Sermon - 1st October 2017
Baptism of the Ethiopian
[An audio version of this sermon can be heard via the link at Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
Today happens to be the start of the Black History Month celebrations in the UK and the Netherlands. In the USA and Canada, February is designated as Black History Month and, because of the influence of North American culture throughout the world, the February celebrations are the ones we tend to hear about, and perhaps the February date tends to stick in our memories.
For people who today would define themselves as coming from a black heritage or ethnicity, our bibles do not offer many role models - not many characters in which a black person might see their own face reflected. An exhibition of Black Bible History would not contain many exhibits, and those that were included would probably give rise to scholarly controversy.
When we look at the painting on the screen (link here) which is supposed to represent today’s reading, we see a beautifully crafted work which says something about the genius who created it, and which says a lot about its North European origin, and about the time in which it was created. It’s a Rembrandt; it’s priceless; from an artistic viewpoint, paintings don’t come any better than this man’s work. But what about from a spiritual viewpoint?
Does it faithfully depict the spiritual story that it seeks to portray? As well as showing 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?
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 consider 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, what do we make of this image of a black man kneeling at the feet of a white holy man - we might even call him a ‘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 together. 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. Perhaps Rembrandt is deliberately reinforcing this theology by making the water no more than a puddle where animals would quench their thirst.
The reason for looking at these aspects of the painting 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 breaks away from 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 to Luke’s community 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 Sudan. And this suggests that one thing in the painting is probably quite accurate - it is likely that this man was someone whom today we would define as a black African man. He is one of the very few examples that we can point to with reasonable confidence that people from a black African heritage can be found in our scriptures.
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, those first followers of Jesus were actively building into their understanding of God the message that no-one to was too exotic, no-one was too foreign, no-one was too culturally or geographically remote to be included in Jesus’s worldwide message of justice, peace and inclusion..
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 some form of genital mutilation. Another interpretation was that a man was infertile for some particular 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 examples could have counted as eunuchs in the generic use of the word and, because of their nature, such men were no threat to the women in and around a royal court, and perhaps most importantly, they were not going to have children with any high-ranking women who might try to establish a competing regime as a challenge 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 fits 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.
However, 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 there is a tradition that the new Christian went back to Ethiopia and founded the first Christian community in that area.
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 Ethiopian from this picture? I wouldn’t. The story is much more radical and revolutionary than the painting depicts. It 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 heavily influenced by the culture of its time, by the social structures through which that world was interpreted, and by 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.
There was a time - probably deep within the memories of only two or three of our present congregation - when this congregation was almost entirely white, financially comfortable, and largely middle-class. We would have read that story in Acts during worship and never asked the questions that strike us today.
But whatever divine power drove the Ethiopian court official down that road and into the arms of Philip, it also drove people through our doors: people who came from unusual places, and who spoke unfamiliar languages.
And they said to us ‘We are struggling to understand. We are in an unfamiliar land. We’ve been taught a gospel of hate, but we hear that you teach a gospel of love. Is there anything to prevent us from being accepted, and baptised, and ordained into your church?’ And we said, ‘This is God’s church for all people’ and we welcomed them. And we changed, and are still changing - thank God.
We come to this church to both challenge, and be challenged, about God’s love for us, and our love for other people. We are all called to greet and to commit our energies to newcomers who come to us seeking understanding, finding themselves in strange surroundings, seeking a gospel of love in place of a gospel of hate, and quietly asking if we will accept them into our family of faith in this place.
May God bless us with courage, power and commitment as we try to recapture the radical message of inclusion which Luke shared with us when Philip led a stranger through the waters of baptism into a revolutionary faith.