Power needs to be baptised by love

Sermon preached by Kelvin Holdsworth on 3 May 2015 from St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow on Vimeo.

In the weeks after Easter, we get the only season of the year when we don’t directly read from the Hebrew Scriptures – the books that some call the Old Testament. Instead, our first reading each week comes from the Acts of the Apostles. Week by week we hear about the early church, meeting some of the characters and hearing about some of their disagreements and how they were resolved in the first days, weeks and months of the church.

It is in that context that we have the story of Philip and the Ethiopian official which was the first reading this morning and the one that I want to focus on today.

What is its message for today?

This morning, I want to give three different interpretations and then ask you to work out for yourself which of them works for you.

Firstly, I think we’ve got to accept that there’s some identity politics going on in this little story. The Acts of the Apostles is partly about who could be regarded as fully worthy of being part of the church. Philip has just been in Samaria preaching the gospel, remarkably successfully – but remember Samaria just about defines those whom the regular Jews regarded as other and different and outside the fold.

Philip stands beside the road and something causes him to get into the Ethiopian’s chariot. And a conversion occurs and the man is baptised.

The first interpretation that is regularly given of this tale is that this is part of the church recognising that the good news was for people who were not quite in the fold of Judaism.

This interpretation says – look – Philip climbed into the chariot of an outsider – for this man was an Ethiopian. Look at them as they ride down the road to Gaza. They are obviously different – one middle eastern and one a black African.

This interpretation of the story says, look – how wonderful that the ways of God are now open even to outsiders like this African who has come to Jerusalem seeking faith but who is confused by the book of Isaiah that he is trying to interpret.

There’s some sense to this but there are some problems with it too.

The sense comes from the thrust of the argument in the book of acts that the leaders of the early church were discovering through this time that the holy spirit was not going to be limited to those who were Jewish. Gentiles too were to be included in the faith?

This is perhaps the most conventional reading of this story – that the Ethiopian was a gentile and this was part of the inclusion of the gentiles in the great faith tradition.

Maybe that is the meaning of the story. But there are problems with it. Firstly, it is obvious that the Ethiopian is fairly devout anyway. He’s made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. I wouldn’t like to drive from Ethiopia or Kush or wherever he was from today in a four by four, never mind make the journey in an iron chariot. And he has the scriptures in his hands. Is he really a complete outside to Israel? And anyway, isn’t that to project a rather exclusionary tone onto Judaism that just isn’t justified. After all, there’s plenty of commandments about the necessity of devout Jews inviting the resident alien into their faith celebrations. Including a geographical outsider isn’t a nice thing to do in the Jewish tradition we inherit, it is a commandment from God.

But that’s your first interpretation – the story is about bringing Gentiles fully into the promises of God.

Let’s try again.

Philip stands beside the road and something causes him to get into the Ethiopian’s chariot. And a conversion occurs and the man is baptised.

A second and much more modern interpretation is to see the Ethiopian Eunuch as a sexual minority and tell this tale as though it is about establishing the principle of including traditionally excluded minorities from the life of faith. Eunuchs were forbidden by certain verses in Deuteronomy from being fully a part of the life of faith.

Inevitably, I find myself as a gay man having some sympathies with this interpretation.

If that is what it is all about, we’ve certainly not learnt the lessons in our own church yet. We’ve just had a report published this week from the doctrine committee of our church about marriage which says that the church could either refuse to allow gay people access to marriage or go ahead and allow it. Or alternatively, and this is an option much preferred by some in positions of power – to allow something like marriage that has all the responsibilities of marriage but isn’t actually called marriage.

That’s right – our own doctrine committee is giving voice to those who want to write new discrimination into the canon law of the church.

I’m delighted that some of the bishops of the Church of Ireland have come out in favour of a yes to marriage equality in the forthcoming Irish referendum on the subject. And I’m completely ashamed of our own bishops, none of whom had the guts to do the same in Scotland and yet who scuttle around in private telling me that they are supportive really.

I think that the time has come when the church needs to change its focus from particular verses in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that are interpreted (often incorrectly) as putting moral limits on the inclusion of those of us who happen to be gay.

I think it is time to focus instead on Hebrew texts which proclaim with much more force that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God. I believe everyone is worthy of the love and delight of a generous creator. And I believe that because I read my bible.

I know that there are plenty here who agree with me but I also fancy that I can hear a deep sigh coming from inside an iron chariot and an Ethiopian voice added to our own hopes for change a loud and resounding Amen.

And the third interpretation?

Philip stands beside the road and something causes him to get into the Ethiopian’s chariot. And a conversion occurs and the man is baptised.

Well, it seems to me that few people have noticed that the Ethiopian is the one with power in the story. He is in charge of wealth, he has considerable power to travel and looks after the resources of a monarch.

He is perhaps not the model of the African outsider but the model of an African with autonomy and power and trust.

Isn’t it Philip, the scruffy hitchhiking evangelist who is the riff raff outsider in the tale?

If we read it this way, what are we to make of it.

Nothing less, I think, in election week, of the need for people of faith to engage in dialogue with those who have power. The man in the chariot has resources and power and influence. The deacon by the road has ideas about love that need sharing.

For this is a hitchhiker’s guide to the truths that we read about in the other readings this morning.

And the world will only ultimately be set free when power is baptised by love.

And I invite you to think about the three interpretations I’ve just given you. And talk about them. Which is right? Is any of them wrong?

For in talking and debating who was included in the love of God, the people whom we find in the Acts of the Apostles kept encountering the risen Lord.

For if Christ be not risen from the dead, they would not have been spreading the good news and we would not be gathered here, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.



  1. Robin says

    A very good and thought-provoking sermon. I’ve always thought of the Ethiopian eunuch as a man of great power and authority, and of great learning and devotion too, which points me to your third interpretation. But what startles me about the story – partly because of my thinking of the eunuch as someone of great power and authority compared to Philip, and partly because of a tendency on my part to be dogma-bound – is the sheer simplicity of how Philip welcomes him into the Church.

    There is no complicated initiation process. There are no doctrinal tests. The eunuch sees water, and asks Philip in a businesslike way if there’s any reason why he shouldn’t be baptised. Philip’s answer couldn’t be more direct and straightforward: “If you believe with all your heart, you may be baptised.” And the eunuch’s response couldn’t be more direct and straightforward either: no lengthy creed, no question and answer interrogation, but simply, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

    No doubt the eunuch continued his studies after his baptism, being that sort of man. But in a complicated world and (sometimes) a complicated Church I often turn to this passage for reassurance that it needn’t always be so.

    • Thank you, Father Kelvin. What a lovely and refreshing new insight into the identity and provenance of the ethiopian Eunuch! Philip’s acceptance and Baptism of the Eunuch reflects the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 19:122, where he speaks of 3 types of eunuch; made so by others (the Ethiopian, castrati); those who become so for the sake of the Kingdom (monks, nuns, celibate clergy);
      and then, of course; those so ‘from their mother’s womb’ (intrinsic Gays).

  2. Aleks says

    Really profound. You’ve given me a lot to think about.

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