Year B, Easter 5
Acts 8: 26-40
A couple of years ago I had an opportunity to go to England and talk with some pastors who were there and were doing really interesting and innovative things. I went on this trip alone. I was staying with a friend in London, so I knew that in-between my visits, I would have someone familiar to debrief with, but otherwise, I was on my own. I am an introvert, so being on my own wasn’t so much the problem as was the fact that I was visiting a bunch of different people I had never met. The extent of my relationship with them was several e-mails and a letter from my Bishop saying that I was a good priest and please be nice to me (those were not the exact words, but you get the idea). I speak the same language and these are all church people. It can’t be that difficult to connect. There were a few who were extraordinarily friendly and welcoming. There were others who were a little wary but slowly warmed up to me, especially when they realized that I was there because I thought they were doing amazing things and that I wanted to learn from them. There was one who was a little more well known and was used to people seeking his wisdom. He wasn’t so nice. He was alternative. He had tattoos and didn’t use capital letters in his e-mails. He made up his mind in about 30 seconds that I represented the traditional church and he had no need of me. Given the fact that I was at his house for dinner, it was an extraordinarily painful three hours. It was still a learning experience for me. I had grown pretty comfortable in the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia. I needed to leave my comfort zone.
In a way, our reading for today is a lot about leaving your comfort zone and experiencing the other. The Book of Acts tells the story of the very beginning of the church…the beginning. The church had just formed. The apostles had started to appoint leadership and evangelize. Almost as soon as this happened, the church was persecuted and Christians were not able to congregate in public. The beginning of this persecution is marked by Stephen, a deacon of the church, being stoned to death. After that, the leadership of this brand new church was scattered around the country side. Phillip had been appointed a deacon at the same time as Stephen. I imagine that while Phillip grieved his brother in Christ, he was also afraid for his own life. Thankfully, that did not stop him from continuing to spread the news of Jesus Christ. The persecution was most severe in Jerusalem. Because of that, he spread the good news outside of Jerusalem, to people who had not yet heard the news of Jesus Christ, to people who might never have heard the news had the persecution not forced the leadership of the church to disperse.
Today we hear the story of Philip and an unnamed man commonly referred to as the Ethiopian Eunuch. We are told that he was a court official on his way home to Ethiopia. He had been worshipping in Jerusalem. He was reading from the prophet Isaiah during his return journey. This is noteworthy for several reasons. First of all he was clearly worshipping the one true God. But he was Ethiopian, which means he was a convert to the Jewish faith. We are also told he was a eunuch. That seems to be his identity as that word is used 5 times in this story. A eunuch is a man who has been castrated. This was most likely so he could serve the queen. He had an important position serving the queen. He was in charge of her entire treasury, which would have been significant. But that did not matter because he was still a eunuch and eunuchs were considered unclean.
The Hebrew Bible says that eunuchs are not allowed in the assembly of worship. This means that this man who had travelled all the way from Ethiopia had only been allowed in the outermost section of the temple to worship. He had not been allowed into the part where the real believers prayed and worshipped. I doubt this was a surprise to him. Since he was reading Isaiah, he probably had read the laws that excluded men like him. But he went anyways and he worshipped regardless of the fact that others considered him unclean, unworthy and an outside.
Most commentaries and sermons will tell you about the otherness of the eunuch. They will then tell you about the fact that Philip was able to look past the fact that he was a eunuch and that he was from Ethiopia. None of that mattered in this new faith because Jesus loves everyone. And therefore, we should love everyone too. While this is all true, I worry that in reading the text in this way, we perpetuate this idea of the other…meaning that there is us and everyone else out there who we should welcome to be with us and like us.
When you think about it, wasn’t Philip the other in this situation? He was wandering a desert road in the middle of the day because an angel told him to go to this road. Then he ran up to a man in a chariot and asked him if he understood what he was reading…a little obnoxious. It is the Ethiopian who invited him into his chariot. Only wealthy people rode in chariots. Only a wealthy person in an important position would have had his own scroll and be able to read it. Philip didn’t have a chariot. He probably didn’t own a scroll. Yet despite the obvious difference in their status, the Ethiopian official invited this arrogant and dusty man into his chariot and then offered to listen to him talk about this new faith. It was this man, not Philip who suggested that he be baptized. “Look, here is the water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He found the water. He took the initiative. He knelt in the shallow water and allowed Philip to pour water over him and baptize him.
I am not saying that Philip doesn’t deserve some credit. He absolutely does. He listened to the voice of God and wandered onto a desert road in the middle of the day. He approached a stranger and started talking to this stranger (who looked nothing like him) about Jesus. He baptized this stranger even though this was not the way baptisms usually happened and there were no apostles to witness it. What made this such a beautiful moment was they were both open to learning from the other. It wasn’t Philip converting the unclean and foreign man. It was an opportunity for two people to witness to one another.
When I went to England, I did not envision myself as the other. I was the normal priest being open-minded about these other ideas….which I thought was very generous of me. Yet what I found is that the meeting of the minds that I so desperately hoped for was only possible if both parties were willing to be open. In order to have a cordial conversation, at least one of us had to be willing to be open to the ministry of the other. But to have a conversation that was actually transformational, both of us had to recognize that we were not only talking to the other…we were the other.
We talk a lot in the church about inviting others in and being accepting. And that is important and a really good first step. Yet what this text teaches us is that it is not about us inviting others into our church. It’s about going out and meeting people where they are. Not only that, it’s about recognizing that the other might have something to teach us. It’s about acknowledging that to many people, we are the other. If we are able to do that, then not only will be able to go out and be ministered to by others, but we will also be better at the inviting and welcoming part. We won’t hold people to a standard that we have created. We won’t build invisible barriers to entry. As much as we hate to admit it, there are barriers in the church. Before we can break them down, we need to learn what they are. The best way to do that is to step out of our comfort zones so that we can also experience barriers. Then together, we can break them all down.