Friday, April 30, 2021

Reflection for Easter 5 (Acts 8:26-40)

Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards 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.

Kittridge Cherry writes that Biblical eunuchs "can stand for all sexual minorities." Cherry maintains that "eunuchs served and guarded the women in royal palaces and wealthy households. Their employers wanted to be certain that the eunuchs would not get sexually involved with the women they were supposed to protect, so many eunuchs were castrated men, homosexual men, and intersex folk. Many, but not all, were both castrated and homosexual. Eunuchs were trusted officials who often rose to senior posts in government."

Philip is one of the seven Gentile deacons listed in Acts 6:5. In Acts 8, the encounter between Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a comment on our common practice of baptism, entrance, and initiation into the church. And, further, this story is a sharp critique on drawing theological and ecclesiastical lines in, at best, shifting sand.

Our story is part of the larger movement of the church traversing geographical, nation-state, religious, ethnic, racial, language, dietary, and cultural boundaries. Luke, who writes Luke-Acts, adds an additional boundary shattered by the movement of God's Spirit among the Gentiles: gender identity. Why does Luke include this amazing story in his account if not to expose the lines we create, that separate us from each other. 

The Ethiopian Eunuch is non-gendered, a non-Jew, and a foreigner. Believers who were not Jewish by ancestry were admitted entrance to pray at the Court of the Gentiles, but were denied entrance into the Temple.  Was the eunuch on the way out of Jerusalem rejected at the place of prayer? Consider the background in Deut. 23:1 "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord."  

The story hinges on the eunuch's questions of Philip. Questions tend to access power and also challenge accepted, unexamined practices and policies. There can be no greater equalizer than to ask a simple question. Questions can open the door to doing justice. Like the Easter narratives where the disciples need teaching to understand the meaning of the passion, death, and resurrection, the eunuch, reading from the scroll of Isaiah,  asks, "How can I understand, unless someone guides me?"  

The question, "What is to prevent me from being baptized," probably reflects the question Luke's church must have asked. The implicit answer is: absolutely nothing. There is nothing that prevents one from being baptized. The test case is, of course, one who was kept from the assembly for being non-gendered.  If we let that sink in, what does Philip's welcome mean for our accepted and acceptable practices of  baptism? 

"The whole church needs to be present." I've never presided at a baptism when the "whole church" was present.  Is this a magic number, or only certain public gatherings? The one whose few close friends and family become the body of Christ? The one whose public faith profession is not possible in a coma or ICU. Or the one whose public baptism alienates family and may bring shame to the family and/or recipient?  

"You cannot belong without believing." What about those who, in practical terms, do belong before they believe? Who can be baptized? Only people we deem ready?  What about the one who wants to believe and belong, love and serve? Are others excluded because their intention and desire isn't enough to satisfy the gatekeepers?

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in a fresco of the Apocalypse by Herbert Boecki

"You cannot be blessed by God." Acts 8 is descriptive of how baptism was practiced in the earliest church; however, its reading in the Easter season questions our common practice of limiting access to God's blessing to times and places and people that we determine. The text authorizes all of us, like the Spirit did Philip, to hear- and act on- the implication of the story: there is nothing that can prevent God in Jesus Christ from adopting all people as loved and beloved. We. All. Finally. Belong.   




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