What’s Preventing You?
Our Bible lesson today Acts 8:26-40 is about God’s intention for radical inclusiveness in the church community. This summer, I referred to this story in both the sermon on race and the LGBTQ+ community and thought it would be good to lay out the story in more detail so that you can experience first-hand its power and model for how we do things at Bay Shore Church.
Philip the “normal guy” evangelist
Our story is about a man named Philip. There are two Philips in the New Testament, one was one of the original disciples, and the other, Philip “the evangelist” is the hero of our story today. Our Philip was just an ordinary guy. Shortly after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, he declared his faith and volunteered to look after widows in the fledgling Christian community.
Then, he felt a call to go to Samaria to tell people there about Jesus. In his ministry, Jesus had ventured into Samaria and accepted the woman at the well. Even preaching the parable about “the good Samaritan” was a radical thing for Jesus to do, given all the animosity between Jews and Samaritans. So Philip follows in the footsteps of Jesus and shows radical acceptance of people that others in the church would have a hard time accepting. His preaching was wildly successful, and many were baptized.
Then one day, an angel tells Philip to travel the rocky paths into the scorched desert. He obeys and is directed to a chariot. You get the sense that Philip is running alongside. From inside the chariot, someone is reading aloud (as was the custom). Philip recognizes the scripture from the book of Isaiah and he recognizes the insignia on the chariot and the uniform of the person in the chariot.
The Ethiopian Eunuch
He would have known right away that this was no ordinary dark-skinned foreigner. This was an official in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court. He would also know that the chariot rider was a eunuch. This is a little delicate for a family service. In many ancient countries, a pre-pubescent slave would be selected for service in the royal court. Then they’d castrate him. That was considered a way to protect the queen from these men who surrounded her. And since the slave would have no family loyalties, he would be focused and easily expendable.
This eunuch invites Philip into the chariot. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
“Uh, not really, no.” Indicates the Eunuch. “Get in. I need someone to help me figure it out. Is the author talking about himself or someone else?”
He’s talking about Jesus who was crucified, who silently endured great humiliation, violence, and great injustice. (I’ll bet the eunuch identified with that). Philip continued to talk to the eunuch about Jesus and soon they came upon a little waterhole in the desert. Probably a muddy pit was more like it. I’ve seen some pictures of these little mud pits in this desert. It’s nothing anyone over the age of 7 would want to crawl in.
The eunuch asks, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
Alarm bells must have been clanging inside Philip’s head.
Exclusion in many churches today
What’s to prevent you? Just about everything the eunuch was has been used as a reason for churches to exclude people. You’re not normal. You’re a freak, a eunuch. The scriptures forbid you from even worshipping in the assembly at the Temple. You are a foreigner, who works for a queen who rules with an iron hand and you hold the purse strings.
This educated, other skin-colored, other nationality, other religion, was considered a sexual deviant. You couldn’t get further from what was normal to Phillip than any other person on the planet. That’s the one the angel sent him to, was the one who is different. Of all the conversion stories in scripture, this is one that is singled out and lifted up as a model for the church at all times and places.
Include those who make us uncomfortable
Our call is to inclusiveness not to follow the tried-and-true growth strategy of targeting people of similar age, economic status, politics, race, musical tastes. There are plenty of churches where everybody thinks alike, dresses alike, talk about the same things, etc. That’s not us. We are called to cross boundaries and welcome those who are so different from us that we squirm and wonder if this is really a good idea. But it is. That’s where the flavor is, that’s where the life is, that’s where the Spirit is.
Philip didn’t pass the buck or start a committee
The eunuch is asking Philip to get personally involved. What’s to prevent you from baptizing me? I love that Philip didn’t turn around and say, “Uh, I don’t know. Man. I’m new, you really need to talk to someone else about that. It’s a big step. No one like you, not even a single non-Jewish person has ever been baptized. And, you? That should be someone else’s decision.”
I love Philip. He must have been the one who invented the phrase, “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.” He didn’t hesitate. He felt that it was right and did it.
I think Philip is the counterpoint to a religion that has a tendency to leave the faith in the hands of professionally trained people and those who have been around forever and who know the most and are therefore overly cautious. Philip is a counterpoint to religion that pile up regulations about who can do what and when and where. The message from this passage is that if you see a need, if there is some good that you can do, for heaven sakes do it before someone tries to start a church committee and forget what the original idea was in the first place. I don’t care if you’ve only been around here for a few weeks, God can use you and follow your heart. That’s the sign of a spirit-led rather than a regulations-based community.
Faith gets too caught up in knowing the right things
What’s to prevent me? Philip could have said, “A lot!” You’ve only had one lesson. Just one Bible study in a bumpy chariot riding with someone who doesn’t speak your first language. There’s no way you are prepared to realize what you are signing yourself up for.
Over time, the church has developed Pastor’s Classes, confirmation classes, baptismal classes to make sure people make an informed choice. When I went through it, the confirmation class was about passing an exam about the Bible and memorizing the Apostle’s Creed.
The Eunuch was just one lesson and dunked, no exam, no questioning.
My buddy Brett
I don’t think I appreciated the importance of this until I got to know a delightful young man named Brett at a church I served. He used to say, “I was born normal.” Which was true. Some fever seized him when he was an infant and he barely survived. But the fever affected his mental development. Although he was in his late-thirties, mentally he was about the third-grade level.
He was the happiest guy you’d ever want to meet. He lived in a group home, and his mother picked him up and brought him to church every Sunday. He was always so excited to be there and stood in the back of the church and greeted everyone with an infectious smile.
Not everyone who came through the door came happy, so he really stood out. He always called me “Buddy.” No matter what happened, he was on top of the world. He liked the Cubs, but he liked their rival, the Cardinals, too. On Sundays, he’d hug me and report what had happened in the previous night’s game. “Cubs won Buddy. That’s good. Cubs lost, that’s good for the Cardinals, Buddy.” Then we’d high five. And clasp our hands together and throw them over our shoulders, parading around like we were the ones who turned the double play that ended the game.
Church membership denied because of mental disability
I’d been there a few years and I was going through the membership lists and was shocked to see another name where Brett’s should have been in the alphabetical listing. I went to the secretary and asked about the mistake. “O it’s no mistake. Brett could never pass the confirmation exam, so the ministers said he can’t be confirmed as a full member of the church.”
What do you mean couldn’t pass the test? He’s the most faithful person in the whole place! He passes “the test” every time he greets someone in the back of the church where he sings his heart out in the one note he can reach. He passes it every time his smile catches on to someone else. He passes it every Sunday during joys and concerns where he asks me to pray for his dead father who never had any time for someone that “used to be normal.” He passes it every morning that he doesn’t get consumed with why he’s not “normal” like everyone else and just goes about and does the best that he can.
Why deny membership because of a mental disability? Let’s not perpetuate the myth that this faith is more about what you grasp in your intellect than how you live your life. And I thought about all of the people who have been excluded because of their doubts, their sins, their lifestyles their race, their sexuality, and disabilities. How many have been denied positions in the church because of their gender, marriages that didn’t work, or mistakes they made?
Throughout the ages, so many people have been made to feel like they were not good enough by the one institution in this world that ought to speak a different message. The message of Jesus Christ is that we are all created in the image of God and children of God meant for redemption and salvation, not exclusion and isolation. I wanted to scream out for every soul that has felt more damaged by the church than helped by it. I wanted to get down on my knees on behalf of 2,000 years of people getting it wrong and beg Brett for forgiveness.
Righting the wrong
We make it too much about knowledge. It’s not about knowledge, but following the example of Jesus. The next Sunday during worship after the sermon I went to the back of the church where he always sat and said, “Brett I saw that you have not been allowed to stand up to be confirmed and join the church. Would you like to do that today?”
His baby blue eyes got big. “C-c-c-can I?” Yes. “Right now?” Absolutely; come on up.
As we walked to the chancel, I could feel the eyes of a couple of people burning holes through my preacher’s robe because they knew I was about to willy-nilly break the precedent established by my predecessors. (Would he be able to vote on things like the church budget—he won’t understand it? Heck, I don’t understand it. Will he be able to understand communion enough? By definition communion is a mystery, you aren’t supposed to understand it.) But there were only a few of those. I asked Brett if he wanted to be a follower of Jesus and be a member. He said, “Yeah, Buddy.” And those stuffy Methodists who didn’t believe in clapping in church broke their rules too and gave him a standing ovation and we pranced around clapping our hands together throwing them over each shoulder as if we’d just won the World Series.
O there is such happiness, such joy when the church gets over its rules of exclusion and becomes the people of God doing the right thing.
Everywhere I go I find people who feel excluded, judged, condemned and beat up by the church. And I think about what happened with Brett and I know that we can do better than that. We can be people of grace and healing. We can be the ones who break these hideous tendencies and offer something better.
Who do you know that’s been prevented?
Who do you know? C’mon you know someone who feels that way, don’t you? Who do you know that you can reach out to and say there’s a place, there’s a group of people that are different. Be a person who reaches out to others and lets them know that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, it doesn’t matter how messed up you are, it doesn’t matter how broken you are, it doesn’t matter what’s happened to you, because we believe that God’s grace is bigger. It’s bigger.
Maybe you are the one for whom this is all new. Then let me say there is joy in heaven today because today you are safe, you are welcomed, you are forgiven, you are loved, you are free. So, let’s clasp our hands and throw them over our shoulders and be grateful that God is good and welcomes us home.
After the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized, he went on his way rejoicing and praising God. We know that a large Ethiopian Christian community arose all those miles away from Jerusalem. Tradition says that this eunuch became the father of the Ethiopian church. The eunuch becomes a father–get it? This one who had a terrible injustice inflicted upon him, literally robbing his manhood, becomes forever remembered not for the injustice done to him, but for how his faith and joy led him to do something good.
What’s preventing you from following where the Spirit is leading you?