“No Longer Remote”

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.)  So he got up and went.  Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.  He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.  Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”  So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.  He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.”  The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”  Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.  As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.  When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.  But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Do any of you remember the song “Signs,” the 1971 hit by the Five Man Electrical Band?  (I’m definitely dating myself here.)  As a teenager, I loved this song — “Signs” made a huge impression on me during a time when a sense of exclusion or inclusion was incredibly important.   It’s a song that still resonates today.

“Signs” is the expression of a young man who, seemingly at every turn, encounters signs telling him he’s not acceptable, or not included, or not welcome.  “And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people / Need not apply.”  In the 70s, he wasn’t considered employable because his hair was too long.  Today we have plenty of folks considered “freaky people” – and not because of their hair.   “And the sign said ‘Anybody caught trespassin’ / Will be shot on sight…’ ”  I think this song is still pretty relevant.

            At the end of the song, the lyricist finds his way to a church, where he is welcomed even though he has no money for the offering.

           Is there anyone who has never felt the sense of exclusion?  “Can I come too?” asks a child – whether their parents are going out for an evening, or their older siblings are off to play with friends.  “I just got an invitation to the party.  Did you?”  to which we offer an embarrassed reply.  Or we hear, “I’m sorry, but you’re not on the official list so you can’t attend.”

            Ouch!  Exclusion is a painful experience.  But inclusion?  What a joy!

            Throughout his ministry, Jesus told parables about banquets and parties in which some people are included and some are excluded.  Often in these parables of welcome and exclusion, the people who think they’re part of the “in crowd” end up being “out.”  And those who were “outsiders” end up being “in.”

The Rev. Dr. Peter Marty writes:  

I think of all the individuals in Scripture who kept showing up on someone’s unkosher list.  Gentiles, the blind, the lame, the mentally crazy, dwarfs, women, as well as people who had touched a corpse, lived with a skin disease, or suffered the disgrace of damaged sexual organs…They regularly found themselves on the “unacceptable list” of the most religious people.  Interestingly, they also happen to be the very ones whom Jesus regularly touched, healed, affirmed and forgave.  As Christian people trying to live a gospel of grace and make sense of an indiscriminately gracious God, we still have a strange love affair with boundary markers. There is something in the human spirit that causes us to want to think of ourselves as insiders, and others unlike us as outsiders.  Who knows if this tendency is fed by pride, contentment or just a desire to feel more special than someone else.  Whatever the case, we have been known to function like professional gatekeepers with some pretty spectacular screening devices.

            In the first days of the church, the early Christians had to learn that a significant message of the Gospel is:  you are included.  Philip is directed by an angel to get up and go out in the middle of the desert.  He obeys and goes into the desert to encounter a strange man in a chariot.  No matter this man’s station as an official in the court of the Ethiopian queen – because he’s a eunuch, according to Jewish law he could never be a full member of a Jewish worshipping community.  He was someone whom many considered a “freak” and had no real place in society.  

We read, “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’”  Philip runs up alongside the chariot and overhears the man reading aloud.  He has a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but he can’t make any sense of it because he’s not been allowed to enter into the temple for instruction.  Philip asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”  The Ethiopian pokes his head out and responds, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  And with that, he invites Philip to get in and sit beside him.

We read, “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.”  Having understood the word that Philip proclaimed, in response the Ethiopian asks an unprompted question:  What would keep me from being baptized?  What would keep me from being part of God’s good news?

          If Philip had been blunt, he may have replied, “What would keep you from being part of the body of Christ?  Well, for one, you’re an Ethiopian;  two, you’re a eunuch;  three, you’re not Jewish; four, to be a Christian you have to be baptized, and we’re out here in the middle of the desert…”

          But then the eunuch proclaims, “But look, here’s water [even in the desert]!”  The eunuch commands the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him. 

Just picture the scene:  Here is a black man from North Africa who has been physically mutilated.  Philip by contrast is a conservative Jewish man who had been taught not to go near people that are different, or unclean.  But the Spirit says, run up to that racially different, sexually altered person you would normally have nothing to do with, and join yourself to that chariot!  The Holy Spirit orchestrates this whole event – sending Philip out on this mission, guiding his steps, telling him, “Join that chariot!”

          What a story!  What good news – that God in Jesus breaks down barriers to include all people in God’s redemption and new life.  The response of the eunuch to that message is spontaneous, automatic – baptize me!  “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.”  The eunuch was joyful!  How we too rejoice at inclusion, acceptance, welcome. And how much our world needs to experience that today!

Evangelism and mission, the church’s reaching out in word and deed, begins in the heart of God, in God’s relentless desire to have a people, a new family drawn from throughout the world, overflowing to the ends of the earth with the joyful good news, “Yes! You’re included.  You’re accepted.  You’re loved, no matter who you are.”

Down through the centuries, the good news of Jesus Christ has reached out to include countless groups of outsiders:  the put-out, the put-down, the discarded, the set-upon of our world. The church at its best reaches out and ministers to all of them.

It’s been said that the title of the Book of Acts is misleading.  While its traditional name is “The Acts of the Apostles,” the apostles aren’t actually the ones driving the action.  The book is really the story of the Holy Spirit continually calling into action the people who make up this new faith, blowing the breath of God into new and distant places and bringing new, boundary-breaking people into fellowship with Jesus.  The Spirit, unbound by human constraints, is continually pushing the limits of who God welcomes and where the Good News is to be proclaimed.

Tradition says that the Ethiopian left Philip and went back home and founded the church of Ethiopia.  Just think:  What if Philip had disregarded the Spirit and stayed home in Jerusalem, refusing to go to the desert?  What if he had responded to the Ethiopian’s questions with, “Sorry, I can’t help you understand what those words mean. They’re meant for Jews like me, not for outsiders like you”?  What if Philip had responded to the Ethiopian’s request for baptism by saying, “I’m sorry. I’ll have to look on the official list and see if you’re a worthy recipient of our rite of Christian initiation”?

In a little while we will gather at this table of Holy Communion.  Although physically separated, we are gathered together in Spirit.  I hope that part of why you’re here this morning is because in some way or another, the Holy Spirit got the message to you:  you are invited, you are welcomed, accepted, and loved.  As Christ welcomes us here, may we, in turn, welcome one another as dearly beloved children of God.  May we go forth to wherever God calls us to give the world the good news, “Yes, you are included.”  Amen.