Readings for May 3, 2015. Acts 8, 26-40, Ps. 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is hugely interesting as a story of the early church. It is one of several "outside the box" conversion stories in the book of Acts showing how the good news of Jesus is reaching into new places. Here, at the beginnings of the church, people who never would have found their way into the Old Testament definition of God's people, are welcomed as full members of the church.
The eunuch is a foreigner, likely black, a high court official to a non-Jewish Queen, and is a castrate. (Important to understand that as a castrate, he would have been considered an incomplete or blemished man, and excluded from the assembly of the Lord Deut. 23:1. Castrates were often put in charge of household operations or the royal harem. A couple of stereotypes about them; eunuchs were considered to be especially trustworthy in all matters, and they were also sometimes thought to be sexually "loose". These stereotypes seem to be in contrast with each other, but I'm not sure this was any sort of issue in the contexts in which they were found in the ancient world.)
What intrigues me most, is that Philip doesn't bat an eye at the fact the man is a foreigner, or eunuch, or whatever. The question he asks the Ethiopian is; "do you understand what you are reading?" Philip gets right into the chariot with him and they talk about the scripture and the Jesus story. The Eunuch believes, and his question back to Philip is; "what is to prevent me from being baptized?"
Nothing. There is nothing to prevent this baptism, not ethnicity, not distance from Jerusalem, not sexual status, not service to a foreign Queen.
"What is to prevent me from being baptized?" How would we (the church) answer this question should someone of ambiguous gender, connections to a foreign government, racial difference from us, and limited ability to connect with our community request baptism? Would we have to strike a committee, deliberate for months (or years), cross-examine the candidate more thoroughly than any other requesting baptism, grill them about their orientation...Unfortunately, it seems we often err on the side of legalism rather than love.
Our anabaptist heritage takes baptism very seriously. Catechism (preparation for baptism) in the early anabaptist church sometimes took over a year to complete. Candidates had to be thoroughly sure of their decision. One important reason was that it could be a life or death decision. This second baptism could, and sometimes did, make a martyr out of someone. It was not only a declaration of faith, but a "criminal" act against the state. The anabaptists were also very concerned about purity of lifestyle-because they had to be clearly different from the corrupt ways of the institutional church. They had good reasons for their stringency, but I don't see that kind of strictness in Philip.
I sometimes think the legacy of our heritage has negatives for today's situation. We aren't in the same situation as the early anabaptists, we aren't facing persecution or encouraging heresy. I think our very careful heritage still binds us in ways that maybe aren't as relevant now. We too often think of baptism as an "end point", a declaration of a fully formed faith, a declaration of a "pure" lifestyle. Instead, it seems better, to me at least, to think of baptism as a starting point. A declaration of intent, a desire to follow Jesus, to work toward as "pure" and moral a lifestyle as possible, a commitment to care for and help each other toward serving God with our whole beings. Baptism is acknowledgement that, no matter our starting point, we are striving to follow Jesus and grow in faith and practice.
So how would we answer someone who asks; "what is to prevent me from being baptized?" Philip didn't add any "hoops" for the eunuch to jump through. What he did was discuss scriptures and share the good news of Jesus. There is nothing to prevent someone from being baptized if they declare their desire to follow Jesus.
This story from Acts has been seen as a message of hope for people who have felt excluded from the church. The Eunuch is reading from Isaiah-a prophet concerned with the outcast, the poor, the oppressed, those who suffer injustice. It proclaims a saviour who cares for all those rejected by society, a saviour who will die for those people no one else will accept. This story is a message of hope for the lgbtq people who long to be close to God. They are accepted here on profession on faith.
So how do we read this story into our situation today? How will we answer the question; "What is to prevent me from being baptized" when someone outside of our mainstream asks this question?