The baptism of the eunuch

“The Baptism of the Eunuch” by Rembrandt 1626

Acts is, in many ways, the story of God’s kingdom expanding into all the world. Jesus’ final words to his apostles were, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NET). We see that theme progress throughout the book as the apostles spread the good news in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), persecution scattering the young church throughout Judea (8:1-3) and Samaria (8:4-25), and, through Paul, all across the Roman Empire (9-28).

But to see the words of Jesus and the events in Acts as a purely geographical movement misses something critical in the story.

Philip and the Ethiopian

After Philip spread the good news to Samaria but before Paul is introduced in the story we see Philip sent by the Holy Spirit to have an encounter with an Ethiopian (8:26-40). This was no normal Ethiopian. First he was a God-fearer, that class of people who were not Jewish by birth but still worshiped Yahweh. Second, he was the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia who had made a trip to Jerusalem to worship in the temple. But the most scandalous, most shocking thing about him was his lack of gender.

He was a eunuch.

We don’t know the circumstance that led to his castration. We do know that in the ancient world eunuch were used as servants to women in high positions. It’s possible that he was castrated as a child to give him a chance to obtain work, perhaps because of the poverty of his parents.

We also know that the Mosaic law prohibited eunuchs from being a part of the congregation of Israel (Deut. 23:1) making the Ethiopian treasurer that much more scandalous. The holy irony of the reading that the Ethiopian was struggling to understand, Isaiah 53, is that just three chapters later Isaiah prophesied that God would welcome the foreigner and the eunuch (Isa. 56:3-7).

Gender Identity

Today there are debates raging in state legislatures, school boardrooms, college campuses, and church offices about how to treat those who are transgendered. Specifically, the debate is about restroom requirements and who is allowed to use what room to relieve themselves. There is fear that abusers will hurt children. There is fear that perverts will spy on the vulnerable. There is fear that privacy and decency will be lost.

There is fear of another sort that is being ignored in many debates: the fear of the transgendered among us.

I don’t know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for a person to be born with one set of sex organs and to feel as if they should have the other. I don’t know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But I do know that the Ethiopian boy overcame a great deal of fear, not to become the treasurer of a powerful nation, but to walk into the temple in Jerusalem.

The temple was segregated by both race and gender. The inner court was only for Jewish men. The next court only for Jewish women. The outer court, the one where Jesus taught and where the first Christians met, was for the rest, the leftovers, the Gentiles and ungendered, for those deemed unworthy to step any closer to the mercy seat of God. That Ethiopian treasurer stepped into the temple, bought a scroll from the Hebrew scriptures, and desperately wanted to understand how he could fit into God’s world.

Imagine the fear of a transgendered person who might dare to walk into your church. Imagine the great hope and great terror that must war within them. For reasons most of us will never know they cannot accept the sex of their birth. If it were so easy they would not risk bullying, beatings, mocking, and even death to live as a different gender. Beyond that they have stepped into a place that, historically, has been the forefront of hatred and oppression against them. Imagine the knots in their guts. Imagine the rapidity of their heartbeat. Imagine the desperate, reckless hope that they must have to dare such a thing. Hope that they might finally find a respite from bullying, from beating, from mocking, and even from death. Hope that the love that Jesus spoke of might be evident in the people who wear his name.

Imagine what they will find in response to that terror and that hope when they dare to walk into your church.

Good News

Acts is the story of God’s kingdom expansion, not just geographically, but ethnically and socially. Acts tells us of the shocking, scandalous inclusion in God’s kingdom of the hated Samaritans. It tells of the deep racial divide that made the inclusion of the Gentiles a constant struggle for the Jewish Christians. And it tells us of God fulfilling his prophecy through Isaiah and making a place within the kingdom for an Ethiopian treasurer.

This is what the Lord says,
“Promote justice! Do what is right!
For I am ready to deliver you;
I am ready to vindicate you openly.
The people who do this will be blessed,
the people who commit themselves to obedience,
who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
who refrain from doing anything that is wrong.
No foreigner who becomes a follower of the Lord should say,
‘The Lord will certainly exclude me from his people.’
The eunuch should not say,
‘Look, I am like a dried-up tree.’”
For this is what the Lord says:
“For the eunuchs who observe my Sabbaths
and choose what pleases me
and are faithful to my covenant,
I will set up within my temple and my walls a monument
that will be better than sons and daughters.
I will set up a permanent monument for them that will remain.
As for foreigners who become followers of the Lord and serve him,
who love the name of the Lord and want to be his servants—
all who observe the Sabbath and do not defile it,
and who are faithful to my covenant—
I will bring them to my holy mountain;
I will make them happy in the temple where people pray to me.
Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar,
for my temple will be known as a temple where all nations may pray.”
(Isa. 56:1-7)

I don’t know if it was right or wrong, good or bad for an Ethiopian boy to be castrated so he could get a job. But he was and God welcomed him into the kingdom, despite the scandal.

I don’t know if it is right or wrong, good or bad for people to be transgendered. But they are. Will you welcome them, despite the scandal?