Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost – September 29, 2019
In Bill Watterson’s beloved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the protagonist is a boy named Calvin who is perpetually six-year-old and who serves to represent some of the worst aspects of human nature. Calvin tends to be an immature, impulsive, short-sighted, easily distracted loner who is alienated by his peers and who spends most of his time playing in the forest with Hobbes, a wise, thoughtful tiger who appears to the world to be a stuffed animal but who to Calvin is very much alive.
Calvin and Hobbes ran as a syndicated cartoon in as many as 2,400 newspapers from 1985-1995 and throughout that time, Calvin’s time with other children always involves his exclusion from them or bullying by them, especially the bully Moe, or as Calvin calls him “The six-year-old who shaves.” Calvin is not athletic. He is often lost in his thoughts, a daydreamer who is a poor student and has a difficult time relating to others.
The only peer willing to interact with him at all is girl in his neighborhood named Susie Derkins who Calvin seems to go out of his way to torment, including his creation of a club who meets in a treehouse, a club called G.R.O.S.S. (which stands for Get Rid of Slimy GirlS) whose sole members are Calvin and Hobbes and whose sole purpose is to exclude Susie, as if Calvin, who knows perhaps better than any child in his orbit the pain of feeling left out and of not fitting in, believes that the only way to feel better about himself, the only way to procure any sense of control over his life, is to inflict on another child the pain and alienation that has been inflicted upon him. Granted, while there are times when Watterson is able to depict this to humorous effect, he is also able to do so in a way that reveals the hurt and sadness that alienation leaves behind.
It seems to me to be a flaw in our basic nature, this facet of our humanity that enables us to believe that we will feel better if, instead of rising above our circumstances, we take the low road and do to others what has been done to us. The Christian church which has through the centuries inflicted its own amount of oppression as soon as it procured political power forgets the three centuries of persecution that we endured soon after the Jesus movement was born early in the first century. One would think, given our own history, that we would know better.
And yet, into this reality of exclusion comes this morning’s beautiful text from the Book of Acts, Saint Luke’s epic narrative of the earliest days of the Christian church. In this morning’s text we find Phillip, known today as Phillip the Evangelist, giving his testimony of his faith to this Ethiopian official’s profession of faith and his baptism.
There is much more to this text than meets the eye, especially for us, here in this congregation we believe is called and equipped by God to love God, grow in our faith, and go out into service to the world. In fact, it turns out that this text may be one of the most insightful and challenging texts in the New Testament for today’s Christian and today’s church.
This morning, I would like for us to focus on the following elements of this reading from Acts 8: that God sends Philip, that God sends Philip to a eunuch, that Philip is able to explain the scripture to the eunuch, and that the eunuch is baptized.
First, that God sends Philip: We have to accent the proper word in this text. It is not that God sends Philip; it is that God sends Philip. Like many of the most important things that happen in the Biblical witness, God sends someone to do a task that one does not choose for oneself. Luke tells us this morning that an angel of the Lord says to Philip “Get up and go,” and Philip “got up and went.” In other words, motivation, interest, comfort, qualifications, or simply “feeling like it” have nothing to do with this story, nothing at all. This is God’s idea, and the story takes place only after God acts, and Philip obeys. Likewise, it is by God’s impetus that Philip, after going where he is sent, is told what to do: “Go over there and get in that chariot!” In other words, Philip is sent, and he responds accordingly, but again, it all comes at God’s initiative.
This brings me to my second point, that what God is ultimately doing here is sending Philip to speak to an Ethiopian eunuch about the Christian faith. This is no small thing. Eunuchs were men who had forcibly castrated, typically as children, because it was believed to make them suitable (that is, non-threatening, powerless) for service in a royal court. They had no families of their own, no dynasties with which to be concerned, were of a lower social status, and were considered expendable.
Ancient Hebrews did not practice castration. However, eunuchs were prevalent in other cultures found in the Bible, and thus, there are Old Testament scriptures like Deuteronomy 23:1 which says that eunuchs cannot enter the assembly of the Lord, and Leviticus 21:17-21, which states that eunuchs (among others) cannot come near the food offerings of the Lord. Furthermore, as a Gentile, he could not enter the Jerusalem Temple beyond the Court of the Gentiles, because he was considered unclean.
This is all significant because Luke tells us in Acts 8 that the Ethiopian was leaving Jerusalem, where he had travelled “to worship,” presumably at the Festival of Pentecost (remember, Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival). Luke does not tell us either way, but it is conceivable that things did not go so well for the Ethiopian in Jerusalem. As a “double-outsider,” it is difficult to imagine he was embraced as a visitor to this Jewish festival. Add to this that as an Ethiopian, he was not only a Gentile, but a dark-skinned Gentile, he easily could have been ostracized even further, as there were some who believed that dark skin was a curse from God.
Yet on this day, he is sitting on his chariot, and he is reading the book of the prophet Isaiah, the prophet most frequently quoted by Jesus, he is reading, reading what we today call Isaiah chapter 53, reading words that say, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.”
The Ethiopian eunuch reads these words, and all he knows is that he needs to know who this oppressed person, this suffering servant, is. He asks Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself, or about someone else?” and because Philip is a disciple of Jesus, and Christians understand this prophecy to be describing Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, who suffers and is humiliated and is treated unjustly. I do not know if it is what someone told him in Jerusalem, if it was some scripture someone quoted to him, if it was his outsider status, his exclusion, the humiliation of being made to feel different because of something he did not choose for himself, but the Ethiopian reads this text and somehow he recognizes himself in this person who was led silent to his own slaughter and he wants to know who this is.
And Philip says to this man who he had probably been told all his life was unclean, an outsider, deformed, of questionable sexuality, the one he are reading of is none other than Jesus, and there is good news that you can be baptized and have life in his name, and suddenly there is water present alongside this desert, this wilderness road, and Philip takes him, this man he was always told was unclean, an outsider, deformed, of questionable sexuality and he baptizes him into the name of Jesus Christ, and Luke tells us that he goes on his way rejoicing.
The beauty, the miracle even, of this text is the fact that Philip, out of sheer obedience to the God of our Lord Jesus Christ is able to cross centuries-old lines of demarcation, lines drawn by the people of God’s understanding of their own holy scriptures, and to reach out to that outsider, that Ethiopian, that Ethiopian eunuch, and by the power of the Holy Spirit let loose at Pentecost, proclaim that though he was once an outsider, an outcast, abused, and rejected, that by the power of the resurrection of God’s own Son, who too was once an outsider, an outcast, abused, and rejected but who God raised from the dead is now a part of the church, part of the very Body of Christ on this earth.
What does this text say about us, about you, about me, about our church, about what it means to be the church. Who have we, like Phillip, been taught for all of our lives that it is acceptable to exclude? Who have you and I been taught, even within the religious community, it is acceptable to shun, ignore, look down upon, because of accidents of history, of lives they were born into, and choices they did not make?
To whom is God sending us? Is the Spirit still speaking? To whom is God sending us? How is God telling us today to “get up and go?” and how will a generation of Christians after us see how we “got up and went?” in the name of the suffering servant who faced his slaughter, his humiliation, his injustice, and even his death, so that you, so that I, so that everyone, everyone, everyone, can have abundant and everlasting life in his name?
In the early 1990s, the Irish rock band U2 began what they called their Zoo TV tour, their most ambitious tour of live shows up to that point. The stage was a maelstrom of lights and props and dozens of large digital screens upon which they would, during certain songs, bombard the audience with hundreds of words in rapid succession. As they did this, they put upon the screens, in all capital letters “RELIGION IS A CLUB.” For years, I read this and thought that it was a short commentary on the sometimes exclusive nature of the church and its ministries, but then I remembered that the word “club” has two meanings. While it can refer to an exclusive group that one may or may not be able to join, it can also refer to a weapon, a cudgel used to harm, or to force one’s perspective upon another.
And you and I know that when it comes to religion, both can be, and have been true.
Religion at its best, and especially our religion is one that activates our compassion, that gets us outside of ourselves, into the hearts, the the circumstances, the minds, and the lives of others, including, if not especially, those different from ourselves. It is the way of Christ, excluded from the religious club throughout his life until religion, political power, and human nature, our human nature was used as a cudgel against him on a Friday afternoon on a cross outside of Jerusalem.
And he still calls us. Still the resurrected Christ calls the world unto himself, and calls the church, his outpost, his embassy on earth to demonstrate how he overcame the world, how he overcame the very worst of human nature, the schadenfreude of exclusion, and the society-shattering, line-erasing nature of his embrace. It is the challenge of every generation of Christian disciples throughout history, and as such, it is a challenge for us.
In a few moments (last week we…), we are going to renew and remember our baptisms wherein Christ calls and claims us when we are filthy and renames us with the name “Christian” as we become clean. And into this water, Christ truly calls everyone, invites us home, erases the dirt of the wrong we have done, erases the labels that others have placed upon us, and calls us unto himself, one faith, one hope, one baptism.
Because in the end, we are all standing in the same water, aren’t we, the water in which Christ himself stands with us?
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.