Acts 8:26-40 June 25, 2023
As a not-quite Baby Boomer born in 1964, I have seen astounding changes in gender roles, identity, and sexuality. I have gone from being traditional to cutting edge to bewildered to trying to stay curious to see where it all goes. I went to a college where we had to sign in to visit the women’s dorm, and we were to abstain from alcohol and non-biblical sexual practices. (It didn’t occur to me that made polygamy an option.). My seminary was at the forefront of pushing for acceptance of LGBTQ people in the church, and my congregation in Northampton was one-third lesbian and a few trans folks mixed in. A clergy group I facilitate is all LBGTQ identified except for one other straight woman.
I want to emphasize from this story that it has not been a straight and easy line from an Evangelical college in South Dakota to being in an Open and Affirming church and denomination today. The issues keep shifting, and I am still learning. Bewilderment at all this change is not just held by straight white guys like me. A lesbian colleague said that when she meets younger LGBTQ people, she feels like the most traditional and conservative person in the room. “We fought so hard to be accepted, to change the understanding of women, our societal role, and our right to be married. I didn’t see how big the trans and nonbinary movement would be, and I struggle to keep up. I don’t know what I will do when I’m asked to officiate at a wedding for a Throuple, but I bet it is coming. (Throuple is a romantic relationship among three people.)
My hope this morning isn’t to try answering all the questions or tell you what you need to believe to be a real Christian. My goal is to orient our hearts towards the God of compassion so we can think with a heart filled with love. What guidance can our ancient scriptures and wisdom give us? The Bible is full of competing narratives. The same God who creates Adam and Eve for each other doesn’t seem to mind polygamy. Jesus challenged divorce laws to be more strict but also released a woman caught in adultery who was about to be stoned. Paul wasn’t sure anybody should be married. Centuries later, the church decided all clergy had to be celibate. Cultural norms have always shaped sexuality and gender roles, and identity in the church.
You might ask me why we must talk about this in church, especially when it may be controversial, even in an Open and Affirming Church. I read an article in the NY Times a few weeks ago about Dwayne Wade, retired basketball All-Star for the Miami Heat. Wade has a transgender daughter and is moving out of state because anti-trans laws in Florida have created a hostile environment, and he does not feel his daughter is safe. The article describes the outflow of trans families from Florida as a human rights migration. For perspective, more than 100,000 trans-identified people in Florida, and as many as half are considering moving. Nationwide, an estimated 1.6 million people identify as trans.
Today’s Biblical text from Acts of the Apostles gives us some interesting perspectives. Here we have the story of Philip, who hitches a ride with a man on the road to Egypt. Generally, we like stories about conversions, especially when someone comes over to our team. We can read this passage and think, “Isn’t it 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 Jesus is and was baptized. Kudos to Phillip for bringing such an influential person into the fold.”
Here is the interesting subplot. This convert is a eunuch. In ancient times, a eunuch was both trusted and feared. Without family ties or interest in court liaisons, they could hold important jobs for a monarch, such as managing the king’s harem, food taster, or the manager of the Queen’s vast treasury.
This eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship, but there was a problem. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, eunuchs are excluded from Temple worship. Leviticus 21:17-20 says, “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.” To make food offerings to God, you needed to look like a male supermodel. Just to emphasize the point, in Deuteronomy 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 the magisterial, 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 greatly narrows who is in and who is left out.
This Ethiopian eunuch goes to Jerusalem during Passover. Was he allowed to enter the Temple? Despite the important job of running a treasury, he was outside the range of acceptable people. As he rides the long, dusty way home, he is reading scripture, trying to come to terms with 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 had denied him. (Isaiah 53:7-8)
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 mirrors his recent experience.
Philip begins to talk about Jesus, who went through the ultimate experience of brutal humiliation of being stripped and crucified, yet he was righteous. Whatever Philip said had a strong impact. As the caravan passes some water, the man says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized right here?” Philip listened to the spiritual hunger in the man’s voice. A man who thought he was completely rejected from faith and God, now saw possibility for his life. Let’s give Philip a great deal of credit. He did not form a committee or launch a study process. He did stop because the disciples did not yet have a eunuch baptism policy. The eunuch was baptized and welcomed into the Jesus movement.
Why was Philip so bold? The early believers knew that Jesus continually stood with the marginalized and the outcasts of society. Maybe it doesn’t occur to Philip that he should not baptize someone. If Philip was really on his theological toes, he should have turned the eunuch’s scroll from Isaiah 53, 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
Isaiah is loosening the purity codes written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, five centuries before Jesus, to say that inclusion is more important the purity. Here is the point: if anyone is trying to do the will of God, God welcomes them.
When we say every Sunday, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” we are not just trying to have a good marketing strategy and be friendlier than everyone else. It is an ethical imperative, a stand for justice, and a call to deep compassion when people are excluded and marginalized. It is what it means to follow Jesus. Acts of the Apostles says the Holy Spirit guided Philip to take this road and to be open to this man, and I wonder what will happen with us if we walk this road and be open to the Holy Spirit as well. Where will God take us? Who will God ask us to welcome? What is your part to play in this work of the Spirit?