Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Baptism! No Questions Asked.

Acts 8:26-39

"Now an angel of the Lord said unto Phillip, "Go South to the road - the desert road - that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Phillip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." Then Phillip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Phillip asked. "How can I", he asked, "unless someone explains it to me?", so he invited Phillip to come up and sit with him. The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: ~~ He was led like sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his Descendants? For his life was taken from the Earth. ~~ The eunuch asked Phillip, "Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" Then Phillip with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Phillip and the eunuch went down into the water and Phillip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing" (NIV)

Many are aware of the frequently told story about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, but I've included the entire passage anyway. And while the title of this essay is "Baptism! No Questions Asked.", according to Bible Gateway, some later versions contain a passage at verse 37 that says "Phillip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may." The eunuch answered, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." This would then be the only "question" asked of the eunuch prior to baptism.

This narrative is one to which theologians refer for the importance of Baptism as a Christian rite. It is also cited by some who believe full immersion is necessary for a proper Baptism. And it is also one basis for the need for a verbal declaration of Christians that Jesus is the Son of God. But no one discusses the person who is baptized in this phrase, the Ethiopian eunuch. In fact, there is precious little theological scholarship or discussion about the role eunuchs play within Scriptures. Why were they mentioned? Why aren't they talked about in confirmation or catechism classes? We hear of the leper, the prostitute, the blind, the lame....but when it comes to the eunuchs, most clergy start to tippy-toe. And yet they are mentioned in the chapters of Kings, Acts, Matthew, Isaiah and Esther. Such is the "invisibility" into which modern day transgenders are frequently cast.

To the verse itself. When I first took a serious study of this story, my first reaction was "How did Phillip - or at least the author of Acts - know this person was a eunuch?" Since the manner of dress was essentially the same for men and women, it would seem that there wouldn't be anything obvious in the Ethiopian's visible presentation that would indicate to everyone that he was a eunuch. The verse outright describes him as a eunuch, he does not "out" himself to Phillip. So just what was it that made it so "obvious"? Some of today's transgenders - especially male-to-females - have difficulty "passing" in their desired gender. If the Ethiopian was truly that obvious to Phillip, then the Baptism that was performed - No Questions Asked - is extremely significant for transgenders, passable or not. This, after all, was a mission ordered from God. The angel told Phillip to do this, and when the job was done, Phillip was taken away for another task....he wasn't "taken to task" for his performance. What more is required to prove God's affirmation and acceptance of the transgender/eunuch?

It should also be noted that this eunuch was an important, powerful person within the court of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. This reinforces the earlier commentary that not all of the eunuchs of the day were punished slaves or people to be shunned or condemned. This eunuch was in charge of the finances of the realm he served. Anyone in business or in government is acutely aware of "the power of the purse".

And let us consider another earlier the Ethiopian one who "made himself a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven's sake"? He was baptized at the direction of God who would know of the Ethiopian being a eunuch. There was no requirement of contrition or atonement for his being a eunuch. The baptism was performed No Questions Asked. As a personal aside, it bothers me that there are those who deny baptism to some based on a church specified litmus test. That clearly did not happen here, it shouldn't happen to anyone who accepts Jesus as the Son of God.

The next lesson: It Doesn't Matter?

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