Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 28, 2024

Acts 8:26-40 Commentary

This section of Acts is filled with characters who challenge and expand our notion of belonging, the church and how Jesus saves. So what do we know about the man in this morning’s text?

We know he was important enough to God that the Spirit sent Philip literally chasing his through the desert.

We know that he has wealth and access to power. He serves as the Treasury Secretary of Ethiopia. For someone to have the means to travel — by chariot — between Ethiopia and Jerusalem sets this man apart as one who has privilege.

He is from Ethiopia so he’s Black and in the broader Roman world, he was considered foreign, exotic and interesting. Though, as a foreigner and almost certainly not a Jew he wouldn’t have been allowed past the outer courts of the Jewish Temple at the time.

He is a Eunuch. Perhaps this was his own choice: a trade made for access to political power. Perhaps this was a choice made for him: if you’re going to be hanging around the queen and her money, we don’t want any trouble from you. Perhaps this was no human choice but a physical anomaly since birth or an injury. Regardless of backstory, when he arrived at the Temple in Jerusalem, he would not even be allowed into the outer courts because of something unchanging and unchangeable about his physical condition.

No matter the depth of his faith, the sincerity of his belief, he would not be allowed to convert. Theologian Robert Wall writes, “The unwritten conflict plotted by this story, then, is that this pious proselyte, who seeks to know God’s purposes more fully, has been excluded from the very religious community whose resources would illumine his quest.”

And yet he traveled all the way to Jerusalem to worship. And yet he read aloud from a Hebrew scroll on his journey home. No matter what the rules of the time were, the Holy Spirit had clearly gotten a hold of this man. Just as clearly as the Holy Spirit sent Philip to catch him with the Gospel.

I wish we had a transcript for their road-trip Bible study. In my mind, I hope the Ethiopian’s scroll included even more of Isaiah so that Philip could flip to — unroll to — the part, just three chapters later where Christ’s work is applied. Isaiah 56:

“Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say, ‘the Lord will surely exclude me from his people.’ And let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree.’

Can you see Philip’s finger pointing to those words as they jostle along the road? Can you see the Ethiopians eyes wide with wonder. There he is in the text. The Savior of Isaiah 53 sees him in Isaiah 56.

“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 not be cut off.’”

Well, says NT Wright, “When you tell the story of Israel like that, with Jesus at its climax, it opens up to include everybody, including people like him, doubly excluded and now wonderfully welcomed.  No wonder he wanted to share in the death and resurrection of this Jesus by being baptized, by having the whole story become his personal story.”

No wonder he wants to be baptized. No wonder he goes on his way rejoicing. Here is a story of amazing love. And it is for him. It is for the people of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Ethiopia, the ends of the earth. The stranger now belongs to the people of God and, from all historical accounts, goes on to share the story of Jesus with his kinfolk in Ethiopia. The church in that country has a long history that they trace back to this very encounter.

This section of the book of Acts — from the scattering of the early Christians at the end of chapter 7 to the church reconvening for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is all about the church making weighty decisions about who is allowed to belong and how the church will change itself and make room for others. This section is filled with stories that raise questions for us about who is allowed to belong and how the church will change itself to make room for others. The institutional church, guarded and led by the apostles in Jerusalem, won’t catch up with — or formalize — what the Spirit is doing here for another 7 chapters. The Spirit is doing something but the rules haven’t changed … yet.

Which means I feel for Phillip in this moment with the Ethiopian eunuch eagerly asking, “Why can’t I be baptized?” And Philip might be reaching for his book of church order or trying to remember what he learned in polity class. In truth, there isn’t a rule for this. Philip is left to respond to a brand new thing — someone who, though God-fearing, is almost certainly not Jewish wants to become a Christian.

Philip has to figure out what to do with that on the spot. And because the Spirit put him on this road, because the Spirit told him to chase down a chariot, because the man’s eagerness to know Jesus and be known by him is so extra-ordinary, Phillip is like, “well, yeah, why shouldn’t you be baptized?” The very next thing that happens after the baptism is that the Spirit whisks him away. From beginning to end, this is a Spirit-driven encounter. One that graciously includes the outsider. This is what God does because this is who God is.

Here we have a beautiful tie-in with the Epistle text appointed to this week. We love because God first loved us. We know God is love because we experienced Jesus’ love.


Most Western Christians don’t know much about the Christian church in Ethiopia, though it is an early tradition and one of the most constant over the past 2000 years.  In keeping with the theme of the text — the Spirit offers a surprising welcome to the outsider and we hope the church just figures out how to keep up — it might be an important Sunday to highlight the contribution of those who are part of the global church.  Why not start by studying the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church?  If you want a more contemporary hero(ine) of the faith, you could dive into the life of St. Walatta Petros. With recent wars in Ethiopia, the United States has seen an influx of Ethiopian migration to the US. You might consider how they are both bringing and adapting their liturgies for the present moment.  All of this, it is said, dates back to an outcast eager to be baptized on the road to Gaza.


Preaching Connections: ,
Biblical Books:

Sign Up for Our Newsletter!

Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!

Newsletter Signup