Frederick Buechner Sermon Illustration: Ethiopian Eunuch

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

Next Sunday we will celebrate the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Here are this week’s readings from the book of Acts:

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was 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 generation? For his life is taken away from the earth." The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Here is Buechner’s take on this encounter from “Ethiopian Eunuch” first published in Peculiar Treasures and reprinted in Beyond Words:

THE NAME OF THE ETHIOPIAN EUNUCH isn't given, but he was Secretary of the Treasury under Queen Candace of Ethiopia, and he had been to Jerusalem on a religious pilgrimage. It was on his way home that the high point of the trip occurred.

He was cruising along in his chariot reading out loud to himself from the book of Isaiah when the apostle Philip happened to overhear him and asked if he understood what the words were all about. The eunuch said he could use some help on one passage in particular, and this was the passage:

As a sheep led to the slaughter
or a lamb before its shearers is dumb
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken up from the earth.

(Acts 8:32-33; compare Isaiah 53:7-8)

Who in the world was Isaiah talking about? the eunuch wanted to know, and Philip said it was Jesus. Jesus was the one who was gentle as a sheep and innocent as a lamb. He was the one who had been unjustly humiliated and slaughtered and hadn't let out so much as a peep to save himself. As for describing his generation, his time, all you could say was that he belonged to all time and every generation because his life wasn't bound to the earth anymore. His life was everywhere, and any of us could live it for ourselves or let it live itself in us as easily as a fish circulates around in the water and the water circulates around in a fish.

The way things happened, a pond turned up by the side of the road as they traveled along, and the eunuch asked why he shouldn't give the thing a try right then and there and let Philip baptize him in it. So Philip baptized him, and when that black and mutilated potentate bobbed back to the surface, he was so carried away he couldn't even speak. The sounds of his joy were like the sounds of a brook rattling over pebbles, and Philip never saw him again and never had to.