Fifth Sunday of Easter by The Rev. Martin Elfert

April 29, 2018

Lessons:

Acts 8:26-40

1 John 4:7-21

John 15:1-8

Psalm 22:24-30

 

This morning we hear a conversion story. A story about one of those experiences in which we have a God sighting and we come away changed – or, at least, we come away invited to change. This particular conversion story takes place in the Book of Acts.

The Book of Acts is written by Luke, by the same person who wrote the third Gospel. As far as we know, Luke is the only one of the four evangelists who felt a call to write a sequel to the story of Jesus. In Vestry, we have been reading the Book of Acts, chapter by chapter, for the last number of months to begin our meetings. During the season of Easter, the lectionary invites us to read from Acts on Sunday morning in lieu of reading from the Old Testament.

Today we encounter the staggering story of Philip meeting and baptising this unnamed stranger, a person identified to us only by his country of origin and the condition of his body. This is the Ethiopian eunuch.

Now, my guess is that, generally speaking, when we read this story, we focus on the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch, on how he chooses Christ and, therefore, he chooses baptism.. If we focus on Philip at all, it is to note that he is doing what a Christian is supposed to do, which is to say he is engaging in evangelism. So, Philip is the converter, the eunuch is the converted. And that’s a good and a fair and a faithful reading of this story But today, I’d like do something different and shine the light on Philip. Drawing on an argument advanced by the marvellous Lutheran pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, I’d like to wonder:

What if this story is actually about the conversion of Philip?

Philip, like Jesus, is a faithful Jew. And as such, he is thoroughly aware of the prohibition to be found in Deuteronomy 23:1: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” (I don’t know if, when you were making your way to church this morning, you expected to hear a reference to crushed testicles but, hey, hooray for the Bible.) The eunuch’s body – could we say his disability? – disqualifies him from full participation in the Kingdom of God. Throw into the mix that he is a foreigner, an immigrant – a category that, then and now, renders him suspect – and that, coming from Ethiopia, his skin is probably darker than Philip’s, and Philip has lots of cultural reasons to exclude this guy.

And maybe that is exactly what Philip would do. Except that Philip hears the voice of the Spirit: Get up and go over to the chariot and join it. Philip obeys. These words, Get up and go, may sound familiar to you: one of the reasons is that they are the very words that Jonah hears in the book that bears his name: Get up and go to Nineveh. Jonah is a reluctant prophet. But Philip is not: did you notice the verb that comes next in this story? It says Philip ran up to the chariot. This is someone who listens when he hears the Spirit.

Is Philip jogging beside the chariot when he sees that the eunuch has a scroll in his hand, and he hears that he is reading from Isaiah? (Philip hears, by the way, because this is a time and a place in which it is unusual to read silently – there is actually an ancient document in which someone comments on how amazing one of his fellow scholars is because when that scholar reads, his lips don’t move.) Philip and the eunuch have a conversation, the eunuch invites him into the chariot, Philip climbs up beside him.

And then Philip and this suspicious, physically limited foreigner proceed to share in an in-depth Bible study.

During the study, Philip tells him about Jesus. And it is after the telling that his new traveling companion sees the water and he utters those amazing words, “What is to keep me from being baptised?”

And Philip realises that, the color of his companion’s skin notwithstanding, his country of origin notwithstanding, Deuteronomy 23:1 notwithstanding, the answer to his new friend’s question is:

Nothing.

As soon as Philip’s new friend is baptised, Philip is pulled away by the Spirit: like his master, the resurrected Jesus, Philip vanishes, reappearing in another town. And there in that new town, Luke tells us, he proclaims the good news.

I’m curious about that good news. While there is little doubt that the good news that Philip proclaims is the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, I wonder if he is also proclaiming the good news of his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. If Philip is like most of his neighbors, then before he had this encounter, he reckoned that God’s love wasn’t intended for people like the guy in the chariot – that there were walls between him and this disabled foreigner, and that God’s love was contained within the walls. But by the end of their time together, he understood that God’s love was vastly more expansive than anyone had told him.

Philip is converted.

There is a clue in the text that Luke is inviting us to read this story in that fashion, and that is in the way that he sets it up[1]. As you may remember, it is also Luke who gives us the story that we sometimes call the Good Samaritan. In that story, there is a dangerous wilderness road. And there is a suspicious foreigner who turns out to be plugged into the Kingdom of God. And in this story from Acts, there is a dangerous wilderness road – as you may remember, Luke underlines its wild nature right at the start of the story – and there is a dangerous foreigner who is plugged into the Kingdom of God.

If that’s right, if this story is not just about the conversion of the guy in the chariot but also about the conversion of Philip, then I wonder: what does this story have to teach you and me? Because scripture is always, sooner or later, about you and me. This story is about your conversion and mine.

Maybe the question that this story is inviting us to ask is: What walls do we imagine that God has built? And who do we imagine is outside of them?

If this were a different kind of congregation with a different kind of values, I might talk now about the church’s awful history of excluding GLBTQ folks. But I’m not going to go there today because, for north of 90% of us gathered here this morning, it is self-evident that God loves and welcomes GLBTQ people. That isn’t, in other words, a particularly challenging message for us.

In order to find the challenge, I’d like us to think about who we imagine might be outside of God’s love. Who do you imagine is appropriately excluded and unworthy?

God says: These walls you built? They were never my stuff. They were always a human thing. I am going around that wall and above that wall and through that wall. And I invite you to meet me on the outside. I invite you to risk heeding the call of the Spirit. Meet me in the chariot with that dangerous stranger. Climb into the chariot and be converted.

 

[1] When I gave this sermon on Sunday morn, I had a quasi-digression here about the cinematic phenomenon known as Easter Eggs. I haven’t reproduced that digression here. If it is of interest to you, you can find it in the recording of this sermon.