Sun 2nd May 2021
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Race and sexuality have been around, one presumes, pretty much for as long as humankind itself has been around; or else you and I, frankly, would not be here today to talk about it in the gender, social milieu, and skin-colour in which we find ourselves incarnated or embodied. And, I also suppose that issues surrounding the meaning and importance of race, gender, and class have been with us very nearly as long as people themselves have been around. The last hundred years alone have seen wars fought and movements started around just such concerns, right up into our own times.
Think of the great wars and revolutions of the last century, for instance, fought around perceived issues of race and class. Think of Me-Too and Black-Lives-Matter, two developments or movements of just this past decade which highlight the sad fact that inequality and injustice based upon race, sexuality, and class are very much with us still as we approach the middle of the twenty-first century.
What prior ages thought about such questions is sometimes more difficult to say. Did they see things the way we see things…? What went through the minds of Victorians, say, as the British Empire coursed around the world and encountered peoples and races far different from the peoples of Great Britain at the time…?
What did nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Americans of so-called Anglo-Saxon background make of the Black people moving north into their cities to escape impoverishment in the Deep South…? What on the other hand did they make of the hordes of Hungarians, Poles, Slovaks, and others so different from themselves suddenly filling their cities and factories? And we all know how the so-called sexual minorities have been treated for millennia.
The problem of course is always that -- when we ask such questions -- the peoples of ages past resolutely refuse to answer for us the burning questions of today. Yet we must learn from those who have gone before. We catch a glimpse in today’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles of how these issues may have played out in first-century Christianity, a very long time ago indeed. What, I wonder, would early Christians reading the Acts of the Apostles, or hearing it read for the first time, make of the story of encounter and conversion on the road to Gaza which we just heard moments ago -- probably not for the first time?
The disciple Philip, among the first batch of deacons in the Church and not to be confused with the Apostle Philip of the Gospel accounts, encounters in this short episode played out in the wilderness, an Ethiopian Eunuch, of all people. Philip himself, keep in mind, bears a Greek-sounding name and was most likely not a Jew. The Eunuch remains remarkably unnamed in the story but is clearly someone well-read and probably wealthy, being part of the retinue of a distant Queen of the Ethiopians.
The Eunuch is likewise and obviously a seeker of the divine and a worshiper of God, as we are told. Yet he is also the ultimate outsider in a highly structured society, one suspicious of anything Gentile and different. What a scene he must have made at the Temple. And not only is this fellow dark-skinned or Black; he is, well, a Eunuch, a term which at the time could mean exactly what we think it means today but could also encompass men who were gay or effeminate or otherwise just different, those who did not fit in.
It is, in a sense, the story of one outsider meeting another at a way-stop in the desert, sharing stories, and talking religion. I suppose such things play out still today on the lonely roads of this lonely planet. Philip and his new-found companion speak of Scripture and try to make sense of the humiliation, injustice, and slaughter of which the Prophet Isaiah writes in Chapter Fifty-Three of his text. If anyone would have known such alienation and danger, one supposes, it would have been this Ethiopian Eunuch himself.
Philip makes sense of this somewhat gloomy passage from Isaiah and turns it into good news -- into the Good News of the Gospel about Jesus. Desert quickly turns to, presumably, oasis, as the Eunuch and Philip discover water along the way, and the Eunuch seeks Baptism. “What is to prevent me from being baptized,” he asks matter-of-factly. And, the answer is, apparently, nothing. They go down into the water, the Ethiopian is baptized; and Philip, his work done here, is snatched away by the Spirit.
It would seem Black-lives and Eunuch-lives mattered even two thousand years ago; even in that no-mans-land near Gaza between Jew and Gentile beyond. In Baptism, all distinctions of race, standing, and sexuality are given new meaning; people are brought together in the one faith of Christ, who himself experienced the humiliation and injustice which the Eunuch pondered in Isaiah’s writing. In the waters of Baptism, he and Philip are made one; in the waters of Baptism, we are at last all made one.
The Eunuch, by the way, lived on in medieval legend and is considered the founding saint -- the Saint Stephen or Saint Gellért if you will -- of the Ethiopian Church, one of the most ancient of all Christian communities still existing today. The poor man has even, finally, been given a proper name, Bachos; and it is by this name, Saint Bachos, that he is still honoured in his homeland. Perhaps his remarkable story needs wider distribution in our world today.
What is to prevent me from being baptized…? It is, I suppose, a question similar to one deacons, priests, and bishops ask themselves all the time. Should I baptize these persons before me…? Do they understand the faith sufficiently? Will they remain faithful to their Baptismal Vows…? Good questions, I suppose, though they do not seem to bother Philip, as we readily see.
But perhaps, as Christians today, we ought also to ask of ourselves and the societies in which we live: What is to prevent this person or that from full acceptance…? What is to prevent this person from having a full share in the good things of this world…? What is to preclude this person from the embrace of God’s love…? Is it to be the colour of their skin…? Is it their social standing, rich or poor…? Is it their sexuality..?
I think we know the answer. The story of the Ethiopian Eunuch makes it clear. Nothing should prevent such acceptance. Nothing should prevent Baptism into the love of Christ for all people. Nothing should stop us from embracing the other, even if these days we must do it virtually or electronically. The world of today -- the cities of today -- can sometimes seem as lonely and hostile as any desert road leading to Gaza or the alföld. The isolation brought upon us by pandemic and illness make alienation and fear even more acute, even more an injustice.
Philip understood his own Baptism, lived it out, and offered it to others. He understood that as a disciple of Christ and a deacon his calling was to end alienation, fear, and confusion. Skin-colour, social background, and sexuality meant little if anything to him. His calling was to be involved and committed. His calling was to bring the Good News of Jesus to all who would listen and follow.
The question for us might well be:
What is to prevent us from doing the same…?
The Rev. Dr. Frank Hegedűs