Getting rid of the clutter
As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said [to Philip], 'Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?' ~Acts 8:36
We celebrated the anniversary of the Reformation at the end of last month. The Reformation was a point in the Christian church's history just over 500 years ago when Martin Luther questioned the mainstream church over things he believed it was doing wrong. He presented 95 arguments and waited for the church to reform.
Instead — they threw him out. That started the reform movement.
Throughout the history of the Christian church, we see splits like this occurring from time to time. The late Phyllis Tickle — an author and religion professor — talks about these changes in her book "The Great Emergence." Tickle says that historically, the church "cleans house" every 500 years or so, essentially holding a "giant rummage sale;" deciding what to keep and what to throw out in order to move ahead.
Like any rummage sale, there's that bunch of stuff you didn't even remember you had and is really easy to get rid of, another pile of stuff you knew you had and can live without — and then there's the "don't you dare touch that" pile.
As churches look to the future, and are having rummage sales of their own, I put baptism in that "don't you dare touch that" pile.
As far as I can determine, all Christian churches perform baptisms and for many it's a "sacrament."
One of the early church leaders — Augustine — described the sacraments as "the visible sign of an invisible reality." An invisible sign whereby God's saving grace for us in Jesus Christ is uniquely active. Through baptism, God seals believers in their restored relationship with God, renews their identity as the people of God, and marks them for service.
Emphasizing the unending power and authority of God, we recognize that baptism is not nearly so much about what we do because it's really so much more about what Jesus does.
And turning to the above-noted passage from Acts, we start by remembering this event came from a time when the Christian church was still in its infancy. Using the "rummage sale" scenario, it was leaving behind the clutter of its previous heritage and had yet to collect a lot of the clutter that sometimes sadly is part of the Christian church today.
Phillip was one of Jesus' 12 disciples, and the first one to reach out beyond the boundaries of the traditional religion as he's led to this Ethiopian eunuch who was headed home after worshipping in Jerusalem and reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
Yet knew he was not fully welcome in God's court. Partly because he was living in Ethiopia; apart from the land of Israel meaning he was a Gentile. As such, he would be allowed into the court of the Gentiles — which was kind of holy — but no further into the inner Temple area that was considered much more holy.
Also, he would not be welcome in God's court because of his physical condition. The law made that very clear.
However, Phillip, a first-hand witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, got rid of the clutter that stood in the way of the Ethiopian's full relationship with God. Phillip simply taught him that the love, grace and compassion he read about in Isaiah had been revealed and fulfilled in Jesus.
I believe Phillip had the first of these rummage sales the church has every 500 years or so. And we see how it made this Ethiopian gentleman feel:
"Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
And another person who thought they were beyond the reach of God was claimed by God. Just as we're restored in the wideness of God's grace in Jesus Christ today.
Mike Wilson is the pastor of Prineville Presbyterian Church. He can be reached at 541-447-1017.