Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2012
Tradition holds that the Ethiopian eunuch was the first gentile to be baptized. The tradition is true only if one does not consider the Samaritans to be gentiles, for numerous Samaritans were already baptized because of Philip’s teaching (8:12). The Samaritans were a splinter Judaism, and the Torah (Pentateuch) was their holy book.
At that time, main-line Jews welcomed to their synagogues gentiles who came to worship Yahweh but would not convert because circumcision was dangerous and painful. When these “God-fearers” learned that Christians worshiped the same God, but did not ask for circumcision, they came to be baptized in large numbers. It may be that the Ethiopian eunuch was the first God-fearer to be baptized. We know nothing about him, not his nation, because the name “Ethiopia” was used so variously, nor his queen, for “Candace” was a title, not a name.
The passage from Isaiah that the eunuch was reading (aloud no less), was 53:7-8, from the song of the Suffering Servant, of which I spoke a month ago. It is interesting that this minister of the very early church who was a Jew and had grown up with the Law and the Prophets as his holy books should now do an about face as to their meanings and interpret them as prophecies of Christ.
First John 4:7-21
In our reading, John the Elder makes one of the most striking and critically important statements for Judaism and Christianity: “God is love.” Love is an abundant idea in both Old and New Testaments—God’s love for humankind, and the ideals of humjan love for God and love of one another. Yet this passage is the only place in the entire collection of documents we call the Bible, where it is said that God is love.
For John the Elder, love is not a matter of talk, but of the heart. It is made real only in acts of love for fellow humans. The supreme example is Jesus, who out of love for humankind suffered and died on the cross. We can’t know God through our senses, but if we love one another, “God lives in us.”
I and many others call this great theologian John the Elder, to distinguish him from John the Baptist, John the Apostle, and John the Divine (the author of the gospel). We know nothing about him except that his “letters” (more like sermons) seem to be written for some early Christian colony largely influenced by the gospel of John.
Arthur H. Cash is a historian and distinguished professor emeritus, State University of New York at New Paltz.