The Metropolitan Congregation

- serving and celebrating the LGBT communities of Manchester and the North West

Sermon - 31st July 2011

Seeing Salvation: 7
The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch - by Rembrandt

Scripture - Acts 8:26-40

Philip Jones

Introduction

When we look at today’s painting, we see a beautifully crafted work which is representative of the genius who created it and which is representative of the time in which it was created.  It’s a Rembrandt; it’s priceless; paintings don’t come any better than this man’s work.

But does it faithfully depict the story that it seeks to portray?  As well as huge technical skill and artistic creativity, does it perhaps also contain some theological interpretation of the story which we read a few moments ago?  Would you, for example, teach a new Christian the meaning of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian based on what you see in this painting?

Discussion

1.  Think back to the reading.  Who is in charge of events in that reading?  Who is the man of power and authority?  Who asks all the questions?  Who brings about the actual baptism? [The Ethiopian]

Now look at the painting.  Who is the central focus of the action?  Who is directing events in the picture?  Who is standing upright while others crouch and bend the knee?  [Philip]

2.  If we take into account the fact that, when this painting was being made, Holland was heavily involved in the slave trade, and was also doing much missionary work to convert black Africans to the Christian faith, can we see a rather patriarchal image of a black man kneeling at the feet of a white ‘missionary’?  Yet the story suggests no form of subservience or inequality between Philip and Ethiopian - if anything, in the story, the Ethiopian is in charge and sets the pace.

3.  “Look! Here is water” says the text.  Where is the water in the picture?  The text says that both Philip and Ethiopian went down into, and came up out of, the water.  Is that what Rembrandt shows?  If anything in the picture indicates a theological slant, this is it.  The only explanation for the positioning of Philip and the Ethiopian in this way is that Philip was sprinkling the Ethiopian with water from the puddle where the dog is drinking.  The reason for this seems to be that the Reformed church at the time taught that there was nothing special about the water used for baptism.  Water is water; it is no more than a sign of something which is going on in the heart of the person being baptised.  Baptism was the inner acceptance of a new life: the outward signs of this were unimportant.  And Rembrandt is deliberately reinforcing this theology by making the water no more than a puddle where animals would quench their thirst.

Sermon

The reason for considering these choices which Rembrandt made is that this story in chapter 8 of the book of Acts speaks primarily about inclusion.  It speaks of good news which is for all people.  It dispels the idea that there are boundaries to God’s love.  And anything which diminishes the breadth, depth and height of such an inclusive story probably needs to be challenged.

The story shows that the message of Jesus was spreading beyond the immediate localities of Galilee and Judea.  The fact that Philip was sharing his message with an Ethiopian was significant because Ethiopia was considered at that time to be the limit of the known world.  

The name Ethiopia was used to cover a region of East Africa which spread as far down as what we today call the Sudan.  So, by sharing the gospel with an Ethiopian, the early church would have believed that their message was reaching the ends of the earth as they knew it.  And by the action of Philip baptising the Ethiopian, the early church was accepting that no-one to was too exotic, no-one was too foreign, no-one was too culturally remote to be included in Jesus’s world.

But there’s an even more powerful sign of inclusion in the story.  The Ethiopian is described as a eunuch.  

This is a word which, today, has a quite limited and specific meaning.  However, in many cultures of the ancient world there were a number of possible interpretations of what it meant to be a eunuch.  

One interpretation was indeed that the man in question had undergone castration.  Another interpretation was that a man was infertile for some specific reason, probably also impotent, and therefore sexually inactive.  Yet another interpretation was that the man may be sexually active but was not sexually interested in women.

All of these could have counted as eunuchs in the generic use of the word, and because of their nature they were no threat to the women in and around the court, and perhaps most importantly, they were not going to sire any offspring, or establish a dynasty, which might be a threat to the ruling family.

So, whether by surgery, or by physical condition, or by orientation, eunuchs were considered to be safe and trustworthy servants of royal households.  They often rose to high positions, and this tallies with what we’re told about the Ethiopian - he was Treasurer of a powerful and influential royal household.  Just think of the degree of trust which was placed in this man and the influence he would have wielded in his own country.

Now, the Jewish law discriminated against men who were ‘incomplete’.  As a eunuch, the Ethiopian would have been kept as an outsider and defined as ‘less than a man’, even though he clearly had some level of devotion to the Jewish faith.  But Philip, the itinerant messenger of a new way of living, accepted him without question.  

In so many respects, the Ethiopian couldn’t have been more different to the norms of Philip’s usual circle of friends and co-workers; but when the Ethiopian took the initiative and asked if there was any reason why he could not be baptised, Philip found no reason.

And by including this story in his book about the early church, the author of Acts, known to us as Luke, also found no reason to exclude the Ethiopian eunuch from those whose lives were touched and changed by the spirit of Jesus rushing and burning through the lives of those early believers.  

In fact he actively chose to include it as part of his own interpretation of what faith in Jesus truly meant - faith without boundaries, faith without exclusions.

So would you teach a new Christian the meaning of Philip and the eunuch from this picture?  I wouldn’t.  The story is much more radical and revolutionary than the painting depicts.  

The story is intended to proclaim that no-one is excluded from hearing the message and following the way of Jesus.  But the picture seems to be constrained by the culture of its time, the social structures through which that world was interpreted, and the theologies of those who commissioned it and the man who painted it.

Sometimes our faith surprises us by just how deeply challenging it can be.  And yet sometimes the challenge gets shaped and massaged - by culture, by politics or by commerce - into something which has lost its original power and vigour.

We come to this church to both challenge and be challenged about God’s love for us and our love for other people.  May God bless us with power and vigour as we seek to recapture the radical message of inclusion which Luke clearly believed was such an important part of his account of the birth of a revolutionary faith.

Amen.

Link to image of painting here.

(Philip Jones)

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