I went to seminary with a young man by the name of Sam who looked like he walked straight out of J. Crew catalog. Sam was remarkably handsome, he was in great shape, and he dressed immaculately. Sam was smart and well educated, he was a graduate of Columbia University in New York. What’s more he was white, and straight, and to top it off he was very polite and kind. The way in which Sam seemed to so effortlessly check off all of the boxes of what our society considers to be normal, healthy, and good, drove me nuts. I still remember silently despising him as I stood outside our dorm smoking a cigarette after pulling an all nighter to not quite finish a paper when he waved hello to me as he finished his early morning run. He was just so together, so normal, he was the prototype of what our society thinks a nice, young man is supposed to be.
There is a tendency in religion to think that God only wants the best. This tendency is born of a desire to show love and honor to God, to recognize that God is holy. There’s nothing wrong with desiring to give God your very best. I encourage all of you to give the best of your lives to God and to the church, to honor God by making of your lives a living sacrifice. However, the tendency to imagine that God only wants the best can take a rather harmful turn when it is applied to people themselves. In ancient Israel, the priestly class sought to maintain the holiness of God by enforcing purity laws meant to insure that only those who were adequately prepared, the very best, could stand in the assembly of the Lord. This meant that anyone or anything that they deemed abnormal was prohibited from joining in the religious life of the community. One such prohibitive law is found in the 23rd Chapter of Deuteronomy where it says, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
At first glance this seems a terribly odd and terrifically specific prohibition. Yet the practice of crushing a young boys testicles, or removing all their genitalia, was fairly common in the societies that surrounded Israel. Many of these Ancient Near Eastern Societies castrated boys to serve as eunuchs in their official courts and their harems. Such a practice was alien to Israel, and as such it was deemed impure, and eunuch’s were thus cut off from the assembly of the LORD. When you are trying to collect only your best to present before the LORD, when you are trying to make a congregation full of Sams, you simply can’t allow in people that are so atypical, people that are so different, people that don’t fit our mold of normal and good.
For years this prohibition was relatively uncontroversial simply because there were almost no Eunuchs in Israel. However, that began to change after Israel and Judah were conquered by the Assyrians and the Babylonians. After this conquest, many Israelites were forced into serving the courts of these Emperors, and in these societies it was only eunuchs who could perform such roles. Many Israelite men became eunuchs during the period in exile. This raised the question anew- would these Israelites, now eunuchs themselves, be allowed into the assembly? Could they be included in God’s love and grace?
As Christians in the 21st century our religious inheritance includes a prohibition against sexual relationships between two people of the same gender. Though this prohibition has always been somewhat controversial, in the last 60 years it has become much more so. Millions of people now live in committed, loving, sexual relationships with people of the same gender. And these people, courageous enough to be true to the person God created them to be, have insisted that they too have a right to share in the grace and love of God. They have insisted that they too belong in the assembly of the LORD.
The first strike taken against the prohibition on eunuchs in the assembly of God was taken by the prophet Isaiah who wrote, “Thus says the LORD, ‘To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” The word of God that came to Isaiah directly contradicted the earlier legal prohibition against eunuchs. Isaiah heard a new Word from God, a Word of inclusion and love, and he did not hesitate to speak this new Word against the old understanding.
When Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, set off a new religious movement, a new people of God, the question about Eunuchs and their place in the community was still a live one. The stance that the new community was to take was made known from the very beginning; it was made known by this story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. There are two points from this story I want to bring to your attention. The first is that it is God who takes the initiative. This is not a side project of Philip’s, its not a trivial, optional, issue on which there is much room to disagree. No, the angel of the Lord sends Philip to where the eunuch will be, and the Spirit of God instructs him to sit beside the eunuch in his chariot. From the very beginning, God makes clear that this new community will not be a community of only the most normal, most admired, most typical people. God sends Philip to share the gospel with an Ethiopian eunuch.
The second point that I want to make is that ultimately it is Philip who must answer the question of the eunuch, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” God brought these two together, God helped bring the Word to the eunuch, but ultimately it is Philip, it is the Church, that must answer the question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” When gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people come to the Church in our time, the same question is put to us, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptized?” We know that the Spirit of God was given to the Ethiopian eunuch after he was baptized. We know that the word of God that came to Isaiah contradicted the earlier prohibition against them. So the question isn’t what the bible says, or what God wishes. The question is whether we will meet our LGBT siblings with the loving acceptance of God or if we will insist on worshipping normality and legalism instead. My prayer is that we will do our best to embody the Holy Spirit in welcoming all to be baptized, loved, and affirmed within the church. May it be so. Amen.
Rev. Andrew Greenhaw
Eternal Student, Christian Minister, Buffalo Wing Enthusiast