Scriptures ‘bibles’ in Bible

Published 12:01 am Saturday, August 16, 2014

By The Rev. Bob Madsen

Everyone has favorite passages of scripture. They form our little “bible” within the Bible. Different passages mean more to us at different times of our lives. There is a lively rotation of which one is on top on any given day.

One of my favorites is the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. It is in Acts 8. It follows the martyrdom of Stephen and the persecution of Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, under the authority of Saul. It comes just before Saul sets out on that Damascus road where he is encountered by the risen Christ and is physically blinded but has his spiritual eyes opened wide.

I like the story of Philip and the Eunuch because interpreting that passage was part of the exams I took close to 25 years ago as I prepared for ordination for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Ordination exams, like all professional and vocational exams, can be grueling; a lot rides on passing them.

I have always liked how the passage shatters the barriers that had limited the Eunuch’s participation in the life of the worshipping community. By law (Leviticus 23) eunuchs were not permitted to join the “assembly of the Lord.” They were to be excluded from the congregation of God’s people.

But in the Acts passage, after reading a text from Isaiah, and listening to Philip interpret it in light of Jesus Christ, that prohibition was overcome when the Eunuch spots a nearby pond and asks what would prevent him from being baptized, meaning being joined to the community of Christ’s followers. Under the authority of the Holy Spirit, Philip immediately baptized the Eunuch. Philip was carried off to a new mission, while the Eunuch went on his way, rejoicing. The one who had been excluded had experienced a radical rite of inclusion.

What I didn’t know 25 years ago was that tucked in another chapter of Isaiah, not the one the Eunuch and Philip read that day, is the promise of just such a day. In Isaiah 56, God declares, “I will give (to eunuchs who keep sabbath), in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

That is the beauty of God’s grace, I believe. It pushes us to reach out to those who have been marginalized and excluded in order to make clear that they, too, are beloved children of God. I doubt that it is a coincidence that the Acts passage precedes the conversion of Saul to Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul’s ministry was all about carrying to the gospel to those who were considered undeserving of God’s attention. Perhaps Acts intends for us to see Paul’s ministry through the lens of Philip’s encounter with the Eunuch on a wilderness road that ran between Jerusalem and Gaza so that we might see just how radically inclusive God’s grace is.

Texts that like that will always be in my “bible” within the Bible.

The Rev. Bob Madsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Andalusia. The Andalusia Ministerial Association coordinates this weekly religion column.