Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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Four weeks after Easter, and we’re still talking about resurrection. Or more to the point, how we live today, here and now, in light of the resurrection. Every week these sacred stories from scripture have reminded us that, more often than not, resurrection living is about the way we choose to interact with one another. And, it is entirely faithful for us to interpret today’s reading from Acts—the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch—in that same light.

 

The story begins with an angel telling Philip to head toward Gaza. Philip obeys, and along the way he runs into the eunuch. The Spirit then instructs Phillip to join the eunuch in his chariot. Philip obeys, and hears the man reading from the prophet Isaiah. They begin talking about scripture, and one thing leads to another. Isaiah leads to Jesus, and, before long, Philip has told him all sorts of Good News. As the chariot rolls along, they see water, and the eunuch says, “Hey! Water! You talked about baptism. What is to prevent me from being baptized right now?” And so, Philip baptizes him.

 

So, let’s start with the eunuch. Y’all know what a eunuch is? I’m going to refresh your memory, just in case. A eunuch is a castrated male servant. Because they are neutered, they are considered safe to serve among young women of royal households. Despite this being something that is done to them, and despite the work they do, society sees eunuchs as sinful and immoral.

 

Now, remember what the eunuch is reading? He’s reading from Isaiah…words about a lamb sent to be shorn, to whom justice is denied and upon whom humiliation is heaped.

 

Huh.

 

Read further in Isaiah and you’ll find words of great freedom. The book of Isaiah has always been a book of hope and promise for the captives, the poor, the sick, the lame, the cast aside, the lonely, and, yes, even the eunuchs. Isaiah promises freedom from marginalization and release from all that burdens us.

 

That’s the prophet the eunuch is reading when Philip approaches him. And as they talk, the eunuch asks, “The words of that prophet…are they about himself? Or, are they about someone else?”

 

If I understand the text, and if I understand the question, what the eunuch is really asking is, “Is it possible the words of the prophet might be true for me, too?”

 

That is what leads Philip to tell him about Jesus, which is what in turn leads the eunuch to ask: “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?"

 

Sarah Miles, who runs a food pantry out of her church’s sanctuary out in California, remembers her baptism vividly. More than anything, she remembers it almost didn’t happen. She had asked to be baptized, but then chickened out. She had not been properly prepared, she decided. In her own words: she didn’t understand the Trinity of the Immaculate Conception or the Nicene Creed or much of anything else. Plus, she was terrified. So, she called her friend Lynn, who listened to her, and who then said, “Honey, just look at the baptismal vows in the Book of Common Worship. See the first line there? It says, ‘Do you desire to be baptized?’” When it comes to baptism, Lynn said, “all you have to do is want it.”[1]

 

“Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?” the eunuch asks.

 

And here’s where, depending on what translation of the Bible you read, the answer varies.

 

The New Revised Standard Version, which we read earlier, reports it this way: the eunuch asks the question, and so Philip baptizes him. All he has to do is want it.

 

But if you’re paying attention to the verse numbers, you’ll see that we go directly from verse 36 to verse 38, which begs the question, what happened to verse 37?

 

Verse 37 appears in some translations, but not all. And verse 37, when it is included, says this in response to the eunuch’s request: “Philip said to him, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may be baptized.” And the eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’”

 

So, here’s the thing about that. The oldest, most complete, most reliable pieces of Acts we have found don’t include this verse. The verse shows up only in later manuscripts, which means, according to all of the scholars who study these things, the original text included no requirements for baptism, and it was the church, at some point, that decided to make some editorial changes.

 

I can’t help but remember the story of Andrew, who grew up in a small fundamentalist Presbyterian church in the south, where his father was the pastor. Andrew loved his church, and his church loved him, until Andrew could no longer bear to hide the fact that he was gay. He joined a church in St. Louis, and asked to be baptized.

 

“I was denied baptism and communion growing up,” Andrew said. “My dad told me I had to wait until I was good enough, until I was holy enough. But I never got there.”

 

Right before he was baptized, Andrew addressed his congregation. He said, “I was kept from baptism because I was told I wasn’t good enough. But you know…baptism happens at the beginning of your faith journey, not the middle, and not the end. You don’t have to have everything together to be baptized. You just have to know enough about grace to know you want it.”[2]

 

Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized? All you have to do is want it.

 

I said at the start of this sermon that, so far, living as resurrected people has had everything to do with how we interact with others. And this story suggests the same. Who are we to try and keep anyone from God?

 

But the more I sat with this story, the more I realized that perhaps the message you and I need most today isn’t that we ought not keep anyone else from God.

 

What if the message Philip and the eunuch and the Spirit are desperately trying to teach us is that we ought not keep ourselves from God, either?

 

In baptisms these days, one of the questions we ask is if we will renounce, if we will make every effort, to turn away from evil and sin in this world. Because where God calls the baptized beloved, there are demons in our lives that call us addict, sinner, failure, fat, worthless, faker, rich, not rich enough, not accomplished enough.

 

And these demons tell us that we can be baptized, we can be claimed as children of God, when we beat the addiction, when we agree to help teach confirmation class, when we get our act together, when we get into the right college or the right high school, when our kids get into the right preschool or elementary school, when we play by the rules, when we believe everything and doubt nothing, when we are married, when we are straight, when we are holy enough, when we are finally, finally, finally…good enough.

 

But in baptism, we stand up in front of all those demons—all those impulses and temptations, all those insecurities and doubts, all those empty sales pitches and screwy labels and say—“I am a beloved child of God and I renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise.”[3]

 

Because baptism isn’t not about being good. It’s about being claimed by a God who is good.

 

In some Orthodox traditions, the one about to be baptized literally spits in the face of evil before going under or being sprinkled by water.

 

I don’t know what the “ultimate” evil is. But I do believe that evil is involved in some way when we look at ourselves and decide that, for any reason, God’s promises are not true for us.

 

Baptism celebrates that we are claimed by God. In that way, baptism marks us as holy. And when we are reminded that we are holy, well, I think it makes it that much easier to see the holiness and eventually come to believe that it’s real.

 

I’ve told y’all that I enjoy going for a run now and then. I’m not fast, but I do enjoy it. A friend of mine consistently argues with that statement. “I refuse to believe you enjoy running,” he says, “because every time I see a runner on the street, whether it’s you or someone else, your faces all look miserable.”

 

“In fact,” he says, “you all look like you are about 10 seconds away from utter collapse or possibly even death itself. Nothing about watching the face of someone running makes me think, ‘Yeah, I want to try that.’”

 

His skepticism reminds me of the philosopher Nietzsche, who once said something along the lines of, “If Christians want me to believe in their Savior, they’re going to have to look a little more saved.”

 

In other words—it’s well and good—and necessary—to see others as beloved by God.

 

But I’m not sure we can really, truly do that, not in the fullest sense, until we acknowledge that we are beloved by God, too.

 

How many times have you said something like, “You can do it! If I can do it, anyone can do it!”

 

So, if we act or talk or preach like we believe God’s love is for everyone, everyone except ourselves, our actions and our words about God’s love lose credibility.

 

Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and the Holy Spirit. They teach us that nothing can prevent anyone from being caught up in the grace of God.

 

Room enough for anyone. That is Gospel truth. And yet…it’s is a pretty empty statement until you realize and internalize that everyone includes you, too.

 

It makes all the sense in the world that the eunuch was reading from Isaiah.

 

Because back when John the Baptist was first telling people all about Jesus, he used words from Isaiah, too.

He said, “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh—all flesh—will see the salvation of God.”

 

It’s just moments later that Jesus himself quotes Isaiah as well. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”

 

And then Jesus said—“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Reading words that were ages old, he still said, “today.” And this morning, reading words that are ages and ages old, they are still true “today.”

 

There is nothing to keep you from being baptized. There is nothing to keep you from God’s love. All you have to do is want it—because it’s already there, and it’s just waiting for you to let it in.

 

The world will find every reason it can to make you question your worth. Don’t let it.

 

The eunuch asks: The words of the prophet…is he talking about himself? Or is he talking about someone else? Is it possible his words might be true for me, too?

 

And the Spirit answers. The Spirit answers the eunuch, and the Spirit answers us: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. By nothing less than God’s own grace, this scripture has been fulfilled…and yes, absolutely and without question, it is for you.

 

[1] From Eat This Bread by Sarah Miles.

[2] From Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evans

[3] This section about standing up to our own demons is paraphrased from Searching for Sunday by Rachel Held Evens.