Easter 5, Year B, April 29, 2018
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He had heard the word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ and of his saving death and resurrection, and there was water there. What was to prevent him from being baptized? It’s a good question. Can anything get in the way of someone being joined to Christ in baptism? Should anything get in the way? Obviously, there are things humans can say or do that get in the way; we can discourage people, intentionally or unintentionally, from being baptized and thus joined to Christ’s death and resurrection. We can put limits on who we will and will not baptize in our churches; we can make requirements on what they have to do or say beforehand. Most churches have such requirements. Maybe you have to take a class or profess your faith in the right kind of way or make promises. Maybe you have to change careers, or change your way of life. In churches like ours that baptize mostly infants, well, obviously we don’t require things of babies. But we do put requirements on the families of those babies. They have to promise to bring them to church regularly, for a start. And we also make rules and put boundaries around who is and is not welcome in church. We may say that all are welcome, but in practice some people are more welcome than others.
I tend to be in favor of such rules and boundaries. When I baptize a baby, I always sit down with the parents about what that means, and what they’re promising to do for that baby as it grows, how they’re promising to raise them in the faith. When I baptize a teen or an adult, I want to make sure they know what they’re doing, and I strongly recommend that their baptismal sponsors are close by to support them in their growth and faith. And when I went to a seminar on evangelism, a few years back, and heard the story of how one church helped bring a couple out of a life of prostitution and pimping, set them up with another career, and then baptized the whole family, I was filled with praise for God—and I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable if they’d done it the other way around, baptism first and then helping them change their lives around. And on a day to day basis, when someone suggests something new or different from what I’m expecting, my gut reaction is to protest. Maybe some of you can empathize.
And then I come to this story. The eunuch said: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And there, by the side of the road, without classes or sponsors or enquiries into the eunuch’s lifestyle or anything else, he was baptized. You may have noticed that verse 37 is missing. We’re reading this passage as it was first written. But later Christians read this story and were so uncomfortable with this idea, this implication that nothing at all should stand between someone and baptism, that they added in a verse in which Philip tells the eunuch that he has to believe in Christ with all his heart, and the eunuch says he does. When modern scholars went back and looked at the oldest copies of the book of Acts, they saw that verse 37 was nowhere to be found, so they took it back out of our modern translations. I understand why early Christians added that verse. Surely, at least, you have to believe in order to be baptized? Surely it can’t just be a matter of asking and receiving the grace of God poured out in water and the word? And yet, in the earliest versions of this story, the Ethiopian asks, and he is baptized. As simple as that.
This is even more surprising when you consider who the Ethiopian is. He is an outsider, a foreigner, a eunuch. Ethiopia, then called Aksum, was a wealthy and powerful empire based in the horn of Africa. Israel had had ties with them for a thousand years, at that point. The queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon was an Ethiopian, and these connections had resulted in a small Jewish community in Ethiopia that is still there today. This Ethiopian was probably not Jewish, himself, as he was unfamiliar with Isaiah and needed help understanding it, but he obviously respected God. He owned a copy of the book of Isaiah, and books were expensive. And this is early in Acts; up to this point, everyone who has been baptized is Jewish, and the Christian community still believed that in order to follow Jesus you had to become Jewish. In fact, if Philip’s congregation finds out he baptized someone who is not Jewish, they will be angry with him. But the Holy Spirit brought Philip to that place, to that Ethiopian, and he asked to be baptized. What is to prevent him? Nothing!
More serious, however, is the fact that he is a eunuch. A eunuch is a man who has been castrated. Many cultures in the ancient world would castrate some men and boys, because it was believed to make them more trustworthy. A man who was castrated couldn’t impregnate someone else’s wife or father children. He had no family to compete for his loyalty, or any kind of a life outside of work. But eunuchs weren’t respected. They weren’t really seen as men, but they weren’t women, either. They were weird, the butt of the joke. They crossed gender and sexual boundaries. They were queer. You might employ one, but you wouldn’t sit next to him at dinner. Or at worship.
In Israel, the laws in Deuteronomy forbade eunuchs from entering the Temple grounds. So this person had learned of God from his Jewish neighbors, and had travelled 1500 miles to learn more. But when he got to the temple in Jerusalem, they would have turned him away. Because he was a eunuch, and thus not the right sort of person. Sorry, sir, it doesn’t matter how much your heart yearns for the Lord, it doesn’t matter how much you love God, it doesn’t matter what else you do in your life: your kind are not welcome in God’s temple. That’s what they would have told him.
So, the Ethiopian eunuch was returning home, a 1500-mile journey, empty-handed except for a copy of the holy scriptures. Which he was reading. Because even the rejection of the humans running God’s temple could not drive his heart away from God. Now, there are two interesting things in the passage he was reading when Philip arrived. The first is that it is a passage that Christians often apply to Jesus, the lamb of God who was slain as an offering for sin. The second is that if you read on for just another few chapters, God promises the foreigners and the eunuchs that there will come a day when they will be part of the people of Israel and welcome in God’s house, because, as God says, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord GOD, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.” All the outcasts—the foreigners, the weird ones like the eunuchs, the poor, the marginalized, the rejects—will be welcome. Not only welcome, but sought out by God.
And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And Philip, he could have said plenty. He could have quoted chapter and verse on why the Ethiopian had to become Jewish, first. He could have said, “Sorry, Jesus loves you, but eunuchs just aren’t good enough to participate in worship, the day Isaiah speaks of hasn’t come yet.” He could have said, “Well, you need to learn more about Jesus before we’ll let you be baptized.” There were so many reasons that Christians—then and now—would have found to prevent this queer foreigner from being baptized.
But the Holy Spirit had put Philip in that place, and Philip listened to the Spirit’s call, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. The Ethiopian eunuch asked for God’s grace to be poured out on him, and Philip had every reason to stand in his way … and he chose to help, instead. That’s the last we hear of that Ethiopian eunuch in Scripture. But while I don’t know for sure what happened next, I can guess. You see, in 330AD Ethiopia was the first nation in the world to become Christian. While the Roman Empire was still waffling back and forth about whether or not to persecute Christians, Ethiopia was a stronghold of the faith. And it has been a Christian nation ever since. I went to seminary with several Ethiopian-Americans.
We put boundaries around our faith. Who can and cannot be Christian, who is and is not welcome in church, what people need to do or say in order to become baptized. And there are often good reasons for such rules and boundaries. I know just how soothing it can be to stay within your comfort zone, and how difficult it can be to think and act outside of it even when God is calling us to do so. But we always have to ask ourselves: are those rules and boundaries for God’s benefit … or ours? Are the conditions and expectations we create necessary, or is they a stumbling block? And, most importantly, what is the Holy Spirit calling us to do?
May we, like Philip, follow the call of the Holy Spirit even when it calls us to set aside our rules and cross our boundaries.