"As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, 'Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?'"
The above question comes from a story in the eighth chapter of Acts (Acts 8:26-40) which was the assigned first reading for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. It's a great story: Phillip, a follower of Jesus Christ, has left Jerusalem and is sort of wandering around the middle east at the direction of the Holy Spirit. In his journey, he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch is a real big shot--he's Secretary of the Treasury and a pretty important guy. He's got his own chariot and driver, and he's sitting by the road reading from the prophet Isaiah.
No two people in the ancient world could be more different than Phillip and this stranger (alas, unnamed in the bible). One is a wandering Jewish peasant, the other a high official from sub-Saharan Africa. They are of different races, social classes, cultures, and (need I mention it?) sexuality. And yet, this unlikely pair become comrades on the road, united by a love of God and holy literature. Phillip's desire to share his relationship with Jesus transcends the barriers that would, within the culture of the day, keep these two men at arms' length. And this is what the church--at her best--should really be about: loving acceptance and reconciliation. This is a picture of the radical hospitality which characterizes the Kingdom of God.
When the eunuch asks "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" he's not just asking a rhetorical question. This fellow has come to Jerusalem to worship. Although it is not said so explicitly in the text, the original readers of Acts would have known that the eunuch would have been prevented from full participation in the Jewish assembly precisely because he was a eunuch (see Deuteronomy 23:1). Despite this man's achievements and social position, he is looked down upon as a sexual freak and an abomination by people outside of his culture. But in Jesus, there are no barriers. There is nothing to prevent this man from being a loved part of the community of fellow believers.
Recently, a member of my parish whom I'll call "Laura" (because that's her name), had a conversation with a twenty-seven year old man in her ceramics class. They were talking about godparents (or "baptismal sponsors" if you will). The young man lamented that he had no godparents because he had never been baptized. He told Laura that he really wanted to go deeper into his faith, and that he wanted to be baptized. Seizing the moment, Laura volunteered her pastor (that would be me) and her congregation as vehicles to welcome this young seeker sacramentally into the Christian faith.
I should mention that the young ceramic artist is a partnered gay man. Regretably, there are still some Christian communities which would take issue with individuals over the the matter of sexual orientation. I think the 2009 (and still ongoing in some places) upheaval in my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, over questions of human sexuality and inclusivity is evidence of this very point. To me, however, the story of Phillip and the eunuch illustrates that the grace of Jesus supersedes the purity codes of Hebrew Scripture. We are called to be welcoming to all, for in Christ there are no distinctions.
" I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd."
Thanks for reading, my friends. Please drop me a note if you're able.