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Waters of Welcome

A sermon on Acts 8:26-40

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Vishal Banik on Unsplash.]

About ten years ago my family had the chance to move to Italy with my husband’s company, and it was a life-changing experience. Setting aside the awesome privilege of getting to live in a great European city and travel to so many others, it was also an opportunity to immerse ourselves in another culture. Most of the time I found that immersion inspiring, and mind-expanding, but it could also sometimes be… frustrating.

My very first experience of that frustration came before we even moved. As with most first-world countries, Italy’s legal immigration process is very complicated. Part of that process involves confirmation of housing, and immigrants need to have a form completed by their landlord at two different points in the process. When reviewing this process with our lawyer, I suggested that we just combine the two asks, since we had already learned it took a while to get answers back from the manager of the flat we would be renting.

It seemed so obvious to me. The second form did not require information that we did not already have, so what was to prevent us from getting the second form now to have it ready at the appropriate time?

As far as I was ever able to discover, there was no logistical reason not to do this… except that this was not the process. No matter how many different ways that I tried to explain why it made sense, I got the same response: “but we don’t need the form now.”

In other words, our immigration lawyer had a very different attitude than the apostle Philip does in today’s first reading.

The direct parallel, of course, comes from the question “what is to prevent me from being baptized?", which the Ethiopian eunuch asks of Philip. But to understand how deep this question goes we have to understand all the religious and social tradition that surrounds the question.

Luke sets the stage for his story on the geographical margins, when the angel of the Lord directs Philip to a “wilderness road” leading away from the religious center of Jerusalem. The setting is our first hint that essential boundaries are about to be crossed, but that subtlety is immediately followed by a much more startling identifier: the Spirit of God has directed Philip to an Ethiopian eunuch.

As an African, he would automatically be considered an outsider by the followers of Jesus who were all, to that point, Jews. At the temple in Jerusalem, gentiles were relegated to only the outermost court. Even Jewish women, in that highly patriarchal society, were granted closer access to the center of worship than non-Jews.

But it was not just his race that marginalized this unnamed seeker of truth, it was his ambiguous sexual and gender status. As explained by Pastor Ashely Dellagiacomo:

“The word “eunuch” can refer to a castrated man, but it also had a broader definition in ancient times that could include homosexual men, or intersex folk. A eunuch can be someone whose genitalia does not match the societal expectations or is altered in some way, either because they born that way or they were subjected to violence by the empire. It can also be someone whose gender expression does not match societal expectations, what we might identity as trans, or non-binary, or queer. Biblical eunuchs can represent a number of sexual and/or gender identities that were foolishly thought to be dismissible.”[1]

Pastor Dellagiacomo describes this biased dismissal as foolish because even in biblical times God had, occassionally, chosen to work through and with eunuchs. Nevertheless, it would have been so easy for Philip to disregard such exceptions because the Levitical laws were so unequivocal. Deuteronomy 23:1 affirmatively prohibits eunuchs from being “admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” So, it was not just the Temple that was off-limits, but even the chance to be part of the gathering of the people of God.

As the assembly of the followers of Christ was spreading out according to Christ's own command, from Jerusalem to Judean and Samaria, and with this African seeker of faith potentially to the “ends of the earth” (from a Jewish perspective), Philip was confronted with a challenge: did the clear, scriptural prohibition against eunuchs extend to the assembly of followers of Jesus?

“Was there something to prevent the Ethiopian convert from being baptized?”

In the text, there is a pregnant pause, if we will let ourselves hear it, for Philip offers no words of response. He has had plenty of words up to this point. He has responded to the first question about the meaning of the prophecy from Isaiah, hearing the man’s plea for understanding and offering him the good news of Jesus.

But I wonder if the gift of understanding went both ways. As Philip expounded on the way in which Jesus, the Son of God, took on our human suffering, I wonder if he looked into the eyes of his companion and recognized in them his own humanity, in ways he had never considered before.

As Philip interpreted the words of the prophecy that laments a lost generations because “his life was taken from the earth,” I wonder if he registered the particular pull of these words for the man sitting beside him, a man whom either nature or human action had deprived of the chance to extend his life into a new generation?

In the pause that followed the expectant question, “what is to prevent me from being baptized,” I wonder if the easy, automatic answers about God’s law and ritual purity stuck in Philip’s throat because he suddenly understood the human cost of such laws… and that their enforcement undercut everything he had just explained about Jesus.

Commentator Debie Thomas talks about this story as a story of double-conversion. Philip shares the good news of the gospel with the unnamed eunuch and he enthusiastically embraces his place in God’s people, but his conversion demands a parallel conversion from Philip: a conversion to set-aside the religious laws and societal biases that keep the dark-skinned eunuch on the margins, and to affirm what the outsider has already recognized about the good news of Jesus: that he does, indeed belong.

This conversion is the one that challenges all of us who are already insiders. As Debie Thomas argues, “Let us not demand the hard work of conversion from others when we remain unwilling to engage in it ourselves.”[2]

Following our worship today, our community will be holding a forum to talk about the process of exploring the designation as a Reconciling in Christ congregation. This designation is for Lutheran churches that vote to be actively and affirmatively welcoming to all the diversity of God’s children, including sexual, gender, and racial diversity. As such, it may require of us “the hard work of conversion” over the coming months and years.

It will require us to learn about the diversity of sexual and gender identities present within God’s creation, and to recognize the wholeness of people we may have been taught to see as divergent, or even unclean.

It will ask us to grapple with the inadequacy of a passive welcome that pushes no one away, but also does nothing to confront the damage caused by centuries of marginalization and exclusion.

It will challenge us to release defensive attitudes and to intentionally seek to bring healing to the wounds of racial inequity in ours the “whitest” denomination in America.

I won’t promise that any of this will be easy. In fact, I hope it’s not. Because conversion is not easy. It’s not easy, but it is GOOD! It opens us up to the liberating, boundary-breaking work of Jesus. It calls us to the water of welcome with an answer to the Ethiopian eunuch’s question:

What is to prevent you from being baptized? Nothing! The water, and the word, and the promise are God’s good gift of grace for everyone.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Sermon given on April 25, 2021. Quoted by permission. [2]


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