This post is what appeared in the Rome Sentinel newspaper on Saturday, April 28, in the “Religion” column that we local pastors take turns writing. Just had to give digital readers equal time!
Each of the seven Sundays of Easter there’s a reading from Acts instead of an Old Testament reading. The reason for this is to think about what it means to be Easter people, people whose lives are shaped by the good news of Jesus.
This week, the story is about how Philip met an official of the Queen of Ethiopia on a highway one day. The man was riding in a chariot, reading from Isaiah. Looking up, he saw Philip and asked him to help him understand what he was reading.
The Ethiopian official was a eunuch. If you don’t know that word, it means he had been castrated, probably before adolescence – emasculated so he would be safe around the women of the royal court. According to Jewish purity laws, someone who had been “cut off” in this way was unclean and was not to be admitted into the assembly of the people of God.
However, the man’s “unusual” sexual identity was not a barrier to Philip, nor to the Holy Spirit. Philip explained what the man was reading from Isaiah, and helped him understand. Then, as the chariot passed a body of water, the man asked to be baptized. They got down. Philip baptized him. Then Philip went on his way to the next work the spirit had for him, and the Ethiopian man went on his way rejoicing at his inclusion in the people of God.
We see in this story a connection to a promise made in Isaiah 56, verses 4 and 5. “To the eunuchs who… hold fast my covenant, I will give… a monument better than sons and daughters… and everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”
Isaiah’s promise and the Spirit’s action through Philip are more welcoming and more inclusive than the purity codes, and more welcoming than some of the judgments people pass nowadays. What if God’s covenant and God’s family are not limited by our narrow, traditional norms? What if human experience of gender and identity is more diverse than we have thought? God welcomes people who are hungry for the Spirit, and invites us to widen our hearts and our tables in response.
God’s welcome may stretch our comfort level and challenge our categories of human identity. The invitation of the Gospel, though, is that we are all one. Each of us is different. Each of us is broken. And, each of us is loved. The way we have divided ourselves is by walls of our own construction. We don’t have to be “right,” just to recognize and respond to God’s all-inclusive love and grace.