Philip got out of God’s way. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in.’
I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the story of the Apostle Philip and the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. An angel of the Lord sent Philip on a walk on the outskirts of Jerusalem where he happens upon a Eunuch that works for a Queen reading the book of Isaiah in his chariot. Philip helps the man unpack what he’s reading and then tells him all about his friend Jesus. The Eunuch then wanted to be baptized as a sign of his belief in the risen Christ.
Those of us who grew up in church were likely more fascinated by the fact that at the end of the story (verse 39) Philip disappeared. (Seriously…where did he go? Was he still wet from the baptism when he got there? Did it look like the Star Trek transporter? And is that just a Bible thing or can we still do that particular miracle today? Bygones!)
But the real story here is entirely about identity.
Philip baptized a eunuch. This would have been SCANDALOUS! Eunuchs had long been kicked out of service and fellowship with the assembly of Jewish worshipers (Deut. 23:1). They were considered ruined. Emasculated. Not “right”. And therefore were not allowed into the assembly along with prostitutes, people with leprosy, and kidnappers (among many others).
If you spend any time reading about the lives of eunuchs in ancient times there were several kinds of castration. Interestingly enough most of the literature talks about these men as though this change in their body made them some sort of half-ling…half man and half woman. Eunuchs could be highly revered as keepers of the virgins and harems. Or they could be highly sought after as play things for powerful men who wished to buy young men as sex slaves. All I’ve read talks about how in ancient times their physique, lack of facial hair, and other physical characteristics made them quite obviously different.
They certainly didn’t belong or have standing in a patriarchal, top-down, acceptance-based culture like Judaism in the Old Testament. There was no category for them and therefore they were categorically denied access, acceptance, and participation.
Philip baptizes the Ethiopian Eunuch into the faith. It doesn’t say that Philip knows what kind of castration the man has had. It doesn’t say that Philip thought it was okay because he looked manly and powerful. It doesn’t even say that Philip said anything to him about how he needed to change anything about his life or work (because really how could he?) after he became a Christian.
Instead Philip answers the man’s question about whether or not he can be baptized with “yes” and then immediately walks into the river with him and makes the man symbolically covered in the forgiveness of Jesus and a member of the Christian faith.
Not everyone is a eunuch (I don’t actually know any…at least I don’t THINK I do…but damn I’ve been wrong before) But let’s be honest…everyone of us has struggled with some aspect of our own nature that we think might just exclude us from participation, acceptance, and access into a faith community. The thing that God could NOT overlook. The thing that church folk couldn’t possibly ignore. The thing that is somehow unforgivable.
We’ve been liars. We are divorced. We struggle with mental illness. We fail at everything we try. We have no talent. We are not kind. We are arrogant assholes. We steal. We are fat, skinny, ugly, beautiful, whatever. We are poor. We are fatherless. We have a significant disability that makes us uncomfortable with people. We are wealthy and ungenerous. We have unabashed potty mouths (guilty!).
So ask me if there is room for those with identity issues in the church? Ask me if there is a place for those who are unsure about their gender or sexual orientation? Ask me if there is a spot next to me in the pew for those who are transitioning from one gender to another or are dressing like the gender they most identify with even though their drivers license says something else? Ask me if there is room for serving cake and performing weddings in our community for gay couples?
My answer is in Isaiah 56: 4-5:
For thus says the Lord:
“To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
Even to them I will give in My house
And within My walls a place and a name
Better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
That shall not be cut off.
When God offers someone who should have an identity crisis an “everlasting name” and gives them a spot better than his sons or daughters, that is good enough for me. THAT is my answer.