Going Off the Map
Let me know if this sounds familiar. You’re eight years old. It’s a beautiful spring Sunday morning, but instead of running around outside like you know you ought to be, you were unjustly dragged to church. And now you’re sitting in an uncomfortable pew that clearly wasn’t built with children in mind. And as you slide down for the twelfth time, catching the stink-eye from the parent to your right, you grab the Bible out of the rack on the back of the pew in front of you. [Yes, I am aware of the fact that there are no Bibles in these pews–this particular memory takes place in a Methodist Church.] From prior experience you know that the Bible is mainly just a bunch of words in really, really small print, but there is one section that can manage to bring you back from the brink of boredom, at least for a bit, and that is the map section in the back. It’s the closest thing you can get to a comic book in church, and you’ll take it.
I’m willing to bet that a number of us got our first understanding of the geography of the Jewish and Christian traditions–and of the Middle East in general–from this tried and true method of Sunday morning self-preservation. There’s the map that shows the Israelites’ harrowing journey across the Red Sea onto the Sinai Peninsula, as well as the one tracing Paul’s long trek to Rome. And then there is the close-up on the area around Jerusalem that labels all the places Jesus visited during his ministry: Bethlehem, Bethany, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River. These maps frame the very limited space where all the action in our early religious history took place–just about a million square miles, equivalent to a third of the size of the continental United States. And that is why today’s passage from The Acts of the Apostles, about a spur-of-the-moment encounter between Philip and an Ethiopian is so striking.
Ethiopia is literally off the map. Even the most macro view of the Middle East and Mediterranean areas depicted in the backs of our Bibles cut off around the ancient city of Thebes in southern Egypt. Anything further up the Nile was unknown wilderness. According to the book of Isaiah it was a “land of whirring wings…people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide” (Isaiah 18:1-2). “Ethiopia’s remoteness and invincibility were legendary” (Mays 998). Now, if that weren’t enough to set this Ethiopian apart from the locals, the Book of Acts adds that this traveler was also a eunuch, placing him “off the map” culturally as well. Scholars debate the technical meaning of “eunuch” as it is used here, but generally it refers to a man who is unable father a child. A eunuch is considered to be physically deficient and was often given the duties of a slave. Bottom line–this Ethiopian eunuch did not belong.
At this point in time, Philip and his companions were fleeing Jerusalem due to the increasing persecution of Christians there, and they were spreading the gospel as they traveled. You might say that Philip, himself, was being pushed “off the map”–his crowd-inspiring sermons were threatening to the powers that be. In fact, Stephen, another apostle, was recently martyred in Jerusalem, demonstrating to the followers of the fledgling Jesus movement just how precarious their situation was. And so it is fitting that the two displaced travelers in today’s passage encounter one another on a wilderness road. A scandalous message meets a scandalous man, mix in a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit, and the result is nothing short of miraculous.
I think it’s interesting that the story we are given doesn’t actually reveal the content of the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian. We just know that it leads to the Ethiopian’s desire to be baptized on the spot. Whatever Philip said must have offered him something he had desperately been seeking. There are clues, though. When Philip found the Ethiopian, he was reading aloud a passage from Isaiah–one that describes a “suffering servant,” whom Christians since have associated with Jesus. This servant is “despised and avoided by others…oppressed and tormented…[but ultimately given] a share with the great in return for exposing his life to death and being numbered with rebels…” (Isaiah 53). I wonder if this Ethiopian eunuch, both literally and figuratively “off the map,” identified with the suffering servant? It couldn’t have been an easy life to hold such a contemptible position in society, his condition marking him a slave. I wonder if he was “despised and avoided by others,” or perhaps by himself? Did he feel “oppressed and tormented?”
And so, the curious Ethiopian says to Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” We’re then told, simply, that Philip proclaims the good news about Jesus. This, of course, is the very message that made Stephen a martyr and Philip an exile. This is the very message that terrifies the selfish, the powerful, and the violent. This is the message that has the power to turn society on its head and unleash an entirely new kingdom here on earth. And, the message, as John so perfectly puts it, is this: God is love. And this love, as enfleshed by Jesus, is a light that outshines all of the darkness this world can muster. Love can overcome even death. And, “if we love one another, God lives in us.”
You can imagine that to someone whose home is not even on the map, or to someone whose life is considered to be “less than” simply because of the color of their skin or because of the way their body works, this message might resonate. The good news of Jesus is a message that celebrates everyone’s inherent worth. It does not discriminate. And for a society built on keeping people in their place, it’s deeply threatening. But, with each baptism, and the commitments made to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves,” there is hope that those the world has exiled may come to know their extraordinary value in the eyes of God, and, in-turn–simply by being who they are–share the good news themselves. “Look, here is water,” exclaimed the Ethiopian. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The good news that once sparked a baptism on a wilderness road has continued its life-changing journey beyond borders. It can’t be contained. And today, you and I have inherited Philip’s charge to be its bearers, to bring hope to those who live “off the map.”
Easter 5, Year B
Mays, James Luther, Joseph Blenkinsopp, and Society of Biblical Literature, eds. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.