Agape love and a Black eunuch

A Lection Reflection on Acts 8:26-40 and 1 John 4:7-21


These two lections are both very familiar. And yet, I was struck by the fact that they are listed on the same day. It’s almost as if they present a challenge to us, when used in combination. Let’s explore that.

First of all, let’s clear up the use of “Ethiopian” to describe the eunuch. While any number of sermons have focused on the eunuch being from modern-day Ethiopia (“he took the gospel to another continent!”), the word does not refer to nation of origin. In New Testament times, “Ethiopian” was used to describe any person with dark skin. (The root of the word literally means “scorched face.”)

In other words, the eunuch was a Black man. And, he was not ethnically a Jew. Some commentators note that he had gone to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, but was not allowed into the inner court because he was not Jewish. He was a “Jahweh worshipper,” somewhere between a Jew and a Gentile.

I did some research on racism in this period. I was not able to find much specifically about the attitudes of Jews toward Blacks. One article notes that the two major forms of prejudice were that of Greeks toward non-Greeks, whom they called “Barbarians”; and of Jews toward non-Jews, whom they called “Gentiles.” When it came to Blacks, the physical differences were noted, but there was not prejudice based on those characteristics. (The “curse of Ham” seems to have come later as a reason to be prejudiced against Blacks.)

Phillip seems to have no hesitancy about approaching a Black semi-Gentile, a stranger, on a deserted road. He is ready to explain what the eunuch is reading, and we know the rest of the story: the eunuch is baptized and goes on his way rejoicing, and Phillip goes to Azotus and preaches there.

The 1 John passage is also familiar – it is an exposition on agape love. In fact, some form of the word “love” is used at least 25 times in the passage. (If you count “beloved” the count goes up to 29.)

The passage emphasizes that God first loved us with agape love. If we are in God, and God in us, then we will love each other with that same agape love.

Even though I’m sure we all are familiar with the concept of agape love, let’s recall a few characteristics of it:

  • Is not based on any attribute or value of the loved person.
  • Is not based on any action of the loved person.
  • Does not expect anything in return.
  • Is a choice or decision of the agape lover, not a feeling.

Do you see where I’m going with this? On the one hand, we have a long passage explaining and extolling the expectations of Jesus followers when it comes to practicing agape love, not only to each other, but to all. And on the other hand, we have an example of that love when a Jewish disciple doesn’t hesitate to talk with a Black man from another country.

So here’s the application of this juxtaposition, at least for me:

When we say we are practitioners of agape love, do we practice it toward all?

Is our agape love passive, or active? Do we reach out to show love toward others?

Do we love and accept people different from ourselves? How about Blacks? Or, for Blacks, how about whites? How about Muslims? How about people of a different political party? How about people who actively hate us?

Do we love these people only as an object of evangelism, or only when they become like us? Or do we love as Jesus loved: every person he met, as they were.

And finally, in these times of Black Lives Matter, do we think Jesus, and Phillip, and John would have been in the streets with the protesters? Or would they have been standing with the police?

Or … both?

–30–

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3 Responses to Agape love and a Black eunuch

  1. Susan Bock says:

    Dear Bruce, i loved what you wrote and totally agree. it’s wonderful. however, when you use “we” near the end – do “we” love Blacks, Muslims, etc.?” it assumes your audience is white. That can be a problem. Unintentionally reinforcing “we” and “them”.

    Just a thought.

  2. Jeff Carter says:

    Many good thoughts in your article. The highlight for me was you final sentence, “Or..both?” This reflects a gospel attitude that is sorely missing these days. Thank you.

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