A blessed stranger (Easter 5B, 3 May 2015)

Reading
Acts 8.26–40

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.…The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 John 4.1, 21

At the beginning of our service, we prayed a Prayer of Invocation which came from Korea. It began:

Stay with us, blessed stranger,
for the day is far spent,
and we have not yet recognised your face
in each of our sisters and brothers.

Philip the deacon met a stranger, a blessed stranger, on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. And Philip saw the face of Jesus in the stranger’s own face.

This is part of the fulfilment of Jesus’ words to the disciples in Acts 1:

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The Book of Acts is about the way the Good News of Jesus spread in those early days of the Church. At first the message was heard in Jerusalem, and then in Judea; those who were part of the covenant people were to hear it, and respond. Which they did.

But the message couldn’t be contained to the people of the covenant. It burst those boundaries, like new wine bursting old wineskins. They proclaimed it in Samaria, where tainted people lived because their ancestors had violated the covenant.

And then the next step comes: the ends of the earth. Total non-Jews. And so we come to the first recorded time that someone from “the ends of the earth” heard the Good News of Jesus.

Philip the deacon met a stranger, a blessed stranger, on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

Who did he meet? A eunuch, yes, but was he more than a eunuch?

He was an “Ethiopian”; in other words, he was a black man. (There was no such nation as Ethiopia back then.)

Like many eunuchs, he had a responsible position. He was in charge of the treasury of his queen.

We’re well aware of racial prejudice these days, but that wasn’t the important thing about this man.

The important thing about this black man, this blessed stranger, is that he was a eunuch.

Philip would have been aware of Isaiah 56.4–5, which says

Thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.

The promise of Isaiah 56 has become a reality since the time of the Resurrection.

Eunuchs were men who had been castrated, who often served as guards of the royal harem. They were the only men who could be trusted with the royal wives. I call them ‘men’, but ancient Romans and Greeks didn’t think of them as men. Lucian was a writer of satire. His malicious dialogue The Eunuch said that eunuchs were

neither man nor woman, but something composite, hybrid, and monstrous, alien to human nature.

The Roman writer Pliny also spoke of eunuchs as something neither male nor female, but a third gender along with “hermaphrodites”.

Whatever they were, eunuchs could be called “alien to human nature”. They just didn’t fit into neat categories of male and female.

Philip the deacon met a stranger, a blessed stranger, on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

We don’t know if this blessed stranger was a convert to the Jewish faith, or if he was a ‘god-fearer’, someone who was attracted to the moral and ethical teachings of the Jewish faith but who stopped short of undergoing circumcision, and who like bacon too much to follow the strict food laws.

But whatever else he was, he was still a eunuch. Deuteronomy 23.1 says, and Philip knew this too:

​No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.

No one. Not even one. Never. That sounds pretty final.

So why would any eunuch be circumcised and become part of the Jewish people? What incentive would he have? He would never “be admitted to the assembly of the Lord”. He was barred from worshipping in God’s holy temple for all time.

So we can see that Isaiah’s promise is quite outrageous in the light of the absolute words of Deuteronomy 23.1. So how can Isaiah say that God will give eunuchs “a monument and a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name that shall not be cut off”? And that this will be “in [God’s] house and within [its] walls”?

It sounds like Isaiah sees a time when eunuchs would be admitted to the assembly of the Lord—no matter how firmly and finally Deuteronomy may speak.

Remember what the risen Lord said to the disciples?

…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

This is one of the keys to interpreting the Book of Acts. There is an outward movement of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

It’s important to realise that this outward movement is not just about geography. It’s about the kind of people you meet at “the ends of the earth”. Unknown people. Strange people with weird customs. The Good News is coming their way.

Jesus’ witnesses are witnessing the pouring out of the Spirit of God on all flesh. And that is a second key to interpreting the Book of Acts. The Spirit directs Philip on the wilderness road, and prompts him to speak to the eunuch. The Spirit does not discriminate, and falls upon all sorts of people.

This is what Peter spoke about on the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit was poured out in the sound of a rushing wind, like tongues of fire, and Peter reminded them of what the prophet Joel had said:

In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh…

All flesh. Including this blessed stranger, this misfit, this neither-male-nor-female eunuch.

God is bringing everyone into the fold, even those previously forbidden.

Up until the day he met Philip, the eunuch knew what it was to be despised. Rejected. Half a man. Like another blessed stranger, the Servant the  prophet Isaiah wrote about:

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised,
and we held him of no account.

No wonder these words held his attention. He could have been reading about himself.

Yet as the passage went on, the eunuch realised that the despised, rejected Servant was also a saviour.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment
that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

Who was this Servant, so like the eunuch and yet so unlike him? Who was it who shared his shame and yet healed him?

It was another blessed stranger, the one that the Korean prayer addresses:

Stay with us, blessed stranger,
for the day is far spent,
and we have not yet shared your bread
in grace with our brothers and sisters.

Philip the deacon met a stranger, a blessed stranger, on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip shared what he had to give.

Philip tells the eunuch who the Servant is, who is the despised, rejected Saviour. The eunuch hears the name of The Blessed Stranger, who meets us anew day by day: it is Jesus.

Suddenly, the eunuch knows of One who like him was despised, the Suffering Servant, Jesus of Nazareth. Yet Jesus had been vindicated by God, and now welcomed everyone to come to God through him.

Even this eunuch.

Philip must have told him about the importance of being baptised, because the eunuch said:

Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptised?

There was nothing to prevent him. The dividing wall had been broken down. There is no longer any reason to keep anyone outside the walls. Jesus went outside the walls of Jerusalem and died for us all. He died to bring everyone inside.

So what was there to prevent this eunuch—this third gender, this hybrid, this reject incapable of children—what was there to prevent him from being included, from being baptised?

Nothing. Nada. Not one thing.

Jesus Christ was crucified as a despised reject, a man of sorrows. Now the crucified Christ is risen, the way is open for all the despised of the earth.

When the eunuch was baptised he came into the Holy of Holies. He was now fully accepted into the assembly of the Lord.

Philip the deacon met a stranger, a blessed stranger, on the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

Let me tell you about Rachel Held Evans. She is a Christian writer from the USA. She’d fit well into this church. She’s married, well read, articulate. She also has a heart for people on the edges. Listen to this:

…what sort of gospel is only good news for the majority? What sort of gospel leaves people behind just because they are different?

How ‘good’ is good news when it is only good news for people like us? She goes on to say that Jesus started with the “outliers”—the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the minorities. So our good news needs to be Good News for such people too, such blessed strangers.

She also says

what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in…starting with you and me.

(If you want to buy a good book, Rachel has just published Searching for Sunday. Do yourself a favour and read it.)

What makes the gospel offensive is who it includes, not who it excludes. But so often Christians waste their energy defining who is in, and who has to change before we let them in. Instead, we need to look in their faces and see the face of Jesus.

Our opening prayer continues,

Stay with us, blessed stranger,
for the day is far spent,
and we have not listened to your Word
in the words of our sisters and brothers.

The blessed strangers have something crucial to say to us. What about me? Is the Good News for me too?

The Blessed Stranger speaks through them very often.

What is to prevent them being baptised? What is to prevent them from being part of the body of Christ?

Nothing.

Stay with us, blessed stranger,
because our very night becomes day
when you are there. Amen.

_________________________________

A little postscript.

After Philip met the blessed stranger, he went to stay in Caesarea. Shortly after (in chapter 10) we see that that is where Cornelius the Centurion lives. Cornelius sent word to the Apostle Peter to come and share the Good News of Jesus with them.

Philip and Cornelius lived in the same city. Isn’t that interesting? I wonder if Philip had anything to do with Cornelius before Peter came?

We just don’t know.

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Filed under Church & world, church year, Easter 5, RCL, sermon, sexuality

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