I have a new theological toy to play with, and after applying to this week’s text in Acts, I have decided it is rather dangerous. Some toys come with warning labels that say the contents are flammable, that they aren’t meant for children under the age of five due to choking hazards, or other warning that make you wonder why such things are even sold. My new theological toy should come with a warning that says:“Beware:contents may be inflammatory if hold too close to orthodox doctrine.” My wife bought me this reference book with the innocuous title“TheJewish Annotated New Testament.” It is simply what it says, a New Revised Standard New Testament, with commentary in the margins by Jewish scholars. That may not sound radical, but over time Christian interpretation of scriptures has often had an anti-Jewish bias. We have gone through murderous centuries where Christians persecuted Jews as those who crucified Jesus. Even though Roman soldiers did the actual deed, the church has never persecuted Italians for crucifying Jesus, in fact we were run by Italians for centuries, so it is high time for reconciliation between Christian and Jewish theology. We share sacred scriptures, and this new reference book is a move in that direction.
The scholarly notes in the margin gave me fresh eyes to dig deeper into this story of Phillip baptizing an Ethiopian eunuch as the first Gentile convert. Generally we like convert stories, especially when someone comes over to our team. On the surface we could read this passage and think,“Isn’tit amazing that Phillip was guided by the Holy Spirit, and a powerful man from exotic Ethiopia, a man who oversaw the Queen’s treasury no less, quickly saw how great Christianity is and was baptized. Kudos to Phillip(andthe Holy Spirit of course!) for bringing such an influential person into the fold.”
Here is the interesting subplot. The first convert is a eunuch. We have no such person in our culture. In ancient times it was thought that a eunuch would be trustworthy without family ties or interest in court laisons, so they could hold important jobs for a monarch, such as managing the king’s harem, food taster, or in this case, the manager of the Queen’s vast treasury.
It says this eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship, but there is a problem here. According to Leviticus and Deutoronomy, eunochs are excluded from Temple worship, and even becoming proselytes to the Jewish faith. Leviticus 21:17-20 notes,
“No one of your offspring throughout the generations who has a blemish shall offer the food of his God. No one with a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes, or an itching disease or scabs, or a man with crushed testicles.”
I guess to make food offerings to God you needed to look like a male supermodel. Just to emphasize the point, in Duetoronomy 23:1, “No one whose testicles are crushed, or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted into the assembly of the Lord.”
There are some things in the Bible I’d rather not know, or wonder what’s the point. The point of many early religious practices is that God is a magasterial, awesome, holy sovereign, much more magnificent than any earthly monarch, so to enter God’s temple one needed to be as pure, perfect and holy as a mere human could be. Many religions have this fixation on trying to be perfect to be acceptable to a Holy God. The problem is this can greatly narrow the pool of possible adherents.
This Ethiopian eunuch went to Jerusalem during Passover, and he probably was not allowed to enter any holy sites. Despite the important job of running a treasury, he was a nobody to the priests, outside the range of acceptable people to God. As he rides the long, dusty way home, he is reading scripture, trying to come to terms with all this, possibly feeling confused and humiliated. Listen to what he was reading from the prophet Isaiah:
Like sheep he was led to slaughter, like a lamb silent before his shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him.(Isaiah53:7-8)
This is depressing stuff. When Philip comes aboard to explain the text, the eunuch asks, “ Is the prophet speaking of his own experience, or the experience of someone else?” We could possibly see why the eunuch would seize on this passage, since it may mirror his own recent experience.
Philip begins to tell the story of Jesus, the Son of God who went through the ultimate experience of brutal humiliation of being stripped and crucified, yet he was righteous. Whatever Philip said must have had a strong impact, for as the caravan passes some water, the man says,“Whatis to prevent me from being baptized right here?” Philip listened to the spiritual hunger and longing in the man’s voice, this man who thought he was completely rejected from faith and by God, now saw a possibility for himself. Let’s give Philip a great deal of credit here. He did not form a committee, or launch and lengthy study process. He did stop because the disciples had not yet thought through what to do with eunuchs yet. He baptized the man and welcomed him as the first Gentile convert to Jesus.
Philip did not hesitate for this reason. The early believers knew that Jesus continually stood with the marginalized and the outcasts of society. Therefore it doesn’t occur to Philip that he should not baptize someone who wants to follow Jesus. If Philip was really on his theological toes, he should have turned the eunuch’s scroll from Isaiah 53, about sheep to be slaughters, just a few pages to Isaiah 56. This is an obscure verse to us, but would have been profound to a eunuch:
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 chose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant-these I will bring to my Holy Mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my alter; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them….”Isaiah 56:3
It appears to me that the prophet Isaiah is challenging the older codes of Moses, written in Leviticus and Duetoronomy. Isaiah appears to be saying, some of the old ways are no longer relevant. What is relevant is this: is a person trying to do the will of God? If so, God welcomes them.
I couldn’t help thinking about these scriptures while listening to the news this week. I pained me to hear Christians gloat about forcing the resignation of Richard Grenell, a gay man, from Mitt Romney’s staff. (sorry for the 2012 campaign reference! Update with your own since GLBTQ discrimination is still huge.) Bryan Fischer, of the American Family Association, claimed credit for forcing this resignation, and by coincidence, the United Methodist Church recently voted that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine. The words of Isaiah are still in my ears, that whoever does the will of God is welcome in the house of prayer. The words of Lutheran Bishop Rimbo from Ascension Day last year, are also in my ears. He asked why are we paying so much attention to people’s sexuality when we have a much bigger problem. The pews are empty and young people are not coming to church. He went on to imply that perhaps young people are not in the church for this very reason. The coming generations are going to accept gay and lesbian people, and if the church does not we do so, history will pass us by, once again. Worse yet, I do not believe that Jesus, who said nothing at all about homosexuality in the Gospels, with his numerous acts of inclusion of all people, would condone casting people out of the church over this issue.
Yesterday I was at a wedding, and since it was a clergy couple, I think half the people there were clergy. I counted at least four clergy I that I knew were gay or lesbian, including the wedding officiant. My prayer is that will be the future of the church.