The Metropolitan Congregation

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

Sermon - 9th February 2020

Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch

Scripture - Acts 8:26-40

Philip Jones

As Walt preached last week on the story of the love triangle involving Saul, Jonathan and David, and as we are in the second week of LGBT History Month, I thought we should continue to think about a passage in which we might also see our LGBT selves reflected - perhaps slightly obscurely - in a biblical story.

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 it is likely that this man who was described as an official of the royal court 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 and be reasonably confident 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. Although the word is not used in the translation we heard today, the Ethiopian is described in most other translations 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 ruling class as a challenge to the ruling family in control at the time.

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 travelling 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 within Christian history that the newly baptised Ethiopian went back to his country 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 - the writer of the third gospel - 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 the story as part of his own interpretation of what faith in Jesus truly meant - faith without boundaries, faith without exclusions.

The story is intended to proclaim that no-one is excluded from hearing the message and following the way of Jesus.

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 Jenny-Anne and myself - when this congregation was almost entirely white, financially comfortable, and largely middle-class.
We might 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 has also driven people through our doors: people who come from unusual places, and who speak unfamiliar languages.

And they say to us something very similar to what the Ethiopian man said to Philip. They say, ‘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 say, ‘This is God’s church for all people’, and we welcome them. And we have been changed by them, 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.

We learn our values from Philip, the faithful servant of the gospel. Values which affirm that race, language, culture, nationality, ethnicity, skin colour, sexuality or gender identity should never be barriers between people who believe the good news that God’s love makes no such distinctions, and all are embraced within the rainbow covenant which God made with humankind.

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.

Amen.

(Philip Jones)

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