Last week I talked about Simon the sorcerer and how I would love to know the rest of his story, because I think there was a lot more to him that followed – that he became a great man of God. This week, I want to suggest that there was probably more to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, and that’s where we’re going to spend some time this morning.
Everybody likes to bring back something to remember a trip by – a little souvenir to set on the shelf as a reminder of what a great time you had. Some people collect little state spoons or coffee mugs, others look for unique items like a miniature replica of the Empire State Building from NYC, or a shellacked cow patty from Texas. This morning, we meet a fellow who thought he was bringing home one souvenir, but instead found that he possessed a hidden treasure.
You’ve heard his story all your life – the Ethiopian eunuch. We think that’s his name – first name, Ethiopian; second name, eunuch. When we learned that wasn’t his name, there was the inevitable question – Mom, what does “eunuch” mean? Go ask your father.
What we do know was that he was an important official in the government of Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. He was in charge of the treasury, so he was kind of the Timothy Geithner of Ethiopia. He was an important man, with much responsibility, and very wealthy. At some time in his life, he had been converted to Judaism. He was a devout believer, and all his life he had looked forward to that once in a lifetime pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
At Passover every year, Jews who lived away from Jerusalem would celebrate the Passover feast and at the end of it would repeat together – “Next year in Jerusalem!” This year was the year. Can you imagine the excitement of such a trip? All the preparations that had to be made? Jerusalem was a thousand miles away – from Ethiopia in central Africa to Jerusalem in central Judea – perhaps three weeks of travel through wilderness and deserts. It was a dangerous journey, with no guarantee of food or water along the way, so all of their supplies had to be taken with them. But this year, in Jerusalem! Off they go – mile after dusty mile, anticipating what it would be like to finally worship in the temple in Jerusalem.
The eunuch arrived in Jerusalem as the Passover was beginning. Without so much as looking for a place to stay he goes straight to the great Temple of which he had heard so much. He approaches the massive gates that will usher him into this magnificent house of God. Suddenly a harsh voice cries out “You’re not welcome!”
It was a vivid reminder that there wasn’t much place for his kind in the Temple – his kind – a eunuch, alone and single. He could never have a wife and children, he would never belong, never be admitted fully into the religion of his heart’s deepest desires.
This eunuch – a powerful official in the royal court in Ethiopia – but wealth, position and power didn’t substitute for what his heart truly desired – to belong. The eunuch traveled almost a thousand miles to attend this wondrous event, but there at the Temple doorstep they stopped him and without so much as a “sorry, try again later,” they pulled out their Bible and read from Deut. 23:1 “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.”
Can you imagine what that must have felt like? To be rejected and cast out of the one place you thought you would find acceptance. To be thrown out of church because you don’t fit in, because you aren’t like everyone else. It’s happened more than a few times since then. It may have happened to you.
The trip had not been a complete waste – he had purchased a copy of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah! (Can we imagine what an incredible possession this was? Not like going down to the local bookstore to choose from hundreds of different styles and translations and sizes. This scroll was meticulously hand copied by a scribe who could easily have spent three months or more copying this one scroll of this one book of the Bible.) Only the very wealthy could afford to purchase a personal copy.
He begins the long journey home and as he rides in his chariot he begins to read. And then he comes to a passage that takes his breath away – he reads and rereads, but there it is – words too good to be true – Isaiah 56:3-8 Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant—to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” The Sovereign LORD declares— he who gathers the exiles of Israel: “I will gather still others to them besides those already gathered.”
Does the Lord have a heart and a word for him? A eunuch? It certainly wasn’t going to be in the Temple. Filled with hopefulness, but still with questions unanswered, he travels home – his chariots and traveling caravan strung along this desert highway like a wealthy sheik.
As we find the Lord doing so often in the book of Acts – he is preparing an answer to this eunuch’s prayer. Philip, who at this moment is a hundred miles north in Samaria is visited by an angel who tells Philip, “Go south to the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Philip (who, by the way, has no idea why) has no hesitation – he goes and waits.
Suddenly, over the horizon, like a shimmering mirage, they come. Philip had never seen anything like this, and he watches with wonder as this royal caravan travels past. Then the voice – the Holy Spirit speaks to Philip – “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
Philip runs up to the chariot and sees this regal looking black man reading from a scroll – he listens closely and hears him reading some familiar words. He shouts out over the rumble of the chariot wheels – “Do you understand what you are reading?”
You’ve seen the cartoon where the passenger on a train pulls the emergency chord and the train comes to a screeching halt. That’s the picture this paints in my mind. This eunuch hears something so unexpected – so absolutely amazing – he stops the procession to find out who this stranger in the wilderness is. “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” This is no mere coincidence – the Ethiopian eunuch invites Philip to ride with him in his chariot.
The eunuch had a particular interest in a passage in Isaiah that talked about one who was outcast and scorned and was killed unfairly for everyone else’s sins, yet seemed to be a very special chosen one of God. “Who is he talking about?”
Isn’t it nice to know more than the characters in the story? We are way ahead of him. Yet Philip seizes this opportunity and tells him that his passage of scripture, written 600 years earlier, was speaking of a man named Jesus – who was God become flesh. He told him about the crucifixion and the resurrection and salvation through the blood, and baptism. Baptism? “Why can’t I be baptized?” “You can if you believe with all your heart.” He responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
Then there it is – water out in the middle of the desert. Coincidence? The eunuch and Philip get down out of this chariot and with all of this royal entourage looking on in wonder – they go down into the water and Philip immerses the eunuch – baptizes him into Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of his sins, into the family of God.
And what was the eunuch’s response? Got that checked off my list of commands to obey? No, Luke tells us, “he went on his way rejoicing.” He belonged to a family – the church – the very family of God himself. What do you know? This water really is thicker than blood!
Is baptism necessary? Is this a fine point of doctrine to be debated by theologians? An uncertainty with which we should have to wrestle over its relevance or its methodology? Is it an optional extra, a work of human merit, unrelated to a person’s salvation or relationship with God?
If it is a question or an uncertainty – it is only for our modern minds – it certainly wasn’t for Paul – it wasn’t for Philip – it wasn’t for the Ethiopian eunuch.
Baptism was not a religious rite of passage, it was not a theological doctrine, with uncertain and undecidable answers, it was not a work of human merit – it was being born into a family. Welcomed with open arms. To argue about the necessity of baptism is like a baby in the womb of its mother arguing whether is really needs to be born to start being part of the family. It is the only way, the only entrance into the family.
The apostle Paul writes about baptism:
1 Cor. 12:12-13 The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
In baptism all the barriers are broken down, and we are baptized into one body. Not only are you welcome here as a visitor – in baptism you become one of us because we have the same blood flowing through our veins – the blood Jesus shed on the cross.
Galatians 3:26-28 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
In baptism, everything that separates and divides us is swept away and we all become sons and daughters of the king.
Romans 6:3-5 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
When we are baptized into Christ, we die to ourselves and are united with Christ and with each other in a new life.
Jesus himself spoke to a man named Nicodemus – as important and as powerful in his right as the Ethiopian eunuch was in his. You remember their conversation one night: John 3:5-7 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’”
This morning – you really must be born again. That’s the language Jesus used to describe baptism. To be taken from lostness and alienation, from exile and bondage – and made new.
Baptism isn’t a religious ceremony or an item on a to-do list of doctrinal demands so you can qualify for salvation. Baptism is not a rite of passage into Christian adulthood when you get old enough. Baptism is not something you do because all your friends are doing it or because someone has won a debate and you can’t think of any good reason not to.
Baptism is the simultaneous dying to self and resurrection from the grave. It is that moment in which we say once for all, “no” to this world and “yes” to God.
Baptism is ultimately, though, like a delivery room, where family have gathered around to celebrate the birth and welcome a precious new member into the family of God.