Sunday, July 14, 2013

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch - Equality and Baptism

Acts 8:26-40

“The world is a vampire…” sings Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan.  Vampires suck the life out of the living.  They turn human beings into the undead, into vampires.  They make the human inhuman.  The world is a vampire.

The Apostle Philip was visited by a messenger who told him to head south.  He had been in Samaria preaching to the mongrel Samaritans, and now was being told to go down south.  Down there he came across an Ethiopian eunuch.  This particular eunuch seems to have been the cabinet minister responsible for the national treasury.  This minister of the treasury, who served the Queen of the Ethiopians, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was heading back to Ethiopia on his chariot.

Now, in the ancient world, Ethiopia isn’t usually identified as the same place that the modern-day country of Ethiopia exists in.  Most scholars have this “Ethiopia” existing in the region of where the fallen Kingdom of Kush once stood, basically south of modern-day Egypt in the place of where Sudan is.  For Herodotus, the Greek historian, Ethiopia was a reference to all the lands south of Egypt.  In essence, we’re not really certain about precise location, but we are certain about general vicinity.  Our scholars have also suggested that Αἰθίοψ (Aithiops) can literally be translated “aitho” (burnt) + “ops” (face) – burnt-face, which would be a reference to the blackness of the skin of the people who are from south of Egypt.  So, Philip has met a Black brother, who has risen to office of minister of the treasury, which isn’t all that impressive, since the whole country would be wall-to-wall Black folks.  He has met this Black man, who serves the Queen of a foreign country.

This foreigner is found by Philip to be reading from the prophet Isaiah, where it says:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe this generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.

The foreigner looks up and asks Philip, “Who is this text talking about?  Is the prophet speaking about himself or someone else?”

At that moment Philip was given the invitation he was waiting for.  Philip, a Galilean Jew, was going to kick down the Great Wall of Racism by sharing the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the same way he had done in Samaria, with a Black man from the furthest extent of the earth.

You see, folks, the world is vampire.  It’s like the fabric of the universe has been shred up, and God is using people like Philip to stitch it back together.  Remember our history lesson about Samaria.  In the 8th century BCE there were two Israelite kingdoms – the northern one had two names Ephraim and Israel, with Samaria as its capital.  In the south was Judah, with its capital Jerusalem.  Ephraim was laid waste in the 8th century by the Assyrian Empire.  Its people were carted away and replaced by foreigners, and the formerly Israelite kingdom lost the culture that it shared with Judah.  About 2 centuries later the Babylonian Empire rose and crushed Judah, exiled a significant portion of the Israelites there, but sent them all to the capital city Babylon.  There the Judeans doubled down on what made them distinct from the Babylonians and some decades later the Persian Empire would rise to power, completely overrun the Babylonians, and release the Judeans back to the land they had come from.  When the Judeans, now Jews, returned, they began to rebuild Jerusalem and her temple there were Samaritans who had come asking, “Can we help?” The Jews, of course, acknowledging that they were, by now, of mixed ancestry rebuked them for being mongrels through intermarriage with the Assyrians (see books of Ezra and Nehemiah).  The world is a vampire.

The other thing that made the unnamed cabinet minister different than Philip is that he was a eunuch.  In the ancient world eunuchs were often castrated because they usually had positions in the palace that would place them close to the ruler of the land.  Neutering them, as was typically thought, would remove any dynastic ambition, since they could no longer have children.  The problem is that the Torah has clear command about people like eunuchs.  It says in Deuteronomy:

No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1)

This clearly removes eunuchs from participation in the religious life of ancient Israel.  So it’s not just the Great Wall of Racism that the Gospel is overcoming through Philip, but an early exclusionary policy that kept folks out.

When Jesus says to Peter, “on this rock I will build my church, and not even the gates of Hades shall overcome it” he positions all of the places of death, despair, disaster, and darkness in our lives as defensively positioned.  Gates are part of a defensive posture.  Whereas the combo meal purchaser asks, “Can I have fries with that?” the wall-builder asks, “Can I have gates with that?”

The Ethiopian’s race and his social status as a eunuch were clearly stumbling blocks to the 1st-century Jew.  You see, folks, the world is a vampire.  The world seeks to dehumanize, while Jesus Christ seeks to shed light on humankind, for he comes to us in our own human skin.  The world seeks to deny people their humanity.  Christ seeks to deepen the sacredness and blessedness of being human.  There is no greater demonstration than in the eunuch’s next question and Philip’s response.

The eunuch says “Look, here is water!  What is to stop me from being baptized?”

Philip simply baptizes him, uniting them both in purpose and in kind.  Their united purpose becomes to evangelize (that is, to announce good news to the world) and their united kind is, of course, the Imago Dei that humankind is – made in the image of God.

But, as I say, the world is a vampire.  The world seeks to dehumanize the human.  Just yesterday the criminal court case of George Zimmerman, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, an innocent, unarmed Black teenager wearing a hoodie as he strolled through the neighbourhood, told us the story of the secular world – that Black folks cannot innocently walk the streets without being “up to something”.  In the Trayvon Martin case, the humanity of all Black people was put into question.

Of course there were many Canadians in an uproar, some who started up the “thank God we live in Canada” campaign, to which the Toronto Star responded to with it’s own article “Aboriginal and Black inmates disproportionately fill Ontario jails.”  The numbers are astounding.  The mythos of the nation state creates a false narrative for its own citizens by stating things like, “God keep our land glorious and free” meanwhile significant numbers of people in our own country are not held with this high ideal in mind simply because their skin is too Red, Black, or Brown.

The ancient church’s ideal was to baptize anyone interested in being baptized.  The church today worries too much about formulas and control, and not enough about people’s curiosity about God and about the church and about the world that God loves.  We spend too much time worrying about the survival of the church, when the church’s whole purpose is to bring life to places of decay, and to send the people we baptize into those places, bearing the light of the very One who breathes life into dead bones.

Black folks around the world are singing the blues.  We have been singing the blues for the last 500 years.  But when we worship God, we come alive in an intercultural group that sees a God who can “make a way out of no way”.  As theologian James Cone says:

Enslaved blacks who first heard the gospel message seized on the power of the cross.  Christ crucified manifested God’s loving and liberating presence in the contradictions of black life – that transcendent presence in the lives of black Christians that empowered them to believe that ultimately, in God’s eschatological future, they would not be defeated by the “troubles of this world,” no matter how great and painful their suffering.  Believing this paradox, this absurd claim of faith, was only possible through God’s “amazing grace” and the gift of faith, grounded in humility and repentance.  There was no place for the proud and the mighty, for people who think that God called them to rule over others.  The cross was God’s critique of power – white power – with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.

The way Philip Yancey says it is interesting:

Underdog.  I wince even as I write the word, especially in connection with Jesus.  It’s a crude word, probably derived from dogfighting and applied over time to predictable losers and victims of injustice.  Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog.

And you know what it’s like to be the underdog.  You have been kicked while you were down.  You have had folks try to slander your name.  You have been excluded from a party or a dinner invitation.  You have had people tell you that you won’t fulfill your dreams.  You have been ganged up on in the classroom, on the schoolyard, at the workplace.  You have been hated for your success.  You have been disliked for your opinion.  Whenever you have felt the weight of the world’s displeasure, you have been given a glimpse of the weight the person of colour has carried for half a millennia.

After yesterday’s verdict, I don’t trust the secular world to change anything.  I don’t trust the nation state either.  The world is a vampire.  The world believes that my life is worth less than yours, simply because the tones of our skin are different, and the only thing we have to combat this blasphemous reality is our mutual baptism in the Lord – the One who reconciles all of Creation.  We become equal to each other in our baptism.  We are One, not because we like the idea of being One, but because Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, has baptized us collectively into a new world of possibility, mutual love and respect, the cherishing of human and creaturely dignity – a hope that is impossible to see without this God-fearing Beloved Community that we call ‘Church’.

1 comment:

northpal said...

Canada we can do better, Canada can be a leader, build more prisons and for every black incarcerated incarcerate a caucasian. Now this will boost the economy with more home grown jobs uneffected by off shore markets as well as creating a man power shortage that will allow the importation of more blacks. I am sure if most Canadians examine my proposal and we can count on the Canadian tradition of fair play to get this accomplished.