Sunday, May 10, 2009

Absolutely Nothing

Sermon preached on the 5th Sunday of Easter at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Acts 8:26-40

The Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke to continue the story beyond the Gospel account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. As he begins Acts, Jesus’ final words to the disciples before his Ascension are these

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (1:8)

The stories that follow are stories of this spread of the Gospel. Chapter eight is largely the story of Philip the Deacon’s work in Samaria, work that is confirmed by the leaders of the apostles, Peter and John. We then get this morning’s wonderful story of the Gospel’s great leap outside many bounds.

Philip is led to the road south from Jerusalem to Gaza, the road toward Egypt. He is then further led to a particular traveler, an Ethiopian eunuch. So what do we know about this traveler?

He is an African from the empire to the south of Egypt. That means he is most likely of dark complexion. He is a high official in the queen’s court there, and certainly he is traveling in style, with certain signs of wealth—a chariot and a scroll. Very few people owned scrolls (the equivalent of books) in those days.

We are told that he had been in Jerusalem to worship. This means that he himself was a Jew, or perhaps a convert to Judaism, or, more likely, what was known as a “God-fearer,” a non-Jew who was attracted to the God of Israel. Certainly he is a seeker. He has traveled a very long way and he has gone to the great length of purchasing a scroll so that he can read the Scriptures himself (This means as well that he is a highly educated man, able to read Hebrew, not his native language).

How had this interest and learning come about in Ethiopia? It is quite possible there was a Jewish community there, and perhaps it had been there for a very long time, since the days the Queen of Sheba had visited the great King Solomon. There is a Jewish community in Ethiopia to this day, and they claim their roots in that visit.

We also are told that he is a eunuch, which would have been typical for a court official in certain ancient empires. Many males destined to serve in court were castrated at an early age so that they would grow up essentially asexual.

This characteristic seems to be of particular importance to Luke because it is how he names the man. He keeps calling him “the eunuch” as he tells the story.

Eunuchs are specifically mentioned several times in the Old Testament, most importantly in two places. In the book of Deuteronomy, as part of the Torah, the Law, they are forbidden from being part of the “assembly of the Lord” (23:1). They were considered unclean.

But then in Isaiah, the prophet declares that eunuchs will be among those accepted into the kingdom of God at the end of days. Isaiah writes

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. (56:4-5)

This seems to undo the restriction in Deuteronomy. So it is no wonder that the eunuch whom Philip meets is reading Isaiah! He is attracted to that book for a reason!

So Philip has met an interesting man indeed, representing all kinds of boundaries.

Philip asks what he is reading. The eunuch reads the passage from Isaiah, from chapter 53 (7-8). “Do you understand it?” Philip asks. “How can I,” the eunuch responds, “unless someone guides me?”

Stop there for a moment. The Scriptures have always needed interpreting and there have always been those skilled at interpretation. It is no shame to need an interpreter. Even interpreters need other interpreters with whom to be in conversation. But do notice that even though he doesn’t “understand,” he’s reading anyway. Bible reading is important, if for no other reason than it causes one to ask questions. And questions, so this story tells us, lead to greater faith.

Philip then plays the role of interpreter, using the passage which the eunuch is reading as a jumping off point to tell the story of Jesus. He is an evangelist. He tells the good news.

Then the eunuch asks a critical question:

What is to prevent me from being baptized?

The answer could have been, “plenty.” The answer could have been the answer from Deuteronomy: eunuchs cannot be part of the assembly of the Lord. And the interpretation of Isaiah could have been that God intended in the future to include eunuchs, but for now Deuteronomy applied.

But that wasn’t the answer that Philip gave. The answer was “absolutely nothing.”

Can you see what an important question this was? Can you see what an important answer this was? The Jesus movement was at a fork in the road. One path meant telling the good news within the old boundaries of the Law and its exclusive impulse. The other path meant destroying those boundaries for ever.

In this story the choice gets made pretty easily. The movement as a whole, however, will agonize over this decision. It will take a generation for it to be completely settled.

Or maybe longer. As I read Christian history, the Church stands at this fork in the road all the time, constantly having to ask, “Who is in? Who is out?” There are many instances in the church’s life where boundaries have been put up and enforced. Sometimes the boundary has been to the entire assembly, but frequently it has been internal, like whites refusing to worship with blacks, or women being excluded from ordained ministry.

The struggle over homosexuality is a current manifestation of this long, historic struggle. Is it possible that the Law was wrong? Isaiah seemed to think it was when it came to eunuchs and so did his descendent Philip. Gay and lesbian Christians are simply saying in this same way that the Law is wrong, that we too can be called children and servants of God.

But the good news that shines here is good news for everybody. What is to prevent me from being loved and accepted by God? The answer is absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Oh, there is plenty that could separate you from God. There is some aspect of your life that makes you unacceptable before a holy God. But the good news of Jesus is that is not how God works. In Jesus, all our unacceptability has been turned into acceptability. Nothing, St. Paul tells, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:39). Absolutely nothing.

That is the good news we proclaim when we say that this is “a welcome table for all.” Whoever you are, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. There is nothing to prevent you from gathering around this table. There is nothing that can make you unacceptable in the eyes of God. Absolutely nothing.

Is this too easy? Perhaps it is, although accepting my own acceptability is not always an easy thing, and accepting some other people’s acceptability can be a very difficult thing indeed. It requires forgiveness that in many cases is extremely hard. It requires choosing to live a lifestyle characterized by reconciliation and extraordinary forbearance of one another. These are not things that come easily to us all the time and they are not things that are supported by the world around us very much. So what at first seems to be a very easy thing is really not so easy at all.

Let us rejoice today in the amazing good news. Absolutely nothing can prevent us from being acceptable to God. Absolutely nothing can separate us from God’s love. Thank you Jesus!

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