You always hear that “the more things change, the more things stay the same,” and that is very true of this passage from Acts. So much about the culture of Philip and the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch is unfamiliar to us. So many things have changed over the last 2,000 years, and in many ways you would find few similarities between the ancient Middle East and contemporary United States.
And yet, this story is significant because of the particular identities of the person Philip encounters on the road between Jerusalem and Gaza. He is Ethiopian. He is a foreigner. And he is black. His skin marks him as undeniably, indisguisably different. And he is a eunuch. Which means he is probably a slave. An educated and well-treated slave with a significant amount of influence, but a slave nonetheless, whose body has been mutilated to show that he is property.
As a eunuch, he is also gender variant, not fitting neatly into either the male or female box. His voice has not deepened like most men, his body hasn’t grown broad or angular, his face is smooth. But he doesn’t have the curves of a woman either. We might call him non-binary. The people of his time would have called him different. According to the old Jewish purity codes, some of them might have even called him “unclean.”
Although he came to Jerusalem to worship, he would not have been allowed into the Temple beyond the very outermost court. He was a foreigner, and a Gentile, and a slave, and non-binary. No chariot and no amount of wealth could change the color of his skin or the signs of gender nonconformity. It’s one of my great biblical irritations that this person never gets a name – that I have to keep referring to him as “the Ethiopian eunuch,” but in a way even that is significant. When you read this story or talk about it, you are never allowed to forget for a moment that he is different, that his race and nationality and gender exclude him from most “normal” society, and certainly from most religious community. Other humans turned his identity into an object, obscuring the person.
So much has changed, but so much has stayed the same. 2,000 years later, we are still struggling with barriers of race, sexuality, gender, class, and nationality. These are the differences that make global news in 2018, just as they divided people in 40 AD. And these are the differences that encourage us to objectify groups of people, to classify who can be included and who cannot, who is really “us” and who is not.
But this story sits right at the beginning of the formation of the early church, as a guide for God’s vision of who can be baptized, who can be included. It only takes one story, one person, to begin to suggest that if you’re asking which barriers should be knocked down, it’s all of them.
When the Ethiopian eunuch asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the answer could have been, “Well, several things actually.” Baptism was entry to the Christian community. Would they extend that to a black man? To a foreigner? Should they extend that to a slave without seeking the permission of his owner? Could they extend it to someone whose gender they had always considered unnatural? “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The human answer is, “Everything.” God’s answer, however, is, “Nothing.”
Inclusion is an incredible part of the DNA of this congregation. It’s how we understand ourselves, as a community of the open table in general, and a community who have specifically welcomed people across the spectrum of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression much longer than those issues have been on the radar of most of the wider church. Here we believe that the love of God is expansive, always pushing us to embrace one more circle outward, always inviting us to better reflect the fullness of a multifaceted God.
And yet, we know we’re not “there” yet. We know we have work still to do, that there will always be work to do, that there will always be someone else who is having barriers thrown up between them and the love of God, between them and the community of faith. We have work to do on dismantling barriers and unjust systems around race, class, ability, nationality, and yes, even as far as we’ve come, around gender and sexuality.
Just like Philip went running after that chariot, sometimes it can feel like we are always running after the next type of people to be included. And it’s true, we can’t keep up with the love of God. It’s always out in front of us, inviting people in before we get a chance to realize they exist.
It’s for the sake of the Ethiopian eunuchs of today that we continue to make changes to be always more inclusive: to make our worship service, our community, our programs, our facilities, and our outward mission more and more accessible and hospitable to everyone. It’s for the sake of the Ethiopian eunuchs that we think carefully about who is “us” and who is not. Sometimes this means specific changes to allow for particular groups of people: language that accommodates a non-binary understanding of gender, for example, or greater intentional solidarity with people of color or the immigrant community, or elevators and hearing loops and gluten free bread for those with physical limitations. Specificity is important because it expresses care for the individual.
But the more significant principle for us here is in the question asked at the very end. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip doesn’t even take the time to answer. He just baptizes him. Because the answer is, nothing. Nothing is to prevent you from being baptized. Nothing is to prevent you from participating in the community of Christ’s followers. Nothing is to prevent you from experiencing grace. Nothing is to prevent you from stepping fully inside the embrace of God’s love. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.