The story we heard today from the Book of Acts is one of my favorite stories from scripture — it is so full of details that capture our imagination and attention. It starts off with Philip, one of the disciples in Jerusalem, speaking with an angel. The angel, in an echo of God speaking to Abram, tells him to “get up and go!” And Philip, like our ancestor, went. Philip — like Abram, chooses to embrace the unknown, to hear God’s call and to welcome whomever and whatever will come from it.
The story then tells us that the road he travels went into the wilderness. We all know the common literary tropes about the wilderness — that it is often lonely — empty — frequently dangerous — bereft of people and far from safety. So imagine Philip’s surprise when he has an encounter with a stranger in that wilderness — and not just any stranger, but a person of status, going along seated in a chariot, reading as he traveled. This is someone who has a horse and a driver. We know for certain that there is a driver, because later in the story, the man orders the chariot to be stopped.
Many of you know that there’s another person in history who was famous for reading and dictating while he travelled — Julius Caesar. Caesar either rode his own horse and dictated to an assistant or rode in a chariot himself — either way, being able to read and dictate while traveling was a sign of great status. Luke wants to be sure that we understand this about the stranger. Even just being able to read and write was a sign of a significant kind of status. Education was uncommon and definitely not for the majority of people. But Luke description of the scene elevates the traveler’s status even further.
Our story then tells us why this person has status — though he is unnamed, we learn that he is a court official serving the Queen of the Ethiopians. Not unlike Joseph serving the Pharaoh of Egypt, this man was not just any official, but in charge of her treasury. Makes me wonder if he had perhaps more than just a driver with him — perhaps some guards?
But this man was different from Caesar, who spent his traveling time writing his own self promoting memoirs and answering correspondence (maybe we should call him the first documented multitasker). Our man was different because had come from Jerusalem because he had been there to worship. And now he is reading the prophet Isaiah. Luke includes these significant details because they tell us several more things about the traveler: 1) he is interested in learning about the Hebrew Scriptures, 2) he considers Jerusalem to be a holy place, and 3) he too is open to new things. This man is okay with crossing boundaries, not only geographic, but cultural and spiritual as well. Two final important details about the traveler: for Philip’s people, he was an outsider. This man was not originally from Judea. He was also an outsider because he was a eunuch. It’s unclear exactly what that term means in this story, it was used to describe many different things in early texts. But in some sense, that’s okay, because we don’t need to know.
The crucial point is that he was considered different, and therefore, despite any other status he might have, not allowed to enter certain places in Jerusalem because of that difference.
The Spirit tells Philip to join this man — so Philip dutifully runs up to his chariot to engage him in conversation. Once again, we witness a boundary being crossed — those of lowly status were not encouraged to speak first to those above them, remember the disciples trying to shoo the children away from Jesus? And then a further boundary is crossed in return — the man invites Philip to get into the chariot to teach him.
So Philip gets in and teaches him — opening his mind to help him understand how Jesus interpreted, lived, and embodied the Hebrew scriptures. How Jesus, who was born, raised, and died an observant Jewish man, saw in those scriptures the profoundly good news of God’s love for each and every one of us — both regardless and because of who we are.
This story is a model for us of so many things:
First: it is a model of dialogue between faith traditions — between people who respect each other and see each other as equals. Each is willing to ask questions — each is willing to share — each is willing to learn.
Next: this story is a model for us of the willingness by both men to trust God — to listen for and follow God’s promptings and to cross boundaries because of them.
But above all — this story is a model — on both sides — of love embodied in acts of radical welcome.
Radical welcome, because these two men were separated in that time and place by the profound differences of their languages, their cultures, their classes, their occupations, their “gender” identities, their claims to worldly power, their faith traditions, and their skin colors. And yet, they each chose to welcome the other. To be open to another’s point of view. To welcome the stranger.
Today we will honor the deep thread of hospitality in our tradition, a thread that has its sacred roots in the Hebrew Scriptures, by gathering around the baptismal font and engaging in a sacrament of radical welcome.
Towards the end of our story, the eunuch asks Philip:
“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Isn’t that an amazing question? Doesn’t it cut straight to the heart of radical welcome?
Because the answer to that question, as people sometimes say, is “not a blessed thing.” Indeed, our story’s answer to that question comes in the form of action.
Action that continues the radical welcome embodied by both men.
The eunuch orders the chariot to be stopped, and both men get into the water for the baptism. The text tells us this twice, just to be sure there is no mistaking who got into the water. It wasn’t the driver, it wasn’t a guard, it was the eunuch himself with Philip. By stepping into the water together, these two men are modeling community — they are now crossing a boundary together, no longer separate. They are going to make overt what was already so in actuality. They are there for each other, willing to bear witness to and for each other, they are — in their own two selves — an ingathering of the people.
Philip doesn’t need to answer the question “what is to prevent me” because nothing does. There is nothing inherent in who we are that prevents us from welcoming the stranger, from recognizing our common humanity with others, from seeing that we are all beloved by God.
It is only our choice to give way to fear that makes us build walls.
We speak of the sacraments as the outward sign of an inward grace — and baptism is exactly that, the outward sign of the inward grace we each inherit at our birth — that of being one of God’s unique, irreplaceable, extraordinary children.
Here are some other words from Isaiah, the text the Ethiopian was reading, that Jesus would have known well:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43: 1b-3a)
Nothing prevents us from being baptized because it has — in the most substantial sense — already occurred – each of us has been created, sheltered, and nourished by God even as we are being knit together in the womb, each of us is remade and reborn hourly as we become aware of the grace that calls us into being over and over again in the course of our lives. We are born into community — the community of all of God and of all creation, and we will continue through each stage of our lives in that community too — a part of all of existence, ever bound and connected to all that was, is, and shall be.
Each of us is welcomed, each of us is beloved.
In a few minutes we will baptize Beatrice — bringing her into our community here at Ascension with the same radical welcome that Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch showed each other. She will be anointed with oil and sealed as Christ’s own forever. We will welcome her by renewing our own baptismal covenant, vowing again to follow, with God’s help, the promises we made (or that were made for us) at our own baptisms. In doing so, we will commit to being reborn and made anew each day, to learning to hear and see Christ’s radical welcome to each of us, and to extend that welcome to others.
May Christ be with Beatrice and her family as they enter into this next step on the journey of becoming fully human and fully alive. We welcome you with open arms. Amen.