Baptism as Coming Out Patrick S. Cheng (USA) This sermon, based on Acts 8:26-39, was delivered at Blessed
Minority Christian Fellowship, Hong Kong on Baptism Sunday, October 20, 2013.
Good afternoon! What
a privilege and blessing it is to be at BMCF today. It’s wonderful to be with
you on this baptism and membership transfer Sunday, and to see so many friends,
both old and new. Although I’ve been in contact with BMCF members since the
early 2000s, this is actually my first visit to your church. I give thanks to
God for giving me the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to this holy space.
Thank you to all
of the wonderful musicians, worship leaders, and translators – especially
Brother Kevin. They have given so much of their time, talent, and treasure so
that we can glorify God together in worship.
Thank you to my
friends, Brothers Paul, Gary, and Sam, for their warm welcome and hospitality
in hosting me for dinner last night.
And thank you to
Pastor Wong for inviting me to preach today. I am grateful for his
contributions to BMCF over the last few years, and I celebrate and honor his
Today I want to
talk to you about baptism as coming out.
I believe that we, as LGBT Christians and allies, have a special insight about
the meaning of baptism based upon our experiences of coming out.
That is, we can
understand baptism as coming out in at least two ways. First, baptism is how we
come out as Christians. Second, baptism is how God comes out to us in the
person of Jesus Christ. Let me talk about each of these queer understandings of
baptism in turn.
First, baptism is
how we come out as Christians.
I think it’s fair
to say that everyone in this room knows how much courage and grace it takes to
come out as queer. When we come out of the closet as LGBT people, we dare to
show our true selves to the world. We are no longer afraid to tell our friends,
family, and loved ones about who God has created us to be. We leave behind our
old lives, and we take on a new life. We are welcomed into the broader LGBT
community, both at home and around the world. We become part of a new family of
comrades, of tongzhi.
If you think about
it, these are the very same things that happen with baptism! When we decide to
be baptized – especially as adults – we come out of the closet at Christians. We
dare to show our true selves as Christians in a highly secular and
materialistic world. We are no longer afraid to tell our friends, family, and
loved ones about the Good News of who God has created us to be as Christians. We
leave behind our old lives, and we take on a new life in Christ. We are
welcomed into the broader church community, both at home and around the world. And
we become part of a new family of comrades, of tongzhi in Christ.
Isn’t it amazing
how baptism and coming out are like twin sacraments? Baptism is a Christian
sacrament, and coming out is a queer sacrament. They are two sides of the same
coin! That is why I believe that baptism is a particularly meaningful ritual in
an LGBT community of faith like BMCF.
But baptism is
more than just our coming out as Christians. Baptism is also how God comes out to us in the person of
God needs to come
out, just like those of us who are LGBT. The Bible is God’s coming out letter
to us. Without the Bible, we would not know about God in all of God’s fullness.
Just as we sometimes write coming out letters to our families and friends, God
writes a long coming out letter to us in the 66 books of the Bible. And nowhere
does God come out more clearly than when Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan.
baptism, the skies open up and God says in a loud voice, “This is my child, the
beloved. With him I am well pleased.” It is at Jesus’ baptism that God tells
the world that God is most fully and perfectly revealed to us in the person of
Jesus Christ. God is saying to us, pay attention to this person. Live your life
like this person. Because this is who I AM. So baptism is God coming out to us
in the person of Jesus Christ.
Does anyone know
about the work of the queer Swedish photographer Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin? She
creates art by taking photos of scenes from Jesus’ life and by placing them in
the context of LGBT life. One of her photographs shows Jesus being baptized by
John the Baptist in a pool at a gay sauna. Although this might seem shocking
for some people, it is actually a powerful way of showing through art how God
comes out at Jesus’ baptism.
So far, we have
talked about baptism as coming out – both in terms of our coming out as Christians,
and in terms of God coming out to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
But who exactly is called to baptism?
I believe that
LGBT people have a special baptismal calling. Why? Because, as today’s reading
from the Acts of the Apostles shows us, the very first Gentile, or non-Jewish
person, to be baptized in the Bible was the Ethiopian Eunuch. Like other
eunuchs in ancient times, the Ethiopian Eunuch was a sexual and gender
outsider, and I believe that the eunuch is a spiritual ancestor to those of us
who are LGBT people today.
As you know, the
Acts of the Apostles is the fifth book in the New Testament, and it comes after
the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Acts is the continuation, or
second part, of Luke’s gospel, and it tells the story of the earliest history
of the Christian church, from Jesus’ ascension into heaven until Paul’s arrival
In the eighth
chapter of Acts, we learn about the missionary work of the deacon Philip, who
was one of the first seven deacons in the early church. An angel of the Lord
instructs Philip to travel south on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza.
On that road,
Philip meets the Ethiopian Eunuch, an important official in charge of the
treasury of the Queen of the Ethiopians. The eunuch is returning from
worshiping in Jerusalem, and he is reading the Book of Isaiah in his chariot. Philip
asks him if he understands what he is reading, and the eunuch replies, “How can
I unless someone explains it to me?”
So Philip explains
to the Ethiopian Eunuch the passage from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant. The
Suffering Servant was led like a “lamb before its shearer” and was silent, even
though he was unjustly slaughtered and would have no descendants. The Book of
Isaiah was a prophecy about the Good News of Jesus Christ, Philip explains.
Upon hearing this,
the Ethiopian Eunuch sees water next to the road and asks “What can stand in
the way of my being baptized?” The eunuch stops the chariot, gets out, and
Philip baptizes him. When the eunuch comes out of the water, the Spirit of the
Lord takes Philip away. And the eunuch goes away rejoicing.
What an incredible
passage! I am always amazed by the fact that God chose the Ethiopian Eunuch –
someone who would be considered transgender or queer today – to be the very
first Gentile who is baptized into the church. The Ethiopian Eunuch was a
gender-variant person who, like many LGBT people today, was a sexual and gender
I suspect that
many LGBT people today can relate to the Ethiopian Eunuch. He was someone who
excelled at his job – serving the wealthy and powerful Queen of Ethiopia – but
ultimately was seen as an outsider who didn’t fit into society because of his
sexuality and gender identity.
How many of us
have a talent for working in service industries and helping the rich and
powerful – and yet still remain on the margins of society?
I know that I can
relate to the Ethiopian Eunuch. I worked as a tax lawyer for many years before
becoming a theologian and seminary professor. I was good at what I did, and I
served many wealthy and powerful corporations and clients. But ultimately I was
still an outsider in those circles, and I was deeply unhappy with my work. You
could say that I was closeted about my true vocational calling.
One day about fifteen
years ago, I saw a flier for a summer course in Biblical Hebrew at a local
seminary in New York City. I’m not sure what drew me to that course, but, like
the Ethiopian Eunuch, I wanted to study scripture and needed help from others
to do so. I took the class, and I fell deeply in love with my class and the
seminary. That was the beginning of my transition from a lawyer to a
theologian. It hasn’t always been an easy journey, but I’ve never felt happier
and more whole in my life.
Eunuch was also made whole and went away rejoicing after he was baptized. He no
longer needed Philip by his side. As legend has it, he returned home to
Ethiopia and established the first Christian churches in sub-Saharan Africa,
which survive to this day. In the end, the Ethiopian Eunuch ended up having
many spiritual descendants, even though he was physically unable to have
In Ancient Israel,
eunuchs were unable to participate fully in the worship life of the community
because of their outsider status. It must have been painful for the Ethiopian
Eunuch to be in Jerusalem and to experience this exclusion. But God promises in
chapter 56 of the Book of Isaiah that a eunuch should never say that “I am only
a dry tree.” Even the eunuch will receive an “everlasting name that will endure
forever.” This promise is fulfilled in the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, and
it is a promise that we as LGBT people should always remember.
is that the sermon theme for this quarter at BMCF is “spiritual development.” Let
me close my sermon today by saying a few words about how Philip and the
Ethiopian Eunuch can be good role models for our ongoing spiritual development.
In particular, our spiritual development requires three things: (1) scripture;
(2) community, and (3) commitment.
First, scripture. The Ethiopian Eunuch was
reading the Book of Isaiah at the time of his encounter with Philip. As queer
Christians, we are also called to read scripture. Sometimes we avoid reading
scripture altogether because of the hurtful ways in which it has been used
against us. Other times, however, we use scripture selectively. That is, we
only cite the Bible when it is convenient for what we believe. Neither complete
avoidance nor selective reading is a satisfactory approach to scripture. Spiritual
growth requires us to listen carefully to God’s Word in all of its fullness,
because God is speaking to us – as God’s beloved children – though scripture,
right here and right now. Today’s passage about the Ethiopian Eunuch is an important
reminder of this fact.
Second, community. The Ethiopian Eunuch told
Philip that he needed help. It was not enough for him to study the Bible alone;
he needed to be in community to understand the Good News. The same is equally
true of us. Even though I may hold a Ph.D. in theology and serve as a seminary
professor, I would be deceiving myself if I thought that I could grow
spiritually without the help of community. No matter how well intentioned I
might be, I can only truly hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in community –
and in conversation – with my sisters, brothers, and siblings in Christ. We are
called to model what many feminist and lesbian theologians have called a
relational approach to power. The cross is not about top-down or vertical power.
It is about power that is broken open from below and that is shared
horizontally among community.
Third, commitment. The Ethiopian Eunuch made a
commitment to be baptized. When the eunuch saw the water on the side of the
road, he stopped his chariot and asked Philip to baptize him. He could have
chosen to do nothing and to limit his understanding of the Good News to his
intellect. Instead, the eunuch made a commitment to living out the Gospel by
becoming baptized. Being a Christian is not just about theory; it is about
practice and a long-term commitment to living the Christian life. It is a
commitment to staying with our families of faith, through good times and bad
times, through easy times and hard times.
As you witness or
participate in today’s baptism and membership transfer services, I invite you
to reflect upon these three themes of scripture, community, and commitment. Ask
yourself: Which of these themes speaks to me the most?
Some of you might
be drawn to scripture. That is, you
might feel called to participate in advanced Bible study, to read commentaries
on the Bible, or to take classes in Biblical Hebrew or Greek.
Others of you
might be drawn to community. That is,
you might feel called to become even more involved with the BMCF community or
leadership, or with the broader LGBT community in Hong Kong or around the
Still others of
you might be drawn to commitment. That
is, you might feel called to making a commitment to social justice ministries,
to enriching your daily prayer life, or perhaps even deepening your commitment
to your sisters, brothers, and siblings in the BMCF.
Whatever stage you
might be at in terms of your own spiritual development, I pray that today’s
service and today’s scripture reading about Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
will always help you to remember the deep connections between baptism and
In baptism, we
come out as Christians to the world. In baptism, God comes out to us in the
person of Jesus Christ. And in baptism, those of us who are LGBT find our
special vocational calling. As the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch shows us, God
chooses the marginalized, the unexpected, and the outcast to be God’s bearers
of the Good News to the world.
Christianity is a
queer faith, and our God is a queer God. And for that we give our thanks.
The Rev. Dr. Patrick S. Cheng is the Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is the Pastoral Assistant at Emmanuel Church in the City of Boston, and serves as the coordinator of Queer Asian Spirit. For more information about Patrick, please see his website at http://www.patrickcheng.net.