What great lessons this month for antiracism and breaking down racial-ethnic barriers! When the Greek-speaking Jews complained their widows were being slighted in the distribution of food, the apostles immediately decided to appoint seven deacons to a food committee. Isn’t that what churches do?
You would expect they might appoint half Hebraic deacons and half Greek deacons. Instead, every single deacon has a Greek name: Stephen, Philip, Procuras, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenus and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. Not one John, James, Thomas, Jesse or Simon in the whole bunch.
If the Greek Jews feel their widows are being overlooked, we’ll put them in charge. That is pretty amazing, isn’t it? We could call that “best practices” for breaking down barriers of discrimination. Kudos to the food committee!
The apostles said, “We can’t be distracted from our important work of preaching to wait on tables,” so they picked some Greek believers to wait tables. We might think they were saying they were more important than these deacons, but at least two of the deacons, Stephen and Philip, turned out to be powerful preachers as well.
This isn’t surprising, since the apostles asked for deacons full of the Spirit and wisdom for the task. The apostles didn’t seem to mind sharing the limelight with these on-fire newcomers. These stories in Acts highlight these Spirit-filled men.
Another Spirit-filled leader was Stephen, who, “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” He ended up being the first martyr for the Christian faith. He preached a powerful message to the Jewish leaders before they stoned him.
Philip went down to Samaria, where he was healing and casting out spirits and doing amazing miracles. He started a revival there, baptizing so many new believers that Peter and John had to go give him a hand.
From Samaria, Philip was directed by an angel to go down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encountered an Ethiopian eunuch with high standing in the royal court of the queen of Ethiopia. Eunuchs were often in trusted positions of authority, since they were seen as asexual and not prone to get involved in any kind of compromising or threatening relationship with the women they served.
But eunuchs were also seen as blemished and were forbidden from serving as priests if their testicles were crushed (Lev. 21:20). Nor could they be “admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1).
However, Isaiah 56:4-5 gives us a far more accepting view of eunuchs: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give 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.”
Since the Ethiopian eunuch was returning from Jerusalem where he had worshiped and was reading the scroll of Isaiah, he was apparently accepted as a Jewish worshiper in the temple at Jerusalem.
Philip sees no reason not to welcome him into the fellowship of Jesus followers, so he baptizes him right there.
This story of inclusion is significant on many levels. In this one person, Philip accepts a eunuch, a high official in the court of a queen and an Ethiopian. These may all have been firsts and may be why the story of this one person’s conversion and baptism is preserved. Probably most significant is that, according to tradition, this eunuch founded the Ethiopian church.
Duane Beachey, author of Reading the Bible As If Jesus Mattered (Cascadia, 2014), is a Mennonite pastor serving two small Presbyterian churches in eastern Kentucky, where he and his wife, Gloria, served with Mennonite Central Committee.