Thursday, August 11, 2011

Lessons on LGBT Bridge Building from The Book of Acts, pt. 1

I am reading through the Book of Acts for my devotionals, and I would like to share with you what I have learned in this reading. I will share my thoughts in two parts, with each edition focusing on one story in the Acts. For this post, let us look at Acts 8:26-40.

This is the story of Philip and the Eunuch. As Philip travels through the wilderness south of Jerusalem, he encounters a Eunuch from Ethiopia, and as you are aware, a eunuch is a castrated male, either by choice or not. Philip encounters the Eunuch as he tries to make sense of a Messianic Prophecy from Isaiah, and the Eunuch asks Philip to explain it to him. Beginning with the prophets, Philip shares with this man "the good news of Jesus." The Eunuch, overcome with the joy of the Lord, commands the chariot to stop by a pool of water, and he asks Philip to baptize him. Philip is only happy to oblige; he baptizes the man on the spot. The story ends with the Eunuch rejoicing on his journey, and the Holy Spirit bears Philip away to another place.

Wikipedia teaches us facts about eunuchs that are important to this story. The most obvious of these facts, as stated earlier, is the individual's lack of genitals; the eunuch would typically be castrated at an early enough age to stunt the production of testosterone, therefore keeping his physical appearance more boyish and his voice at a higher pitch. To state another obvious tidbit, he would have been unable to have sex with anyone, and he therefore would not be able to produce an heir. The eunuch, therefore, is not quite a man, but he is not a woman either. He is between genders. Wikipedia also notes that eunuchs have traditionally held a place of honor and trust in the court of royalty. Since a eunuch would be unable to produce an heir that could potential usurp the throne, the king could trust him with state and personal secrets that he would otherwise keep to himself. We know from Acts 8 that this eunuch was a servant of the Ethiopian queen Candace, so we know that he had a position of power and authority. One imagines, and wikipedia confirms this, that any eunuch would also have been a target of humiliation, ridicule, and degradation.

In this story, Philip sees this Eunuch, a true pansexual, studying Scripture, and when the Eunuch asks for Philip's wisdom, he freely gives it to the Gentile. When the Eunuch asks to be baptized after hearing the Good News, Philip does so immediately. No where in the Scripture does Philip berate the Eunuch on the validity of his confession, nor does the issue of the Eunuch's gender stand in the way of his baptism. Philip invites this man who transcends gender into God's Kingdom, and the Eunuch enters into God's courts with joy and thanksgiving.

The application of this teaching is immediate, particularly for those of us who are trying to reach out to our local LGBT community: do not allow alternative notions of gender to interfere with the work of making disciples. Some of my friends are quick to create a stance on homosexuality to use as a sort of shield; they want to be ready to remind our gay neighbors that their lifestyle is a sin. Philip, on the other hand, does not allow the Eunuch's gender, or lack thereof, to stand in the way of Christ's Gospel, nor does he make any attempt to rescue the Eunuch from his lifestyle in Candace's royal court. He simply proclaims the good news to the man, baptizes him, and sends the Eunuch on his way. (In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces their origins to this Eunuch!) For Philip, the only position upon which stood was the Truth that good news is for all to hear!

To be clear, I do not believe that this Eunuch was gay; his very biology rendered him asexual. There are those who do believe that the word Eunuch could also mean "homosexual," and we could debate the semantics of the original language all we would like. It won't get us far. What we do know, as Philip himself seemingly knew, is that his convert was a man who transcended gender, just as many members of the LGBT community transcend gender in their own way. From drag queens, butch lesbians, effeminate gay men, pre-op and post-op transgender individuals, the gay community presents a diverse understanding and subversion of our dualistic notions of gender; even the reality of a man being attracted to another man calls into question the mainstream understanding of masculinity. This Eunuch in Acts 8 is only another part of the ongoing discussion surrounding gender and the Bible.

In short, Philip challenges all of us who are working to bring Christ's Gospel to our local LGBT community. We should not focus our energies on creating and standing behind an official position for or against homosexuality; rather, our primary work should be rooted in Christ's command for us to love one another and make disciples. That twink at your local gay bar might be the next great leader in planting churches, but if you place a greater emphasis on his sexuality over his potential in Christ, you may never release him to do the work that God designed for him to do. Look at Philip. He cared less about gender and more about Jesus, and in so doing, he indirectly took the Gospel to sub-saharan Africa through one of the oldest Gentile churches in history.

In the second part, we will consider Peter's vision in Acts 10-11 and his visit with Cornelius, the Gentile Christian.

But until next time...

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