May 2, 2021 - 5th Sunday of Easter
What are we waiting for?
I’ve mentioned that the Vestrymembers and I are touring a book called Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church by Anna Olson. So far, we’ve looked at how it’s hard to welcome people in when we haven’t made room for them physically. Next, we’ll be looking at what it means to make room for them in practice, particularly by what it looks like for visitors.
Today’s reading from Acts really challenges us to think about how welcoming our churches truly are to those who “look different, live different, or believe different.” Our story begins when an angel directs the apostle Philip to go south on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. On this road in the desert, Philip meets an Ethiopian eunuch. Now I don’t know about you, but this strikes me as a really odd way to introduce someone; no name, just an Ethiopian eunuch. The author must have thought it was important because he tells us not once but five times that the Ethiopian was a eunuch. I know what an Ethiopian is. Philip has encountered a black African man in the desert. Now that itself is pretty remarkable. But what exactly is a eunuch? According to the most current scholarship, in the first century a eunuch is one of two things. A eunuch could have been a man who had been castrated or he could have been a male who wasn’t like most males. According to the scholars, men who showed a preference for other men or displayed little or no interest in women, or who were in any way effeminate, were called eunuchs.
At this particular time in history, eunuchs had three major roles in society. Because it was either physically impossible for them to father children or, because of their preferences, highly unlikely that they would father children, eunuchs were often employed as military officers, domestic servants, or treasury officers. Without the responsibilities of children, it was thought that eunuchs would be fiercer soldiers because they wouldn’t be worried about saving themselves so that they could be around to take care of their children. Without children of their own to worry about, eunuchs were also free to be domestic servants; and because of their lack of sexual interest, eunuchs would be safe to employ around women. As they were unlikely to father children, rulers could trust that eunuchs wouldn’t seek hereditary power so they were often entrusted with positions in the treasury because they wouldn’t need to amass wealth to pass on to their children. While rulers entrusted eunuchs with certain key positions, they were pretty much shunned by the rest of society.… They were outcasts.
According to our story, this Ethiopian eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home. Now the Bible is very clear on the subject of eunuchs and worship. According to the Book of Deuteronomy (ch 23), eunuchs were forbidden to worship in the house of God. Mind you, according to the Bible none of us are welcome here in God’s house. The Bible forbids the wearing of more than one type of cloth at the same time. According to Leviticus 21:20, anyone who is wearing glasses shouldn’t be here either, because one should not approach the altar of the Lord if they have a defect in their sight. Did you know that it is an abomination before God to work on the Sabbath and according to Exodus 35: 2 anybody who works on the Sabbath should be put to death? Those of you who cut your grass yesterday, which according to the Bible is the Sabbath, those of you who worked around the house yesterday -- you should be rounded up and executed. Any of us who have had our hair trimmed, including the hair around our temples ought to know that according to Leviticus 19:27 this is strictly forbidden. As near as I can tell, the penalty for those haircuts of ours is death by stoning.
Now don’t go telling me that the New Testament means that the laws of the Old Testament are no longer valid, because according to the New Testament the law stands. Now lucky for you, I don’t take the Bible literally! And if you take the Bible literally then we’d need a pretty big pile of stones and very few of us would make it out of here alive.
Fortunately for us, our church does not teach or preach that the Bible is to be taken literally. Literal interpretations of scripture belong to those denominations and faiths that are called fundamentalists. Fundamentalist Christians represent a small but vocal minority within the Christian church. We are not fundamentalists. The next time someone asks you if you believe in the Bible, the answer is no, we don’t believe in the bible. We believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel can be found in the Bible, but the Gospel cannot be contained by the Bible. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reveal the nature of our loving and gracious God. Like Jesus, we are free to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. We teach that Scripture should always be interpreted in the light of the Gospel. Like Jesus, we proclaim that wherever two or more of us are gathered in Jesus’ name, God is there also and the Holy Spirit will direct and guide us. We teach that the scripture should not be studied in isolation but in community, so that, guided by the Spirit the community can correct and steer the believer in light of the Gospel.
So... guided by the Holy Spirit, I can say that all of us are saints and sinners, and all of us are welcome here in God’s house, despite our haircuts, our impaired sight, our multi-materialed clothing, or the state of our genitals. And so, none of you will have to go home from here today and drag your children out into the town square so that for the crime of not properly honoring their parents your kids can be stoned until they are dead, as per the instructions laid out in the Bible.
In the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we know that God is LOVE and nothing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, and all that God wants from us is that we should love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
But at the turn of the first century, you can bet that the Black African, gentile, Ethiopian eunuch wasn’t welcome in the Temple. So he left Jerusalem and was on his way back home, riding in his chariot, reading aloud. It is really remarkable that the Ethiopian eunuch actually knew how to read. This Ethiopian eunuch must have been fairly well off because he was reading from the book of the Prophet Isaiah and one of those scrolls would set you back quite a bit at the turn of the first century. So, we know he is a man of some wealth and importance, not only because he can afford his own scroll but also because he actually knows how to read it, not in his native tongue, but in Greek.
The passage the Ethiopian eunuch was reading was about the Suffering Servant of God, who was “cut off” from the people of God. It was no accident he was reading this. Surely, he was trying to figure out why he himself was being cut off from the people of God. If he was reading this passage, he likely also read the neighboring passages where God promised to bless all those who had been excluded and cut off because they were different. The Apostle Philip shared the Good News of Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch. This Suffering Servant the eunuch was reading about was someone he could identify with. This was a Messiah who had been cut off, just like him.
Suddenly the labels that prevented this man from full inclusion in the assembly of the people of God were overcome -- and not even the arid desert can defeat them. Suddenly there is some water and the man asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Well according to the rules, Philip should have answered that there was a lot to prevent the eunuch from being baptized. First of all, the Ethiopian eunuch hasn’t confessed what it is he believes. He hasn’t been to baptismal classes. Philip isn’t an ordained minister, this is not an emergency and he doesn’t even know how to baptize. Plus the church hasn’t yet approved the baptism of gentiles, let alone foreign black eunuchs.
But what does Philip do when the eunuch asks him, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip jumps into the water and baptizes the man. No messing around, no consulting the rules, no calling the Bishop to see if it’s all right. Philip doesn’t answer the eunuch with any of our concerns, he doesn’t ask the Ethiopian if he is an open and practicing eunuch or if he’s a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of eunuch. Nor does Philip qualify his response with reservations, such as: “well, we can baptize you, but we can never ordain you.” Or “well we can baptize you, but we can’t promise not to discriminate against you.”
The Apostle Philip doesn’t share the church’s concerns. The Ethiopian commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Philip just hops out of the chariot, and jumps into the water and boldly baptizes this inquiring, scripture-reading, Christ-seeking eunuch. Maybe, just maybe we can learn something from Philip’s radical act. Maybe instead of talking and arguing among ourselves for years and years, we ought to just jump into the water and trust the Spirit to take care of the details. And here, as an aside, I feel like that is exactly what the Vestry at St. Michael and All Angels is doing… and it’s a wild ride for all of us already!
Some boundaries we have begun to break down, through the Spirit’s help, and others we have only strengthened by our action or our inaction. In the name of Christ, Christians have justified slavery and Christians have fought against slavery. In the name of Christ, Christians have oppressed women and Christians have fought against the oppression of women. In the name of Christ, Christians have condemned gay and lesbian people and Christians have affirmed gay and lesbian people.
The Gospel is not a respecter of boundaries. It doesn’t matter what the religious establishment says, no one is cut off from Gods’ love. Scripture insists, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”
The Holy Spirit is driving us into the world. We are not being sent to condemn, but to offer the benefits of the grace and love of God, so, that in the words of the prophet Isaiah, God’s house will become “a house of prayer for all people….” for God is love and there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. This, my dear friends, is the Gospel of our God.
So what in the world are we waiting for? Let’s all jump into the water so that we too can be on our way rejoicing!