Sermon on Acts 8:26-40
How did Christianity spread to become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire in the 4thcentury after Jesus? At this weekend’s Awakening Conference, Bart Erman, author of “The Triumph of Christianity, tried to answer the question. One school of thought is that Christianity prospered because of its exclusivist and missionary nature, and after the conversion of Constantine, the power of the Roman State was used to crush all the pagan religions as the emperor used religion to consolidate power.
School number two holds that Christianity was a more egalitarian religion that grew gradually among the lower classes. There was more room for women and slaves to participate. And early Christianity had a system of care for widows and orphans, the most vulnerable people in society. When two great plagues struck in the 4thcentury, Christian caring actually assured that more Christians survived, and demographics took over from there.
While I like the second version better, what if both version are true? Christianity at its best has been a catalyst for compassion and justice, and, at its worst, our faith is used as a tool of oppression and exclusion. You don’t have to be an atheist like Christopher Hitchens, who wrote “God is Not Good,” to agree with his main point that Christianity has been responsible for some of history’s great atrocities. St. Francis of Assisi traced the corruption of the church back to the Roman Emperor Constantine supporting Christianity. Many Protestant Reformers from John Wycliffe to Martin Luther, believed the Empire took over the church, not that Christianity persuaded the Empire of its truth. Christianity failed, but let’s not blame God for that. Instead, let’s try to get it right.
This is not just an interesting historical debate, its important right now because these two impulses, the exclusive/hierarchical dominate Christianity, and the more egalitarian and compassionate Christianity, are still with us. What kind of church did Jesus want, and where are we on that journey?
Our Biblical text today from Acts of the Apostles gives us some interesting perspective. Acts gives us lots of conversion stories, centering on Saul, the persecutor of the early Jesus movement, who meets Jesus in a vision and becomes Paul the Apostle, the key missionary to spread the story of Jesus. Here we have the story of Philip, who is getting out of town after the stoning of Steven.
Generally, we like convert stories, especially when someone comes over to our team. On the surface we could read this passage and think, “Isn’t it amazing that Phillip was guided by the Holy Spirit, and a powerful man from exotic Ethiopia, a man who oversaw the Queen’s treasury no less, quickly saw how great Jesus is and was baptized. Kudos to Phillip (and the Holy Spirit of course!) for bringing such an influential person into the fold.”
Here is the interesting subplot. This convert is a eunuch. In ancient times it was thought that a eunuch would be trustworthy without family ties or interest in court liaisons, so they could hold important jobs for a monarch, such as managing the king’s harem, food taster, or the manager of the Queen’s vast treasury.
This eunuch went to Jerusalem to worship, but there is a problem. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy, eunuchs are excluded from Temple worship. Leviticus 21:17-20 says, “No one of your offspring throughout the generations who has a blemish shall offer the food of his God. No one with a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, or one who has a broken foot or hand, or a hunchback or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes, or an itching disease or scabs, or a man with crushed testicles.” I guess to make food offerings to God you needed to look like a male supermodel. Just to emphasize the point, in Deuteronomy 23:1“No one whose testicles are crushed, or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted into the Assembly of the Lord.”
There are some things in the Bible I’d rather not know or wonder what’s the point. The point of many early religious practices is that God is the magisterial, awesome, holy sovereign, much more magnificent than any earthly monarch, so to enter God’s temple one needed to be as pure, perfect and holy as a mere human could be. Many religions have this fixation on trying to be perfect to be acceptable to a Holy God. The problem is this can greatly narrow the pool of possible adherents.
This Ethiopian eunuch goes to Jerusalem during Passover. Was he allowed to enter the Temple? Despite the important job of running a treasury, he was outside the range of acceptable people to God. As he rides the long, dusty way home, he is reading scripture, trying to come to terms with this, possibly feeling confused and humiliated. Listen to what he was reading from the prophet Isaiah:
Like sheep he was led to slaughter, like a lamb silent before his shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice had denied him. (Isaiah 53:7-8)
This is depressing stuff. When Philip comes aboard to explain the text, the eunuch asks, “Is the prophet speaking of his own experience, or the experience of someone else?” We could possibly see why the eunuch would seize on this passage, since it mirrors his recent experience.
Philip begins to talk about Jesus, the Son of God, who went through the ultimate experience of brutal humiliation of being stripped and crucified, yet he was righteous. Whatever Philip said had a strong impact. As the caravan passes some water, the man says, “What is to prevent me from being baptized right here?” Philip listened to the spiritual hunger in the man’s voice, a man who thought he was completely rejected from faith and God, now saw a possibility. Let’s give Philip a great deal of credit. He did not form a committee or launch a study process. He did stop because the disciples did not yet have a eunuch baptism policy. He was baptized and welcomed into the Jesus movement.
Why was Philip so bold? The early believers knew that Jesus continually stood with the marginalized and the outcasts of society. Maybe it doesn’t occur to Philip that he should not baptize someone. If Philip was really on his theological toes, he should have turned the eunuch’s scroll from Isaiah 53, just a few pages to Isaiah 56. This is an obscure verse to us, but would have been profound to a eunuch:
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 chose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant-these I will bring to my Holy Mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be acceptedon my alter; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them….” Isaiah 56:3
Isaiah is loosening the purity codes written in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, five centuries before Jesus to say that inclusion is more important the purity. Here is the point: if anyone is trying to do the will of God, God welcomes them.
When we say every Sunday, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” we are not just trying to have a good marketing strategy and be friendlier than everyone else. It is an ethical imperative, a stand for justice, and a call to deep compassion when people are excluded and marginalized. It is what it means to follow Jesus. Acts of the Apostles says the Holy Spirit guided Philip to take this road and to be open to this man, and I wonder what will happen with us if we walk this road and be open to the Holy Spirit as well. Where will God take us? Who will God ask us to welcome? What is your part to play in this work of the Spirit?
These are the question also of our Stewardship theme of “Shared Ministry.” The shift in the pastoral leadership with Sarah and I is an important piece of this, but it is really just a part of the bigger movement to be church that shares ministry together-with each other, clergy or lay leadership, and with the Holy Spirit. Our question is “What is God doing in the world right now?”
I don’t think God has changed a great deal since Jesus and Paul and Philip walked on this earth. God still calls us to love our neighbor as ourselves, God is still bringing down the dividing walls of hostility between people, God still calls us to visit the sick, and comfort the afflicted. And that is why we do what we do – working for sanctuary for immigrants, Anti-racism training, and Centering Prayer, and making a nurturing environment for our children and marching in the Pride Parade. So, you are all welcome here. Now what? What will you do with the welcome you have been given? Where do we fall short? Where are you called to perhaps stretch a little, or a lot? Friends, let us share this ministry together.