Texts: Acts 8:26-40 (Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch); 1 John 4:7-21 (God is Love); John 15:1-8 (Jesus as the vine)
Do you have a favourite passage from Scripture? Or does that question strike you as a little old-fashioned?
The question came to my mind this week because of the Bible readings we just heard. Every three years on the fifth Sunday of the Season of Easter, the Revised Common Lectionary directs us to this set of readings.
One of them is near the top of my own list of biblical favourites — First John 4. It declares that God is Love; and as you may have noticed, the phrase “God is Love” is a mantra for me.
Another of today’s readings is the favourite of a friend of mine whom I met when we were both theological students at Emmanuel College in Toronto. Her name is Cindy Bourgeois, and today Cindy is a minister in Regina.
In a conversation about biblical favourites seven years ago, Cindy told a group of us that today’s reading about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts is the one she would choose. Immediately, we understood why this would be the case for her. But before I explain why, I take a closer look at the passage.
Philip is a Greek-speaking apostle directed by Peter and other leaders of the early church to spread the goods news of Jesus to Jews who speak Greek instead of Aramaic or Hebrew. At the time, millions of Jews worshipped in synagogues around the Mediterranean. Most of them spoke Greek and used a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible in worship.
When God’s Spirit sends Philip to encounter the Ethiopian eunuch on a road leading away from Jerusalem, it has been several months since the death and resurrection of Jesus. The apostles have fled persecution in Jerusalem. They are now preaching and healing outside of the city, and their numbers are growing.
The Ethiopian eunuch is in charge of the treasury of Queen Candace. He has come to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, which suggests that he is a devout follower of Judaism. He is wealthy enough to travel by chariot and educated enough to be reading aloud from Isaiah.
But despite being educated and devout, the Ethiopian asks Philip to help him understand Scripture. Phillip uses the passage from Isaiah to tell him the good news of Jesus. He probably shows the Ethiopian how the portrait of a Suffering Servant in Isaiah could point to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Having heard this good news, the Ethiopian asks Philip to baptize him. Philip does so, at which point the Spirit of God snatches Philip away and the Ethiopian goes on his way rejoicing.
For me, the most striking feature of the story is that this convert to Christ is a eunuch. Though rich and powerful, he is also a man who was emasculated at a young age so that he would be incapable of fathering children and would be considered less of a threat to the Queen whom he serves.
The first readers of the book of Acts might have been shocked that God’s Spirit would send Philip to baptize a eunuch. Eunuchs were never part of the royal court of Jerusalem, and most Jews considered men who had been emasculated in this way unfit for worship. The biblical books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus call for discrimination against eunuchs.
However, this African eunuch is not reading from Deuteronomy or Leviticus. He is reading from Isaiah; and Isaiah takes a different approach to eunuchs than do Deuteronomy or Leviticus. In Isaiah 56, we find the following:
“This is what YHWH 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 endure forever.”
The fact that Acts contains this story about a eunuch shows that the early church came down on the side of Isaiah instead of Deuteronomy and Leviticus in regard to sexual minorities. Just as Jesus shared meals with sinners and tax collectors and embraced every oppressed minority whom he encountered, the early church embraced everyone, including people like eunuchs whom others might despise.
This background adds poignancy, I think, to the question the eunuch asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Perhaps he fears that his black skin or his difficulties in understanding Scripture might be a barrier. But above all, he may fear that his despised status as an emasculated man might be a barrier to his baptism. Luckily, Philip sees none of this. Immediately, he baptizes the Ethiopian who then becomes the first person to bring the good news of Christ to Africa.
This story shows us again that God’s grace is available to everyone regardless of nationality, race, or sexual status. Although sexual minorities encounter disgust, fear, or hatred from many people, God accepts no such barriers to his Love.
All of which brings me back seven years ago to my friend Cindy Bourgeois and her attachment to today’s reading from Acts. Although I didn’t have many classes with Cindy, she made a big impression on me. Cindy is a transgender woman; a person who was assigned to the male sex as a newborn but who decided later in life that her gender identity was as a woman.
Cindy is hard to ignore. She is close to 6 feet tall, heavyset, and at the same time always feminine. Unlike many transgender people, it is difficult to meet Cindy and not notice that she is transgender. She presents as a woman but is also clearly someone who was not always a woman.
I imagine that Cindy chose today’s reading from Acts as her favourite because she found validation for her transgender status in Philip’s baptism of a eunuch.
Five years ago, Cindy Bourgeois became the first transgender person to be ordained as a minister by the United Church of Canada.
The United Church has often been at the forefront of struggles for justice and equality. We were the first Canadian church to ordain women starting in 1936. We were the first to ordain openly gay and lesbian people starting in 1992. And now we are the first church to ordain transgender people. This history is part of our treasure even as it has also sometimes felt like a burden for the church.
People like me are pleased that the United Church consistently takes stands on the grounds of hospitality, inclusion, and justice. Others may be dismayed by this. Still others may be tired of this aspect of our history.
Three years ago, I preached a version of this sermon, and I was worried about it. I wondered if people in three tiny towns in Saskatchewan wanted to hear a sermon about my friend Cindy and transgender people. I assumed that I would be the only person at church who had ever met a transgender person.
But in the event, the sermon seemed to go over OK. And at each of the three services, someone came to me after to tell me about a transgender woman who unbeknownst to me lived in Rockglen, one of the three towns.
At the first service in Coronach, it was the person who ran the cell phone store who told me about the transgender woman from Rockglen. When she came in to buy cell phone service, she had talked about her hopes and fears.
At the second service, a nurse in Rockglen said that this woman had also talked with her about her hopes and fears during a visit to the medical clinic there.
At the third service in Fife Lake, the local hairdresser told me that this woman came to her salon to have her hair done.
I felt foolish to have assumed that people in rural Saskatchewan would not know much about transgender issues let alone know transgender people.
Today I feel nervous about preaching an updated version of this sermon because this is “Grandparents” Sunday. It is also the day after the birth of a new royal, one for which the inevitable declaration “It’s a girl!” conflates the realities of apparent sex and hoped-for gender in that most traditional of settings – a royal family. But then I remind myself that gender identity is hugely important for children and youth; and that confronting changes in our culture on such issues preoccupies many parents and grandparents today.
The transgender revolution is hard to miss. “Time” magazine put transgender actress Laverne Cox on its cover last May along with a story called “The Transgender Tipping Point.” Bruce Jenner, the decathlon champion from the 1976 Olympics and a reality TV star with his step children, the Kardashians, dominated news reports last weekend after he confirmed in a TV interview that he is a transgender woman.
Then there are the queer teens who attend the Youth Understanding Youth group once a month here at Mill Woods United. And of course, there is our own AJ Janewski, who announced last month in church that he is trans.
I have only been to one Youth Understanding Youth gathering so far – a trip to Kings University College in November to see the play “Laramie.” I loved the group and wished that one like it had been around when I was a teen trying to navigate the landmines of sex, sexuality, and gender.
The revolution in gender identity is a challenge for many of us. How the standard scripts for masculinity and femininity fit with our body, our family, and our attempts to find and express love sits at the very base of our personality. When traditional scripts are overturned by gender non-conforming people, many of us are upset.
But is this not always the case with social change? The rise of equality between men and women opens new opportunities for all of us even as these opportunities anger some. The sexual revolution that began in the 60s gives us new possibilities for love and pleasure even as it challenges us. The rise of gay liberation has given everyone more space to know ourselves even as this freedom upsets some of us.
The same is true for life’s great turning points. Falling in love is upsetting. The birth of a child is upsetting. Becoming a grandparent is upsetting.
One could even say that the resurrection of Jesus is upsetting. Like falling in love, the reality of new life in Christ opens up vast new vistas of freedom. Unfortunately, many of us prefer to stay dead lest a fragile psychological equilibrium forged during childhood trauma be upset.
The good news is that Christ has been raised and we can all participate in the eternal new life of God revealed in the resurrection. The sad news is that many of us struggle to accept the Grace that would allow us participate in this new life.
It is the same with contemporary changes around sex, sexuality and gender. Many of us would prefer to return to the strict laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Many of us prefer the prisons of the past to the freedom revealed by Isaiah, Jesus, or Philip in today’s reading from Acts.
But then a baby is born and we cannot help but respond in love despite all the upset caused by the birth. A new person comes to church, and we cannot help but welcome and care for them even if they don’t conform to standard scripts for sex or gender.
Life is upsetting. The Holy Spirit is upsetting. The God who is Love is upsetting. So we pray and give thanks for those times when we can accept God’s Grace and respond to these upsets with joy despite any pain or grief we may also feel.
Life used to be simpler. 100 years ago, no one ever talked about sex or gender roles. Men followed a standard script that led to masculinity and women followed a standard script that led to femininity. As the song “Those were the days” from the 1970s sitcom “All in the Family” put it, “And you knew who you were then. Girls were girls and men were men. Mister we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.”
But despite any nostalgia we may feel for simpler times, issues of sex and gender keep landing at the door of the church. Do all of us in church have to continually deal with these issues? I think the answer is “no.” But at the same time, you never know who might decide to walk into your church.
When a transgender person like Cindy Bourgeois asks a church if there are any barriers to her pursuing ordination, it has a decision to make. Almost all churches, I think, would have turned Cindy away at their door. They would have told her that she was a sinner and that they should repent lest she burn in hell for all eternity.
But when the United Church of Canada was approached by Cindy, we chose the path shown to Philip by God’s Spirit in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. We embraced her as a child of God in the realization that one’s sexual or gender status is not a barrier to being healed by God’s Love.
When a eunuch like the Ethiopian official asks a church “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” or when a transgender person like Cindy ask a church “What is to prevent me from being ordained?” we have an answer.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Thanks be to God.