Acts 8:26-40 – The 5th Sunday of Easter – for May 3, 2015
“Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him . . .” (Acts 8:35)
I am a United Methodist pastor.
I’ve done babies, lots of babies.
But I haven’t done any eunuchs.
Or should I more truthfully admit I’ve never knowingly baptized a eunuch? In a ministry spanning chunks of five decades, where I’ve served in a hodgepodge of rural and urban churches, along with campus ministry and hospice settings, maybe a eunuch has stood beside me while I intoned the ceremonial words of Holy Baptism and blessed his head with dribbles of water.
In the name of Creator, and Christ, and the Spirit, I baptize you . . .
How do you know someone’s a eunuch unless they tell you?
We all have secrets and silences. How we appear on the outside may not reflect what is hopeful, or tormented, on the inside. We live with unspoken memories that break our hearts every day while others only see our friendly smiles. Each dawn brings possibilities only whispered to our self. Every day holds private failures. Every final thought before a blessed (or cursed) night of rest (or restlessness) includes satisfaction or self-criticism no one ever hears.
But once there was, so proclaimed the eighth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, a known eunuch from Ethiopia. On the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, with the guidance of an angel of the Lord, in the sunlight of a dazzling day, the disciple Philip met with a eunuch. It’s an odd, serendipitous tale, with angelic instructions and fancy carriages. It’s a story that included—just as it could today—a have and a have-not. Philip was definitely one of the have-nots. Wasn’t he poor? Wasn’t he another powerless citizen in a society where a few were wealthy and the rest rarely had two bronze leptons to rub together? And, with a few well-chosen words, the reader of Acts knows this is not just any eunuch, but a high-powered fellow who handled the finances for the Candace, the Ethiopian queen.
But then, shockingly, who cared that Philip was a chump or the eunuch was a champ? Who cared that Philip was a local and the eunuch was an international traveler with a license to thrill? Who cared that Philip trudged the roads on two frayed sandals and the eunuch never touched the ground as the first century Cadillac of carriages transported the Candace’s cash man hither and yon?
Philip, perhaps his heart fluttering like angel’s wings, tells the story of Jesus to this eunuch.
I wonder what Philip said? The author of Acts was coy. We know a few spare details. We can only guess what took place in the conversation. Did Philip emphasize Jesus’ miracles? Did he reveal how Jesus triumphed over death? Did he elaborate on the final hours where the Roman Empire nailed Jesus’ flesh onto a cross? Did Philip, in an early version of the Internet’s endless lists of the top 9 or 12 or 27 things you must know about the Bible, make direct connections to where Jesus fulfilled particular scripture? Did Philip tell stories about a Samaritan who comes to the aid of an enemy, or a selfish son who abandons his father for fame and fortune in other lands?
We don’t know.
And yet, there’s that question the eunuch asks. It’s a question that still knocks my sox off every time I read it.
The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?”
I wish I knew what Philip said! In a ministry that began when Jimmy Carter was president, I’ve only had a handful of folks ask what the eunuch asked.
Okay, fine, mostly I’ve baptized babies and they never seemed moved by my sermons, teachings, writings, or other times where I had brilliant insights into scripture. Babies may cry or fuss, but they won’t pose any transformative questions.
But one person did.
She was an aunt, not a eunuch. A church member invited me to visit her elderly aunt. Now staying with that church member, the aunt was dying. I think this happened during Ronald Reagan’s first term, so it was a long, long, long time ago. I don’t remember details. But I do recall, without a carriage in sight, settling in beside her and telling her about myself, about Jesus, about God, and about the little I knew of faith. At one point, unbidden and bold, as she sat in a rocking chair with a comforter covering her lap, she wondered . . .
Could I be baptized?
What had I said about God or the Bible to inspire that question? Had I told her a story about Jesus, or one of Jesus’ stories? Did she ask that because she was dying? Did she ask that because I was a young and eager preacher and she wanted to please me?
How I wish I knew what Philip said to the eunuch.
How I wish I could remember what words were said—by me!—to prompt a dying woman in her eighties to ask about baptism.
Baptism is the least and most of what we do as Christians. All it takes is water. Look, there’s a lake with some water! Look, twist that kitchen faucet, and there’s water! As much as there are fancy words to prepare you for baptism, or words to eloquently celebrate what baptism means just before the water flows over you, do those words matter much at all?
Isn’t it the question?
Isn’t it the longing?
Isn’t it the believer who suddenly believes?
Babies never asked me any questions. I can hardly remember any of the precious, sweet, innocent, gurgling or crying infants I baptized.
The aunt asked a question. I remember her.
The writer of Acts, with wisdom and whimsy, noted that after the baptism, God’s spirit whisked Philip away to a faraway place called Azotus. (According to Google maps, Azotus would be at least an hour’s drive. Maybe less when traveling by way of the Lord’s spirit?) Philip had more work to do!
But what about the eunuch . . . what happened to him?
We don’t know.
What about the aunt? I recall visiting her a time or two after we shared some holy enough water. She rocked in that rocking chair, and always had the comforter snuggled close for extra warmth. She didn’t seem different on the outside. We talked. We held hands. We prayed. We had, for those sacred moments, a relationship.
She died not long after.
She left me two enduring gifts. Her niece, the church member, made a contribution from the aunt’s modest estate in my name to one of my favorite non-profits. How sweet and unexpected! It was the family’s way of thanking me for visiting a quiet woman in her last days. I still get information from that non-profit because of the present . . . and when I read about the good work that non-profit still does, I often recall an elderly aunt with a shy smile and a newborn faith.
The second gift is the gift of the eunuch. Isn’t it amazing that sometimes what we say to another will change their life? Was it because we were brilliant with our words, or we simply were present with them and listened and cared? All we can do, as we try to share about faith, is be honest. We say what we believe. We admit our ignorance or doubt. We withhold judgment and give thanks for the joy of life together.
And once in a while, unbidden and bold, a question will be asked. What would keep me from being baptized?
Nothing. Am I right?
God’s wet, wonderful way is for all.