One of the things I’m noticing is that a fresh reading of Acts is changing how I see what the church is meant to be. Over these last few weeks we’ve been looking at Acts and following three separate themes:
· The miraculous origins of the church.
· The meaning and experience of God’s presence in the world.
· The call on us as the church in the 21st century.
Luke is telling the story here—it begins in his gospel and continues in the book of Acts. So it’s no surprise that the first thing he shows Jesus doing is talking about the Kingdom of God. Just to review: The Kingdom is not a place or a realm, with limits or boundaries. The Kingdom as Jesus talks about it is the experience of God’s reign—God’s values and ethics and authority over all things and all places and all people. Jesus comes back from the dead and talks about the Kingdom for 40 straight days—40 days of teaching the disciples and the early believers about that Kingdom of God.
As we come to our text this morning, the church is growing by the thousands each week. The first persecution is beginning to take shape, and Stephen has been martyred under the watchful eye of a Pharisee named Saul. Stay tuned: he’s going to be important very soon.
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, "Go to that chariot and stay near it." 30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. 31 "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 The eunuch was reading this passage of Scripture: "He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth." 34 The eunuch asked Philip, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water. Why shouldn't I be baptized?" 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
So where are we in this text? The early church is under persecution. Stephen has been murdered. A Pharisee named Saul is chasing the leaders of the church all over the region
Philip, one of the men chosen to manage the distribution of food, is on the run. He’s traveling on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, a road that passes by the city of Hebron, and the graves of Abraham and Sarah. He meets a eunuch. Eunuchs were men whose sexual parts were removed so they could be trusted to guard harems and run government offices. This guy was a treasury official in Ethiopia—he was a powerful man who was trusted to oversee the treasury of the queen. But there’s more for us to know here.
In the OT eunuchs are listed as permanently unclean and restricted from the Temple. Deut. 23:1 says: “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord.” Eunuchs were not permitted to the community of faith. Now we know there were all kinds of restrictions on people who were temporarily unclean for a whole range of reasons: touching various animals or bodily fluids, menstrual cycles, and a range of other natural conditions. All of these could be restored. People who had made themselves unclean somehow could ritually cleanse themselves and be back in the Temple the next day. Eunuchs were different. They were permanently, irrevocably barred from worshipping God in the assembly of the faithful.
One writer described it this way: “The law strictly forbids a eunuch from entering the temple. Their transgression of gender binaries and inability to fit into proper categories made them profane. They did not fit in the tent.”
But notice that the eunuch is on his way back from worshiping in Jerusalem, where in all likelihood he was turned away and prevented from worshiping. When Philip finds him he’s reading a scroll of Isaiah 53. Think about how hard it must have been for him to get his hands on that scroll. There was no Barnes & Noble or Waterstone’s down the street—there were no Kindles with Bibles loaded into them. This man had spent a small fortune on a hand-copied scroll of the book of Isaiah, and he read it as a way to help him follow God.
Philip greets the man and hears him reading out loud from Isaiah. Riding in his chariot. Out in the desert. Still feeling rejected after his visit to Jerusalem. Reading out loud from the Scriptures. Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, and the man is a little exasperated, maybe from just being turned away at the Temple: “How can I understand it unless someone explains it to me?”
Turns out the eunuch is reading a passage we read every Advent season, from the heart of Isaiah 53, where the suffering Messiah is promised to us. How perfect is that? How perfect is it that his question is about who this prophet might be? The Ethiopian is watching and waiting for Advent, and Philip gets to tell him that it’s already here.
Philip takes the question and hits it out of the park, and this Ethiopian gender outsider becomes the very first non-Jewish convert to the Christian faith. They see a little pond or oasis or whatever kind of water you find on a desert road, and this Ethiopian government official says: Is there any good reason why I can’t be baptized?
Think about that question. There are a lot of things Philip could have said at this moment. He could have quoted that Deuteronomy passage and left him there. He could have said that his sexual identity meant that even if he believed, he could never be a part of the church. Of course that’s not what happened. Philip is a product of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Philip is a new creation. Philip listened to the risen Jesus talk about the Kingdom of God for 40 straight days, and in this story it’s clear that he understood what it meant.
In one of those unexplainable moments, Philip is taken out of the story. What’s funny is that the Ethiopian guy doesn’t even notice. All of his prayer and study and longing to understand God has led him to this encounter with someone who had the answers. He rides back to Africa singing songs.
This is a great story about being ready to share the faith. About being sensitive to the questions and searching of people around us. But here’s another thing in this story that we should remember:
We should never ignore the significance of the fact that the first Gentile convert in the Bible was a black sexual outcast.
This is Palestine in the first century, under the control of the Roman Empire. There were no diversity programs or sensitivities then. And yet the first recorded Gentile to accept the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ was a black sexual outcast.
When you think about the miracles of the New Testament, never forget this one. Never forget how Philip the apostle lived the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ when he ran into an Ethiopian eunuch.
What do we make of this? It’s crucial to notice here that after Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion. Jews from outside the Holy Land; Gentiles from anywhere and everywhere; even those whose gender identities and lifestyles were outside the mainstream.
After Pentecost, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, the trajectory of the church of Jesus Christ is one of radical inclusion.
So what the heck happened? What happened to that inclusive trajectory? What happened to the church being a place that was always trying to outdo itself in welcoming the stranger, the outcast, the ones no one else would accept?
The truth is that it’s not long before the church became so deeply connected to the culture, that it came to reflect the culture’s biases and taboos and hatreds. There are all kinds of examples.
Women in leadership in the 1st century were edged out as the church gave in to the patriarchy of the surrounding culture.
The sharing and communal living of the early church is obliterated by individualism and the rise of private property and unrestricted capitalism.
Closer to home in American history: Slaveowners in the American South could celebrate passages that seemed to condone slavery as a perpetual norm—as something that would always be OK, while at the very same time their slaves could be reading the same Bible and longing for release from bondage to the Promised Land.
Maybe Ann Lamott puts it best when she says: “You know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do.”
But that’s not the way it was supposed to be. That’s not the way Christian culture was meant to speak in a prophetic voice to whatever host culture it finds itself in.
The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.
If we’re going to get this one wrong, then it should be on the side of being too generous—too open—too loving, and not the other way around. That’s what Luke is showing us in the stories of the Acts of the Apostles. That’s what this church can be when we allow the reign of God to cover this place.
What can we take away from this text this morning? Three crucial things to remember.
First, God is already working in the hearts of people all around us, even on the margins. Maybe especially on the margins. That Ethiopian was searching for God on his own, desperately waiting for someone to share the Good News with him. He didn’t get any help from the religious establishment of the day. People all around us are searching for God on the own. Our job is to enter into those conversations with our own stories.
Second, the gift of the Holy Spirit trumps everything—even the limits God himself placed on the life of faith in the Old Testament. This is the hardest one for us. My own denomination is tearing itself apart because it’s forgotten who it was called to be—not a keeper of rules, but a demonstration of grace.
And finally, because of that, we’re called to remember that everybody is welcome here. We’re called to be agents of that open, flexible, grace-filled love that Philip showed the Ethiopian. No matter where they’re from, or who or how they love. If they’re willing to seek the God of the Bible through the ministry of Jesus Christ, then we should be looking for the nearest puddle to baptize them in.
Acts is getting interesting, isn’t it?
Just remember this: The church of Jesus Christ, powered by the Holy Spirit, is meant to be a place of radical inclusion—a place where we compete to see how lavishly we can share the love of God with each other and with our neighbors.
May that be true in this place, and in every place that claims the name of Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.