At the deepest part of our humanity lies the question, “Where do I belong?” Much of our lives are spent finding answers to this question. We want to belong to a family, to friends, to a spouse, to a church, and of course, to God. But we don’t stop there. We find belonging in ideas and the people who share them with us. We find it in the fan base of our favorite sports teams. We experience it when a whole crowd laughs or gasps together. We desire belonging, Many are fortunate enough to find it, and some spend their whole lives looking for more of it.
To speak of baptism is to speak of belonging. It is in his baptism that Jesus is irreversibly claimed by his heavenly Father. And in Acts 8, we meet a character who finds his way into the waters of baptism at the same times he’s asking questions about belonging. The story begins with the apostle Philip being called upon by the Holy Spirit to take a walk and see who he meets along the way. Sure enough, he meets an “Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” (Acts 8:27) This man holds one of the highest offices in all of Ethiopia’s government. He’s been castrated, likely as a way to give his career and government service a more singular focus, and as a result he is one of his queen’s most trusted servants.
Perhaps even more interesting about him is that he’s just been in Jerusalem to worship. It’s possible he could be either Jew or Gentile. Maybe his time in Jerusalem is something his Jewish faith has always obligated him to do. Or maybe he’s drawn to Jewish worship, not out of birth or tradition, but simply by being captivated by how wonderful the God of Israel is. Either way, his status as a eunuch puts him in an awkward position as far as Jerusalem is concerned. Eunuchs were barred by law from joining in Israel’s worship gathering. (Deuteronomy 23:1) Whatever his worship experience in Jerusalem is like, it’s happening at some distance; he is to be kept at arm’s length when it comes time to worship.
Philip joins him on his journey back from Jerusalem to Ethiopia. The two of them read from the prophet Isaiah together. Philip tells him the gospel story of Jesus. And finally, they find some water. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the eunuch asks. This is a loaded question. He’s always been prevented from experiencing God’s embrace in the same intimate way others do. He seems to be asking, “Philip, will you place yet one more obstacle between me and God? Will you join the long line of people telling me I don’t belong?” Philip doesn’t answer by speaking. He answers by getting straight into the water. The eunuch is baptized and completes his journey rejoicing all the way. (Acts 8:39) He has been claimed by God. He belongs. We humans have quite a talent for drawing lines, for deciding who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t. But the waters of baptism preach the opposite message. The proclamation of the water is: you belong.