The Gospel Crosses Cultures
Topic: Christian Living & Discipleship Scripture: Acts 8:26–8:40
Recently we stayed overnight in West Lafayette, IN, near the campus of Purdue university. There, we attended a lecture by Danielle Feinburg of Pixar animation studios. She said the Pixar team has been given a challenge by their director, and it’s a challenge that guides all that they do: “Create a world that nobody has ever seen before.” In the message of Jesus, that’s our challenge too: to create a world of love and justice, a world nobody has ever seen before.
In the very earliest days of the Christian mission, the book of Acts wants us to know: this faith is open to all - Jewish, Roman, Greek, African, and any who stand outside the norm. The gospel is for the whole world. Philp the Evangelist was one of the original seven deacons, chosen to do clean-up duty. Yet we also find that he is sharing the gospel with many.
Philip received direction from God through an angel. Go to this address - Google it if you have to - but “Get up and go.” Scripture tells us, “He got up and went.” God’s initiative, paired with human willingness, is key. We are inclined to say, “Okay, I’ll get to that.” Or, like a certain 8-year-old I know, says, “In a minute.” Don’t procrastinate. Just do it.
The instructions weren’t done yet. The Lord had a specific individual in mind. “Philip, get next to that chariot, right there.” In that chariot was a unique individual: the treasurer of the Ethiopian queen. He was a eunuch, and a high ranking member of the cabinet, with no known connection to Goldman-Sachs. He was a person of color, gender uncertain, rich - removed from regular society on several counts. Yet, the Lord has gone to great lengths to make him an early convert, and to give us the full details of his life. Why the focus on this outsider?
I think it’s this: the equality of all people is not just a nice side-bar of Christian faith. It’s the heart of Christian faith. God’s welcome in Christ - can and must be reflected in the welcome given by God’s people.
Following the text further, we learn that the Ethiopian, a devout man, is reading a scroll from Isaiah. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” His reply indicates an open and searching heart. “I need someone to guide me. How about you?” He was willing to learn. He didn’t claim to have all the answers.
The passage might have had particular appeal for him. It spoke directly to his own experience of trauma and mockery. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter. In his humiliation, justice was denied him.” Nobody volunteered to be a eunuch. He would have been taken from his family and subjected to a shocking procedure as a boy. He would forever after, be different from his peers, and alone in the world. Human nature being what it is, eunuchs suffered the mockery of others.
In his spiritual search, he was drawn to the beauty and moral strength of Judaism, with its sacred word. In Isaiah 56, he would have read this passage:
“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.”
It’s an amazing declaration of love and hospitality on God’s part, through the community. Centuries later, Jesus would speak of eunuchs, too. “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”
We’re not exactly sure what he means by these three categories but seems an acknowledgment that some people are born differently gendered, and differently oriented. Evangelistically, Philip had the wisdom to let the Ethiopian formulate his own questions. He trusts the God who is at work in the other person’s life, and he respects the person’s inner integrity. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of high-pressure evangelism, you know the opposite of Philip’s approach. In a natural, organic way, Philip shares the good news of Jesus.
The request for baptism came from within the Ethiopian, a heartfelt desire. The presence of water in the wilderness was a bit of a miracle in itself. “Let’s do this,” says the Ethiopian. We are all able to baptize a person requesting such.
As with all scripture, we seek to discern the passage’s meaning for us today. God’s mission is to the marginalized. Too often in history, the church has acted as though it didn’t get that memo. Crusades, inquisitions, genocides, and torture are part of the record.
Sometimes the light of Christ has shown through. Some Presbyterians were leaders in the abolitionist movement, including Second Presbyterian Church. In this sesquicentennial year for our congregation, we recall that we had members in the 1960’s who worked to overcome housing discrimination. Currently, our adult class is studying the confession of 1967 and the Belhar Confession. Both of these documents summon the church to social witness and social justice.
The justice voice of the church is needed now more than ever. Today, there seems a rising tide of prejudice and discrimination in the world, a rollback of democracy and decency. Its victims are people of color, people of the LGBT community, refugees of war and climate change, and people who are differently-abled. Transgender people who have served in the military with distinction are under threat of being kicked out. People who were brought to our country as children, and have never known any other, are also under threat.
This week saw the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. As one article puts it, “The country has never seen anything like it.” This stunning museum chronicles the history of lynching in America, which continues in other forms, such as mass incarceration. The names of those murdered, long forgotten, have now been identified and displayed: forgotten no more. Mr. Bryan Stevenson, a driving force behind the memorial, is motivated by what he calls “Just Mercy.” It’s the belief that those who have committed serious wrongs should be allowed a chance at redemption, and it includes the whites whose brutality is chronicled by the museum. Bryan Stevenson declares, “If I believe that each of us is more than the worst thing he or she has ever done. I have to believe that for everybody.”
We don’t know what became of our friend after he was baptized. The ancient church of Ethiopia claims him as their own. We can claim him, too. He shows us the way to God’s call, to create a world nobody has ever seen before… a vision of a church that stands up for the outsider, and embraces all in Jesus’ name.