May 6, 2012
I think it was a test. When the Ethiopian asked to be baptized I wonder if he thought Philip would really do it. Sure Philip talked big about who Jesus was, but in the end would it all be the same? The Ethiopian had been turned away before, allowed to come on his pilgrimage to the Temple, but not allowed to go in. The polite term for it was that he had been emasculated and thus did not conform to the heterosexual norm. As committed as he was to his religion, he couldn’t be allowed on the inside because that would upset the established order of things.
Philip, though, also knew a bit about the established order of things. We first read about Philip a couple of chapters earlier. It’s a really interesting story. That very first church in Jerusalem was made up of Hebrew speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews, meaning that the Greek speakers were converts. The Hebrew speakers believed their faith was more authentic. When they all converted to become Jesus followers they carried the same prejudices and resentments with them.
One of the places where this flared up in the early church was with the distribution of food. Remember, they kept a common purse and distributed food and other needed items among the whole group. The Greek speaking converts said their widows, in particular, were being neglected in favor of the Hebrew speaking widows, so they went to the Apostles and complained. In an amazing way of resolving, or realy transforming the conflict, the Apostles decided to appoint a committee, made up entirely of Greek speaking converts, to come up with a solution to the problem. Philip was one of them. Think about that. It would be like the Kendal Residents Association being upset by something the management was doing out there and the management said, “Okay, lets have the Residents Association come up with the solution and implement it.” The even further step the Apostles could have taken would have been to appoint some of the Greek speaking widows to the group, but it is still pretty amazing they went as far as they did.
So Philip saw for himself how this Gospel of Jesus could really shake things up. He, apparently, enthusiastically baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, in spite of how controversial it must have seemed. And the church has had a presence in Ethiopia ever since.
It was important to the Ethiopian eunuch that he be baptized, received fully into the church, become a full fledged member of the movement that was then called The Way. The Ethiopian liked this way of Jesus. And I think, that for him, baptism wasn’t simply that most personal of spiritual encounters between and individual and God we often make it out to be. For him, his baptism wasn’t most of all that sign that God had accepted him. I think the eunuch had already figured that out. His baptism showed that the community of Jesus followers accepted him and he accepted it. This eunuch who was unable to have a biological family now had a spiritual family. Philip had passed the test. The Ethiopian was no longer an outsider. He had been invited in.
I think it is important we have a similar understanding about baptism ourselves. Baptism is not, as it is often portrayed in the media and many of our churches, a solely personal transaction between an individual and God. It’s about entering into a community of Jesus followers bent on turning the world upside down.
Some of you may have run into Brother Jed and his companions who were preaching on campus this week. They would like nothing more than for us all to get baptized and save ourselves from hell, make that personal transaction between ourselves and God, get ourselves right with God.
What baptism is about, though, is getting this world right with God and getting us right with each other. This community of faith we choose to be born into with our baptism, is a community that helps us and we help to find The Way, the way of Jesus.
Do you remember where Jesus talked to that woman from Samaria about the living water that “will become a spring of water gushing up into eternal life?” That’s what baptism is about; this living water of Jesus that overflows in our lives, not only all the way to eternity, but to the world around us. The eunuch understood that and, thankfully, Philip understood, too.
Philip got it right. He passed the test the Ethiopian gave him. And we are still being tested today. The history of the church has been, sadly, a history of exclusion, of figuring out who doesn’t belong, who shouldn’t take the plunge in the baptismal waters. Even today, perhaps the biggest controversy in the church is whether gay and lesbian folk should be allowed in, should be drenched with the living water.
A good case is made by some scholars that the word eunuch had a broader meaning in Jesus’ time than ours. A eunuch may not necessarily have meant only those who had been castrated, but gay people, and all the others who were seen as the sexually other.
Philip and the Ethiopian both understood that if Jesus taught us anything he taught us that his movement is open to everybody. Those waters of baptism get us all as wet as anybody else. And we are always being tested by those same waters, always being challenged to take this message of Jesus and run with it to the ends of the earth, upsetting the established order of things all along the way.
I love this story. There’s Philip, at the insistence of the Spirit, heading down to this deserted stretch of road, running along side the Ethiopian’s chariot and finally hoping in. The two of them, a eunuch and a Greek speaker, two outsiders, deciding they are going to take Jesus seriously, who was rejected as an outsider himself and plunge into the waters of faith, and see what happened.
And here we are today, called to the same water they were baptized in, called to carry that living water of Jesus with us. We are called to plunge in and conceive a new world where, for example, those who are discriminated against or oppressed are the ones trusted and relied on to make things better. That’s the world the eunuch believed he could help create if only he were allowed to dive in. The same waters and world await us.