Sunday, April 29, 2018

"What Is to Prevent?" A Sermon from Littleield Presbyterian Church.

"What Is to Prevent?"

Acts 8:26-39

In the beginning of the book of Acts, we hear that Jesus has promised that the apostles would be baptized with the Holy Spirit and commissioned them to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. 
Now, in chapter 8, we hear that an angel of the Lord comes to Philip and tells him to go to the road to Gaza.  So, Philip is traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza—a wilderness road—when he encounters an Ethiopian riding in a chariot. 
Luke tells us quite a lot about both of these men.  Philip is one of seven Greek-speaking Christians appointed by the Twelve to tend to the needs of others, especially widows, in the Greek-speaking part of the Christian community.  He is known as Philip the Evangelist, who eventually settled in Caesarea.[1]
Embedded in this story are a number of interesting details.  We’re told that the Ethiopian—a black African—was the treasurer of “The Candace,” the official title of the queen mother and real head of government in Ethiopia.[2] 
Since he’s traveling in a chariot, we know he’s a person of status.   That he possesses a scroll of the prophet Isaiah shows that he is wealthy, because scrolls were very expensive. 
Luke tells us that the Ethiopian is a eunuch, which was not unusual for someone in that time and culture whose life was devoted to serving in the queen’s court.  He had probably been castrated, likely as a child, so that he would be considered trustworthy around all the women in the queen’s court. It must have been important to Luke that this man was a eunuch, because he mentions it five times.
This Ethiopian man was likely a “God-worshiper” returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  God-worshipers, or God-fearers, were Gentiles who accepted the theological and ethical teachings of Judaism and worshiped with Jews in the synagogue without becoming full converts.   
Philip hears the Ethiopian reading aloud from the book of Isaiah and asks him if he understands what he’s reading.  The Ethiopian says, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  Then he invites Philip to get into the chariot and ride with him.  
The passage he’s reading is one of what we may recognize as one of the “Suffering Servant” songs:
"Like a lamb led to slaughter, in humiliation justice was denied him and he was cut off from the land of the living, cut off from all progeny." 
The Ethiopian eunuch may have had his experience of rejection in mind as he was reading Isaiah: “In his humiliation, justice was denied him.”   No matter how much this man may have longed to be a full member of the Jewish community, the religious rules would have excluded him because of his physical condition.[3] If Deuteronomy 23 was being enforced in a rigid manor, he would not have been allowed in the Temple to worship—not even in the Court of the Gentiles, which was an outer court.[4] 
Here is someone else who has been denied a full life, condemned to have no generations to follow and remember him. And so, the eunuch is curious. Who is this being described in Isaiah? What has he done? What is going to happen to him? Of course, what he probably really wants to know is what is going to happen to him.  It’s as if the scripture has become a mirror, and he finds himself in it.
Now, before Philip was sent down this wilderness road, he has been preaching “the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ” in Samaria, and as a result, many Samaritans “were baptized, both men and women.”  By preaching in Samaria, Philip has broken through two important barriers:  religion and ethnicity.  He is convinced that God loves even the Samaritans, and that they are welcome to join this new inclusive Jewish sect—the community of the Messiah. 
Even though Jesus had commissioned his followers to be his witnesses in Samaria,[5] this breakthrough had apparently raised eyebrows among the Jewish-Christian leaders in Jerusalem.  Can you imagine them saying, “But we’ve never done that before!  We’ve always believed that the Samaritans were heretics… “
The enforcers of the religious boundaries sent Peter and John to Samaria to look into the matter of including the Samaritans, and they prayed for them, and they received the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Peter and John preached the gospel to many villages of Samaritans on their way back to Jerusalem.
The Spirit was on the move!  So, I think there are three main characters in this story.  The Spirit of God brought Philip to the eunuch, so that he can interpret the scripture to him.  He tells him that the suffering servant as described by Isaiah has been fully embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus… and that Jesus’ death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.
Can you imagine how the eunuch would have responded to that news?  All people? Does Philip really mean that?  New life for all people?
As they’re traveling along that wilderness road, they come to some water. The eunuch impulsively jumps up and with great excitement, proclaims, "Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
What is to prevent him from being baptized?  A lot of people would want to say, “God says no.   God says you’re not even allowed in the Temple, because you’re a eunuch.  We’ve got a couple of Bible verses we can quote to prove it.  Like in Deuteronomy chapter 23.   It’s what we’ve always believed.  God says “no.”
But that isn’t what happened.  An angel of the Lord had sent Philip to encounter this Ethiopian eunuch.  This God-fearing eunuch who was studying the prophet Isaiah invites Philip to ride with him, to lead him in Bible study. 
I wonder if, during the course of their Bible study in the chariot, Philip and the eunuch read the next few chapters in the scroll of Isaiah.  I wonder if they got to chapter 56, where Isaiah proclaims:
“Thus says the LORD:  maintain justice, and do what is right,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my deliverance will be revealed….
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 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,
   a monument and a name
   better than sons or daughters;
   I will give them an everlasting name
   that shall not be cut off. “[6]

Over the years, some scholars have wondered how Isaiah could have said such a thing.  Surely, he knew the holiness code as written in Deuteronomy.  A eunuch was excluded from the assembly of the LORD.[7]  Why would Isaiah have said this after the exile, when the very survival of the remnant of the people of Israel was at stake?  This was a time when having children would have been a priority… and when purity and boundaries seemed critically important.  And yet, in just such a time, Isaiah wrote that foreigners and eunuchs would be welcome in the household of God.

Could it be that the Spirit of God was hovering over the text and over the prophet, bringing forth a new word to overturn the word of exclusion?  
The Spirit of God has been on the move.  Surely it was no coincidence that the story in Acts 8 of an Ethiopian eunuch brings together the two categories of Isaiah 56 together in this one person. Philip is continuing the work the risen Jesus began on the Emmaus road, opening and interpreting the scriptures.
Through his storytelling and his actions, through his relationships with people, Jesus proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom of God—the gospel of love.

When people asked Jesus what the most important commandment was, Jesus said: “Love God with your whole being.  Love your neighbor as yourself.  On this hangs the whole of the Law.” 
Jesus’ teaching and ministry were all about love and compassion and healing.  He reached out to people on the margins of society—people the good religious people of his day thought of as sinners and outcasts.
The eunuch listens to Philip as he shares the good news of Jesus.  And then with longing and excitement, he asks:  What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?
What does Philip do?   He sets aside the narrow confines of purity laws and exclusion… and throws open the wide doors of God’s love and mercy.  He embraces the spirit of the law, and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch. 
This is gospel in action.  That’s what happens when we really study the Bible.  It’s transformative. It changes our minds. It changes our lives. And, like the Ethiopian eunuch, it sends us out rejoicing.
That’s a very different thing from when people pick a verse or two or three to support what they already “know” and say, “No. God says “no.”

            He went on his way rejoicing!   Tradition tells us that the Ethiopian eunuch was the first one to take the gospel to Ethiopia, and that makes sense to me.  He went on his way rejoicing—so full of joy and gratitude that he would have wanted to share the good news.
The eunuch goes on his way rejoicing, for he has become a full member of the household of faith. 
Then the Spirit sends Philip on to share the good news in new places.  The Spirit is on the move.
There is good news for us and for all God’s people today.  God continues to come to us and to work in the lives of women and men who abide in Christ.   By that same Spirit, God unites us to Christ in the waters of baptism. 
 God gives us grace to abide in Christ, so that we can rejoice and grow in grace and produce the fruit of God’s reign in our lives.   We are sent forth to share the amazing wideness of God’s love…  to make everyone feel welcome in the heart of God.
This is the Good News of the Gospel. 
Thanks be to God!

Rev. Fran Hayes, Pastor
Littlefield Presbyterian Church
Dearborn, Michigan
April 29, 2018

[1] Acts 21:8-9.
[2] Paul W. Walaskay, Acts  (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p. 86.
[3] Walaskay, p. 86.
[4] Deuteronomy 23

[5] Acts 1:8

[6] Isaiah 56:3-5
[7] Deuteronomy 23:1.


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