Monday, May 07, 2012

May 6, Easter 5, "What's to Prevent Me From Being Baptized?"

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

My sermon series for the Easter season is on the questions which are asked within the scripture lessons. Today our question is what the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip. “Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” That was not rhetorical. It was a real question.

If that were me in the chariot instead of Philip, I’d have to say, “Well, when’s the next time you plan to be back in Jerusalem? I can’t baptize you today. You have to meet with the Board of Elders first, I can’t just baptize you on my own. When I was installed in my church in 2002 I made a solemn promise to conduct my ministry according to the rules of the church, so my conscience would prevent me.

You know, I do get unchurched people calling me up to ask me to baptize their children, and I tell them that baptism is not just a private act or a family affair. It’s an act of the church. We don’t do it privately, we do it in the midst of the congregation. It’s about membership among God’s people, it means participating in a congregation. So I’d have to answer the eunuch’s question with my reasons to prevent it.

Philip would have his reasons too. First of all, the eunuch was a Gentile, and at this stage of the church, there were no Gentile Christians yet. Baptism was a Jewish act for Jewish people. John the Baptist began to baptize for the revival of Israel, and for the Jews of his day to identify with that revival. What did this pagan have to do with Israel, even the Israel which honored Jesus as its Lord? No Gentile had ever been baptized yet, and Philip could have said that such an innovation in baptism was not for him to make, since he was not an apostle, but only an evangelist and deacon.

Second, the eunuch was going back home and therefore leaving the company of the people of God. He would not be part of any congregation. Baptism is not a private act, it’s about membership among God’s people. With whom would this guy have communion? Philip could have said that it’s impossible to be a Christian on your own.

Third, there was Deuteronomy 23:1: “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the congregation of the Lord.” No eunuchs allowed. It’s very clear. Don’t bother saying, “That’s just the Old Testament.” The Old Testament was the only Bible Philip had. And it’s from the heart of the Bible, the Torah, and what did Jesus say against “removing one jot or tittle from the Torah.” I’m sure that this verse was especially what the eunuch had in mind when he asked his question. I’m sure that a man who had invested such time and money to make a pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Jerusalem will have known about this verse, and worried about it every day for all the weeks he traveled in his chariot.

I’m guessing he had set his hope on another verse, although a verse less central to the Bible, from Isaiah chapter 56: “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely divide me from his people,’ and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and hold fast to my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off.”

But his arrival in Jerusalem will have been after the stoning of Stephen, and the beginning of the persecution of the disciples, and the temple police will have been at threat level orange. Not even Philip himself would have been allowed into the temple. The closest the eunuch could have gotten was the outer court, where the animals were bought and sold, and even then he’d have to slip some money to the police for them to look the other way.

So after this exclusion, on his way back home, he’s reading Isaiah again, just a couple handsbreadth over in the scroll, chapter 53, the words he read aloud with Philip. Those words cut very close to his experience. Not only being cut off from the temple to which he’d made his pilgrimage, but also his castration in his childhood. In the image of Isaiah, he’d been like a sheep under the knife and a lamb about to be cut. “In his humiliation justice was denied him.” Of course it’s this passage he’s reading. He felt like he was in it. He had been excluded from the temple and excluded by the Torah, but he found himself included in the prophecy.

It’s with a cultured objectivity that he asks Philip his first question, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” But behind his objectivity we can read his interest: “Can this also be about me? Am I included here?” So Philip answers this first question by teaching him the apostolic interpretation of Isaiah—that the prophet says these things about Jesus, in his suffering, in his rejection and exclusion, in his loneliness and death.

And the eunuch is the one who makes the leap of faith. Then Jesus is together with me here. If he’s identified with me, why should I not identify with him? What’s to prevent me then?

For Philip to overcome his reasons to prevent it, he has to believe that the water was there in the desert by providence, not coincidence, and that the eunuch’s question was there by providence. He knows the angel had put him on this road, and the Spirit had ordered him into the chariot, and how providential was it that the pagan was already reading scripture. He has to figure that if this little temporary congregation was good enough for God it was good enough for him. And if God is laying Isaiah 56 over Deuteronomy 23, what’s to prevent him from doing it as well?

The eunuch asks the question, and we never hear Philip’s final answer, we only see his action. We are not told what his baptismal formula was. We are not told that he did not use the baptismal liturgy of the Reformed Church in America. We are told how the eunuch felt, that he went on his way rejoicing, but we are not told what Philip felt, only that he must have felt dizzy and disoriented, having been snatched away by the Spirit. It doesn’t matter what Philip felt. What matters was his action.

The action of love is what we mean when we talk about Christian love, the love of Christ, the love of God. It’s not the love of feeling, it’s the love of action. You do the action, and the feeling may follow, you do the action of love enough to develop a general attitude of love and the feeling of love will follow, but you don’t wait for the feeling. The love that Philip enacted for the eunuch was not based on his feeling, nor was it even a favor. It’s not that Philip did him a favor. Philip owed the eunuch what he gave him, he owed him the action of his love.

A Christian congregation is a group of people who gather together to try to perfect their love in real and concrete ways. You come here every week to learn this love which comes from God, to attach to it like branches on a vine, and in many small ways to practice and perfect it. Today we celebrate that six more of you have decided to commit to this community of love.

I can imagine what might prevent you. Your previous experience of church  might have been very good, and then look at us—we are bound to disappoint you. Or it might have been bad, and then look at us—it’s deja vu all over again. Or it might have been okay, not great, not bad, and here you go again, everybody smiles and lots of nice talk but not much more. You can imagine yourself like Philip here, running through the reasons of what could prevent you.

But somebody put you on this road. And you found us reading scripture out loud, and in that scripture looking for ourselves. Look, here we are, what is to prevent you from loving us? From loving each other? I believe that’s how you have to understand what you are doing today. You’re not joining a church so much as committing to the perfection of love. To the perfection of the love which you have received in your own life from God. God bless you for committing to this love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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