This Sermon is PG-13 (Hopefully Not R)

sermon on Acts 8:26-39

This old story is curiously current.

That it can seem an archaic artifact, admittedly still doesn’t prevent me from squirming, and I’ll begin apologizing now if it is uncomfortable for you addressing a guy whose private parts have been chopped off. It precedes next week’s reading that also involves a question of what proper genitals are. Today the issue of circumcision is moot, though, for this person who’d been castrated. That severing may have served as part of an official role, to make this person be or become less disposed (to say the least) to put an heir on the throne or steal to support a family or to disrupt the harem, less likely even to be able to fit into society, and so maybe reliably loyal and dependent on a place in the palace.

Besides that unfashionable uncontemporary form of ensuring servitude, many other details in this story seem old. We don’t much think of palace rooms filled with gold, counted by court officials (though maybe we do picture security guards and vaults?). This week we were confronted with a queen and behaviors around royalty; still, unfortunately, we might not be prone to picture Ethiopia or anyplace in Africa as having celebrated queens.

Even the detail of the chariot probably places this in some fairy tale olden time. Much less that the occupant of that chariot was passing the travel time by reading scripture. Thank goodness we’ve got phones and playlists and podcasts and Minecraft now, so we don’t have to “waste” our time on trips by reading the Bible!

Yet this old story is also plenty present, curiously current. In the end, there’s the stunning line, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”

This exciting moment in the book of Acts is a new beginning in the sweep of the Christian story because it meant the good news was spreading, salvation from Jesus was reaching to all nations. Back in chapter 1, Jesus told the apostles they would share the good news in Jerusalem, to the surrounding area, and on to the ends of the earth. Well, at that time Ethiopia was what they knew as the end of the earth.

For more breaking boundaries, in this book called “the Acts of the Apostles,” Philip, the one conveying God’s blessing, was not technically an apostle, not chosen as an evangelist or a pastor or a preacher, but merely selected as a waiter on soup kitchen detail. Yet here he was suddenly driven by the Holy Spirit to spread the preaching and the splashing of baptism farther than it had ever gone. It wasn’t in his job description, but that silly, surprising Holy Spirit was ignoring the people’s presumptuous rules.

A couple chapters later the central apostle Peter will baptize a Roman centurion, meaning that the Holy Spirit had clearly chosen to include a non-Jew into this saving movement of Jesus. Though this story today stretches to the ends of the earth, it might seem like some in-crowd. We notice that this Ethiopian eunuch was familiar with Jewish practice and with the Bible.

But to be sure we’re hearing why that was still hugely shocking, we can’t say that the eunuch was actually Jewish, because the scriptures kept this sort of person at least at arm’s length. Having been in Jerusalem, the eunuch still certainly would not have been permitted to pray in the temple while there.

Again, apologies if this causes uncomfortable conversation on your family chariot rides home, but here’s an exemplary verse from Torah, the teachings of Moses, the definitional law for Jewish religion. Ready? “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD” (Deut.23:1). I don’t share that just for impropriety so we’re all uncomfortable, but because that verse highlights what is going on in today’s reading.

Now, I don’t know if the chariot had a “eunuch on board” bumpersticker or something, but the story tells all the private details. So when the eunuch asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” the only response is: you are clearly… definitely…. legally… unquestionably restricted, in fact strictly forbidden from being included in the assembly of the LORD. That’s the right answer. For the Bible tells me so. You are prevented. Period. You’re out.

And yet Philip—not an apostle, not a pastor, not one who was supposed to preach, much less be baptizing—is nevertheless compelled by the Holy Spirit to go on with the baptism. What’s to prevent you? What in the holy name of God Almighty? What for Christ’s sake could get in the way of your baptism? Boundaries? The rules? The Bible itself? Aw, let’s do it! Incorporating one from the ends of the earth into the community of Christ. Breaking down what clearly classified an outsider.

Wow. This is amazingly good stuff, so let’s be clear we’re recognizing it for a second with an Alleluia! Christ is risen! (It’s the clearest boundary-breaking good news message, which is why I like saying it so much.)

That was shocking stuff then, but we’d better not hear it as an old, old story, but still curiously current here and now.

For simple starters, the Ethiopian was black. That’s also part of the point. We admit we shouldn’t picture Jesus as white. Jesus wasn’t some blondish-haired blue-eyed northern European-looking dude, am I right? We have to acknowledge that when God chose to become incarnate, to be born into our world and appear in our lives and our skin, God chose brown Palestinian, Arabic skin and eyes and hair.

But the story still has what we would identify as a racial divide. This is a black-skinned person, very intentionally included into the church. The Holy Spirit isn’t into identifying skin colors as barriers to blessing.

That racial inclusion is plenty difficult for us to live into, but maybe what sounds even more extraordinary is that this is a story about a person of ambiguous gender incorporated into the church, directly claimed and received by the Holy Spirit herself. This Ethiopian eunuch is without that body part that would most clearly identify a man, but is also not a woman. It breaks apart the gender binary.

Again that’s curiously current, as our society is struggling unfortunately even on whether, but also with good intentions on how to incorporate people who have nontraditional gender identities or expressions. Here at the MCC, we’re trying to figure out what to do with pronouns on our nametags and how to restructure our bathrooms. We keep trying to live into it, but there’s no question that the Holy Spirit will bring us into the body of Christ no matter our body type and will extend salvation beyond—and as more important than—our old stale categories.

God is intent on chasing down these lost sheep, especially when religious people have been the ones who scattered them and refused to flock together. Our story is that this is who God is. Already three chapters after that passage the eunuch was reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the word of the Lord saying, “To the eunuchs I will give an everlasting name that shall not be cut off, and foreigners I will make joyful in my house of prayer for all peoples” (from Isaiah 56:4-7). This promise of God is especially made known in Jesus, who joined the lost and injured sheep to extend salvation to all. This God’s story continues as the Spirit sent Philip scampering after a chariot in the middle of the desert midday sun to catch a eunuch. And this story of a God in Jesus chasing along remains curiously current.

In the terms of this story, you may be a Philip, an unappointed apostle, finding yourself in unusual settings and circumstances, proclaiming good news. Playing catch-up to the God who breaks down barriers, you may get a part in extending an unexpected word of grace.

Or you may identify more with the eunuch, one who didn’t expect to be incorporated, whose corporeal reality, whose very body and life kept you excluded, or who was on the outs for some nonsensical reason. You may have some inner yearning to understand this God and be surprised that God yearns for you, too.

Or you may be, admittedly, a combination. Our faith is shaped and guided along not just by insiders, not even just by unofficial insiders like Philip. Some of us who have been the insiders are being taught about Jesus and salvation and what it means to share in the body of Christ by those who had been on the outside, had been excluded, by people we were even told were wrong, weren’t allowed, who surprise even us as embodiments of grace. We can give thanks we are taught God’s love in a richer way by companions who identify as LGBTQ+, by people of a different skin color, by people whose bodies are different, differently abled, or disabled, by people from elsewhere on the planet, by those who aren’t as studied or learned as us, even by situations that may give us discomfort.

With this kind of God, there are always surprises, even about being in it all together, finding a place for everyone. What will prevent it? Nothing. Not even death itself. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

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What’s to prevent you being part of this story?

5th Sunday of Easter (3May15) Acts8:26-40; 1John4:7-21 John15:1-8

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian official is lively and helpful, but with it, it may be helpful to do a little travelogue, a trip through the book of Acts with a view of the countryside and surroundings.

1

Acts is part 2 of the Gospel of Luke. They’re written by the same author and have similar themes and all. The Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus. Acts is the next part of the story. Although we call it the Acts of the Apostles and tend to focus on the human characters, the real story and main character in Acts is the Holy Spirit.

2

As the story picks up in the 1st chapter, Jesus is just about to exit the picture. (I love images of the Ascension, which show him exiting and only his feet sticking down.) Jesus is handing off the reins, saying that his followers will share the good news. They’ve been hiding out in Jerusalem since Good Friday and Easter, afraid to take a next step or say peep, but Jesus says that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem and on to the surrounding regions called Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth. 3We’ll be coming back more to the “ends of the earth” later on.

For now, it’s interesting to note that Jesus has sent them, has commissioned them, has committed them to spread the news far and wide, so they whole-heartedly decide to hunker back down.

Instead of getting to work, they hold a committee meeting, with the sole purpose of selecting a new member of the committee.

4God forbid they’d share the work among the whole crowd of 120 men and women who were there together. No! They just want to fill one single spot vacated by Judas (who, it says in the story, had used the money he got for betraying Jesus to buy a field and tripped in the field and his guts burst out. Another version says he hanged himself. Thus this weird picture).

5At any rate, Judas isn’t amid the crowd of witnesses eager to talk about Jesus, so they want to fill his place and get their core group back to 12 members.

They have a nice hiring process, with a list of qualifications, a narrowed field of eligible applicants, a good prayer.

6Then, to top it off and make certain they’re doing it right, they cast lots, drawing a name out of the hat.

With all of that careful discernment and pious consideration for getting that 12th disciple into his role, the guy goes on never to be mentioned ever again. Because we turn the page.

7Chapter 1 ends, and chapter 2 of Acts tears off immediately in a new direction, letting us know it wasn’t about keeping an original team of 12.

8Instead, on Pentecost, here comes the Holy Spirit, to blow open those shut doors, and to open those shut mouths, and suddenly instead of 12, the ranks are filled with 3000 witnesses added in one day. That continues to expand exponentially, by leaps and bounds in the coming weeks.

But growth also has uncomfortable downsides.

9The crowds create new problems. See, in this early church as we heard a couple weeks ago, sharing was super important. That was a prime mark of what it meant to be a Christian, to give and receive as any had need. But that’s more difficult with big groups, as we’re also aware in society’s work of caring for those in need. It’s not so simple as sharing the bag of potato chips or tearing your sandwich in half.

10In this case, some people missed out. The only criterion was supposed to be having need, but we also tag on other emotion-filled qualifiers, labeling some as lazy, not meeting the requirements, as cheating the system, abusing the safety net, squandering their resources on other things, as drug addicts, as being too different, not speaking the same language.

You’ll notice just as our society still holds obstructive prejudices, so also then, some of the widows weren’t getting their food. 11The central 12 disciples again enter the picture. Like any good leaders are apt to do when a problem is identified, they listen, carefully weigh possible solutions, and then pass the buck. They say, “don’t trouble us with this. We’ve got more important things to do. Take it up with somebody else.”

So the church chooses deacons, 7 faithful people to serve food, to run the pantry, to make sure everybody was getting what they needed. St. Stephen was the first and foremost in this faithful group. Philip, too. (A side note: it’s wonderful that we continue to embody Stephen’s example of sharing for the hungry. Thank you for your Mountain of Food support!)

12In the story, though, just as things again seemed to be settled and the central committee’s solutions were being implemented and all was proceeding according to plan, of course again at that point the Holy Spirit shows up for a change to new direction.

So the 12 apostles had said, “we’ll take care of the preaching, thank you very much.” The very next thing is that Stephen the waiter, Stephen the food guy, Stephen chosen strictly and solely to hand off things to the hungry, all of a sudden, in defending his faith, gives the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. So much for the 12 being the only preachers.

13We might say Stephen preached a terribly effective sermon that touched an emotional nerve, because they kill him for it. They stone him to death. He is a martyr, the first, bearing witness to his faith and trusting life in the Lord Jesus even into death.

He wasn’t the only one. It says that after his death persecutions spread, so the Christians fled out from Jerusalem. Well, that also meant they were taking the message with them. Even through adversity, the Holy Spirit was still working. So Philip, another non-preacher food guy, winds up taking care of Jesus’ words from chapter 1, about being witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

14See, it says Philip goes to Samaria. Then he’s out on a road to Gaza, which is amid Judea.

15And finally is today’s reading about an Ethiopian official traveling home. He’s headed all the way back to the ends of the earth, the farthest country away from Jerusalem. And he’s going to take this news of Jesus with him.

Besides living far away, one other detail about this Ethiopian is essential, with a really amazing, beautiful outcome. It says he was a eunuch, meaning castrated or unable to have sex. It’s odd that it says he was worshipping in Jerusalem, because Jewish law explicitly forbid somebody with his condition from being in the temple.

16He was legally an outcast. When he asks, “What’s to prevent me from being part of the body of Christ?” the obvious answer, the correct answer should have been, “What prevents you is that your own body is broken and wrong.”

17And yet Philip goes ahead and preaches to him and then baptizes him, incorporating him into the good news of the resurrection and of the body of Christ.

Well, the story of Acts doesn’t stop there. The Holy Spirit has some more surprises up her sleeves, but it’s time for us to ask, “so what?”

Maybe we first can see ourselves in this story with the Ethiopian. We’re far from Jerusalem. We have no birthright to be blessed by God. We by all rights should be excluded from worship—we’re sinners and outcasts and all with our own kinds of brokenness and imperfections, either born that way or inflicted on us. Yet the good news of life in Jesus is for you, too. It will come and find you on your wilderness roads, amid confusions and any place the Holy Spirit has to seek you out. She finds you like six-month-old Evelyn Rose in her baptism this morning, who has done nothing to earn or understand this blessing. But what’s to prevent it? With the abundant life of Jesus and the ever-expanding mission of the Holy Spirit, nothing can prevent it. The good news is, indeed, for you.

And for all. That maybe makes us see ourselves with Philip, as unlikely witnesses to this abounding grace. God’s word still shows up on your lips, even if you don’t claim to be officially chosen for that sort of thing. It comes from baptismal sponsors and parents and grandparents and Mari Mitchell’s English essay this week including a reference to unconditional love and 1st Corinthians 13. It’s in cards the Swenson sisters send, and in all your own ways. It’s the “hymn of all creation,” as we sang in the canticle of praise and about our voices together in the opening hymn. Indeed, the reason we sing hymns is to put the sermon in your mouth. So this work of the Holy Spirit and proclamation of love is on the loose!

Which also corrects and blows open today’s other slightly-too-restrictive Bible readings. In the community of 1st John, the focus seems to have been about looking out for others at church. But the Holy Spirit—who won’t let 12 disciples stay behind locked doors but presses thousands and now billions of us onward and outward to the ends of the earth—must surely be about broader love than just what happens in small church gatherings. This is a bigger family, without bounds or barriers. It’s God’s crazy care on the loose.

18So the Holy Spirit compelled us to speak at advocacy day this week, with the voice of hundreds of Christians and other faiths from our state calling for prison reform and supporting the social safety net and looking out for immigrants, speaking up on behalf of others, those in need in our family.

19We also recognize the expanded care of this family all the way on the other side of the world in the candlelight vigil Confirmation class participated in because of the earthquake in Nepal and in your support and offerings today to help with Lutheran Disaster Response.

20Maybe a notch harder, the Holy Spirit is also ahead of us in Baltimore. She is pressing us beyond our tired old divisions of race and class, obstructions of prejudice and of injustice to see things from a new perspective, to see our whole hurting world as held in the embrace of a rejected God who has holes pierced in his hands and shame on his brow. There’s nothing that will stop the work of this God who keeps chasing after you and spreading the life of Jesus everywhere.

We see this enormous family not only with sisters and brothers who look like us or live near us, not only those endeared to us or beneficial for us, not even only as humans but the whole family of creation, caring for all life. When we pollute and plunder against planetary wellbeing, nevertheless the Holy Spirit breaks in and asks, “What’s to prevent the blessing of waters and the sustenance of life? What’s to prevent the resurrection being made alive in you and shared with all the world? What’s to prevent it? What could possibly stop God’s work and Jesus’ life and this wild Holy Spirit? What could prevent it?” Nothing!

After all, she’s already out preparing the way ahead of you and Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Hymn: Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song (ELW #403)

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