Sunday, May 2, 2021 – Pastor Teressa Sivers
God of abundant life for all, guide our feet…hold our hands…stand by us…as we run this race. For we do not want to run this race in vain. We are ALL your children. Amen.
Three years ago, I encountered this Ethiopian Eunuch’s question in a whole new way. When I heard it before my revelation, the question that the Ethiopian asked didn’t jump out for me. I saw it as a rhetorical question. He asked, “What would keep me from being baptized?” And I always thought, he’s full of joy and excitement, anticipation. He’s kind of in that; “Let’s do it. I’m ready! Here is some water. Here’s me. We’ve heard the good word, let’s jump in the water.” But I heard it differently three years ago and it changed my life.
I am sure there was some excitement in the Ethiopian’s voice, some joy, some hope. But make no mistake, this is not a rhetorical question. This is an honest inquiry. And underneath the words of that sentence, ‘what would keep me from being baptized,’ there is fear, and a memory of past rejection. “What would keep someone like ME from being baptized?” “What would keep ME” the Ethiopian Eunuch asks, “from being baptized?”
This man in the carriage is an interesting character. Luke is being so deliberate in the details that he shares with us. It’s like Luke has a hand of cards and he’s laying them out one at a time to reveal them to us. Card one-this man is an Ethiopian. Now to us, that means he’s from the nation that we call Ethiopia, or in Hebrew it is Cush (which is a cool word). But in ancient Greek, they used the word Ethiopian to speak of anyone who came from central or southern Africa, anyone whose skin was dark. It’s their way of saying he was a black man, a dark-skinned man.
Card two says that he was coming from Jerusalem, where he had been to worship. How cool is that? And then following on the heels of that, Luke slaps down the card that this man is a eunuch. This means the Ethiopian traveled from his home nation all the way to Jerusalem, to worship at the temple, but he wasn’t allowed inside any of the inner courts. You see, castrated men were not allowed in the inner courts of the Temple. They were unclean and there was nothing they could do about it.
And then the final card says he’s a politician. He’s a high ranking official, a major power in the nation from which he comes.
Yes! You see, in the book of Acts, Luke is deliberately, over and over again, forcing this brand new entity that we call church to open its arms wider and wider and wider despite their protest, and their discomfort, and their shock. Who is Jesus for? Who is included in the community of Christ? “Oooo, let me answer that question,” says the Holy Spirit.
It all begins at the start of Acts, chapter two, 120 followers praying in secret together becomes 3000 new believers causing a ruckus in the streets. The next morning, Peter and John go to the Temple and end up preaching to those who rejected Jesus. A few chapters later, the church’s population expands once again, to include Hellenistic Jews, those Jewish peoples who don’t follow the Torah strictly, who don’t keep kosher. Now, in chapter 8, Philip leaves Jerusalem and converts the distant cousins, the Samaritans, who aren’t on friendly terms with their Jewish family. But the Holy Spirit isn’t done.
The Spirits sends out Phillip once again, and he runs out down a deserted road at high noon to encounter an Ethiopian Eunuch. This new convert is not from Judea. He’s not from the cousin Kingdom. He’s not remotely Jewish. He’s not even permitted in the temple because he is ritualistically unclean. (Whispers) And he’s a politician. If this seems a tall order, wait for chapter 10 and a Gentile, Roman officer named Cornelius…
But in Chapter 8, we have this black, foreign, castrated politician who asks, “What would prevent me from being baptized?” He needs to know. Which of those cards prevents him? He doesn’t look like Phillip. He’s not from the same nation as Phillip. He’s not of the same ethnicity as Phillip. They don’t speak the same mother language. He’s not allowed in Phillip’s tradition to enter into the holiest of sites. What would prevent him from being baptized? Which one of those things? Or did he miss one? You know, there’s always something.
Can you imagine his reaction when he asked that question of Phillip and the immediate answer was, “Let’s stop the carriage and get out and get in the water and baptize you now!” This is last answer he was expecting. No wonder he doesn’t notice when the Spirit just kind of wooshes Phillip out of there. He’s still basking and bathing in the glory of full inclusion, of being completely welcome, just as he is, with all the cards out on the table.
The Book of Acts answers the Ethiopian’s question rather profoundly and rather clearly, as the Holy Spirit’s very self enters into this equation and shouts, “Nothing!!” Nothing would keep anyone from being baptized once they have encountered the risen Christ. Nothing! Nothing would keep them from full fellowship in the Community of Christ once they’ve have encountered the risen Christ.
And yet…and yet…and yet, Paul keeps writing in letter after letter after letter to this newborn baby church in Christ. “There is neither Jew, nor Greek, nor male, nor female, nor slave, nor free, because we are all ONE in Christ Jesus.” Why does he have to keep writing that? Because the church stopped answering, “nothing.” Someone who is different asks, “What would keep me from being baptized, from being a full member in the community?” And the church is like, “Well… Who are you? Where do you come from? We’ve got a few questions. You know there are these rules. We’ve got to figure this out. We can’t just let anyone in.”
The Church has rejected persons and peoples over and over again across the centuries. Sometimes we’ve been really blunt and honest about it. We created rules about women, about social status, about financial standing, about race, about age, about sexual orientation, about gender identity. But so much of the time we have been subtle. We’ve created environments that reject the different, that cast out the foreign, that block the other from even entering into our space. The church has used architecture and art and liturgy and music and location and tradition and so many other things to subtly keep the different ones away. We are gathered right now in one of the most segregated activities in our nation. Worship.
In fact, the church wanted to avoid the Holy Spirit’s meddling so badly that we decided baptism doesn’t equal church membership. You can get baptized, but later you need to come back and go to classes and then join. But the question today is, so who IS prevented from being baptized at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church of Ithaca? Who IS prevented from full fellowship and full communion in St. Paul’s United Methodist Church of Ithaca?
I really hope you want to shout out, ‘Nothing!” In fact, I’m fairly certain that is how most of you want to answer that question. And that heartfelt desire to bellow out nothing IS critically important? But we can’t answer with our hearts on this one. We have to face the reality that there are a lot of people who are prevented from entering into the fellowship here in our beloved church.
People are afraid of Christianity. They’re afraid of the church. They’re afraid of what they see portrayed in the media and through social media and on the political stage. They are angry with the church. Many have been hurt by the church. Some are indifferent or dismissive , or they see the church as irrelevant and old, even archaic.
Our architecture says a lot about us that we might not want to have said to the world. It says that we are white. And it says that we are fairly rich. It says that we are traditional, that we are a fortress of God, and no one’s going to break it down. So what do we do? Is that the image we want people to have us out there in the community? I’m really hoping your answer is no. That’s not what we want. So what do we do?
Well, we got to be like Phillip. We’ve got to go out there. And I don’t mean just open the doors and stand on the stairs, or venture out to the sidewalk. (And, yes, I know most of you are worshiping outside of the sanctuary already—be metaphorical a bit with me now) We have got to go out. Boldly, wherever the Spirit is going to send us and call us. We have to go, no matter how uncomfortable and crazy the place may be. Even the desert at high noon. And we’ve got to be able to encounter unlikely and unusual people. People who are so not like us.
Along with going out there and doing scary things, we need to be ready because the Spirit is crafty. Some of the people we encounter are going to respond and come with us into our fellowship here at St. Paul’s. And they will offer, “Maybe we could worship in a few different ways. And I’ve got this cool new song I just heard.” They may change things. They may alter who we are, make us grow and expand in ways that we may never even dream of. But the most important thing that will happen, if we can walk out those doors and encounter our own Ethiopian Eunuch, is that it will change us… because we will have encountered a more deep and rich image of God. We will expand our understanding of Christ in the other. And our arms will stretch. And our minds will stretch. And our hearts will overflow.
The world will be in awe of such inclusion. So the REAL question before us today is; What prevents us…from offering baptism and fellowship to everyone we meet? What prevents us?
Thanks be to God.