“Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch”

“Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch”

“Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch”
by Grant Glowiak

10:00 a.m. Service on April 8, 2018 at
The Union Church of Hinsdale, U.C.C.


Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 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 before its shearer is silent,

so he opens not his mouth.

In his humiliation justice was denied him.

Who can describe his generation?

For his life is taken away from the earth.”

And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. 

Sermon

I attended a baptism recently during the ritual little Reagan, the candidate, let out the biggest, and cutest yawn I think I’ve ever seen.

So, as a student of Christianity, naturally I was curious as to if there was any significance to yawning, during baptism or otherwise, and, interestingly, The Bible never directly addresses it. Which is strange because for some of our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ the Bible seems to induce quite a bit of it. I’m not pointing any fingers but…you know who you are. Either way, I found a bunch of different meanings for yawning, some of them even diametrically opposed to one another. One source said the social custom of covering our mouths when we yawn originates in the belief that evil spirits entered through the mouth, so leaving it open like that for an extended period of time was risky. On the other hand, another source said yawning during baptism signified that the candidate was expelling the evil already present within the child, and was a good sign because the baby was already fighting off Satan’s ways. Not sure I buy that either. So, after all this research I came to the conclusion that no one actually knows what’s going on.

Which, I think, is often how we think about baptism. What is actually going on when we perform this ritual? And furthermore, once we are baptized, what does that mean for us?

In Tom Driver’s book Liberating Rites: Understanding the Transformative Powerof Ritualhe writes:

“Some rituals have numerous, often contradictory, mythological ‘explanations,’ just as the rite of Christian baptism, for instance, is subject to widely varying theological interpretations: One commentator will say the rite is necessary to save the soul from damnation, another will regard it as a death to sin and rebirth into new life, while yet another will see it simply as a dedication of one’s own life, or a child’s, to God”

That last understanding Driver gives I think is how a lot of folks in our denomination feel when we baptize infants. A common phrase used is that of St Augustine, in the 5th century, describing a sacrament as ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.’ God’s grace is already extended to the child before the ritual, and we are simply recognizing that reality. But I believe that this understanding of baptism is underdeveloped. Tertullian, one of the earliest Christian theologians, asserted that Christians are made, not born. And I think it would serve us well to take this seriously.

Driver, in my opinion, has one of the best brief explanations for what ritual is.

Art, he says, is play done workfully, ritual is work done playfully. Did you catch that? Art is play, but done well requires a significant amount of work. Ritual is work, but it is done in a playful manner. He posits that the purpose of ritual is to effect transformation that cannot otherwise take place. A rite of passage is a perfect example. A rite of passage does the work of transitioning, for example, a child into adulthood or an adult into the afterlife. He says rituals are more like washing machines than books. A ritual is not meant to mark or explain something the way a book does but to actually do something, to wash the clothes, not explain how the clothes are washed.

Which brings us to our scripture reading this morning.

In my opinion, this is one of the most radical stories in the Bible. We are in Acts remember, so Phillip is going around spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and the early church is beginning to form without Jesus present, at least in bodily form. In our story an angel of the Lord, meaning this is sanctioned by God, tells Phillip to go to Gaza and he runs into an Ethiopian Eunuch who is reading the Hebrew Bible. Phillip offers to teach him about the Hebrew Bible and the newly resurrected Messiah Jesus. The Eunuch is so moved by this teaching that he, the second he sees a body of water, asks “What prevents me from being baptized?”. The answer, of course, is nothing. So, he is baptized and Phillip, now having performed his God-given duty, is, for lack of a better word, teleported to a new town to continue his work while the Eunuch went on his way rejoicing.

This story isn’t particularly radical unless you understand the positions of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip, prior to this, was just preaching in Samaria. You may remember Mike preached on Simon the Magician, who tried to buy the holy spirit. Which, obviously, didn’t go so well for him. That was Phillip in Samaria. And, as we know from our Good Samaritan story, the Samaritans are hated by the Jews. So Philip has already crossed racial and religious lines in his outreach.

As for the Eunuch, he is obviously Ethiopian. These people were generally regarded by the Israelites as hailing from the end of the world. These people are geographically, and religiously, as far from the disciples as you can get. Not only that, for today’s audiences the fact that he is black is still significant. He also is a man of means, serving as a high ranking government official. Philip is an itinerant preacher man, so there is a major economic divide between the two.

Moreover, the Ethiopian’s a eunuch. He isn’t really considered a ‘man’ by ancient standards since he lacks the particular equipment they equated with manliness, he is considered sort of a half-man. His sexuality and gender is in question. He represents liminality, which is a word that describes the ambiguity and disorientation that occurs in the midst of transition within a rite or a cultural or social moment. It creates a fluid situation in which the present and future is uncertain. Let me give some examples. He is traveling at midday, which if you’ve been to the middle east you know doesn’t make any sense because it’s far too hot. He’s on a wilderness road, far away from the social constraints that would otherwise divide these two and bring structure and order, and religiously he is somewhere between a Gentile and a Jew because he’s studying a Jewish scroll, but he is from Ethiopia. All these things point to how outside the bounds of normality this interaction truly is.

And God makes a point. God intentionally sends Phillip to baptize him and bring him into the body of believers. If the Ethiopian Eunuch, or a more modern interpretation could be a black, transgender person, is included, then everyone not only can but should be included. In this move God made it crystal clear that the body of believers is no longer tied to lineage or race, no longer tied to sexuality, gender identity or nationality, empire, power or money.

The Ethiopian’s two questions point directly to exclusion. “Who will teach me?” and “What prevents me?”. The hallmark of this conversation, and his conversion really, is not based on categories that society has created but on the only category that matters to God in this situation, and that is the desire to be baptized.

In Baptism, we bring our whole selves, just as we are, to God. We are initiated into God’s community through this rite. We as humans do the work of rite, while God does the work of transforming us into instruments of justice and mercy, bestowing Grace on us through no earned merit. In baptism we demand that God bless the candidate. But through baptism God makes demands on us too.

Walter Brueggeman, a well-known theologian, wrote “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.” Just because grace is given does not mean that we are then free to do as we wish. We are obligated, or better yet, blessed with the opportunity to contribute to the health and harmony of all of God’s creation.

We believe God loves Americans more than others, which isn’t true. We ignore the sabbath because there is simply too much work to be done, and we do this work to earn more money, so we can consume more stuff thinking it’ll make us happy. We see violence not so much here in Hinsdale but all over the world, not to mention only a few miles east of here and feel no obligation to do anything about it. We believe our affluence is merit based, that our neighbors are to be treated as competitors and through hard work we deserve luxury cars and homes all the while ignoring what it truly means to love your neighbor. Through baptism we are called to love God and love our neighbor, even if that means paying our neighbor a living wage, or providing healthcare for our neighbors who are sick. Our female and minority neighbors should hold more than 31% of board positions for Fortune 500 companies, our lgbq youth shouldn’t be over three times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, with trans teens at even higher levels.

God’s desire for the baptized is not a political party, it is not for us to ground our identities in patriotism, consumption, violence and affluence. God’s desire is for us to take our baptismal vows seriously, to do the hard work of praying and reflecting on what God wants for this world so that we may sharpen our faith, and then to do the hard work of living in community with our neighbors, no matter the social divisions our world has created for us. To bring love not in some theoretical way, but concretely in the form of spreading justice and mercy using the gifts God has uniquely blessed each one of us with. No matter what, God loves each and every one of us…but Tertullian said that Christians are made, not born…and we are called to show the world what that means.

Benediction

And now, may the God of Peace and Love,

Comfort you when you hurt,

Sustain you while you rest,

And send you forth into the world,

Doing acts of justice and mercy,

Knowing you are a beloved child of god

Just the way you are.

Amen.

Go in peace

Greeting your neighbor as you go.

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