This first week of June the Eastern Orthodox Church will celebrate the annual Feast Day of St. Philip the Deacon, also known as Philip the Evangelist. He was an influential and powerful leader in the early church, and is most often remembered for his role in the conversion of an individual known simply as “The Ethiopian Eunuch.”
This Ethiopian was an important man, a national treasury secretary for a wealthy country of the day. He was also a spiritual seeker, and was in the midst of a dogged 3,000 mile pilgrimage from his home in Africa to the temple in Jerusalem. This information is rarely discussed, however, as the Ethiopian’s, shall I say delicate physical condition, usually steals the headlines.
As alarming as it is in the twenty-first century, the castration of high ranking political figures was once common in some cultures. Any man who worked in close proximity to royalty was often required to give it all up for the sake of the crown — and I mean give it all up — as the only way to ensure that no usurper stole the throne or polluted the purity of the monarchy, was to make the man incapable of producing children.
As a meandering aside, I imagine that our own political headlines for the last several generations would be much less salacious if such a custom remained in place today, though I’m not necessarily advocating for such policy. But this physical detail is not to provide a passing giggle for readers all these years later. It is quite intentional.
Per religious “purity laws,” eunuchs were forbidden to participate in temple worship. They were regarded as blemished, unacceptable and unworthy. So, this man made a months-long, arduous journey with a seeking heart and in true faith, only to be turned away when he arrived. Further, he was of a different race and ethnicity, from a different continent: A minority in every conceivable way.
When Philip the Evangelist finds him, he is reading the Scriptures, still searching in spite of all the rejection. Philip helps him put the puzzled pieces of faith together — outside the establishment — and shows that he can be gladly received in the family of God. He is accepted, worthy, and welcomed.
It is good to reflect on the fact that this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian is one of the first conversion stories told by the early church. It speaks of a community with open doors and open hearts. It testifies to a people willing to obliterate the established, traditional barriers that have kept some on the outside. It shows a radical hospitality, a church unwilling to label others as defective or unfit.
Such openness, the defining mark of Christianity’s earliest tradition, calls people of faith back to our deepest roots. How can adherents of a faith built upon one who was rejected, despised, and treated scornfully, not welcome others into our family? We can’t, for the welcome and grace of Christ is offered to all.