Saturday, May 5, 2012

Reflections on the text – Acts 8:26-40

Read the text here: Acts 8:26-40

Measuring Up
            Does it sometimes feel as though life is nothing but a series of evaluations?  From the time we are young we are constantly being evaluated and compared with others.  It seems like we are always preparing and dealing with auditions, try-outs, competency exams or competitions of one sort or another.  Even into adulthood we often find ourselves being compared with and evaluated against others.  In the last few years there have even been a whole slate of reality TV shows that are nothing but intense competitions.  We simply cannot get away from it.  Do you measure up?  Or not?
            Our story this morning of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is also a story about measuring up.  But it takes on a different approach than we might expect.  For, in a way, both of our main characters are outsiders to one degree or another.  First we have Philip. Now this is not the Philip from Bethsaida who was one of the twelve and who appears in the Gospel of John. This Philip was a Greek in Jerusalem and one of the seven deacons who was appointed (with Stephen) to serve the needy of the community.  In this opening part of Acts there is at least one incident which hints that Philip was not really on the inside and that is previous to this story Philip is sent to preach in Samaria.  But when he is successful he is actually replaced by John and Peter.  It is in returning from this assignment that the encounter in Acts 8 occurs.  It appears that because of his Greek background Philip did not really measure up to the rest of the disciples.
            Our other main character is described only as the Ethiopian eunuch.  But there is some additional information about him that helps us to understand a bit more about who he is.  So what do we know about him?  First, he was an African from Ethiopia, which is south of Egypt. In antiquity it was believed that Ethiopia was at the edge of the earth. So not only is this man a foreigner, he is really far from home. 2nd, he was powerful enough to ride in a chariot, and indeed we are told that he was an official in the court of the Candace of Ethiopia, the official in charge of financial accounts.  (Note: “The Candace” was not a name but rather a title referring specifically to the Queen Mother). 3rd, he himself was wealthy.  He owned a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.  Scrolls were usually jointly owned by a town, community or large group for use in their synagogues, and they were very expensive. Only a very few extremely wealthy individuals would have been able to afford to purchase his own scroll.  It is also significant, in a day and age when almost no one learned to read and write that he was actually reading this scroll. 4th, he was a eunuch.  This means he was sexually incomplete and inferior.  According to the Law of Moses eunuchs were impure and could not participate in temple worship (Leviticus 21:18-20; Deuteronomy 23:1-3).  Luke mentions this 5 times, so this was obviously important and a major part of the point he is trying to make.  Lastly, it seems that this Ethiopian was a God-fearer; that is he was a foreigner who was interested in Judaism, but who was not permitted to participate in the rites and rituals of Judaism.  He was, in short, an outcast.  He did not measure up.
            So, God brings these two men together on the road.  The Ethiopian is reading the scroll and trying to make sense of it and thus invites Philip to ride along with him to provide guidance to understanding the scripture.  Both men are open to each other and thus, the Spirit works through them both: the hospitality of the eunuch and the inclusivity and grace of Philip.  At the end this man, this foreigner who has been excluded throughout his entire life because of his sexuality is brought into Christian community through Baptism.
            The book of Acts in general and this story in particular make it very clear that all are welcomeGod calls all people into community through God’s amazing gracenothing excludes! Nothing excludes a person from being a part of God’s community in Christ – not race, not social standing, not wealth, not poverty, not ethnicity, not sexuality – Nothing? Baptism is available to all – saint or sinner, slave or free, conservative or liberal, men or women.  All are embraced by the Holy Spirit and brought into the community of Christ.  We in the church have been too quick down through the ages and even to our own time to place conditions on inclusion and grace.  We are the ones who have determined that in order to measure up to God’s standards we have to __(fill in the blank). But this story in Acts counters this and calls on the church and believers and followers of Christ to see that to set up conditions and to judge others and to exclude anyone is to work counter to the Spirit.
            Finally I would encourage you to take some time during worship this morning (during the prelude or the offertory or communion) to read through the companion story to this in Luke 24:13-35 - the Story of the encounter of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Note all of the similarities.  But in particular note that despite doubt, or despondency, or running away, or race, or sexuality or being excluded, in the end both stories conclude in Sacrament – an experience of the presence of the risen Christ – in the breaking of the bread in Luke and in baptism in Acts.  Both stories end in an encounter with the Lord who was crucified and risen to ensure that we would always measure up.
The Baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Rembrandt

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