A sermon preached at Hot Metal Bridge Faith Community on July 23, 2017 on the occasion of Judah’s Baptism
This is a short scene. But it is also an epic tale. Because it is the climax of a story that began hundreds of years earlier with the prophecy of a prophet called Isaiah. A story that culminated with the baptism of a wealthy Ethiopian eunuch by a poor Jewish Christian in a small stream in the Palestinian wilderness.
It’s a story that demonstrates God’s plan to redeem all of humanity, a story that illustrates the wild movement of the Holy Spirit, and a story that affirms that God’s love is bigger than the barriers we put up between others and God, and between others and ourselves.
And if that’s not enough for you, it’s also a story that features probably the only queer character in the New Testament.
Alright, so first let’s replay some of the tape from last week’s sermon. If you remember, we were hearing about a controversy in the early days of the church. It was a golden age of generosity and sharing when everyone was taken care of. Until a conflict broke out – dun dun dunnnn – between the Greeks and the Hebrews (meaning the Greek-speaking Jews and the Aramaic-speaking Jews). The Greek widows weren’t getting their fair share from the Hebrews in the daily food distribution.
The twelve apostles were concerned about this injustice but also maaaaybe thought that waiting tables was beneath their dignity. Perhaps because women were usually in charge of hospitality and food? So they asked the community to pick seven people to put in charge of the food. And the community picked all Greek men. Which was a remarkable and kind of subversive solution because they basically put the minority group in charge.
So what the apostles wanted was a division of labor – the Twelve would do the preaching and the Seven would do the charity work. But here is something interesting we didn’t touch on last week. In the entire book of Acts we never actually see the Seven waiting tables. Instead, we see them *preaching* sermons that are challenging and subversive. Stephen condemns the temple religious system to the Jewish leaders and gets killed for it. Then Philip converts the most outside of outsiders – a gentile eunuch. Philip doesn’t show up again in the story for twenty years – when we learn that he has bucked tradition again. His four daughters – rather than being married off – have become prophets and leaders in the church in Caesarea.
It’s almost as if the ministry of service helped the Seven to see religion and gender and family and life from a different perspective.
So about that outsider, the eunuch from Ethiopia.
Austen Hartke – a transgender Christian who writes for Sojourners magazine – calls the Ethiopian eunuch an “in-between person.” In ancient society, eunuchs represented a kind of third gender – they were considered to be not quite male but not exactly female either. Their gender did not fit the given categories and so they were in between.
The bodies of eunuchs who were Israelites – or of anyone who wanted to convert to Judaism – also defied the categories of their religion. The Law banned eunuchs from joining others for worship at the temple. So they were members of a religion that did not accept them. They were Jews but also not Jews and also not NOT Jews. They were in between.
The status of eunuchs in society was also inconsistent. Although some were born with the condition and others received it as the result of an accident, many were slaves who were victimized by violence. In some ways they were marginalized. But in some contexts they were highly valued. Royal households found them to be particularly trustworthy servants. Since eunuchs did not have heirs, kings and queens did not have to wonder if their servants would betray them to benefit their own children. So they often rose to prominent positions of power and wealth. In some ways they were ostracized and in other ways they were prominent in society. They were in between.
Some of us here this morning will resonate with that puzzling feeling of being highly valued by one community while at the same time being marginalized by another, especially of being included by one community while being excluded by a religious community.
And I think everyone can empathize on some level. Most of us have had the experience of not being able to bring our full selves into certain spaces. We reveal parts of ourselves to our friends that we don’t reveal to our family. We reveal parts of ourselves to our family that we don’t reveal to our coworkers. And of course many people are cautious about bringing their full selves to church.
And that, of course, is the experience of the Ethiopian eunuch. He is an in between person who does not fit society’s expectations for gender and sexuality, an in between person who is powerful at home but is powerless when he reaches the temple in Jerusalem. What he wants more than anything is to bring his entire self into the presence of God, to be worthy of God, to be accepted by God. But is turned away instead by the people who should be his brothers and sisters.
What a disappointment. And after such a long journey. The Romans considered Ethiopia to be an exotic location. It was thought to be at the edge of the world. On some level he must have known this would be a disappointing journey. He owned expensive personal copies of the scriptures. He had studied the religion. He must have known. So why did he go?
I suspect there was a fire in his bones, a deep sense that he did belong to God, not matter what anyone else said.
Did he still feel that way on his long journey home? Luke makes a point of telling us that he was traveling on a wilderness road. A wilderness road was a lonely road, and a dangerous one. If bandits found you no one would pass by to help. The road is like a picture of his interior state. Feeling alone n the wilderness. Still without a spiritual home. Still in between.
It’s significant that he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. Even though religion and religious people had become a barrier, he still found comfort in the scriptures. He found a reminder that God’s love is bigger than the Law.
In Isaiah, God says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever.”
“My house will be called
a house of prayer for all nations.”
The Sovereign LORD declares—
he who gathers the exiles of Israel:
“I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that when Philip caught up to the chariot, the eunuch was moving away from the temple in Jerusalem. He was heading away from the legalism of religion and towards the justice of the prophets.
And Philip was there to guide him the rest of the way towards Jesus.
It is hard for us today to wrap our minds around some of the barriers that some religious people – and even some biblical writers – place between certain people and God. Barriers based on ethnicity or nationality. Barriers based on gender. Barriers based on illness or injury. Barriers based on disability.
But if we’re being honest with ourselves we have to admit that we still put up barriers that make it difficult for others to bring their full selves into the presence of God in worship. We struggle with difference. We struggle with being different from each other. Different politics. Different ethnicities. Different socio-economic status. Heck, different musical preferences are still a problem for a lot of church people. All these things – and more – can make it difficult to relate. Difficult to welcome each other into the family.
But the good news for us this morning is that even when the church puts up barriers, the kingdom of God doesn’t. Even when we hide behind our differences, or when we try to shove others into categories that make us more comfortable, the kingdom of God doesn’t. The Holy Spirit is wild. And subversive. As Jesus said, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” [John 3:8].
Even when we want to hide our true selves from each other. Even when we make it difficult for others to bring their true selves to church. Even when we feel like we have one foot planted in one community and the other foot planted in the church. Even then the Spirit knows that our entire body, our whole self – our heart, mind, soul, and strength – is already in the kingdom of God. We all belong to the kingdom.
When the eunuch asked, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip was silent. Because there was nothing to prevent it. So they simply got out of the chariot and into the water.
Whenever our church baptizes a new person, we are encouraged to remember our own baptisms. To remember that there was nothing to prevent us from being baptized. And that there is nothing that can take away our baptism. We are signed, sealed, and delivered to the kingdom of God not matter what anyone says or how we feel.
God’s love is bigger than our feelings and the kingdom of God is bigger than our words.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that in our baptism the Holy Spirit makes us family. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8)
So our baptism unites us even when other things try to divide us.
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3)