The Gospel’s Good News for Queer People — and Their Enemies | Sojourners

The Gospel’s Good News for Queer People — and Their Enemies

Rev. Nicole Berry, a United Methodist pastor, holds a sign that blocks off conservative Christians who protested at the August 12, 2023 Pride celebration in Eugene, Ore. Photo by Paul Jeffrey / Alamy via Reuters Connect.

Let’s get the awkward, middle-school sex-ed piece out of the way, shall we?

In Acts 8, we hear the story of how Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch. Dictionaries define a eunuch as a man who has been castrated, especially (in the past) one employed to guard the women’s living areas.

I don’t know about you, but the concept of eunuchs makes me a little uncomfortable. The practice feels very foreign and cruel to my modern ears. 

But on top of being physically different for reasons that make us understandably uncomfortable, this man’s physical difference would have meant that he was also socially different. 

I won’t impose my 21st-century language or conceptions on this person, and say that he was trans, non-binary, gender non-conforming, or queer, but it’s clear that he did not conform to the social understanding of gender binaries or sex in the ancient Greco-Roman or Jewish world. There’s no getting around that. 

He was also from one of the farthest-off places early Christian disciples had heard of. The Ethiopian in this text is likely not from the Ethiopia that we know today, and instead is likely from a place called Kush that today is now part of South Sudan.

And as a result, he probably would have looked different than Philip and the other early disciples of Jesus. While race, like sexuality and gender, was a very different concept in the ancient world, this man was very likely a dark-skinned African. 

And as if all that difference wasn’t enough, he was also religiously different. It isn’t clear why someone from ancient Sudan would travel so far — and cross the imposing Saharan desert — to worship in Jerusalem. It is possible that he was a convert to Judaism, though the fact that he was a eunuch would have limited his participation in Jewish ritual life. It is also possible that he was a member of one of several ancient groups that worshiped the God of Israel but were not considered Jewish. 

For those deemed ‘other’

And so, one of the first stories of a singular person being baptized by an early disciple is this person who is marked by as many kinds of human differences as the ancient Christian community could classify, someone whose gender, sex, ethnicity, place of origin, and spiritual identity was undeniably “other.”

If you’re a queer Christian today, you probably know what it’s like to be deemed an “other,” whether by your family, your faith community, or even fellow LGBTQ+ folks who don’t understand your faith. It’s a struggle we queer people understand well, since we carry it inside our own hearts and minds and bodies. 

But I think it’s important to remember that we — the queer, the binary-breakers — have always been here. God’s radical grace went out of its way through Philip to welcome us from the beginning, without conditions. 

The text says that an angel of the Lord called Philip and led him to “a desert place” on a “wilderness road” where Philip meets the eunuch. The eunuch is reading the words of the prophet Isaiah and invites Philip to explain the text. After hearing “the good news about Jesus,” it’s the eunuch who eagerly asks to be baptized — and Philip agrees.

I notice that Philip did not conclude that this person was worthy of baptism and inclusion because Philip examined all the texts that have to do with gender non-conforming people, or eunuchs, or LGBTQ+ people and decided that yes, he could baptize this person. Philip just met the eunuch as he was, full of his genuine curiosity about Jesus and scripture. 

In fact, the earliest versions of this text do not even include the exchange in verse 37, this early confession of faith in which Philip tells the eunuch, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” be baptized, to which the eunuch replies, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” In the earliest versions of this story, when the man asked to be baptized, Philip just did it. No theological questions, no other rules, no barriers. 

Good news gets better

Now, I could just stop here. 

I could say that if we knew nothing else about Christianity, and about God, then the story of this conversion and this baptism would be enough information. 

I could just say, “And this is why queerness, why sexual and gender diversity has always been part of the church.” That this text calls us to fight gender and sexual discrimination in the church and society–spaces that have violently tried to police and legislate away these kinds of differences. 

I could remind us that more than 510 anti-trans bills were introduced in the U.S. last year and that this conversation is still very relevant. That lives may depend on how we read this text, because hateful legislation is proven to have real-life consequences. 

But while the story of Philip and the eunuch is where the eighth chapter of Acts ends, the next chapter begins with “meanwhile.” Which means that our story isn’t quite over.

So while Philip is baptizing a eunuch, meanwhile someone else — you’ve probably heard of him — was experiencing his own conversion, along a different road. 

The beginning of his story goes like this:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

God is sending Philip down a wilderness road to find and baptize this outsider, this person marked by difference, and meanwhile, God is also appearing to Saul, also called Paul. A devout Jew who was also a Roman citizen, he carried both a Hebrew and a Greco-Roman name. 

Unlike this eunuch, in Jewish and Greco-Roman life, Paul was something of an insider. One that was actively persecuting Christians like Philip, and like this new convert. 

But this insider also has a holy moment amid his journey — one that changes him forever. And he too joins the church and is baptized, at great cost and risk. As a Jewish leader, he would find himself at the center of a controversial new movement that would complicate and challenge his relationship to his own religious community. As a Roman citizen, he would find himself at odds with the most powerful empire of his time.  

‘The expansive openness of the early church’

And that, my good people, is the real scandal of the gospel. It isn’t just that it’s good news for the oppressed people in need of liberation or the poor in need of solidarity. It’s not just for the Ethiopian eunuchs, the outsiders. 

It’s also good news for the insiders, the sinners, the religious people who’ve gotten it wrong — which is actually all of us sometimes. 

The good news is that Jesus is coming for those people, too. 

As a society and a church in the past few decades, we have become so much more open in so many ways, to so many more people. Only now are we returning to the expansive openness of the early church, which was controversial in its own time for accepting slaves and free, male and female and none of the above, foreigner and Roman citizens alike. 

The point of the gospel isn’t that the outsiders will win and the insiders will lose. It’s not that the oppressed will win and the oppressor will lose. It’s not that the lovers will win and the haters will lose — it’s a dissolution of those categories of “in” and “out” to begin with. Everyone in. No one out. No exceptions. 

I have no idea how that’s possible in a world that feels so polarized and divided, but when I read these stories together, I think that’s what God is asking us to imagine. 

The message of this text is that if this sexually and ethnically and religiously different man is in, and if Paul — who famously hated Christians — is in, how can anyone else be out? Who’s left that doesn’t belong? No one. Not you, and not me. 

For those of us who still struggle with questions of human difference in the church — race, gender, sexual identity, or nationality — this story is an invitation to see everyone with the radical openness and love that God views those people. 

And for those of us who still live under threat, whose identities mean that we are still being persecuted or excluded, still seen as less than human by very real people who have very real power over us, the message is that God will indeed hold these people and powers accountable. But God wants to do so not by defeating them or excluding them, but by converting them. 

I can’t help but wonder if our division and polarization isn’t caused by a fundamental lack of faith that God is still out here, seeking not only the conversion of our enemies, but also our own conversion. 

Because the good news requires all of us to change. To die to ourselves. To step into that water and rise again, if we have not done so. That’s what we’re all invited to. No exceptions. 

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