The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"Acts 8:34-36
Do you wonder if Philip is asking himself the same question? Is he perhaps thinking, “Maybe this is a bit hasty…” After all, this is a major decision we’re talking about. Isn’t it?
Apparently, some of the early Bible transcribers agree. If you go to this passage in Acts to see what happens next, you'll notice that verse 37 is missing. Yes, indeed, if you look carefully, you’ll see it skips from 36 to 38. Verse 37 was eliminated in modern translations because it wasn’t found in the earliest and best source documents for the Book of Acts.
So what is verse 37? Here in the King James Version: “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.”
Doesn’t that seem much better? There’s a large part of me that feels a lot more comfortable having that extra layer in there, just to make sure Philip isn’t doing it wrong, or making some terrible mistake, or making light of baptism. After all, why should this person he’s just met be the one to decide it’s time for his own baptism? Shouldn’t Philip be some kind of a gatekeeper to make sure this faith isn’t watered down? This Ethiopian hasn’t actually said anything about what he believes. He’s been reading scripture aloud and admits to Philip he doesn’t understand it. Philip does all the talking about what it means, and then we jump to “Hey, there’s water! Let’s get me baptized!” What kind of baptismal prep is that? He doesn't even know the guy's name, for Pete's sake!
I can understand why some early church folk might have stepped in and said, “Wait a cotton-picking minute, there. We really ought to have something in place to examine whether we’re on the same page before baptizing people.”
Unfortunately for us church leader types, this passage challenges our gatekeeper status and turns our plans for incorporating new members on their heads. If I were preaching on this this morning, I’d have to start by saying I don’t feel very comfortable with the message I’m getting from this passage. At all.
A while back, I got an email from a man who wanted to be confirmed. He’d done lots of reading and study on his own, had been part of his congregation for years, and had finally decided he wanted to be confirmed. And his pastor told him to look for some program so they could meet together for some period of time so that he could be prepared for confirmation. I wrote the man and said, “I think you’ve done the preparation.” (Though of course I thought he would enjoy CnC for Adults.)
But I can understand the pastor’s desire: to have some assurance that you’ve done your due diligence, to know that someone is really prepared because you’ve led the classes and asked the questions.
So this passage is challenging because it suggests maybe we don’t always need to be the gatekeepers. Goodness knows I believe in baptismal and confirmation preparation. But are we ensuring the form of preparation, even when those who come to us seeking to deepen their faith have, with God’s help, been prepared on their own?
Maybe we don’t need to protect God from giving out too much grace. Maybe people are already ready to receive it without preparation from us. It may be that the answer to “What is to prevent me?” is, absolutely nothing. God help us to be open to the Spirit’s leading.