Monday, May 11, 2009

Measuring Up!

Below is my sermon from Sunday, May 10, 2009 – Easter 5. The text is Acts 8:26-40 – the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch. Pr. S. Blake Duncan+

Measuring Up
Have you noticed that within the past 5 years or so there has been an explosion of television shows that deal with measuring up, with competition or being good enough. Among the most popular are shows such as American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and America’s Next Top Model. There are shows that deal with cooking and dating and designing and even pet grooming. The common factor is that all of them contain evaluation, or critical evaluation. Actually I should say negative evaluation. While some are meaner spirited than others, the point is that very few are good enough - very few can measure up.
As we all know this is a part of our society. From the time we are very young we find ourselves in competition with others. Evaluation is part of our culture; negative evaluation is part of the culture and we have to learn how do deal with it when we don’t measure up.
The text from Acts for today is also about measuring up. First allow me to put this text in context. The book of Acts is the 2nd book of a two-volume work that contains the Gospel of St. Luke. And Acts is specifically about the birth of the church and the sending and the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the new Christian communities. The book of Acts begins dramatically with the account of the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Jerusalem Pentecost account from chapter 2. But that is only the beginning. After that dramatic telling of the Spirit’s descent upon the new community, the sound of the rushing wind, the tongues of fire and Peter’s fiery sermon there are actually two more Pentecost accounts. The 2nd is called the Samaritan Pentecost and is found in Chapter 8 directly preceding the text for today. The 3rd is called the Gentile Pentecost and incorporates the story of Cornelius and is found in chapters 10 and 11.
So our text for today is directly related to the 2nd Pentecost and it revolves around two characters. The first is Philip. Now this Philip is not the disciple Philip from the Gospels. Rather, this Philip is a Greek speaking Jewish Christian who had been one of the those appointed to serve the needs of the community earlier in Acts. Philip along with Stephen, the first martyr, is appointed to servant ministries that frees up the disciples and other leaders to plan the proclamation of the Gospel. Now Philip had participated in the Samaritan Pentecost and it had gone so well that Peter and John had relieved him. So in this text he is travelling when he encounters this foreign dignitary in a chariot. This leads us to our second character – the Ethiopian Eunuch.
What do we know about this man? First, we know he was African, from somewhere south of Egypt. We know he was a man of some power and influence. Otherwise he would not be riding in a chariot. In fact the text tells us he is the official in charge of the treasury for the Candace – which, by the way, is a title not a proper name. The Candace was the title for the Queen Mother. Exactly where he held this position or where this Candace ruled is never made clear.
We know that he was a man of some wealth. The text tells us he has a copy of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. We can safely assume he owned this. But this gives us a hint as to his wealth, for individuals did not commonly own sacred writings and scrolls. In our time when books are plentiful and we can access and obtain documents easily and cheaply we might forget that it has not always been so. In the 1st century a scroll such as this would have been very expensive. And the fact that he had purchased this scroll also says something about his interest and commitment.
Finally and most important we know that he was a Eunuch – a castrated male. St. Luke mentions this fact 5 times, which indicates that of all this information, this one fact is perhaps the most important for the story. Why is that? Well, because in 1st century Judaism this fact alone would have excluded this man from full participation and acceptance. We don’t know for sure that he was Jewish or if he was a Gentile God-Fearer, though the placement of the story seems to suggest he may have been Jewish. But even so, because of his sexuality he would have been excluded, outside the community. He would not have measured up. (see Deuteronomy 23:1).
It is not therefore surprising that he was reading the prophet Isaiah when he encounters Philip. Isaiah is much more sympathetic and this man would undoubtedly have been able to relate more with Isaiah, especially the Songs of the suffering servant (and he is reading the 4th of these). (see also Is. 11:11 and Is. 56:4-5).
So along comes Philip and this Eunuch invites Philip to ride along in the chariot and to teach him about the passage he is studying. If we were to update this story it would be like a diplomat in Washington DC inviting a street preacher to ride in his Lexus and conduct a private bible study. So the inclusivity of this text goes both ways. The Eunuch also has an open heart.
As is the case throughout the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit permeates this story. And this man, the Ethiopian Eunuch, who had been excluded throughout his life because of his sexuality is now welcomed into community through Baptism.
The book of Acts in general and this story in particular make is very clear that all are welcome to be brought into the community of Christ. As you read through the book of Acts you get a wonderful picture of the Spirit permeating community after community and person after person, bringing them all into community and enveloping them all in an embrace. Nothing excludes one from Christian community, Acts repeats – not race, not social status, not wealth, not poverty, not sexuality. Whether one is saint or sinner, slave or free, conservative or liberal, men or women, ALL are embraced by the Spirit and brought into community.
We, the church, the heirs to the church of the Book of Acts, have too often throughout the ages been very quick to place conditions and to exclude those who do not measure up in one way or another. I wish I could say this was all in the past, but alas, we see it every day. I received an article last week that talked about how in the last 10 years many young people have left and turned their back on the church because they find the church too rigid and unwelcoming and exclusive. How tragic! This is not the church of the Book of Acts. A church that greets seekers with rules for inclusion and conditions is not the church of the New Testament. The Church of Christ is open to all, without conditions! (see also Galatians 3:27-29)
One last point: up until now I spoken generally and globally in relation to the inclusivity of this text. But there is a personal and individual dimension to this. Philip speaks individually and personally to the Eunuch. He is brought into community through baptism as an individual, just like we are. And as individuals we also are capable of being exclusive and non-accepting. We are capable of excluding those who in our own minds do not measure up for one reason or another. And I am not talking just about strangers and general categories of people; but we sometimes treat those we know in this way: co-workers, neighbors, even members of our own families. I could give examples, but I think you know what I mean and I would rather invite you to consider how you interact with others in your lives in light of this text from Acts. Philip reaches out on behalf of the community of Christ and brings this man in who had spent his life on the outside. This is a call to us to consider our own situations and to do the same.
And finally the text tells us that after this encounter, after baptism the Eunuch went away rejoicing. When those who are lost are found; when WE who are lost are found; when God’s children are brought together at the table of the Lord; the response can only be to rejoice!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

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