Uniting Church now has a task group to prepare an apology for the harm done to LGBTQI people is a sign of hope, and also hopefully a sign that the kingdom is finally inching its way into reality.