Easter 4 (Narrative Lectionary, Year C)
21 April 2013
The Holy Spirit does not hold to geographic boundaries. The Spirit does not hold to racial lines or ethnic markers. The Spirit does not detour to avoid the people we’d prefer not to see, not to hear, not to sit beside, or have included in our gathering. In the passage from Acts 8, that person is the Ethiopian eunuch. A eunuch is a man who does not have functioning testicles- either because they did not develop or because he has been maimed. A eunuch’s ability to reproduce has either withered on the vine or been pruned.
A eunuch is still a Jew, but may have been excluded from the assembly. Thus, for the purposes of temple life and worship, a eunuch is a man who is essentially a woman. And women don’t get to offer sacrifices. They don’t have standing. One’s blessings come through one’s husband and one’s ability to be receptive to his offerings, so to speak. (This is just awkward for everyone, but this eunuch is important. So stay with me.) A eunuch cannot fulfill the “actions of a man”(so to speak), so he does not get the privileges of being a man… including gathering in the assembly of the faithful. (Deut. 23:1)
Now, in your reading of Isaiah, you may recall a little song about eunuchs with a different tune. The prophet writes: Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain,“ I am only a dry tree.” The prophet goes on to say that God will give a memorial better than children to faithful eunuchs, to faithful people. It might have served for God to mention that in one or two other places, since repetition is one of the main ways we learn, but sometimes I think God says to us, “How many times do I have to tell you this stuff?” (Isaiah 56:3)
The Ethiopian eunuch is a servant in the queen’s court, chosen for that valued position because of his sexual safety. He will not overthrow the government because he cannot have children to continue his line, so (presumably) it would not be worth it. He obviously understands himself to be Jewish because he has traveled to Jerusalem for worship, for worship in the community that may not receive him. He goes to be present with people who are, mostly, of much lower social status than he is as a royal servant. The man has his own chariot and copies of Scripture. Even Peter doesn’t have that!
Now consider this: how badly would you have to want to worship to travel hundreds of miles to go to a place that wouldn’t receive you to worship a God whose people have conspired to exclude you from the fullness of community? How much would you have to crave sacramental life to be enriched by just being close to it, much less participating? How much would you have to desire to know more about God’s salvation, which might not include you, to be reading a scroll of Isaiah on a bumpy chariot ride back to your home country? Does anyone here have that much desire? Is anyone here willing to allow the Spirit to be that powerful in his or her lives?
And Philip appears- running alongside the chariot. Philip, who has been assigned to be a part of the food distribution in the Jerusalem meeting houses, is now speaking to someone who might as well be from the ends of the earth. Philip says, “Do you know what you’re reading?” and then goes on Isaiah’s servant song in the light of Jesus Christ. When Isaiah wrote it, it was understood in to apply to God’s servant Israel and Israel’s people. The Spirit’s interpretive expansion helped the early followers of Jesus to understand him (and their own call) as the servant who suffers for the sake of God’s work in the world.
Moved by this interpretation, moved by this Bible study, the Ethiopian eunuch stops the chariot and says, “Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He is so transformed by hearing Philip’s discourse on Jesus that he cannot wait to be included in the community through God’s promise in water and word. Baptism will change his allegiance, and his alliances, but it will be worth it because he will be drawn, clearly, into the story of God that the Spirit has been whispering in his ear.
Does anyone here desire baptism that much? Does anyone long to revisit their baptism? Have you held yourself back from just splashing your face in the font- to remember, to clear your vision, to wake you up to your life reorientation in Christ? We trust that God loves and uses people who are not baptized, but in the Christian community it is the marker of beginning and belonging. It is a moment we can revisit again and again- a moment when the salvation we work out with fear and trembling became tangible. We are supposed to crave this moment- remembering it and desiring it for all around us.
Along with holy communion, the baptismal font give us a different lens for seeing ourselves, the people around us, and the people who we encounter outside of these doors- the same expanding circles of Spirit-inclusion that are in the Acts reading (the people in Jerusalem, the people in Judea, the people in Samaria, the people in Ethiopia and beyond). These sacraments, two places where we are assured of Christ’s presence, make us citizens in the kingdom of God with work to do right now. Part of that work is sharing the message that is implicit in these acts of communal washing and eating together- the message that all people are children of God.
When the world says, “racial minority”, we say “child of God.”
When the world says, “sexually suspect”, we say “child of God.”
When the world says, “illegal immigrant”, we say “child of God.”
When the world says, “homeless by choice”, we say “child of God.”
When the world says, “Palestinian or Israeli”, we say “child of God.”
When the world says, “mentally ill”, we say “child of God.”
When the world says, “terrorist”, we say “child of God.”
The naming of our people, our friends and our enemies, as children of God puts us in the position to do the work of Christ. Work of feeding. Work of peace-making. Work of creating equality. Work of ensuring justice. The work of making God’s presence real by revealing that presence through the actions of God’s people. I am not saying we make God real through our right actions. I am saying that who God is becomes understandable through the clear actions of the people who call themselves people of God.
In a world full of terror, natural disasters, and preventable human tragedies, there are people who crave good news. There are people who need advocates, though they may be in the wrong. There are people who are certain that they will never belong to the community of God- but they read the story anyway. In a world with this kind of longing, how do you account for the hope that is within you? Do we dare to cheapen God’s grace by assuming that the font and the table exist merely to assure us of God’s affection for us?
These are dangerous places. They change the way we see the world and the way we see all children of God. We should approach these places with trembling- longing for the truth of their promises and afraid of what faithful participation will lead us into doing?
The Holy Spirit does not hold to geographic boundaries. The Spirit does not hold to racial lines or ethnic markers. The Spirit does not detour to avoid the people we’d prefer not to see, not to hear, not to sit beside, or have included in our gathering. And the Spirit does not, cannot, will not, pass by you.