“A Strange Baptism”
preached by the anarchist reverend
july 10, 2011
Acts of the Apostles 8: 26-40
26 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.) 27So 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now 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.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When 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. 40But 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.
When approaching a new text I think it’s helpful to start with the question, “What stands out to you? What do you notice?” And so I think it’s fair to start by saying, I notice this is a weird text. First an angel of the Lord appears out of nowhere and commands Philip to go down a wilderness road. Without question Philip goes and finds an Ethiopian Eunuch riding in a chariot who just happens to be reading Isaiah. And then at the end of this whole encounter Philip apparently has the gift of teleportation and finds himself in a new place leaving the newly baptized Ethiopian Eunuch by himself. What do we do with a text like this?
The book of Acts picks up right where the Gospels leave off. Some have even called it the 5th Gospel. Unlike the rest of the Second Testament, which is very much about the theology of the fledgling Christian movement, Acts is very much an action novel. It follows the stories of the nascent Christian community (who were still calling themselves “Followers of the Way”) as they struggle to form a group identity. They were a small community who were being heavily persecuted. The story of the conversion and baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch comes right after Stephen has been stoned to death for proclaiming Christ. This story begins a series of healing and conversion narratives. Right after this story we read about the conversion of Saul who would become Paul. The book of Acts is trying to explain the expansion of this new movement. It’s a time when old rules about who were in and who were out were being challenged. And so we come to this text. Philip finds an Ethiopian Eunuch, an officer in the court of the queen, reading aloud from the book of Isaiah.
It’s interesting that Phillip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the Eunuch responds, “How can I unless someone guides me?” There is a reason that we don’t baptize children in private. It’s about more than just allowing the congregation to coo over their adorableness (although that’s nice too!). We baptize as a part of a community because we are making a vow to help guide these children as they grow into their unique faith expressions. The role of faith formation doesn’t just fall to the parents or to the teachers tasked with teaching Sunday School; it falls to the entire community.
How do we as a community understand the Bible? How is it that we approach this text? For some of us, this collection of writings has been used as a weapon against us, and so we either abandon it all together or we read it so that we can form it into a shield to protect us. For others we have read this text so many times that it has ceased to bring us any new revelation. For some we haven’t approached the text at all; it either holds no relevance to our lives or else we simply have not had the opportunity to engage with it. My hope is that we can all begin to unpack our baggage around this text and begin to engage it with new eyes and open hearts; so that when these children begin to read it on their own, we can guide them and allow them to guide us.
One of the most significant parts of my spiritual journey has been relearning how to read the Bible. I have had to find new ways to let these words speak to me and to move in my heart. I have had to find ways to make the text sing again while also keeping my mind and my intellect engaged. So how do we read this text with new eyes? What about this story still speaks to our lives and our community today?
I wonder what it was that led this Ethiopian Eunuch to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. Clearly there was something in him that was compelling him to seek out a place of worship. But this person would not have been welcome in the Temple in Jerusalem. His status as a Eunuch, someone who had either been castrated or born with ambiguous genitalia, would have prevented him from being able to even enter into the Temple. We don’t know what compelled him to go to Jerusalem, what he had hoped to find there, or what his experiences were. But I think we can safely assume that he wasn’t allowed to participate. And now he was returning home.
Some of us have had this experience of going to a church and hoping to worship and instead being turned away. Or of being allowed to attend and yet being made to feel uncomfortable; maybe because we weren’t wearing the right clothes, or we didn’t know when to stand or kneel, or because of our gender identity or sexual orientation. And we have left church with a heavy heart, maybe crying on the way home because we had so desired to worship and had been prevented.
I wonder if the Ethiopian Eunuch was experiencing some of those feelings as he traveled toward home? And yet, Philip finds him reading the Scriptures. Maybe he was trying to find out why he had been rejected. Maybe he was looking for solace. I wonder if he had turned to his favorite passage to reassure himself that he was a beloved child of God. A couple of chapters after the passage he’s quoted as reading in our Acts narrative we read these words: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say “the Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant. I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” What powerful words! And words that stand in such contradiction to the law in Deuteronomy that says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted into the assembly of God.” These are words that would have crushed his spirit. Words that would have been used by others as an excuse to keep him out of the Temple. These words are still in use today to keep transgender people out of the house of God. But in spite of these hurtful words, the Eunuch was also able to find words that affirmed him and gave him hope. Words that he may have been turning to in his time of rejection.
Many us of have favorite passages that we turn to in time of need; For some it might not be a Scripture passage but a favorite poem or novel. Maybe there is a song that speaks to you in the midst of your pain or joy.
Philip enters into the story in the midst of rejection and confusion. He sits beside the Ethiopian Eunuch. He answers his questions and tells the story of Jesus; this person who was recklessly hospitable. A man who ate with sinners and touched lepers. A man who purposefully made himself unclean in order to call attention to arbitrary rules about who was in and who was out. Jesus wanted to challenge ideas about who was acceptable. I imagine these words would have sounded sweet to this Ethiopian Eunuch. Confirmation of what he already knew in his heart.
And then they came upon water and the Eunuch says, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And Philip, who would have known the rules preventing eunuchs from worshipping, who would have know that this person he had been talking with was considered to be unacceptable says nothing. Philip just gets into the water and baptizes him. This evangelist baptizes a gender non-conforming person who had been excluded from worshipping life of the community. But after this moment he was allowed to go on his way rejoicing. This is a passage that speaks to the power that happens when we let down our walls and allow the Spirit to move. She will lead us deeper into communion with God and with one another.
There is something beautiful in what we do when we baptize children. We welcome them into the family of God first thing. We tell them that they are acceptable and pure and a part of the larger body. And we commit to walking with them on their journey. But it’s also an easy thing to baptize a beautiful infant. It’s easy to welcome a beautiful child into our family.
It can be a lot harder to welcome flawed and fragile adults. Or surly teenagers. It can be a lot harder to live into our baptismal vows when we were too young to remember that they happened. What does it mean for us to walk through the world as people who have been baptized? What does this symbol of water mean in our daily lives? Do you remember your baptism?
I grew up in a tradition that practiced adult baptism and so I do remember my baptism. However I have walked a long way since being submerged in those waters. Many of us have walked a long way since our baptisms; through different religious traditions and denominations, through crises of faith, through death and through transformation. Our baptismal memory fades.
What is the big deal about baptism? In Colossians 2:12 it says, “When you were buried with Jesus in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God who raised him from the dead.” It seems shocking to talk about death in our rite of baptism, especially in the context of baptizing a child. It doesn’t make sense to talk about baptism being a death to an old way of life. But baptism isn’t just about what happens here with children.
Some of us are finding our way back to the church after years of being away. For some it takes courage just to walk inside these doors on a Sunday morning because of the years of abuse that have happened within church walls. For some of us we have become complacent in our faith and need to feel the breath of the spirit moving in us once again. For others we have remained in the church but maybe we are feeling tired and need to be renewed. Can you remember your baptism?
Jesus had a pretty remarkable baptism story. When he came up out of the waters of the Jordan the heavens opened and God’s voice said, “This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” I wonder if he thought back on that moment in the trials that were to come; when the religious leaders were hating him, when the Romans were bearing down on him. He must have struggled with his faith, wondered if he was doing the right thing. But he could always look back to that moment of baptism and say, “yes. I am God’s beloved.”
Can you remember the waters pouring over you? The voice of God claiming you as God’s own beloved child with whom God is well-pleased? Does that sentiment ring in your heart? If not, why not?
This is why we baptize in community: So that we can remind one another of our baptisms. When these children grow and struggle with their faith we can say to them, I remember your baptism. This is why we exist in community so we can turn to one another and say, I remember your baptism and God is well pleased with you. This is what allows us to approach the Scripture with new eyes and with open hearts, allows us to engage with these ancient words again and feel the Spirit breathing new life into us and recharging us for our work in the world.
“Look, here is water! What is to prevent you from being baptized?” The institutional church cannot keep you out, the law of the land cannot diminish you. It is only what is inside you that can keep you from these waters. Can you let go of the pain an approach the water? Can you lay down your shame and approach the water? What is preventing you from being baptized?
Today if you are having trouble remembering your baptism; if you are grappling with doubt; if you cannot hear the voice of God saying to you that you are beloved, I say, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent you from being baptized?”