A reflection on the story of the Apostle Philip’s encounter with the Samaritans and the Ethiopian Eunuch. (Acts 8)
Transcribed and edited from September 25, 2016, Crescent United Church, Surrey, BC. This church is going through the process of becoming certified as an Affirming Ministry. In order to become an Affirming Ministry, a congregation (or presbytery, conference, educational institution, outreach ministry, chaplaincy, retreat centre, camp) must go through an educational/discernment process that reflects on what it means to be inclusive and evaluates your ministry’s openness to the ongoing work of being intentional about how it includes others within the life and work of your ministry. More information here.
I have been reflecting on the passages that we read from Isaiah (see 53:5-7) and the Book of Acts (see Ch. 8) for about ten years; and the more I think about them, the more excited I become about what is in those passages; nuances and insights.
I began this process of reflecting specifically on those passages thanks to a challenge from a friend. It was in his first message to the church I was attending—he was the new pastor. He help up his Bible and said, “A lot of people claim this book has all the answers we need to live. I’m not one of those people; I can’t make that claim because there is a lot of ambiguity and contradiction, there is a lot of mystery in this book.
I have to approach the Bible with humility and it’s really dangerous for me to take a phrase or verse out of context on which to develop a theology or doctrine. It’s not black and white because somebody else could look at that passage and get a different insight and a different interpretation. We need to be humble when we read this book.”
I remember sitting in the pew wondering, “Do I do that? Do I take things out of context?” The answer was yes, of course I did. The fact was that for thirty years, since coming to faith in Christ in my early 20’s—during the Jesus People Movement of the early 70s—I’d been struggling with this internal chaos for which I had no terminology or vocabulary. The word transgender was not available to me in those days; it did not come into use until 1990.
Through all those years I had spiritualized my struggle. I had come to Christ sincerely believing and wanting that beautiful invitation in Matthew 12: “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest” to come true. I was wanting and expecting a healing. I wanted to be normal. I didn’t want to be different. I didn’t want this thing I felt inside to continue.
I did research to try to figure out why I felt the way I did because there were no stories in the media about people with whom I could identify, I couldn’t say, “they sound like me!” But the only word I could research was transvestism and what I discovered terrified me. The medical dictionary said a transvestite was someone who engaged in deviant sexual behavior.
Transvestism was a considered psychological disorder and the recommended treatment could included lobotomy, castration, and electroshock therapy; or being institutionalized. This is what I was reading in the 60’s as a teen-ager. So, when I came to faith in Christ, I didn’t want this to be true.
Was I a pervert? No. I wasn’t. But in spiritualizing my condition, I also demonized it. I became a very fundamentalist person with respect to sexuality. Things needed to be black and white and I became a very literal reader of Scripture.
The phrase I had taken out of context all those years was from Matthew 19, which most bibles title as “Teaching about divorce.” The Pharisees had come to test Jesus on his views on divorce and he proceeds to quote from Genesis, “God created them male and female.”
Those six words I had taken out of context and I used that phrase as kind of a “sledge hammer” whenever those feelings of chaos would come. “Get behind me Satan! God created us male and female! Be gone, leave me alone.” But this was a persistent attack; something that I always struggled with from my earliest memories [as a child]. I may not have framed it the way that I just did, but that was the truth—the reality—that I felt that my body was all wrong; that there was something wrong. But then again, as a child and as a teen ager, I could I begin to explain that to somebody? How could I even ask and intelligent question hoping to get an intelligent answer?
So, I remember that challenge. I thought to myself, “I need to go back to the Bible and see where that phrase is and read it in context.” When I read it in context, I began to ask a lot of questions, but what my attention focused on was not so much what Jesus said about divorce and marriage.
What I found interesting about Matthew 19 is how Jesus ends the conversation [about divorce] by making a parenthetical statement. He brackets what he says about eunuchs with two very interesting statements. I found that bracketing process really interesting, but I was also wondering why he even brought up the topic of “eunuchs” when the discussion had to do with marriage, divorce and fidelity? Why tell the disciples, “Not everyone will be able to accept this; only those to whom this teaching is given;” then he says “Some people are born eunuchs from their mother’s womb. others are made eunuchs by men, and some choose to become eunuchs for the kingdom of God. If you can accept this, receive it.” Odd. And odd statement to include when the discussion is marriage.
The commentaries reduce this whole thing to simply “celibacy.” That notion that not everybody gets married; some people are celibate. I believe that is leaving money on the table, there is more to it than that. So, though I was really intrigued by this passage in Matthew 19, I needed corroboration because, believe it or not, this is the passage that began to unlock this impasse that I had with what doctors had told me in 1999. [That is when} I went to the Vancouver General Hospital—they had a gender clinic—where I was diagnosed and the process took six months. At the end of the six months the doctors said, “We can help you. This is not something that is going to go away; this is what you are; you are a transgender person, a transsexual—This means that we can help you transition.”
That transition would be a process that would include social transition, which meant living as a female; transitioning medically, which meant taking hormones to feminize my body; and surgical transition as well—to undergo Gender Confirmation Surgery.”
I remember saying, “There’s no way. I just want this to go away. I came here hoping you had a therapy, a cure, a pill—something that would numb this part of my brain and allow me to continue as a husband, as a dad, as a son, as a brother"…I didn’t want change. I didn’t want to go there. But the big reason why I could not go there is because of my literal understanding of human sexuality; that there was a binary and you either had to be in box A or box B. I had relegated what the doctors had told me to the “wisdom of man,” and it was contrary to the counsel of God’s word. I could not move forward.
Going back to the passage in Matthew, for the first time I began to see that what Jesus was saying about eunuchs sort of resonated with, and agreed with what the doctors had told me in explaining to me what it meant to be transgender—that it’s a biological issue, a medical issue—it was not something that I chose for myself, it was who I was.
But I needed corroboration [to make sure] there was no conflict between what the doctors said and what the Bible said, or was I just “tickling” my own ears? I didn’t want to be one of those who wants to interpret the Bible in a way to give me permission to do something. Paul uses the term “tickling” of the ears, that people will want hear things that will tickle their ears in order to give them permission to do whatever they want to do. So, I needed corroboration.
Lo’ and behold, two weeks later at church I got that corroboration. We were looking at the story of Acts [chapter] 8 and I sat there in the pew with my Bible open going, “Oh my God, here it is!"
[Now], I’ve titled my reflection, “The Scandal of Inclusion,” because the more I read the book of Acts, the more I see it as a collection of scandalous stories. These were stories that were not written down...not until when Luke complied them at least twenty or thirty years after these events happened. Obviously, these stories had some currency. The fact they had remained [top-of mind], that they needed to be recorder was significant. What gave this story in Acts 8 currency?
And just as a side note, why would Luke be interested in talking about a eunuch—the experience of a eunuch? There are many levels—it’s a complex story, there are many things we can unpack in this passage. But I would like to suggest that in Acts 8 we have scandal on many levels. The way I interpret that God inspires scripture is that he seems to work through our human agency. Somehow when things come together, and afterwards we look at it and say, “Oh, wow, that’s amazing…what a coincidence that it all fits so nicely.
Here is what I saw: Luke was a physician, we are told; now the incidence of people who are born transgender in the general population is one in two-hundred people who are on this transgender spectrum, and it’s been forever and ever. It’s just that not until now we have scientific and medical understanding of the mechanisms and how this all happens. And one in one hundred births, babies are born with some ambiguity to their genitalia. … Doctors look at the baby when it comes out of the womb and they say “I don’t know if this is a boy or a girl.” There is some anomaly; it could be chromosomal, it could be genetic, it could be any small little thing. I’m sure that to Luke as a physician, this was not news to him, eunuchs were known, some people were eunuchs from their mother’s womb, and some were made eunuchs by men, and some chose to become eunuchs.
I wonder if this is why he—Luke—as an editor thought, “Let’s mention this person.” That is a possibility. Because the question than is, why mention this person’s sexuality? Why not just leave at the fact the treasurer—the “Minister of Finance"—for the queen of Ethiopia was traveling back to his country, why not just leave it at that? Why then include the man’s sexuality—or curious sexuality.
But there is another scandal in Acts 8, ant that is the scandal of the “Suffering Servant.” Whenever I’d heard preaching about Acts 8, it always had to do with how Luke connects Jesus as the Messiah to what the prophet Isaiah had predicted or foretold about the Suffering Servant. The conclusion was that Jesus is the Messiah, the suffering servant, and it was left at that. But I’d like to suggest that the passage that we read in Isaiah that talks about the foreigner and the eunuch is equally important and equally part of that story.
Sot there is scandal on two levels. One, with respect to the suffering servant/Messiah/Jesus, and the other with respect to the foreigner and the eunuch. Somehow these things are intertwined; the second one does not happen without the first one taking place. So when we talk about the healing of the nations, what does that mean? What is some of the fallout of that? And one of the fallouts is the inclusion of the foreigner and the eunuch. Scandalous!
But what does “scandal” mean? The word scandal comes from the Greek word “skandolos,” which is literally the word for “stumbling block.” So when Paul say not to put a stumbling block in front of someone, what he is saying is “don’t cause a scandal that will cause somebody to trip up.” What is a scandal, when we get tripped up? [It’s when] we get jolted because something gets disrupted in our thinking, and that disruption comes because [the scandalous thing] it goes against what we are accustomed to.
Why was the story of the Messiah scandalous? Because the Jews were expecting a conquering king who would restore Israel to all its glory. They were not looking for somebody who would be humiliated, who would be tortured, who would be despised by the people and die. That was the scandal of the story of the Messiah.
The story of the scandal of the foreigner ad the eunuch are contained in the story of Philip and what happens after Stephen is stoned. It says that when that happened, that the persecution started and they were scattered and they went out into the surrounding regions. And says that Philip went into a city in Samaria. That’s scandalous, when you stop and think about it. Why go into the territory that for years the tradition was that you don’t go through Samaria. That’s why the story in John 4 about Jesus coming through with his disciples and the encounter with the woman at the well, there is a bit of unease on the part of the disciples because Jews stayed away; they separated themselves, they would not eat, they would not socialize with the Samaritans and the Samaritans returned the favour. So, there is a bit of scandal there.
The fact that Philip goes into Samaria. Think about how that sounded to the people hearing the story. Let’s stop for a moment and think how Philip might have told the story for the first time. I can imagine him saying something like this: “As you know, we had to get out of Jerusalem, so I went into Samaria, but you know what? I went into Samaria because when a bunch of us went through there with Jesus, God worked among the Samaritans. So I went to Samaria for my own safety, but also because I wanted to let people know what had happened subsequent to our previous visit. And this is what happened: people were healed and people were happy to receive the news, [evil] spirits came out with a shrieks and God demonstrated that he included Samaritans as well; that this had come true—what Jesus had said to the woman at the well had come true—that salvation had come! And they accepted it! Isn’t it amazing!” So that’s scandalous because [Jews] never had anything to do with Samaritans.
[Then Philip might have continued], “But that’s not all! An Angel appeared to me an told me: ’Go to this road between Jerusalem and Gaza because I have an encounter for you.’ So I went and I saw an entourage coming, and it was quite a spectacle—a bunch of chariots and someone who was really important. Then the Spirit told me to go up and speak to this person. As I approached his chariot I realize this person was different! What was he? Was he a he or a she? And he was reading from the scroll of Isaiah, from the passage that talks about Jesus—this was amazing! So I asked him: ’Do you understand what you are reading?’ and he said no and invited me to talk to him. I went up on the chariot and I unpacked it for the guy and he was really happy. Then we came to some water and he asked me if there was any reason why he could not be baptized. And you know what? Up to that point I hadn’t even thought about that. I thought to myself, well why not? Sure! and said ‘Yes! You can be baptized; you’re an equal, I’m an equal—God accepts everyone’!”
I wonder if when Philip told that story the first time, perhaps to John and to Peter and James, and the other Apostles, was he jumping up and down saying, “You won’t believe what happened!” And how can you explain being tele-transported?! It says that after [Philip] baptized the eunuch, that suddenly Philip was snatched up by the Spirit and he went somewhere else. We don’t know where that somewhere else is, but this story is fascinating by how incredible it really is. When you stop and think of it, this was a scandalous story when people heard it. That is why it stayed top of mind for twenty or thirty years; I’m sure this has a lot to do with it.
That’s the corroboration I saw as I sat in the pew, and I thought, yes—God includes me. I’m not that person I had feared all along—that I was a pervert, that I was somehow broken and somehow unequal and unacceptable to God. I had always felt a huge amount of guilt and shame; I felt defeated as a Christian. But you wouldn’t have known because I learned how to look really spiritual, sound really spiritual and to appear absolutely well-adjusted. But inside I had this raging chaos in me. It wasn’t until I saw how beautifully Scripture opened up to me and allowed me to see that the eunuch was a good representation of all of us who are sexually “other,” we who are different in some way because we don’t fit the norm—we don’t fit in a box but God does not reject us.
Isn’t it interesting that these three scandals: the scandal of the Messiah, the scandal of the foreigner and the scandal of the eunuch come from a very close area in the scroll of Isaiah. The more I think about it, the more I think maybe the story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a time capsule for us today. Especially now that we have a much greater understanding of the medical and the biological processes of human sexuality—we have a much broader understanding; that it isn’t just male and female. I [believe] that is what that interjection made by Jesus in Matthew 19 really says. You know, people always go back to Genesis and say, “Well, in Genesis it’s clear that we were created male and female.”
But if we believe that Jesus is the incarnate Word of God, the we have Jesus saying something in Matthew 19 that is equally profound, and that is “God, in the beginning created them male and female, but it doesn’t always work that way...some people are born neither male or female.” That’s what Matthew 19 says in that short statement.
Moreover, it says that even if someone’s sexuality—biological, anatomical body is altered somehow by man, that it doesn’t disqualify them. In fact some people choose to do this for the kingdom of God! And I don’t hear any judgment at all in Jesus’ words—in what he said about eunuchs. He doesn’t say, “Stay away from these people; these people are dangerous—they will attack you daughters.” He doesn’t say they can’t be involved in leadership—he doesn’t say any of those things.
And so, that is the reflection. Those are the insights that gave me the freedom, in a sense, the permission to go back to the doctors and say, “I need help because I’m thinking about death all the time. I’m not in a good place.” And maybe what they were offering me was my answer to prayer because I had an expectation of what that answer to prayer would look like—that one day I would wake up and be completely happy in my body and never question anything about my sexuality and I would be a “normal” male...a cisgender male! You know, with a happy congruence between my brain and my body. But the way God answered my prayer was by helping me see that I lived in a time and in a place where now there were answers, where now there were things that I could do that would improve the quality of my life and that I could get on with my life and celebrate the person that I was [am].
Inclusion. It is scandalous. It does trip people up.
But I’m so grateful that when I came here in June of 2013 for the first time, if you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known you weren’t already and affirming congregation. I felt completely welcomed and safe; and as I began to get to know you and you began to get to know me I never felt anything but welcomed. I thank you for that.
And I know that it was coincidental I arrived two weeks after Rhea had transitioned herself; and when Scott Swanson introduced me to her—that was the first time I’d ever seen her—I just assumed you were already there. So, the fact that you are going through this process, to me, seems counterintuitive; I would have thought you’re there already. But I know that there is more to it than that. It isn’t just saying, “We’re affirming, we’re welcoming. Everybody is welcome. Come, come, come!” because there are implications to what that means.
I’d like to close by thinking about some of those things.
Some of you know that as part of my degree I did a research project—a study—on transgender spirituality. It was really eye-opening because it revealed to me that transgender people are incredibly spiritual. But their spirituality is very personal. Many still hold on to Christian beliefs, but they are not interested in coming to church. And their reasons make complete sense to me. There has been a lot of rejection, a lot of judgment, there’s been a lot of Trans people and LGBTQ people who are rejected by their families; more than half experience that. When you loose your support system, and the excuse given is because what you’re doing is sinful, or because you have a demon, or because this is wrong and you’re insulting God, the last place you want to go when you’re bruised and bleeding is back into the lion’s den to be devoured. So transgender people are not likely to look for churches. That’s not to say there aren’t transgender people attending churches, it’s just that it’s a very small percentage of the trans population. Only between 15 and 17 percent of trans people even list church or involvement in a faith community as something they would like to be part of.
So, what does it mean to be an affirming congregation if no transgender people are going to come here? Why go through this process? What is the return on the investment?
I’d like to suggest it’s not what happens inside the four walls here, but what happens outside the four walls. How you as a congregation respond to LGBT and trans and gender-queer people. For example, if you own a business, are you willing to hire a transgender person? If you own rental property, are you willing to rent an apartment to a transgender person. Are you willing to befriend someone?
Statistically, transgender people are incredibly isolated and lonely because their old friends don’t feel comfortable around them and their new friends are usually part of the LGBTQ community—and who wants to live in the ghetto all the time. You want to have a “normal” life and it doesn’t happen very easily for transgender people. Statistically, they are very isolated. So inviting a transgender person to a movie night and doing things like that. Then there is support; emotional support, social support and spiritual support—those are a given.
But I’d like to tell you a story about a church in Ontario. About ten years ago the Ontario Government had put a moratorium on funding gender reassignment surgeries. It put a lot of people who were in the cue or looking forward to eventually proceeding down that path, it put everything on hold and it was a very stressful thing for trans people; especially since they didn’t know if the surgery was ever going to be funded again—there was no way that most could afford it. The story is that a 32-year-old member of a church who came out to his pastor and said, “I’m going to transition.”
The pastor met with the board and they called him in and had a conversation with him, and this is what they said, “We want to support you emotionally, socially, spiritually and financially. We know that right now you can’t afford the surgery and you can’t afford to undergo these procedures and that the government is not paying for them. We’d like to help you somehow. We are thinking that we can do fund-raisers; we would like to invest in you in this way, will you allow us to do that?”
The long and short of the story is that they bake sales, they had car washes, they did all kinds of things and they raised sufficient funds to send this persons to Thailand; one of the places where transgender people from all over the world go for these surgeries; and they paid for the whole thing. That’s an amazing, affirming congregation, and I’m sure there are many stories like that. But that is what it can mean to say that you are an affirming congregation. That it isn’t just greeting people at the door and letting them know they can be part of the worship team, or whatever. It means more. It means that you’re sensitive to their needs.
The reality is I am privilege and I can go into an airport, I can go through security, I can travel, I can go into a women’s changing room, I can use the washroom and no one looks at me strangely. I’m very fortunate. The reality for most adult trans women, those who were born male and transition to female, about 80% of us are visibly trans. What that means is that there is something about how we look, and it doesn’t matter how feminine our clothing might be, how well-applied the makeup might be—there is something about our body, our stature, it could be our voice, it could be the fact we haven’t been able to pay for getting our facial hair removed—it could me any number of things and people will look and say, “Hm. They are one of those.” That’s a reality for 80% of us. Moreso for transgender women than it is for transgender men. Transgender men, once they grow a beard and have whiskers and a mustache, even if there are other things that are not exactly super masculine, society gives them a pass, “You’re a guy. You’re okay.” Not so for trans women.
So, it’s to be aware of those kinds of things. To be affirming is to be aware of those kinds of things. It also means being an ally. It means you will step forward when you overhear a conversation that is speaking negatively about a person, or to a person, and you intervene somehow and say, “This is wrong…this person is okay.”
I know that being affirming and welcoming is more than paying lip service. It’s walking the talk. And I realize that is the process you’ve been going through; that you are taking this seriously and it isn’t simply that you’re saying, “Oh, yeah. We’re affirming, let’s get on with it,” but that you are doing the hard work and I thank you for that.
With that, I don’t have anything else to say. We’re going to have a chance to continue the conversation downstairs and I look forward to your questions. Thank you.