On this solemn day, the 14th Transgender Day of Remembrance, I would like to share this with you…
… And the eunuch asked two pregnant questions.
A passage that has become very significant to transgender Christians is Acts 8:26-39, the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. The narrator of the story explains how Philip was instructed by an angel to intercept a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, a eunuch, on the dusty road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
Why this detail of the person’s sexual otherness is in the account may not be readily apparent to us. It seems a bit odd. After all, how did Philip know this intimate detail? It’s not as if this person had the word “eunuch” tattooed on his forehead. Perhaps the possible lack of facial hair, the high-pitched voice, or even his attire may have been the clue. But why out this person in the narrative?
This story, therefore, requires that we do a little “queering” in order to get at the significance and the importance of the story for us today.
We are told the official was reading aloud from the book of Isaiah as he rode in his chariot. Philip overheard him and asked him if he understood what he was reading. He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Philip is then invited to ride in the chariot so he can unpack the passage.
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
“In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
At this point, the eunuch asks the first pregnant question: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this? About himself or about someone else?” Then Philip spoke, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
We can infer that the eunuch believed Philip, and as they were going along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water!” Then he asked the second pregnant question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip proceeds to baptize the eunuch, and the Holy Spirit snatches Philip away, and we are told that the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.
On the surface, this is an amazing story. Philip is instructed by an angel, the narrator cleverly uses the story to link Jesus to the Isaiah passage, and then Philip is teleported to another location.
Now, let’s queer this story so we can see why these two questions and this story is so significant for not only transgender and gender-variant persons, but for the church.
Though the narrator only includes two verses from Isaiah 53, it is reasonable to conclude that the preceding verses had also been read by this eunuch and not just the two that are quoted. Lets look at verses 2 & 3:
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
So, when the Eunuch asks whom the prophet is talking about, himself or someone else, he is asking a very loaded question. He is really saying:
So much of this person’s life parallels my own life as a eunuch. I have experienced rejection, and people look at me with derision and disgust. I have felt stricken and cursed, just like this person the prophet is describing.
Not only does Philip’s explanation help us connect Jesus to Isaiah, but for the eunuch, it connected him to Jesus’ suffering in a deeply personal way. He could trust in this Jesus, in a savior who was well acquainted with his own situation.
The second pregnant question he asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?,” is the one that should resonate for us today. In this question, the eunuch is really saying:
I have made something of myself and I have a good job, despite my sexual otherness. But in the area of my life that is most important to me, my faith, despite the fact I have lived my life the best I could, my faith community sidelines me and I am not an equal. I went to Jerusalem at great expense and risk so I could celebrate the Passover, but I could not enter the temple grounds, for I am considered ceremonially unclean. I am not an equal. In this new Jesus movement, am I also going to be sidelined, or will I be a full participant?
Philip’s immediate willingness to baptize this person proclaimed: “Nothing prevents you from being baptized…you are an equal and full participant!”
This is the same baptism of which Paul said in Galatians 3:27-28: “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Tradition tells us God used this sexual-other person to established the first church in Africa and became its bishop.
I pray that these two pregnant questions will give birth to new understanding in the church today. The church needs to return to this lived-out equality, where all are welcome, including gender-variant persons.
Until the age of 58, Lisa Salazar lived a life that was complicated by the fact that she was born male. She envisioned a very private life after her transition in 2008, but her life is anything but private these days. She shares her life journey in her book, Transparently: Behind the Scenes of a Good Life, gives workshops on transgender issues, and is a board member of Canyon Walker Connections.
Her advocacy is directed towards the church. “Whether you like it or not, the church continues to influence politics in both the U.S. and Canada. As long as pulpits continue to spew out misinformation regarding LGB and T issues, the longer it is going to take to see real change happen,” she says.