Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
April 29, 1018 10:30 AM
And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Acts 8:37 AV)
By hiring a biblical scholar to do your preaching for a season, you ran the risk of having to hear at least one sermon about a topic nobody but another biblical scholar would care about; this morning your luck just ran out, and your risk factor just hit 100%. When the Ethiopian eunuch and the deacon Philip found an overflowing wadi on the road to Gaza, the Ethiopian, convinced now that the prophet Isaiah had predicted the sufferings of Jesus, stopped the chariot in which the two of them were riding and asked Philip what prevented him from baptizing the eunuch right there right then. In this morning’s reading from Acts, Philip and then eunuch step down from the chariot and enter the water where Philip baptizes the exotic visitor from the court of Queen Candace.
Which is all well and good. But if you are of a certain age—and most of you aren’t yet—you might have thought the reader missed a verse in the lesson. For those of us brought up on the King James Bible (otherwise known as the Authorized Version or the King Jimmy), the lesson we heard today leaves out verse 37 entirely. (You can find the missing verse in the fine print at the bottom of many modern translations, but who reads the fine print?) The missing verse has Philip reply to the eunuch’s question about getting baptized with a condition: “If you believe with all your heart, then it’s OK [for you to be baptized].” Evidently, Philip’s explanation of the scripture on the chariot ride had indeed convinced the Ethiopian, and verse 37 has him reply, “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” If you were memorizing scriptures for Baptist Training Union, as I was in my early years, it would have been a fatal error to have omitted this crucial exchange between the deacon Philip and the eunuch.
Besides, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Our own baptismal liturgy demands that candidates for adult baptism or the sponsors of infants answer affirmatively the priest’s question, “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? (BCP 302)” Somebody would probably tug forcibly at the hem of my vestments if I omitted this question at the Baptism next week here at Trinity. Surely, Philip didn’t make that mistake! Didn’t he want to make sure the Ethiopian believed in Jesus before offering to baptize him?
But it took more than 500 years before somebody, some monk in a monastery probably, tugged at Philip’s vestments to get him to ask the right question. That’s how long it took the occult verse 37 to show up in any manuscript of the Book of Acts. In other words, it took about a half a millennium of baptisms for Christian readers of the Book of Acts to find something lacking in Luke’s story of the Ethiopian eunuch who wanted to be baptized.
Verse 37 dotted an “i” and crossed a “t” for those Byzantine Christians who just couldn’t imagine belonging to the Emperor’s church without some basic ground rules. When verse 37 finally appeared, Christians were fighting each other over the earth-shaking question about how many natures Christ had. Was Christ of one nature that was both human and divine or was Christ of two natures, one divine and one human? They even had names for each other. Those who thought Christ had one divine-human nature their opponents called “monophysites”, from the Greek for “one nature” and those who believed in two natures were “diphysites,” meaning “two natures.” Are you with me so far? It was important. Bishops were exiled for being one or the other and armies were mobilized to suppress the infidels of the wrong faith. Thanks to a meeting in Chalcedon, near the capital and under the watchful eye of the Emperor Marcian, the diphysites now ruled the Empire; but the Monophysites of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt continued in open revolt against those who had so sinfully snatched New Rome away from the true faith.
Breathtaking, no? Do you sometimes lie awake at night wondering whether you are a secret Monophysite? Rest assured. In case the theology police call at your door, Episcopalians are died-in-the-wool diphysites. But you might have to check the spelling in case you have to write down your affiliation. Your fifth- and sixth-century ancestors in the faith, however, most certainly did have to worry. They had to get the believing thing right or their soul’s salvation, not to mention their family’s security, were in danger. And you know that Ethiopia lies just below Egypt, that hotbed of Monophysite incitement. Of course, Philip asked the eunuch what he believed and how much he believed it! These things are vital!
Except that when Luke wrote the story of the Ethiopian, he had never heard of the Emperor Marcian; and the words “monophysite” and “diphysite” remained uncoined in the Greek language. Philip didn’t need for the strange man from down south to do anything other than ask to belong, ask to receive baptism, ask to belong to Jesus who, he now knew, had died for him and had risen in power. And Philip was no gate-keeper. The Lord had not appointed Philip to keep out the misfits, the eunuchs or the impure or the foreigners. The Ethiopian’s request was more than enough for Philip to spread the joy of the Good News to Ethiopia or to Samaria or to any region under heaven.
Verse 37 never belonged to the story, and it doesn’t belong at Trinity Church or in our hearts. God didn’t make us palace guards but household servants with the task of serving our master’s will. We have no command to refuse eunuchs or a person of any gender. Our Lord did not ask us to defend right religious opinions but to preach the Good News to every creature under heaven, rejoicing with our Good Shepherd when that preaching brings wandering souls into the joy of our Lord’s love. We have no commandment to exclude Jews or Muslims or anyone else of any persuasion from our midst or to construe our fellowship as though it were an exclusive club for dues-paying members only.:
I am particularly fond of John Oxenham’s hymn of 1908 that so totally recasts the nature of our communion in Christ, and I think his vision comes very close to the vision Luke has in the Book of Acts:
In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth. (Hymnal 1982, No. 529)
The cause of Christ for Oxenham did not constitute a body of “like-minded believers” that sought a rock-ribbed faith and even less a feeble ecclesiastical institution to be protected from funny beliefs. The Way of Jesus was a joyful way that would spread “throughout the whole wide earth” because of the love of God in creating it and the love of those empowered to enjoy it.
Sometimes, I miss the King Jimmy Bible with its beautiful diction and practiced cadences, but I don’t miss this verse because I can’t imagine that the loving Lord that called the Ethiopian and Philip and that called you and me home into his kingdom ever imagined a committee on credentials or a final exam for religious purity.
“Behold, water!” the eunuch exclaimed. “What prevents me from being baptized?”
Nothing at all.
Nothing at all.
 The earliest text in which Acts 8:37 appears is Codex Ea, otherwise known simply as 08, a sixth-century Latin-Greek manuscript that once belonged to Archbishop Laud and now resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. See Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (3d ed., enlarged; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 52. See also Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids, MI and Leiden: William B. Eerdmans and E. J. Brill, 1987), 298-299.
 In 451 CE.