ACTS 8 | QUEER EUNUCH
Good morning, my name is Sarah Ngu. I’ve been coming here for almost 4 years and I lead a small group in Brooklyn Heights, the best small group. I hope you’re ready because today I am going to give a very queer sermon, but don’t worry, I made sure there is something in this for everyone. We try to be inclusive of all experiences here at Forefront. But this is not going to be just a sermon about how God includes everyone including queer people—that’s a 101 class, we’re doing 201 today, we’re upgrading, I feel like we’re ready for it.
Our text for today is Acts 8; it’s the story of Philip and the African eunuch, and my hope by the end of this sermon you will understand why the eunuch is the queer icon of scripture.
In this story, an angel of the Lord commands Philip, one of the leaders of the early church, to go south on a desert road. And while he’s on his way, he encounters an “Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”).”
Let’s pause right here. “Ethiopia” was the Roman way of referring to all land south of Egypt, most likely including the ancient kingdom of Cush or Nubia now located in Sudan; it implied the southernmost limit of the world. This is a photo of some of the remains of this kingdom which had lots of pyramids and ancient monuments and was for a time ruled by Christian kings who had converted.
And the word Ethiopian in Greek literally means burnt face indicating blackness. So what we have here is the first person identified as Black in the New Testament.
The second thing we learn about this eunuch is that he had come to Jerusalem to worship and he was returning home to his kingdom. When Philip finds him, he is reading the scroll of Isaiah out loud – the bible was a scroll, not book, then – and it seems he is having some difficulty reading what is likely a foreign language to him. So when Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” the eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
A lot of scholars speculate that the eunuch here is somewhere between a “Gentile” and a “Jew.” The technical term for this is a “God-fearer,” that is, a non-Jew who respects and observes certain Jewish traditions but does not fully convert. And I’d imagine that the eunuch’s time in Jerusalem, especially in Roman territory, might have been a bit uncomfortable.
Because there is a law in Deuteronomy 23:1, which is part of the Torah aka the laws of God, that states: “No one whose testes are crushed or whose member is cut off shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord.” And this injunction has been read as basically a prohibition against admitting eunuchs into the temple, into the sacred spaces of Israel.
So eunuchs occupy this liminal position of being an outsider-insider, not just when it comes to their position vis-à-vis Judaism, but also vis-à-vis their gender.
Eunuchs typically referred to boys who are castrated from young. And because of that their features tended to be more feminine, they would have beardless faces; they were seen by the Romans as soft, effeminate, highly sexual and mostly sexually passive.
Here is a quote from Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in the first century, who provides this commentary on the eunuch:
"He is neither male nor female for he is incapable of either giving or receiving seed. None such does Moses permit to enter the congregation of the Lord, for what use can he find in listening to holy words when the knife has cut away the power of faith and the store of the truth.”
Philo has got some interesting views on where it is exactly in the body that we store faith and truth. And he’s not that much of an outlier. When you read in Genesis about how a man would put their hands under another man’s thigh in order to take an oath (e.g. Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph), that was a euphemism for saying holding another man’s balls. In the Roman world, virtue and virilitas or virility come from the same Latin root, “vir” meaning masculine. Being virtuous was a masculine thing. The word ‘virilitas’ sometimes was just used to simply refer to a man’s sexual organs. So the implication of this is that if you are not ‘male,’ you are less capable of virtue, of faith and truth. So where does this leave women, and in particular, where does this leave the eunuch?
That said, historically eunuchs were entrusted keepers of king's harem because eunuchs won't impregnate anyone and cause issues with the legitimacy of royal line. Because of their castration, eunuchs were allowed into women-only spaces because they were no threat to men's paternity, but they were also allowed into men-only spaces to act as court advisers. So by the gender norms of the ancient world, in which procreation is everything and gender is largely defined around that, eunuchs are basically neither male or female.
Philo also has this truly fabulous passage:
“Mark how conspicuously they braid and adorn their hair, and how they scrub and paint their faces with cosmetics and pigments and the like. In fact, the transformation of the male nature to the female is practiced by them as an art and does not raise a blush.
Certainly you may see these hybrids of man and woman continually strutting about through the thick of the market, heading the processions at the feasts, appointed to serve as unholy ministers of holy things, leading the mysteries and initiations and celebrating the rites of Demeter. Those of them who, by way of heightening still further their youthful beauty, have desired to be completely changed into women and gone on to mutilate their genital organs, are clad in purple like signal benefactors of their native lands… each of them a curse and a pollution of his country.”
In any case, so here you have, in the book of Acts, a black, effeminate man or maybe a non-binary and trans person who occupies a third gender category outside of male and female, and who, very importantly, exists outside of the procreative structure of society. Procreation was integral to the people of Israel. To be without children was a curse, because who would continue your family’s legacy? Your name? Your memory? That pressure to have children for the sake of your family is likely a little familiar to some of us here.
So jumping back into the scene in Acts and this eunuch is reading this scroll of Isaiah and is struggling to work it out. And the passage that the eunuch is reading is this:
“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. Who can describe his descendants? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
This is from Isaiah 53. The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Broderick Greer, an Episcopal priest who is also black and queer, makes the point that maybe the eunuch is asking Philip this question, because they see themselves in this passage. The eunuch is asking, “I want to know who this is about because I relate to this person.”
The part that probably caught the eunuch’s eyes is likely the last few sentences: “Who can speak of his descendants? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
For, as I mentioned earlier, to be without descendants is, in a way, to have your life taken from this earth as soon as you die.
The narrator goes on to say, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” We don’t know what he said, but maybe Philip told him that Jesus also had no children, that he was single, that he entered women’s spaces and men’s spaces, and was despised and shamed by the Romans. And maybe the eunuch thought: Oh, I get it.
And then because the bible was a scroll and not a book and there were no chapter or verse markers, Philip and the eunuch likely discussed a passage farther down the scroll, which in our bibles is Isaiah chapter 56:
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.”
Let’s pause on this phrase, “I am only a dry tree,” because I’d bet that it’s a phrase that may resonate with many different kinds of people. Perhaps you are trying to have children, and it’s been really hard for a variety of reasons: money, fertility, legality, etc. And the phrase “dry tree” stings a little for you right now.
Or maybe you know you do not want children, but what stings is how people perceive you. How people think of you as a “dry tree” in a society that places a premium on children and certainly marriage.
When I see the word “tree” here, I think of a family-tree. And I think of a friend who goes to Forefront who was telling me this story of how she was dating another woman for almost a year, and the relationship was going strong, and her parents wanted to visit her in NYC. And my friend says, “Oh would you like to meet my girlfriend? Even just for 10 minutes.” And her parents say, “No.” That stung. But my friend didn’t think too much more about it until Thanksgiving came around. Around that time, her brother had been dating a woman for just two months and didn’t want to come home as he wanted to hang out with his girlfriend. And her mother finds out and says, “Oh, so you’re dating someone? That’s fine, invite her over to our house for Thanksgiving.” So they both come over and everyone gets along, they go shopping together, they eat together and so on. And my friend is pissed. She is fuming. In her mother’s eyes, on the family tree, her relationship is basically a dead, dry branch compared to her brother’s.
Let’s return to Isaiah 56 and read the rest of it.
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.”
4 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—
5 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 forever.
You can see that Isaiah is introducing a very different theme than Deuteronomy. People who would typically be considered outside of the temple such as foreigners and eunuchs now have access to the temple. Now to be sure commentators stress that this doesn’t mean the eunuchs and foreigners get to be priests exactly, but they are treated as insiders way more than they have been before.
And Austen Hartke, who wrote a very good book called Transforming: The Bible & the Lives of Transgender Christians, SLIDE writes that the promise to eunuchs that God gives strongly echoes the promise that God makes to Abraham that God will give Abraham, the father of Israel, descendants and an everlasting covenant that will endure forever.
I agree with Hartke’s analysis but I would go a little further. Because the promise to Abraham is that God will miraculously render him and his wife, Sarah, fertile. But the promise to the eunuchs is not that God will miraculously enable them to procreate and fit in with everyone else, but rather that God will give them something “better than sons and daughters.” God is not trying to fit the eunuchs into the dominant paradigm of procreation; God is saying, I’m going to give you something better.
So this is not entirely a story of inclusion by way of assimilation, where those on the outside are granted access to the inside so long as they conform to the dominant power. The eunuchs do have to abide by God’s covenant and observe the Sabbath, but they are included as themselves in their bodies, and in their own skins, without having to change a thing.
Which brings to me to this point: When the church talks about including the marginalized such as the queer community, the assumption is often that we queer people should be grateful to the Church for finally letting us in. But what if we flip the premise: What if it is the Church or society at large who should be grateful for the gifts that the LGBTQIA community bring?
Many of you know D; they have been part of Forefront for a long time. They are part of the asexual community and they have a friend David Jay who also identifies as asexual, meaning he does not experience sexual attraction. He has had a romantic (but not sexual) partner, and for awhile they were a little bit stuck. You see, David has always wanted children, but his partner does not. And based on the dominant script of “family” in our society, we would say, “Ok, that’s that, no kids for you I guess, sad. You’re just a dry tree.”
But then a few years ago, David’s two very close friends, a married couple, who knew that he really wanted children, said, “We are planning on having a child. Would you want to be a co-parent with us? Move in with us, split the childcare bills, bottle-feed, change diapers, make decisions together until our daughter goes to college?”
And he said: Yes. To be clear, this is not a poly-amorous situation, David does not have a sexual relationship with his friends (that’s kind of the point of being asexual), but all three of them are co-parents to the same child. David is in fact in process of legally adopting his daughter. And it’s a beautiful arrangement because it allows him to fulfill his deep desire to be a parent without forcing his partner into a life she does not want. And as for David’s friends, having a third parent means a lot more rest, a lot more time together as a couple, etc.
You see when you don’t fit into the dominant script of family and gender, you are more awakened to the fact that you can make different choices.
Merriam Webster defines queer as “differing in some odd way from what is usual or normal.” Strange, peculiar, out-there. What David Jay and his friends are doing is, in other words, “queering” the dominant script of family. And what the LGBTQIA community at large brings to the table is that we awaken everyone up to these dominant scripts of family and gender and we ask, “Why do we do it that way? Would a different way sometimes make more sense? Why do we have these scripts, and are they helpful or harmful for people?”
And to bring it back to the modern church, I think what queer people offer is not just a different or queer way of doing things; we also offer the church a vision of what radical grace looks like.
Let’s return to the eunuch this time in the book of Acts. After the eunuch and Philip are having a nice bible discussion, this is what happens:
And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
This is the first baptism of a non-Jew recorded in the New Testament, and it is of a black, queer trans person. I particularly love this passage because the eunuch doesn’t say, “So I’ve been thinking and I know that legally and historically there are some rules preventing me for being fully a part of your people, but um, it’d be nice if I could get baptized? So why don’t you all gather, read your Scriptures, and maybe convene for a special general session and then y’all do a little vote, and then when you’re ready for this change, just send me an email and I’ll come right over.”
The eunuch is like: There’s water. I’m gonna get baptized. There’s nothing stopping me. What is to prevent me?
And I feel that this is the best and most radical posture, to declare, “I’m blessed, I’m a child of God exactly as I am, and you know it. So baptize me.”
And the reason why I feel this is the message that we need to hear is that the hardest thing in the world, the thing that people spend years in therapy or in community trying to do, is to stop punish yourself for not being_____ enough and to accept, even love, yourself. And this is something pretty much everyone struggles with, queer or not.
So this divine message that we are irrevocably loved and worthy no matter what we do and how we perform was, I think for the church, too hard to follow and it felt too good to be true, so to make it easier to swallow, the church added extra rules.
It's like the opposite of a sugar pill. In this case, the sugar is too sweet, and people don't believe it's actually good for you, so they added some bitter rules. That's how you get ideas like "God's love for you is free, but it ain't cheap." That's how you get “God loves you so much,” and, “oh by the way here are a bunch of rules and things to believe if you don’t want God to torture you for eternity.” Because I think it’s much easier to follow some rules than to truly believe that there is nothing you can do to stop God from loving you and live from that truth.
Over time, the gospel message of unconditional love somehow gets warped into a “Soul Watchers” program of “Am I good enough for God?” And we create our own hoops for us to jump through.
Then the queer people show up. The eunuchs show up. In our bodies. And we say, "Look, I'm here, as I am, and I’m just blessed and there's nothing I have to do to prove myself worthy of God's love, no matter what verse you throw at me.”
And we reveal that the hoops we’ve created, as a church and as a society, are lies. The lie that if my body looks a certain way or if I get a certain person’s approval, my father’s approval, my boss’ approval, social media’s approval, that then I would be save, finally I would be deserving of love. And maybe these are the lies we have to give up for Lent.
And the powers that be can't handle this message, because it means they will not only have to stop judging others, but also themselves. So they decide to kick queer people out.
A friend, Van, said to me a few weeks ago: When the church kicks queer people, it is kicking out the very people who know what radical grace looks like and who are living it out. The church is kicking out the prophets who are awakening the church to its imprisonment.
The Church is in need of salvation. This divine message—that we are immeasurably worthy and loved, without our having to do or achieve anything—is the good news, it is, to me, the gospel of salvation. And we all need it.
My dad has always loved this verse, and I’ve shied away from it because of all this baggage, but it’s this verse from Romans in which Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one who believes.” And so I ask you today, my sisters, brothers, and siblings, what is it that you believe? What stories and lies do you believe about yourself, or about other people? I pray that you may believe in the good news about who you are, about who we are, because it may very well save us.