January 7, 2024 – What Prevents Me from Being Baptized?

A sermon preached by Rev. Stephen Hollaway
What Prevents Me from Being Baptized?
Acts 8:26-39
How is it that the Christian message was made known to Gentiles? How did a small branch of Judaism that saw Jesus as the Messiah come to include a majority with no Jewish background? This is one of the major themes of the book of Acts. One of the first breakthroughs is the deacon Philip from the church in Jerusalem going to preach to Samaritans. Then that same Philip is led by the Spirit to this Ethiopian. Then the apostle Peter has a kind of conversion experience—conversion to accepting Gentiles—which leads him to preach to a Roman centurion. Then we follow Paul, who understands his main mission to be to the Gentiles. A few chapters later, we have a major church conflict between the group that accepts Gentiles into the church as they are and the group that wants them to become Jews first. You can guess who carries the day—or most of us wouldn’t be part of the church.
In our story today, the Spirit tells Philip to go south from Jerusalem to the Gaza highway. That road, already two thousand years old in the first century, is the main road to Egypt and the rest of Africa. It goes through the desert but follows the coastline. We all know where Gaza is now. As soon as Philip gets there, along comes a figure riding in a fancy chariot, probably a four-wheeler with a roof that we might call a coach. The Spirit tells Philip to go up to the coach and hitch a ride. We are told that the passenger is an Ethiopian court official.
There are a few things you need to know about this official. First, he wasn’t actually from Ethiopia. In those days Greeks used “Ethiopia” as a name for all of Africa beyond Egypt. All black people were called Ethiopians. When we hear his job description, we can figure out his location more precisely. He oversees the treasury of the Kandake (Latinized as “the Candace”). The only country that used the title of Kandake for the queen was the kingdom of Meroë, also known as the kingdom of Kush with Meroë as its capital. As far as I know, Meroë was the only country that was ruled for centuries by queens.
Meroë was a city on the upper Nile. Its ruins were discovered in 1821 northeast of present-day Khartoum. It’s pretty far north of what is now called Ethiopia. There are many pyramids in Meroë and remains of the great city. You can see jewelry and pottery from ancient times. It was a wealthy city with its economy based on an iron industry. So when Acts says that this African on the highway was in charge of the treasury, it’s a big deal. This person is powerful and rich.
I might mention that this official has very dark skin. If you know any Ethiopian immigrants, you know that they are fairly light compared to many Africans. But in Kush, the people were black. With race on our minds every day in Baltimore, you might read this story with racial conflict in mind. You think, “See how Philip doesn’t show any prejudice toward this black man!”
Actually, there was no racial prejudice in those days. The categories of race had not even been invented. More importantly, there was no linkage between Africans and slavery. When a Jew saw an African, he did not think, “There goes a slave or somebody’s servant.” He did not assume the person was less cultured or educated than himself. He did not assume the black person was powerless. None of that had happened yet. People in Jerusalem and throughout the Mediterranean thought of black people as exotic, fascinating, and attractive. In fact, if you look at representations of black people in European art through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, you’ll find them portrayed that way. Before the slave industry came along and white people had to rationalize that black people were sub-human, Europeans and Middle Eastern people thought black was beautiful.
In Acts 8, here comes a rich black person in a horse-drawn coach. The official is rich enough that they can buy a hand-lettered scroll of the Greek translation of Isaiah. The Spirit whispers to Philip, “Go talk to him.”
(Have you ever had the Spirit nudge you to go up to someone? I have. I can even think of two occasions when the Spirit urged me to go to a certain place, and someone I’d never met asked me outright to baptize him.)
Philip hears the official reading out loud in Greek. Did you know that in ancient times everybody read aloud? Silent reading didn’t become common at all until around the 10th century and became popular in the 17th. Philip, outside the chariot, can hear what this stranger is reading. He recognizes it as part of Isaiah—and amazingly, it’s one of those verses about the Suffering Servant which Christians were already using in their preaching about the cross.
Philip asks the official, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” It’s not that he thinks the African is ignorant, but that Philip knows it’s not easy to understand Isaiah; it would be impossible to understand that it refers to the Messiah without an interpreter. The African is not at all offended by the question. They say, “How can I understand it unless somebody explains it to me?” Preferably, of course, a Jew since it’s their scripture. They invite Philip to get into the car. They head down the highway reading this scroll out loud together. The official asks a question which scholars were asking back then, and still ask today: “Is Isaiah talking about himself as the one who suffers, or someone else?” What an opening! Philip is happy to tell him that the prophet was talking about a Messiah who would come and suffer for the sins of his people. That Messiah has arrived, and died, and rose again. His name is Jesus. Philip explains what it means to become a Christian.
By God’s design, they come to a pool of water in what is a dry area. The official says, “Hey, look, here’s water!” Then they ask (in the NRSV), “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The King James renders it “What doth hinder me to be baptized?” I like that because I know that the last word in the book of Acts is “unhindered.”
But I’ve been keeping something from you as I’ve told this story. The reason this official would ask if there is anything that would prevent them from being baptized is that the official is a eunuch. A eunuch is a man who has had his sex organs cut off. It was pretty common that males who served a queen were de-sexed, not necessarily voluntarily. Some developed from birth without testosterone. In many cultures, such a person is considered neither male nor female. Some cultures call it a third sex, the way we might call someone non-binary. I’ve avoided referring to the eunuch as a black man, because people wouldn’t have thought of them that way.
This eunuch may have already made a commitment to the Jewish faith. After all, they made a very long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Even today, it’s a 39-hour drive. I don’t know if they knew this when they left home, but they were never going to be allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem. There was a law. Deuteronomy 23:1 says, “No one whose testicles have been crushed or whose penis has been cut off shall be admitted to the Temple.” I can’t say I understand why there was such a law—or even if it was actually God’s will or just some human’s standard. But there were other laws saying that anyone who was physically imperfect was not allowed in God’s presence. You couldn’t come in if you were scarred or defaced, if you were crippled, if you were blind, if you had leprosy, if you were wounded—there’s a long list.
By those standards, the risen Christ would not have been allowed in the Temple with his scars. Jesus clearly didn’t believe in keeping those people out. Those were the very people Jesus reached out to in his ministry. In Isaiah 56, you can tell that Isaiah didn’t believe in such exclusion either. He hears from the Lord that someday the Lord will bring eunuchs and foreigners into his Temple. He says that even God didn’t approve of that rule in Deuteronomy; he was going to change that.
But here is our powerful official from Meroë, who has made a long trip by riverboat and by coach to Jerusalem. Ten days, I’m guessing. They purchased Jewish scriptures to study. But when they got to the Temple, they were turned away, because they were imperfect, a eunuch. Wouldn’t that break your heart? One of the verses he was reading from Isaiah said, “In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.” He must have thought, “That applies to me.”
There is a Lutheran woman pastor named Nadia Bolz-Weber who started a church called “House for All Sinners and Saints.” I love that name. In her sermon on this story, she told about a guy in her church named Stuart. Usually, Stuart came to church in blue jeans and what she called a Grease Monkey jacket. But this one Sunday he came in slacks and a button-down shirt. He had come from a baptismal service for a child of his friends at another church. Stuart is gay and his friends are straight, but they asked him to be the godfather and baptismal sponsor for their child. After the baptism there was a little reception back at this couple’s house. To Stuart’s surprise, his friends got all their guests’ attention so they could say a few words about why they had chosen Stuart as their child’s godparent. “We chose you, Stuart,” they said, “because for most of your life you have pursued Christ and Christ’s church even though as a gay man all you’ve heard from the church is that ‘there is no love for you here.’”
The eunuch in Acts 8 stands for all the people who have been kept out of the church because of gender issues or sexual orientation issues. The eunuch asks Philip, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized? You understand what I am, right? Is my gender status going to keep me out of the church?” Philip does not say anything to this question. He just goes down to the water with the eunuch and baptizes him. Enough said. Philip is carried away by the Spirit to another job, but the eunuch goes on his way to Meroë rejoicing that they have been loved, forgiven, and accepted.
I recently finished a graduate program in creative writing at the University of Baltimore. Three of my classmates whom I knew pretty well changed names and genders in the course of a year. Some are transitioning with hormones. All listed their new pronouns after their name on Zoom. I’ve been with them in memoir classes, and they write about growing up in evangelical churches which were important to them, going to youth camp, and concluding by the time they were adults that there was no room for gay or trans people in the church.
It seems that how we treat trans people has become the new frontier in the culture wars. Christians are supposed to stand up against anyone who doesn’t feel all-man or all-woman and stay the way they were born. We’re actually more comfortable these days with gays and lesbians. I guess we’ve become familiar with them, and the truth is that most people know what same-sex attraction feels like. But not being clear about your gender is something we haven’t experienced. The thought that a person might be neither M nor F makes us anxious. We don’t have a theory to explain to ourselves the existence of trans people, or non-binary people, or intersex people, or “third gender” people like eunuchs. Was this God’s plan for them?
We used to not talk about gender in the church, except to assume that it was fixed. But now, it feels like the story of Philip and the eunuch won’t let us off the hook. Here is a story about a “third gender” person who has not been allowed in worship, but the Spirit goes to great lengths to get the message of Jesus to him and to get him baptized. What is to prevent the non-binary, the transitioning, the genderless from being baptized and coming into the church?
Maybe the best answer is to be like Philip and say nothing. Do not explain or judge. Just baptize them and welcome them. Amen