7.01.2013

Absolutely Nothing

Is it a short story? Or a sermon? I don't know. But it's what I preached yesterday. 


Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?

The question had tumbled out of his mouth so quickly, he hadn’t even had time to really think about what he was saying. He had an irrational, fleeting thought that he could just take it back, that he could take a big deep breath and inhale the words back into his mouth and swallow them. But you can’t unsay something that has already been said.

And so the question hung in the cramped space of the chariot, using up as much space as a tangible object would. He felt his whole body reacting with shame and embarrassment. His face flushed. His skin, already slicked with perspiration from the hot Palestinian day, suddenly went cold, sending a shiver down his spine. He had been leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, eagerly engaged in conversation with Philip, but now he slumped back and shifted his gaze to his feet.

Whatever he did, he did not want to look into Philip’s eyes, and he did not want to look at the small body of water that had put the ridiculous question in his head.

Mere moments ago, the eunuch had been sitting in his chariot alone, barreling down the wilderness road and fighting off motion-sickness as he read aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah. He was on his way back home to Ethiopia after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Israelites.

This God was not the God of his people. If you asked him why he had traveled all that way simply to slip into the back of the temple as the priests led the people in prayer, he would not have given you a straight answer. He didn’t have a straight answer. He didn’t know why this God of a foreign tribe seemed to call to him in his dreams. He didn’t know why the words of the Torah and the prophets made him feel like singing. Half the time he didn’t even understand what they even meant.

At first his preoccupation with the Israelite God had seemed like a quirky intellectual interest. A hobby. Some people were into gladiators; he was into tribal gods. Or, as the case was with this particular tribe’s mythology, he was into a singular tribal God, this God who appeared in burning bushes and made everlasting covenants and was the recipient of the praise and lamentations of a hundred and fifty eloquent psalms. But his fascination with the Israelite God didn’t remain a hobby for long. It gripped his soul. It was exhausting and comforting and a little bit scary, how much it meant to him.

He had been reading a particularly confusing passage when the man named Philip materialized out of nowhere by the side of the road. “Do you understand what you are reading?’ he had asked. There was a part of him that wanted to bluff, to say, yes, of course, I understand it perfectly.

But the experience of worshiping in Jerusalem had left him feeling too humbled to pass off a white lie, even if it meant letting his tender ego be fully exposed. He answered the question with a question of his own: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And then, he surprised himself even more than he surprised his driver: he ordered the chariot to stop and invited the man to join him.

The conversation that followed was exhilarating. The eunuch asked what he thought was a simple question, a point of clarification, but Philip’s response cracked open the mysteries of the scriptures, the mysteries of the universe itself. He told a story so moving, so beautiful, so true, the eunuch was overwhelmed. It was as if he was being given a precious gift. It was as if he were being invited to a wonderful place. It was as if he was being told he was loved.

So when they came to the place where the water was, it was no wonder the eunuch spoke so impulsively. He had heard the good news of Jesus Christ. He trusted – even loved! – this Jesus, who had the Spirit of the Lord upon him, because God had anointed him to proclaim good news to the poor, and sent him to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to set the oppressed free.

The eunuch did not need time to mull it over. He was all in. Jesus had asked his disciples: who do you say I am? And if Jesus were to ask the eunuch that hot afternoon, he would have said without an ounce of hesitation: you are the Son of the living God, you are my Lord, you are my savior.

And there, by the side of the road, was a body of water in which Philip could baptize him in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The water would wash him clean and make him new. He would be a soaking wet child of God, a saturated disciple of Christ, a drenched member of the Church.

Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?

As the question hung there in the chariot, he inventoried all the reasons he should not be baptized.

First of all, he was a royal man, a member of the Queen’s cabinet. His loyalty was supposed to be to the Kingdom of Ethiopia, not the Kingdom of God. Along the same lines, since he lived in Ethiopia, he was cut off from the land of Israel and its burgeoning Christian community. One spiritual mountaintop experience wasn’t enough to sustain a person for the life of faith. The eunuch needed a community, sisters and brothers in Christ to walk with along the journey of discipleship.

There weren’t any Christian churches in Ethiopia to go home to. Not yet, anyway. He had already been an oddity, a religious outcast, pursuing the God of Israel over and above the gods of his homeland. He couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be a part of a new and unknown cult.

There was also the matter of his disfigured body. He was a man who had been castrated as part of his preparation for serving the queen. This brought so much pain and paradox into his life. On the one hand, as a neutered man, he was deemed safe to be around women; on the other hand most of his countrymen believed the stereotype that eunuchs were sexually immoral. He did have considerable social clout – enough to be driven in a chariot and entrusted with the queen’s treasury. But still, everyone knew that he was a scarred, disfigured man. He might not even be welcome in the newborn Christian church; many synagogues didn’t let eunuchs darken the door.

And beyond that, well, face it. He wasn’t good enough. He didn’t know enough. He didn’t love well enough, or believe hard enough, or give generously enough, or live sinlessly enough.

What is to prevent me from being baptized? 
It felt like an eternity, but of course it was only a moment. A split second, really. For even as the eunuch was drowning in his own long list of reasons why he should not be baptized, why he should not receive the unconditional love and amazing grace of God, the Holy Spirit was whispering a different answer.

What is to prevent me from being baptized?

Absolutely nothing.

Wikipedia Commons - Rembrandt, Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch



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