Easter 5, May 6, 2012
In 1983, when the compilers of the Common Lectionary assigned this text for today, they had no way of knowing just how appropriate it would be in light of the United Methodist General Conference gathering in Tampa this week. While the delegates struggle with questions of reorganization and whether clergy should be guaranteed appointments, they also, once again, found themselves embroiled in a debate over the place, if any, of gays and lesbians in the church. For many years it seemed clear, based on such passages as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (which requires not only that gays be banned, but stoned to death—are you ready for that? I'm not) it seemed clear that there was no such place. And, in the First Century, as the persecuted church moved into the world, it was clear that there was no such place for gentiles and other groups.
God's angel spoke to Philip: "At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza." He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah. [Acts 8:26-28 the Message] As he ran along beside the chariot, Philip heard the Ethiopian reading from the scroll of Isaiah; he asked the official if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian answered: “No, I need help.” and invited Philip into the chariot. The Ethiopian was reading Isaiah's description of the suffering and death of God's servant. “Who is the prophet writing about? The Ethiopian wanted to know; Was Isaiah speaking of himself, or of someone else.
And so Philip launched into the story of Jesus. (Act 8:36) As they traveled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water, and the official said, "Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptized?"
What is to keep me from being baptized? Well, to start with, the Ethiopian is a gentile, and, at this point, the Christian church only existed within Judaism. And then there's the matter of his gender, or lack thereof. The Ethiopian was a eunuch, and “1 No eunuch is to enter the congregation of God.” [Du. 23:1 the Message] It's about as plain and clear as one can get. Philip's response was quick and easy: “They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot.” [Acts 8:38 the Message]
Nowhere in the scriptures of his day did Philip find authority to baptize one who, according to the law, could not be part of the congregation. No apostolic pronouncement allowed such a thing. Philip acted strictly on his own authority and that of the Holy Spirit. And amazingly enough the church didn't split: there was no mass exodus of angry members; there were no charges brought or threatened; the church simply continued to grow, and grow, and grow. Which leads me to think it may just be time for us to again consider what it means to be a part of the church, and who has a part and place in the church.
In 1939, when the Methodist Church, The Methodist Church South, and the Protestant Methodist Church reunited, the knottiest issue was the place of African Americans in the Methodist Church. It issue was decided by the creation of a non-geographical Central Jurisdiction for those congregations—in short, black Methodists were a church within a church, with the appearance of equality but the reality of segregation. This dreadful miscarriage of Christianity remained until 1968 and he union of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren formed our United Methodist Church. During the union talks, the EUB's, God Bless them, made it clear that no union would occur unless the Central Jurisdiction was dissolved and African American Methodists became,in all ways, equal to other United Methodists. There would be no discrimination in the new denomination.
And then came the demands of the gay and lesbian community for an equal place in society. For hundreds of years they had been the target of violent oppression and open discrimination. Gay bars and gathering places were raided regularly, and homosexuality was declared illegal in many states. It was time, members of the community and their supporters said, for gays to be a part of society, too. And society meant the church. Gay denominations had been formed, but gays were pretty much out of place in most Christian churches—and the more they sought inclusion, the more strident the voices of exclusion became. And this past week the United Methodist Church proclaimed that we can no longer even agree to disagree.
Like many people, Christian and unchristian, around the world, I have struggled with this issue. I have dear friends on both sides of the aisle; I have dear friends who are gay or lesbian, and dear friends who are straight. For most of my pastoral career I have been in agreement with the church's position that all persons are of sacred worth, but that homosexuals should not be ordained or appointed to the churches.
And Phillip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Speaking only for myself, and only for myself, I think it's time for me to give serious consideration to who has a place in the church, and what that place may be. I don't know if I will ever change my mind, I only pray that I can keep my mind and my heart both open—open to the voice of others; open to the voice of the Spirit; and open to the voice of Jesus who has set this table. This table is prepared not just for us, but for all those whose place is in the church—even those we may not think have a place in the church. The Lord who died to provide this meal, died not just for me, for you, but for all of humanity. This is a celebration for and of all God's people. Come, join the party. AMEN.