If you grew up going to Sunday school, you’re probably at least a little bit familiar with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. I’ve never been entirely sure why, but this story, which appears in Acts 8, has always been one of my favorites. I’ve always been fascinated by everything about it, especially since it reads almost like a sci-fi/fantasy story.
An angel comes and tells Philip to stand by a certain road at a certain time, and when he sees a chariot the Holy Spirit instructs him to approach it. He does, and in the following conversation converts him to Christianity and baptizes him. At that moment, Philip is transported to Azotus and continues preaching. In the Bible I used growing up, I had “beam me up, Scotty!” written in the margins. Anytime this passage was used in a sermon, I used to daydream about the Eunuch returning home (to probably somewhere in Sudan) and telling everyone about what had happened, including Queen Amanitare.
My view of this story was simplistic, shaped by the conventions of the people who first told it to me. It was a traditional missionary story, told in the same way that I heard other stories like “The God who Made my Thumbs” or the journeys of David Livingstone. We gawked at this story about Philip teaching the black man just like we gawked at pictures missionaries would bring back from Kenya or Japan. All these things reinforced stereotypes I had about “unreached people groups”– in an attempt to provoke my empathy I was taught to see non-Western nations as backwards, dirty, savage, war-torn, hungry, poverty-stricken, and in desperate need of Christian Missions (aside: please take same time to look at the #TheAfricatheMediaNeverShowsYou tag on twitter).
But, thanks to my need to re-think and re-imagine the Bible stories I’ve been imbibing since I was a child, I was struck by something interesting in this passage:
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” and he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
I’ve been thinking about this story fairly consistently ever since I first heard about the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. Since that time we’ve seen more protests, more killings, more violence, a massacre, and now eight black churches that have been burned down. I remain hopeful that in the midst of all this terror and pain that Christian America will finally wrestle with the long-entrenched sins of racism and white supremacy, but in all this time I have been disappointed by a typical Christian response.
They’ve called for patience, for love, for forgiveness, for mercy.
They’ve demanded that black people silence the cries of their suffering.
They’ve said that they will not listen as long as any black person is not submissive and compliant.
And while they say that, I think of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the way he interacted with Philip. He listened to Philip’s explanation, and then he acted. He chose, for himself, what he wanted to do with this information, and then says “what can stand in the way of my being baptized?“
In our church tradition, baptism has always been and will ever be about identity. When we baptize our children or our new converts, we are proclaiming to everyone that this person is one of us, that they belong. They are as much a part of us as we are a part of them, united in one catholic church.
When the Eunuch– a queer man, a black man– says “what can stand in the way of my being baptized?” he is forcing all of us to acknowledge the truth: he is one of us. He is our equal. He is as much a beloved child of God as any straight white man. He deserves the same love, grace, and compassion as any other Christian, and he claimed the right to it.
Rachel Held Evans said something about this story in Searching for Sunday that stood out to me:
At another time in his life, Philip might have pointed to the eunuch’s ethnicity, or his anatomy, or his inability to gain access to the ceremonial baths that made a person clean. But instead, with no additional conversation between the travelers, the chariot lumbered to a halt and Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find …
Philip got out of God’s way. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in. Nothing could prevent the eunuch from being baptized, for the mountains of obstruction had been plowed down, the rocky hills made smooth, and God had cleared a path. There was holy water everywhere. (39)
Christians are still doing what God told Peter to stop: we set up insurmountable roadblocks and maintain them with fierce hatred and misplaced loyalty. We tell black people, queer people, exactly when and exactly how we will accept them. We will not love you until you do everything I think black people should be doing. We will not listen to you until you match the completely imaginary version of Martin Luther King Jr. I have in my head. We will not bestow our sacraments upon you until you do as your are told. Deny who you are. Deny your community. Deny who you love.
But the Ethiopian Eunuch didn’t stop for any of that. He ordered the chariot to stop, he got out, and he stood by the water until Philip baptized him.
Today, it’s men getting tear gas away from the children the police had thrown it at.
Today, it’s Bree Newsome climbing a flag pole and taking down a symbol of hatred and bigotry.
Today, it’s a woman marrying her partner of 72 years.
Today, it’s Isasi-Diaz teaching that everyday struggles are a source for theology.
We need to listen to the people who are saying what can stand in our way? and finally admit that the answer is nothing.