If Jesus turned the religious world upside down while he lived among us, things did not settle down after he left. It is recorded in The Acts of the Apostles: Pentecost was just the beginning of a revolution. The Holy Spirit blew into the room with the sound of wind, the appearance of fire, and the chaos of several languages chattering at once.
Jesus’ friends were so inspired they didn’t let the authorities stop them from preaching the gospel and healing people. Even imprisonment and death didn’t scare them off. Then the Holy Spirit got downright pushy, forcing Philip and Peter to admit that Gentiles were legitimate members of God’s family. And Saul went from killing Christians to becoming one of them. There’s no mistaking that God was up to something big.
One of the pieces of the story gets too easily overlooked. When Philip got sent to help an Ethiopian man with his Bible study on Isaiah, we are told the foreigner was also a eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). Such a man was considered safe to work with the women in a royal household, having had his manhood rendered inoperative. In fact his sexuality violated the ancient purity codes (Leviticus 21:17-21; Deuteronomy 23:1).
But the Holy Spirit thrust Philip into his path to see a man who was seeking God. When the man asked to be baptized, there was no demand for repentance, no required statement of faith. His faith was enough.
While this story does not amount to an affirmation of the man’s sexuality—a cancellation of the purity laws—neither does it condemn him. I would contend that the story is included precisely because his sexual identity is significant, and the Spirit was constantly revealing the truth about God’s inclusiveness in those days. Why else would this incident be reported?
Paul is a prominent character in the books of Acts. In a previous post I briefly addressed Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality. In fact, the use of that word in modern translations of his letters cannot be supported, because the word itself did not exist in Greek, and the modern concept of same-sex, lifelong, monogamous relationships was culturally unacceptable back then. Same-gender sex was a practice employed by wealthy men who could afford to exploit younger men. Of course Paul was against that. At the same time, slavery was common practice and not considered barbaric as it is today. Paul told slaves to be obedient to their masters.
We have learned a lot about human dignity since Paul’s time, but we still have so far to go. We are suspicious of foreigners. Racism is still pervasive and deadly. Prejudice against the LGBTQ community wields deadly force as well.
It’s time to listen to the Holy Spirit. Jesus said the Spirit’s job is to remind us what he said. “Love one another, as I have loved you” comes to mind.
2 thoughts on “4: “…and the Holy Spirit””
Thanks for these reflections, Deb. I like to think of the authority of the Bible as inhering not in any individual command, doctrine, or example, but rather in the trajectory defined by those elements in the context of the over-all story of Scripture. On some issues (e.g., slavery, patriarchy) that trajectory has extended into the history of the church, making clear to later generations what was not yet explicit even in the New Testament. Those who argue for LGBTQ inclusion are not turning their backs on Scripture; instead, they are attempting to discern a new stage in the trajectory, one that is pressed on us by new insights into the nature of sexual orientation as well as by our experience of faithful and fruitful LGBTQ people – and our experience of the damage that is done to people by exclusion, attempts to change sexual orientation, or imposition of celibacy requirements.
Thank you, David. You describe so well what I tried to put in laymen’s terms, whether successfully or not. The church was launched two thousand years ago, but the dynamic life and impact of the Spirit among us goes on.