A Baptism of Healing & Unification
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
Easter 5B - April 29, 2018
An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Our story from Acts is a special one. We hear about how God sent St. Philip, the Deacon and Evangelist, to preach to a very unlikely new Christian, a eunuch from Ethiopia in east Africa.
The Ethiopian eunuch has been several names in different church traditions, but the most famous one is Bachos, used by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. Bachos is considered the founder of the Ethiopian Church and this denomination that still exists today traces its roots all the way back to this biblical story.
Bachos is the first Sub-Saharan African person to be baptized into the Holy Catholic Church (there were Egyptians and Libyans who got baptized at Pentecost in Acts 2). This story is therefore important to black Christianity everywhere. Philip and Bachos represent a pre-colonial African strand of the Church.
Baptism has an equalizing power. This man of great wealth and status had been humbled during his visit to Jerusalem. As a God-fearing man, and perhaps even a convert to Judaism, Bachos was forced into second-class status. Perhaps surprisingly to us, it wasn’t because of his race, ethnicity, or color.
Bachos was second-class because of a physical “disability.” In Deuteronomy 23:1, the Law of Moses prohibits eunuchs from entering “the assembly of the Lord,” that is, the inner courts of the Temple (“No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”). Bachos had made the long, arduous journey (over 2000 miles) from Ethiopia to Jerusalem as a religious pilgrimage. He had spent his own time and money to come to worship in a holy place that he knew excluded people like him.
And on top of that, while he was in Jerusalem, he spent a lot of money on an expensive souvenir: a scroll of the Book of Isaiah. You have to remember that before the invention of the printing press, books were hard to come by. They had to be produced by hand. And in the case of the Hebrew Scriptures, they had to be carefully replicated from an authoritative rabbinic copy and double and triple checked to ensure that there were no errors in the text. You might be able to get a Greek or Amharic version of the Bible back in Ethiopia, but finding a certified Hebrew original was going to be difficult. Bachos was committed enough to buy that on his pilgrimage and was excited enough to read it on the chariot ride home.
Thankfully, God commanded Philip to go down this road and meet Bachos. And when they met, Philip overheard his reading from the scroll of Isaiah, and asked if he understood what he read. The passage must have resonated with Bachos’ own religious experience as an excluded minority in the Jerusalem Temple: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.”
But St. Philip the Deacon and Evangelist tells Bachos the Good News of Jesus Christ. God’s only Son came into the world to show us that love is more powerful than all our divisions. He died for the cause of a love that unites people instead of dividing them. He was denied justice so that we don’t have to keep doing so to one another. And in the waters of baptism, all of our sins and labels can be washed away.
In St. Paul’s words, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, [and we might add, there is no longer eunuch or non-eunuch]; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Jesus Christ makes you whole and brings you back into fellowship with his Body the Church. The things people harp on are no longer central. Baptism has made us all one.
And the most powerful truth of this story is that God is author of all this healing and reconciliation. God sent Philip on this path. God made the timing line up with Bachos’ journey. God sent Jesus to heal and renew all people. And God sent the Holy Spirit on Bachos in his baptism in that brook.
Today, God continues to call us to further unity and love. In our sin, we human beings are excellent at labeling, hurting, and excluding each other. We have fallen into that trap throughout our history, and the divisiveness of this age is also pretty bad. But God is doing a greater thing than we can ask for or imagine. God is moving to heal and unify us despite our prejudices and perceived differences. God dreams of a Community of Love that even the Church can’t achieve on its own. And that’s why we keep baptizing and we keep praying for healing grace in our life together.
The Episcopal Church joins many other traditions in honoring Philip the Deacon and Evangelist as a saint. We commemorate his life and witness each year on October 11. On that day, we are given this collect to pray as a reminder of God’s true loving and unifying character:
"Holy God, no one is excluded from your love, and your truth transforms the minds of all who seek you: As your servant Philip was led to embrace the fullness of your salvation and to bring the stranger to Baptism, so give us all the grace to be heralds of the Gospel, proclaiming your love in Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen" (Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2006, p. 413).
Taylor, Nancy S. “That Fabulous Eunuch.” A sermon delivered at Old South Church in Boston (UCC). Published 18 November 2012. Accessed 28 April 2018. http://www.oldsouth.org/sermon/2012-11-18