Fifth Sunday of Easter
Philip teaches and baptizes an Ethiopian
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord. (Ps. 22:27)
1 John 4:7-21
God’s love perfected in love for one another
Christ the vine
Next week, Nathan Houston, Shirley Olson, and I—along with hundreds of other ELCA church members from around the South Central Synod of WI—will be attending our synod assembly. This is an annual meeting where the business of the church in our area is addressed. We use Robert’s Rules of Order and speak only when called upon. Assemblies tend to be the kind of church event that many appreciate—orderly and systematic, with name tags and little spontaneous or unplanned action. I can’t help noticing that it’s the exact opposite in every way of what is going on with the church in today’s reading from Acts.
Philip, you might remember, is not one of the original twelve disciples. He was not in the group at the ascension when Jesus told his disciples they would be his witnesses in Judea and Samaria and to all the ends of the earth. He was selected later to help out with the social ministry of the brand new church, so that the original apostles could preach and pray. Ironically—and in perfect keeping with how well the church has always listened to Jesus—the apostles who had been commissioned to spread God’s word to the world stayed in Jerusalem, while others were pushed into God’s work far and wide. Philip was a Gentile; he was not appointed or elected by a 2/3 majority to become a missionary. Nonetheless, the Holy Spirit sent Philip on an unexpected mission trip.
And the Holy Spirit has only begun wreaking havoc! She introduces another unexpected character into this story of rule-breaking: an Ethiopian eunuch. Since he is from Ethiopia, we know he is African, and probably black. The word eunuch refers to a court official—it also suggests a person who may or may not have been castrated. If he was, it makes the story even more interesting because in Deuteronomy there is a law against anyone with crushed, mutilated, or missing genitalia from entering the assembly of the Lord. Whatever this particular eunuch’s sexual status, he was certainly a high government official—the secretary of the treasury for the Queen of Sheba. The fact that he can read shows his elevated social status, and the fact that he has a scroll indicates he is wealthy. Philip is none of these things. Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit nudges Philip to go and speak to him.
The eunuch is reading from the 53rd chapter of the prophet Isaiah. This is interesting and important, not only because of the description of the Messiah as a suffering servant, but also because of a text that follows 3 chapters later. In Isaiah 56, the prophet makes this startling claim from God: “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, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” If he kept on reading—and we have no reason to believe he didn’t—the eunuch would have found that the prophet Isaiah imagined a day when the sexually ambiguous would also be redeemed by God. It’s particularly Good News, not just for this African eunuch of the 1st century, but also for all those who are questioning their gender identity or sexuality in our context today.
Philip sees the eunuch’s reading material and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch responds, “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” Evidently recognizing Phillip as a local who might have some insight to share, the Ethiopian man invites Phillip into the chariot beside him, and the two of them read and discuss the Scripture. Talk about a Bible study from some wonderfully diverse perspectives! I’d love to have been in on that one, and am sorely disappointed that Luke doesn’t let us eavesdrop on any of their discussion.
But a discussion they did have on their journey through the wilderness. Finally, the Ethiopian eunuch sees some water and exclaims, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The wording of this question suggests what kind of reception he must have gotten when he tried to worship in Jerusalem. Let’s just say the Temple was not an RIC community.
We might consider this part of the story a minor miracle, as water in a desert is a rare and wonderful thing. Besides that, we might consider what a great question he asks! What IS to prevent this man or anyone from being baptized? Can wealth or race or sexual preference or gender identity or social status or intellectual understanding or physical ability or anything else keep us away from belonging to God’s family? NO!
There is nothing that invalidates this person or any other that could keep them from being part of God’s church. We would do well to remember that when fear gets in the way of our embracing diversity. We are all branches on the same family tree, and in this family “perfect love casts out fear.”
As Jesus puts it in today’s Gospel, we are each distinct branches of the one vine. We may have differing gifts, interests, talents, and customs, but we are all sustained by being connected to Christ’s compassion and forgiveness and resurrection. Although we may have our own quirks, we still bear a family resemblance to the other branches because we feed on the same nutrients and grow under the same sun and rain. It is God’s gift to us that we who abide in our Vine take on some of God’s own characteristics because we are nurtured by his presence in us and among us.
It’s this intimacy that makes it possible for us to love other people—even those we imagine to be wildly different from ourselves—because we all draw our sustenance from the same Jesus Christ. Since God lives in us and we live in God, we are able to break the defined roles we’ve gotten accustomed to playing. God enables us to reach out beyond our comfort zones to pay attention to our neighbors in need.
Like Philip and the eunuch, we can talk together about our ideas and ask one another questions about what we have read and learned. Like Phillip and the eunuch, we are able to bridge the artificial boundaries of race and class and language and nationality as members of the same family tree, even though it is not always easy to sit with people who are unlike us. It requires that we listen deeply and try to understand, rather than trying to formulate what we will say next. It means interpreting behavior we don’t understand in the kindest possible light, interacting under a tent of mercy with plenty of room for grace. It means recognizing that the time and money with which we have been entrusted might be better spent in ways that serve our neighbors than ourselves. (Like maybe what I was going to spend on brunch today could do more good if I sent it to Puerto Rico?)
All of this boundary breaking and equalizing is counter-cultural and challenging. And it’s exactly why Jesus commanded that his disciples partake of one bread and drink from one cup as sacramental actions when we get together. Because Jesus knows we need some help getting past the walls we have erected. We need God’s forgiveness and empowerment in order to recognize other branches on this vine as God’s beloved children, too, and not as scary foreign weeds.
The Holy Spirit works with us and among us, prodding us to go out of our way to find all the interesting people who are not like us, who are just like us. In answer to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the Holy Spirit provides a water, right there in the middle of the desert. God’s answer could not be more obvious: nothing, nothing, nothing can prevent God’s love from being extended to him and to all of creation.
The Holy Spirit intervenes again at the end of this encounter between the Ethiopian man and Philip, concluding their conversation as abruptly as it began. God clearly means to ensure that the gospel rushes to the ends of the earth, despite the fact that those commissioned for that particular job sit at home in Jerusalem. The eunuch himself takes the message into Africa, while Philip is whisked away to preach along the shores of the Mediterranean as far north as Caesarea.
This radical story is a joyous bursting forth of the Kingdom of God. Not only is there a beautiful reversal that embraces the previously-excluded eunuch, there is also the unsettling reversal of Philip, who is commissioned to tend the table at home finding himself setting the table in a desert. All the while, those who were sent far and wide by Jesus’ command quietly slip from the story of God’s redeeming work. This is the sort of passage that challenges the church whenever we think we control how and when and to whom the gospel message is entrusted.
As a congregation, as a synod, and as an international church, this story is an invitation to us all to pause any time we think the Gospel depends on us alone. When we are tempted to think everything depends on us, let’s recall that God does not wait for someone to make a motion, someone else to second it, and a group to ratify and approve every step of ministry. Instead, the Gospel runs off untethered in the hands of people who are commissioned to do other tasks or who are not noticed at all.
My prayer this week is that the Holy Spirit would send us all on adventures. That each of us would engage in fascinating conversations with unlikely fellow branches of the same divine vine. That the SCSW synod assembly and all of our own homes would become places of rollicking living water, where the Holy Spirit does all manner of wacky things in order to widen the circle of love and deepen the baptismal waters in which we live and move and have our being.
~Pastor Susan Schneider