This morning’s story of the Ethiopian eunuch is located about a quarter of the way into the Book of Acts. As the New Testament timeline goes, the story takes place after Jesus rose from the dead. It happens after the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples…blowing their minds by seeking them out behind closed doors and showing them the fresh nail holes in his hands. It occurs after Jesus grilled breakfast for his fisherman friends out on the beach surrounding Lake Tiberias. And after Jesus ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, having emphatically proven his point to all who doubted that death could not contain him.
In the aftermath of Pentecost earlier in the Book of Acts, the disciples were busy creating, outlining, building, energizing the first Christian church. And a large number of faithful people, all of whom were raised in the Jewish faith tradition, had already converted to Christianity. It was a fertile, albeit somewhat chaotic time, in the history of the earliest Christian church. As with most things in life, starting something brand new has a way of producing both anxiety and exhilaration.
Nevertheless, by the time we arrive at Chapter Eight in the Book of Acts, we expect the first Christian church to be taking root and taking hold. Steadily growing in increments. Or in the best of all worlds, flourishing in leaps and bounds.
Still, no one could predicted this morning’s story. Because this morning’s story is the very first account in the New Testament of a Gentile converting to Christianity. A Gentile who was raised outside the Jewish faith tradition in the distant African land of Ethiopia. A Gentile who was not only a foreigner and a stranger, but also a man who was black and a sexual minority.
The way the story unfolds, Philip was out on a certain desert road. There he found a eunuch in a chariot reading from the scroll of Isaiah. So Philip climbed into the chariot and told this castrated man from Ethiopia about Jesus. Whereupon the eunuch responded, “Look over there! There is water. What keeps me from being baptized?” Immediately, Philip baptized the man from Ethiopia, thereby authorizing and sanctifying the eunuch’s conversion. And then Philip vanished.
The eunuch was riding along the desert road in his chariot reading Isaiah, returning from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship. Which is fascinating because the law in those days made it abundantly clear that no eunuch was ever allowed to enter the temple. The fact that the eunuch transgressed gender boundaries and did not fit into a proper category made him profane. Meaning the eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship in the temple despite the fact that in all likelihood he was turned away by the religious establishment. The eunuch sought God in Jerusalem despite the fact he knew there was no love for him there.
This black, African, foreigner, who did not fit into any of his society’s prescribed gender categories, went to Jerusalem knowing he would not be welcome. Knowing that people would not be open to him. Knowing that people would question him and look down on him and offer him no affirmation of who he was or why he wanted to worship God…
Down through the ages, this story in the Book of Acts has often been referred to as “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch.” According to this line of interpretation, our job is to tell everyone we meet about Jesus because in doing so we might convert them and save them. Ultimately, like Philip long ago, the objective is to change the other into being like us so that they can share a place with us in God’s heavenly mansion.
For me, however, today’s story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a story about something different. It’s a story about welcoming. It’s a story about how wide God’s tent really is. And it’s a story about how important it is for human beings to be open and affirming…
Next Sunday at our Annual Meeting after the 10:15am worship service, this Wapping Community Church congregation will take an historic vote on whether to become an “Open and Affirming” congregation. The proposed Open and Affirming statement has been created and revised over the course of nearly two years of study and has been published in the Parish Post and approved by the Board of Deacons and the Church Council.
If we vote affirmatively as a congregation, Wapping Community Church would join eighty-four other United Church of Christ congregations across the state of Connecticut and fourteen hundred United Church of Christ congregations across the country who have already voted to become Open and Affirming. And if we vote affirmatively, we will agree to welcome all people into the full life of this church community, including people of any age, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, marital status, or physical, cognitive or emotional ability.
Having offered a little background and context, the question that has been raised more than any other over the last two years here at Wapping is the question of what Open and Affirming means. Especially since a number of us assumed Wapping Community Church was already open and affirming.
Using the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, I want to lay out three reasons why I believe it’s critical for this congregation to officially become Open and Affirming.
Going on record as an Open and Affirming church is vitally important for people in our world like the Ethiopian eunuch who have had churches and religious authorities too often tell them they are not welcome. If you have ever had a conversation with someone who is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender, chances are extremely good they could tell you a story about going to church and being judged, condemned and rejected for who they are and for who they love. If you have ever had a conversation with someone who is disabled or someone who struggles with mental health issues, chances are really good they could tell you a story about how they felt belittled by something that was said to them or about them in a church. If you have ever had a conversation with a person of color, chances are good they could tell you a story about how they felt judged and condemned by people of faith in a church community simply on account of the color of their skin.
To have such judgement and condemnation justified in the name of a God who creates all people in God’s own image…and in the name of Jesus Christ who spent his life and gave his life teaching us to love our neighbor every bit as much as we love ourselves…is hurtful beyond imagining. In my heart and mind, it’s the polar opposite of what the Christian church should be about.
It’s easy to say that Wapping Community Church would not judge or condemn or reject someone for who they are. And it’s easy to point to examples of times in the past where this church has offered to all kinds of people the extravagant welcome Jesus modeled for his followers. But Open and Affirming is about making a statement and then living that statement.
It’s not enough for us to put a welcome mat inside the doors of the church and assure people that when they walk through the doors of the church we will embrace them with open arms. Open and Affirming means we are putting welcome mats outside the doors of the church. So that anybody who comes anywhere near this church, anyone who hears about this church or reads about this church or asks about this church will know that Wapping Community Church is a place where we practice what we preach at the beginning of every Sunday morning worship service. “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here…”
The way in which Philip opened himself to the stranger he met on the desert road, affirming the man’s faith and personhood by offering the sacrament of baptism, meant something life-changing to the Ethiopian eunuch. As it turns out, it was also a transformational moment in Philip’s life.
In their desert encounter, Philip learned from the Ethiopian eunuch what God really looked like. In fact, this morning’s story is in some ways a story about Philip’s conversion. Because the truth is that what Philip learned about God that day he could only have learned from a black, Gentile, foreign born, sexual minority who spent his life facing opposition and rejection.
To be sure, you and I can learn about the Christian faith from people who look like us. And people who live and love the same way we do. And people who share the same images of God and practice their faith in similar ways. But in the end, you and I can learn even more about God by reaching out and being in relationship with people who have been repeatedly told they are unworthy. You and I need the equivalent of the Ethiopian eunuch to show us what faith looks like.
By becoming an Open and Affirming church, we remind ourselves that you and I want the stranger, the foreigner, the one who is considered “other” to show us water in the desert. Being Open and Affirming reminds us to listen and take seriously the voice that asks, “here is water in the desert, so what is to keep me from being baptized?” And Open and Affirming pushes us to act boldly in order to insure that every one of God’s children receives the fullest measure of God’s love.
Open and Affirming. It meant something to the Ethiopian eunuch and it means something to all people who have experienced what it means to be treated as less than whole in the eyes of God. It meant something to Philip and it means something to all people who have learned about the gracious, abundant, unconditional love of God from a person they did not know at a time when they did not expect it.
Finally, Open and Affirming means something to God. When all is said and done, it’s tempting for you and me to look at this tent we call the church and think it’s our job either to change people so they fit into the tent or to extend the tent so that everybody will fit inside it.
Instead, what I’ve just described is God’s job. Because the church is ultimately God’s tent. Wapping Community Church is God’s tent. It’s your job and my job to point to the gracious nature of our God who became flesh in Jesus Christ and entered into our humanity. It’s your job and my job to point to the great mercy and love of God who affirms that all of us are God’s children.
But it’s God’s job to lead all of humanity to the water in the desert and to invite us into the baptism of God’s mercy. The place where God intends for each of us to know we are welcomed into the beautiful, risky, expansive life of faith. Amen.
NOTE: Inspiration for this sermon came from a sermon preached by the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber. Her sermon, entitled “Eunuchs and Hermaphrodites,” can be found on pgs. 87-95 in the book, Pastrix: the Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint.” (Jericho Books: 2013.)