Grace for a marginalized man

Spring water still flows across a courtyard in front of ruins of St. Philip’s Church at the traditional site where Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch.

A foreigner from a sexually marginalized group was one of the first Gentiles to receive baptism in the name of Jesus (Acts 8:26-40). The new believer, from the court of the queen of Ethiopia, was a eunuch—a castrated male. Often made so as children without their consent, eunuchs functioned as administrators and servants for rulers who wanted no worries about sexual violation in the royal household. The traveler was returning home after trekking to Jerusalem to worship.

When persecution scattered Christians after the stoning of Stephen, an angel directed Philip to head toward Gaza on the Mediterranean coast. Along the way Philip encountered the eunuch seated in his chariot, reading Isaiah. The Ethiopian invited Philip, apparently traveling on foot, to join him.

This man presumably was a God-fearer, one of a class of Gentiles who participated in aspects of Jewish community, attracted by the monotheism and high ethical standards evident there. But it must have been difficult for a eunuch even of lofty social status to receive spiritual nurture in Jerusalem. The law of Moses established a rigid boundary by declaring that no man with mutilated genitals “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1).  

But the gospel already had crossed many boundaries of biblical and traditional law. Jesus ministered to lepers, tax collectors, and sinners. He instructed women, cared for centurions, exorcised Gentiles, and loved enemies. Disciples continued Jesus’ boundary-crossing by sharing the gospel with Samaritans, a people whom Jews viewed as spiritually compromised. Now in a chariot on the road to Gaza, Philip explained the gospel to a Gentile from a sexually marginalized group the scriptures excluded.

The Ethiopian asked Philip about Isaiah 53, “Like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.” Maybe the eunuch himself experienced that kind of rejection in Jerusalem. Overjoyed to hear that the gospel would include him, the eunuch requested baptism, perhaps at Ein Hanya spring near Jerusalem where Christians still remember the eunuch today.

Refaim Stream National Park recently opened along the length of a valley southwest of Jerusalem. An ancient road follows the usually-dry stream bed down the center of the valley. This logically would be the road where Philip met the Ethiopian. At the point along the stream bank where Ein Hanya water gushes forth, early Christians built St. Philip’s church and an outdoor baptismal pool. Spring water still flows through ruins of those structures.

My joy in arriving at the possible site of the eunuch’s baptism was muted because of justice concerns related to Ein Hanya spring. The Green Line–a demarcation between Israel and Palestinian West Bank negotiated in 1949–followed the Refaim stream bed. But Israel, wanting to make the valley a park for Israelis, subsequently appropriated ample land on the Palestinian side of the stream. Residents of the nearby village of al-Walajah, who cultivated surrounding terraces for generations and historically had access to Ein Hanya water, now reach it only with difficulty, if at all. Just as the eunuch learned here that God’s love and concern extend to all, Ein Hanya spring rightly belongs to both Palestinians and Israelis.

Along this ancient road the eunuch, whom Mosaic law seemed to reject, received a warm reception by Philip. Likewise, today’s church can show abundant grace toward all–including children of God from sexually marginalized groups.

© 2018  J. Nelson Kraybill ***************************

Experience the “fifth Gospel,” the lands where biblical drama unfolded! Join Audrey Voth Petkau and me for a Journey of Hope tour of Jordan, Palestine and Israel on September 12-23, 2019:

(https://www.tourmagination.com/tour/2019-jordan-palestine-israel/ ).

In Jordan we’ll learn about the Israelites’ trek toward the Promised Land as we visit World Heritage site Petra and survey Canaan from Mount Nebo. We’ll see the site at the Jordan River where God parted the waters, and Machaerus Fortress where John the Baptist died. In Israel/Palestine, we’ll learn about the life and times of Jesus in a replica of first-century Nazareth.

We’ll sing carols at Bethlehem, sail on the Sea of Galilee, view Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, visit multiple sites in the Holy City itself, and see Caesarea where Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius. Reflect with others on themes of mission and reconciliation, including justice issues of Israel and Palestine, as we travel and worship together.

A second Journey of Hope tour on June 10-20, 2020 can be paired with a stop in Germany for the Oberammergau Passion Play. See //www.tourmagination.com/tour/2020-jordan-palestine-israel/