Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21
Two weeks ago a video was released of a group of 29 Ethiopian Christians being shot or beheaded by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Libya. The Ethiopian community reacted with horror and the state declared an official period of mourning. Yet I wonder how many of us heard about the occurrence? Or how many of us registered it? We have again entered into a time when Christians are being martyred for our faith. That time never ended for some, but with the rise of militant Islamist groups it has again reached the attention of Western Christians. Many of us who never even thought about Christians in Africa and the Middle East have had our sisters and brothers lived experience called to our attention in a dramatic fashion.
It might surprise you to know that the Ethiopian Christian community traces its existence right back to the book of Acts and today’s story; before that, the Jewish community is believed to have been present. Historically speaking, Christianity as a major force in Ethiopia developed around the 4th century with its first Christian emperors. In the 9th century Western people first heard of the Beta Israel Jewish community of Ethiopia, said to have been founded by four of the lost tribes of Israel. The Christian Ethiopian rulers of the late Medieval period believed they were descended from a marriage between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Whatever the truth may be, it’s fair to say that Ethiopans have been “people of the Book” and followers of the One God for longer than most of our ancestors. The martyred victims of a few weeks ago were inheritors of that long tradition of faith.
Given that background, the Ethiopian Eunuch found in the story of Acts could be a Jew reading his own sacred Scriptures, or a God-fearing Gentile seeking to know more about the God of Israel. He was a man who had been castrated – most likely as a child – usually in order to serve without temptation in a woman’s court or harem. Castration could actually be a poor child’s ticket to greatness! Eunuchs often held positions of great trust, like this man, who was treasurer to the Queen of Ethiopia. He was powerful, but he was also marginalized. Jewish law would not allow him to participate as a man normally would in temple worship, and excluded him from marrying an Israelite woman, because then the couple could not contribute to the expansion of the people. He was considered “not a man” – somehow less worthy before God. This is the man whom God decides Philip should speak to. Sound familiar? Our God is always sending us out to talk to people we might not choose on our own.
Laura Everett, the executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, writes of growing up in and around the newsroom while visiting her father. She still keeps her eyes and ears open for what’s going on in that world. She quotes the advice of Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Bill Dedman: (http://www.faithandleadership.com/laura-everett-fully-preach-gospel-we-need-sit-people-wildly-different-us)
“There are no stories in newsrooms. There are no stories in morning meetings and conference calls where editors throw around topics. As a reporter, resist being sent out to pursue story ideas that are really just topics. And if you’re ever an editor, send reporters out into the world, trusting them to find stories…..Even if your assignment is a high school graduation ceremony, or a routine trial, find the most interesting person to sit with. ….Change your perspective.”
The readings for today suggest something similar to us. We’re never going to find the opportunity to meet people who do not know Jesus if we just hang around the church and related institutions and expect them to walk in. A few may, but most won’t. We need “to find the most interesting people and sit with them” – wherever they are. Notice what they’re reading, what they talk about, what interests them. Pay attention to the conversations around you; that’s how we discover what really matters to people. Read the books others are reading; pay attention to what’s “trending” on the Internet. Live in the world that other people live in; that’s the only way we will see the opportunities to share Jesus’ story and to minister to others.
As a clergy person, a good chunk of my life is spent within these walls and the walls of buildings like it. I know that some of you spend as much time here at the church as I do – and it’s all worthwhile, it’s all a true offering of service to God. But if you haven’t taken a break in a while, I invite you to do so. Every year I get a month of holidays – a week here and a week there to be in the world and the community the way other people are: to choose between worship in the sanctuary on Sunday morning or a paper in the coffee shop or a walk on the beach; to spend my evening at the gym or the library or the concert hall instead of at a meeting. If you don’t get a month off from your ministry within these walls, then you need to take it! Being away from the church helps us to meet people like this eunuch, to understand better the life that others are leading, to find those interesting people and to sit beside them and learn from them and with them. Born and raised in the United Church, I have served in ordained ministry for 17 years now – and it’s important to me to step outside of that world once in a while and see what else is going on! It’s amazing what opportunities God may set before us when we do!
So Phillip the deacon, one of the “second-string” of Christian evangelists, finds himself riding along in the chariot of a stranger whose life is probably completely foreign to his own. (Imagine yourself invited to join a foreign ambassador in their limo to talk about God!) The stranger asks him for help to understand what he is reading, and Philip takes that opportunity to talk to this man about Jesus. Interestingly, the book the eunuch is reading is the book of the prophet Isaiah – a book with a far more inclusive view of God’s love than much of the Hebrew Scriptures. From Isaiah 56:4-5: “For thus says the LORD: 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.”
The eunuch may have already found himself encouraged by the writings of Isaiah; Philip’s interpretation of the passage he is reading gives him even more hope. His heart lifts in anticipation, as he says, ‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?” And the answer is and must always be, “Nothing”. For according to our Christian Scriptures and the teaching of Jesus himself, the law of God is the law of love. From 1 John 4: 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those 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. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
This story is pure Gospel. It reminds us that those who are willing to put their trust in God cannot and must not ever be turned away or treated like less than the songs and daughters of God they are. In the eunuch’s time, there were many who would have forbidden him entrance into the community of believers because of his physical reality; in another time, he might have been denied because of the colour of his skin; today, what reasons do we come up with to exclude people from the body of Christ? Whatever those reasons may be, all of them come to nothing, in the face of Jesus’ self-giving, in the face of God’s overwhelming love for us.
Perhaps this is not just the story of the eunuch’s conversion to Christianity, but also the story of Philip’s conversion into a greater understanding of the wideness and breadth and depth of God’s love! That’s what spending time with people whom we think of as “outside the circle” can do.
Friends, I invite you to step outside, have a seat by a stranger, and see what the Holy Spirit might do.