During seminary, I attended a United Methodist church in Atlanta. While worshipping there, a controversy erupted. A married man and father of two who sang on the back row of the choir loft had showed up one Sunday morning, after years of confusion and months of hormone therapy, wearing a wig, a dress, a full face of makeup and new nametag. A board meeting was hastily called for later that day. Angry congregants spoke up saying, “He can’t use the girl’s bathroom.” “He can’t join the United Methodist Women.” “He can’t just chose to be a soprano after a lifetime of singing bass.” And on it went.
Dissension among the people of faith, of course, is as ancient as the book of Acts. After Jesus ascended into heaven, the early church struggled with being church too. Struggled with membership among the Gentiles, healing in Christ’s name without Christ’s presence, sharing from a common purse. And then a rush of violent wind swept over the text, and the Acts of the Apostles became one Pentecost story after another. So in today’s text, who and what’s converted by the Holy Spirit?
Acts 8:26-40 26Then 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.) 27So 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now 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. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When 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. 40But 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.
Philip’s sense of mission, that God is working in the middle of nowhere.
The eunuch’s separation, welcoming him or her into the family.
The Church’s sense of mission towards those who are different.
Biblical interpretation is converted. Deuteronomy 23 says that any man who has been neutered can’t be admitted into the assembly. But Isaiah 56 says the opposite, “To the eunuch [the Lord] will give them an everlasting name that shall never be cut off… so gather the outcasts into God’s house.” Averse to proof texting the exclusionary verses, the Holy Scriptures are only intended to be read in community with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, only interpreted as Good News if it is Good News for everyone.
Philip’s evangelism is converted. He was charged with growing the church. Refusing to push hate filled tracks or trying to scare seekers into salvation, he followed an angel down a wilderness road, took a jog in the desert, and shared the story of Jesus only after being asked. He refused to interrogate, “Are you a man or woman?” “Are you transgendered or transsexual?” “Are you celibate or practicing?” Believing instead that nothing can prevent us the love of God, Philip offered the sacrament of baptism, the covenant that claims us all as children of God forever.
The eunuch is converted. His estrangement was three-fold. Before reaching puberty as a boy, he was taken away from his biological family. Since he was castrated, he couldn’t be fruitful and multiply, unable to procreate his own chosen family. And because of his exotic skin and ambiguous gender, he was labeled dirty and foreign, another Gentile to be banished under the Law and banned from the temple. But if belonging is the deepest human desire, willing us to travel hundreds of miles in search of divine acceptance, then the eunuch ironically found a family of faith with his back turned to Jerusalem, riding in the opposite direction of the sanctuary.
Still, the great conversion of this text and the book of Act is nothing less than The Church. Women can’t be disciples. But Dorcas has started a sewing circle, caring for widows in Joppa. Centurions bow to Ceasar. But Cornelius fears the Lord, gives generously and prays constantly. Saul is persecuting the saints. But he had a vision from God, the scales fell from his eyes and he’s preaching new life.
Every time the early Church said yes to inclusion, the congregation grew. It grew from Jerusalem to Judea, from Judea to Samaria, from Samaria to Africa, from Africa to Asheville. The most basic Christian act is welcoming the holy other in the name of Christ.
I returned to that church in Atlanta for worship after the controversy. There on the front row of the choir loft sat a regal woman who had transitioned into her deepest identity. She was singing soprano.