May 3, 2015 1 John 4: 16b-21 Acts 8: 26-40
Rev. Catherine Purves
The story about the Ethiopian eunuch is certainly an unusual one. You may find it quite a challenge to try to figure out how you are to relate to such a character. Last week we managed to envision ourselves being sheep, but an Ethiopian eunuch – that is a stretch, I expect, for most of us. But perhaps that is the very problem that is highlighted by the Ethiopian’s apparently innocent question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Last Sunday we saw that it was easy for us to misunderstand our role as sheep. This week, we may discover that we can also fail in our role as human beings. What is to prevent me? What, indeed!
In terms of the old ways of thinking, there was a lot to prevent him. According to Old Testament teaching, the Ethiopian eunuch already had two strikes against him. He was quite obviously not a Jew. He was of another race and culture altogether. And he was also deformed, being a eunuch. Both of these things would have prevented him from being admitted into the heart of the Temple where the Jews worshiped. He would have been allowed in an outer area called the hall of the Gentiles, but he would have been barred from the full worship of the God of Israel.
Nevertheless, it is obvious that our Ethiopian eunuch was a seeker. He had travelled all the way to Jerusalem in order to worship Israel’s God. And as he rode along in his chariot he was actually reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He may have been a proselyte, that is, a foreigner who wanted to convert to Judaism. That would have required circumcision, but it was possible. Still, his deformity would remain a problem. He was, in effect, a double outcast. Coming from the Jewish tradition, there were two easy answers to this black foreign dignitary’s question, “What is to prevent me?” You are not a Jew. And you are not whole. Remarkably, Philip did not give either of those two obvious answers.
In our story we see that Philip never hesitated. When the strange, foreign, deformed man asked, “What is to prevent me?” Philip immediately jumped down from the chariot and administered the baptism. Being led by the Holy Spirit he saw that nothing should prevent one who desires to be baptized in the name of Jesus, and who wishes to worship the God of Israel, and who is open to receive the Holy Spirit, nothing should prevent that baptism and full participation in the church of Jesus Christ. This was quite revolutionary. It meant, in effect, that the church would have no bounds. It could and must extend to the ends of the earth, gathering in all of the lost and the rejected sheep who needed a Savior.
Last week when we were pondering the plight of sheep and the work of the Good Shepherd, I didn’t draw your attention to an important and surprising declaration that Jesus made, but we should look at that now. After having claimed the title of Good Shepherd, Jesus then went on to say, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” There are other sheep that do not yet belong to this fold. There are other people who are not like us. They too must hear the Good Shepherd’s call. Our goal – and obviously Philip understood this – our goal must be to share the good news with all people. No one is excluded, all are welcomed, because Christ’s goal is that there would be one flock.
Am I now preaching to the converted? I have to say that I have never known a more welcoming church than ours. When sheep of all sorts wander in, we are very friendly. But before we start congratulating ourselves too much, we have to admit that we aren’t performing scores of baptisms. To what extent are we sharing the good news with people who have never heard it? The new members that we have welcomed into our fold have virtually all been converted somewhere else. So we are not really enlarging the flock. And if you look around, you will see that we are all pretty much the same kind of sheep, especially if we only count members. How can we really welcome other sheep, and how do we proclaim the gospel in word and deed to those who do not know Jesus?
I think that the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch suggests two answers to that important question. First, we see that Philip was willing to move out of his comfort zone. There were plenty of people like himself with whom he could have shared this new faith. He didn’t need to travel down a wilderness road that led to Ethiopia. It would have been far easier for him to convince a fellow Jew that Jesus was their messiah, just as it’s easier for us to welcome new members who were raised in some other church. Philip had to overcome a lifetime of prejudice in order to climb into that chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch. Somehow he accepted the amazing declaration of Jesus about the other sheep not of this fold and he knew he must act on it. On Pentecost, those marching orders were confirmed, and not just for Philip, but for us as well. We must not let anything prevent us from reaching out to people who are different from us. Nothing must prevent us from welcoming them into the fold.
Many of you know that I have been part of a national committee of our denomination that was formed to help presbyteries decide whether we should include a new confession in our Book of Confessions. This was a big and important decision. The confession in question was the Confession of Belhar which came to us from South Africa. I visited with a number of presbyteries in our synod (Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio) to present the confession and urge them to approve it. Just last week I received word that the required 2/3 of the presbyteries had voted Yes, so the Belhar Confession will now be part of our church’s Constitution.
I mention this because the main themes of the Belhar Confession are unity, reconciliation, and justice. It is a one flock, one shepherd kind of document. This confession was written because the white Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa refused to welcome people of other races to the Lord’s Table. Instead, they formed separate mission churches for the native peoples they converted. Even as they were preaching to them, they were excluding them. Even as they were trying to help them, they were not welcoming them, because they were different, like the Ethiopian eunuch. The Belhar Confession names that racism as sin and calls us (now that it is going to be in our Book of Confessions), it calls us to a ministry of reconciliation that binds together people who are different so that unity and justice might prevail in our one flock that is made up of all different kinds of people who follow the one shepherd, Jesus Christ.
All this week we have been bombarded by perpetual news footage of the protests in Baltimore and other cities as African Americans call for justice. It is easy for us to criticize the South African problem of racism, but what do these protests in our own cities say about the sin of racism in our country? And what can we do about it as a church? The Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa had to wake up to the fact that it was part of the problem if it wasn’t part of the solution. While it had shared the faith, it had not welcomed those who were different into its own fold. But the problems that we face in our own country related to race seem so huge and complex. How can we as Christians and as a church ever tackle them?
We might equally ask how Philip overcame so much in his own culture and religious tradition as a Jew in order to even think about chasing down the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch so that he could preach the gospel to him. The answer is that he did not just decide to do that on his own. He was sent and he was empowered to do it. The Holy Spirit forced him to think outside the box and expand his own understanding of what one flock, one shepherd really meant. The Holy Spirit enabled him to teach the Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus from the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit prompted him to act in the only right way when the Ethiopian asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” In the same way, the Holy Spirit led the church in South Africa to question its own tradition and practice of exclusion. And the Holy Spirit can help us to reach across boundaries of race and culture to share our faith and to welcome new and different people into the one fold of the Good Shepherd right here in Bellevue.
None of this is easy. In fact, it is truly impossible apart from God. Perhaps the first thing we must do, then, is to welcome the Holy Spirit as our guide and our teacher. We need the same empowerment that Philip needed in order to do what he did, challenge his own culture and tradition and reach out to someone who was truly different to share the gospel. The fact that we cannot do this on our own, without God’s help, in no way lets us off the hook. It merely convinces us that we must do it in the name and in the power of Christ himself. In this, we really don’t have a choice. As John so pointedly observed in his first letter, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” And, of course, that includes the brothers and sisters who look and think and act like us, and those who do not. That gives us all something to think about on this fifth Sunday in the season of Easter.