Dr. Steve Lindsley
Acts 8: 26-40
Last week we started a four-week sermon series titled “The Great Gathering,” where we’re looking at instances in the Bible where the people of God gather together, how they gather together, why they gather together. And in light of our scripture today, perhaps, who gathers together. As we ponder the passage that was just shared with us, would you pray with me:
Our passage today is a story about a pretty profound exchange between two individuals. If I asked you what their names were, and if you were listening, you could probably tell me that one of them was named Philip. And you would be right, because the writer of Acts mentions his name ten times.
But you’d struggle to recall the name of the other person in the story, and there’s a reason for that: it’s never mentioned. Not once. Which is a little curious: why would you mention one name ten times and never mention the other? Names, of course, are important; they give us an identity; but even more than that, they personalize us and legitimize us. It’s just strange that the writer of Acts wouldn’t share someone’s name like that.
Although, truth be told, this sort of thing happens a fair bit in scripture. And often the reason is to draw attention to other things about the person besides their name – things that might go unnoticed if a name became the focus.
So here’s what we know about our no-name guy: we know he’s a queen’s court official. We know he’s Ethiopian, something he mentions twice. His dark-skinned appearance would’ve made him quite the exotic stranger. And we are also told five times that he’s a eunuch – a castrated male servant who was considered safe to serve among young women of royal households. So – queen’s court official, Ethiopian, eunuch.
And if it seems that the writer of Acts is going to great lengths to shine a spotlight on this person’s gender and ethnicity and class, that’s precisely what he’s doing. We know far more about this man than any name could ever tell us. We know he’s a foreigner – and so he’s out of place here in Jerusalem. We know that while he’s a man of some status – queen’s court official – it’s not the kind of status that bears any real significance in his current context. And most of all, we know that, as a eunuch, this man was considered by the greater society to be “less than” – and in many ways not even considered to be fully a man at all. Even though this was something that was done to him, for the purposes of his service, we know that the wide perception of people like him in that day was of someone who was sinful and immoral.
When we first meet this Ethiopian eunuch we’re told he’s reading from the prophet Isaiah – words that were not part of his own faith tradition but words that seemed to capture his attention nonetheless. And why was that, we ask? What was it about these words from Isaiah that resonated with him so deeply? Perhaps we should look at those words again:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.
And if he read just a bit further (and I’m betting he did), he would’ve found a message of freedom for all kinds of people: for the captives and the poor, for the sick and the lame, for those cast aside and the lonely. And even for the eunuchs. He would’ve found promise after promise of God’s freedom for the marginalized and release from all that burdens them.
Is it really any wonder that these words would resonate with our Ethiopian eunuch?
So when Philip happens upon the scene and the two begin talking, and the eunuch asks him – these words from the prophet, are they about himself or they about someone else? – I’m inclined to think that what he’s really asking is a much more personal question: these words from the prophet, are they about me? This freedom for the marginalized, this end to humiliation, this promise of justice – is it really for me?
And later, after Philip shares the story of Jesus, the one who brings that freedom, and the two come upon water, the Ethiopian eunuch asks, what’s to prevent me from being baptized? Which is a curious way to phrase the question, is it not? What’s to prevent me from being baptized? It’s not all that curious, really, if you are one who is accustomed to barriers always being in the way, roadblocks and obstacles preventing you from what is there for everyone else. Signs telling you that you’re not welcome – either actual signs or invisible ones that are just as present. What’s to prevent me from being baptized – this immense joy of the present possibility colored by the deep, deep pain of countless pasts.
You know, most of us here today have a hard time imagining what that must be like because it is not our experience. Most of our experience is from the vantage point of someone who is more or less assumed “in” – in either because of the zip code we live in, or the color of our skin, or who it is we love, or all of those things combined. Most of us here today do not have to hear the suffering servant of Isaiah’s words as anything more than prophetic poetry, nor his words of promise and hope for justice and an end to humiliation as something powerfully radical and new. Because it is already part of our experience. Because there are no barriers, no roadblocks, no obstacles other than those of our own manufacturing. Because we would never have to think of anything as “preventing” us from receiving the gifts of almighty God.
But we would be remiss, my friends, if we did not acknowledge that for those who do know that experience, who live it every second of every day, our inability to see it for what it is makes their pain all the worse.
There’s something that happens quite frequently at our church that I want you to know about. It used to be every once in a while but it’s really picked up over the past two years or so. Once or twice a month, Rebecca and I will get a phone call or an email from someone we don’t know. Someone who has found our church online in a Google search or stumbled upon our worship broadcast. They tell us that they’ve found us and that they’re interested in coming to worship one Sunday. And we tell them that we’d love for them to do that.
And then they tell us a story. The details differ, and some stories are longer than others, but they all boil down to pretty much the same thing: I am gay and happily married to my partner. Our son is transitioning and soon will be our daughter. They talk about how they’ve been rejected by a church; they talk about how they’d found what they thought was a welcoming and loving community until that community learned who they were and suddenly the welcoming and loving kind of stopped. Sometimes they share this matter-of-factly and you can tell it’s been told enough times that the pain and hurt aren’t as obvious, and other times they choke up and hold back tears because the pain is right there.
And so we tell them that our church is open and welcoming as best we know how; we direct them to the Welcoming statement on our website, we tell them that five years ago our session approved same-sex weddings in our sanctuary…..
And they say thank you, that’s wonderful to hear, and you can tell in the tone of their voice that they’ve heard this before. And so they cut to the chase and they say, listen, what I really need to know is would I be welcomed at your church? Is it really for me?
And every time they ask that question I am simultaneously amazed and pained at the courage and vulnerability it took to give it voice, to put themselves out there like that, to dare to ask, what is to prevent me from being baptized? And I am horrified that they have to even ask that of a church – that the church, of all places, has become for them a barrier, a roadblock, an obstacle; a source of humiliation rather than a beacon of promise and hope.
And beloved, I struggle with how I answer their question, because in my mind this is a welcoming and loving place – it certainly is for me. But see, that’s the thing – that’s my experience as one who is assumed “in;” one who checks all the boxes with the zip code and the skin color and who I love. There is no way for me to know for certain if someone else will experience what I perceive as welcoming and loving themselves.
I do think we do our best here. I certainly think our intentions are right. But I also wonder if we are prone to miss the boat from time to time – like reducing being welcoming and loving to a statement we have on a website, a vote taken by our session. It’s got to be more than that, right? Sometimes I wonder if we confuse being welcoming and loving with being friendly, even though they are far from the same thing. Friendly is a wave and smile – certainly better than a thumbs-down and a scowl. But welcoming and loving – welcoming and loving is breaking down barriers that we helped in some way to put there in the first place.
If only we had a model for how we in the church should embody this welcoming and loving reality. If only there was a biblical story of someone we could look to for guidance on how to be honest and authentic versions of ourselves and, in so doing, help the other be the same.
Well, thanks be to God, we have that someone right in our scripture today, and his name is Philip. His name tells us that he’s already “in,” that he checks all the boxes; but he makes a conscious decision to not remain in that comfort space and instead go where the Spirit leads, to sit in the chariot of one unnamed Ethiopian eunuch. And he doesn’t engage in this conversation with him because it’s charity work or because he’s commanded to by anyone. No, he does this because it’s just what good people do. He responds to the eunuch’s questions in a way that puts the two of them side by side, not with him over the other. He shares the love of Jesus in his actions and demeanor from the moment he meets him, but he does not tell the story of Jesus until he’s invited to, because he understands that this eunuch is not a mission project, but a child of God to be respected. Every interaction he has with the eunuch is done without exclusion, without humiliation, and with compassion and care, with authenticity and sincerity and love.
And when the eunuch asks, what’s to prevent me from being baptized, you can pretty much hear Philip’s unspoken answer – absolutely nothing.
Friends, if we are looking for a model of how we as the church can serve the needs of the LGBTQIA+ community, of all of those who are on the outside looking in, we don’t have to look any further than our dear Philip:
Instead of judgment – curiosity and grace.
Instead of holding back – letting go.
Instead of mansplaining – sharing.
Instead of hierarchy – mutuality and love.
Instead of assuming anything – assuming nothing
Instead of a spirit of arrogance – a spirit of community.
Being in the moment.
Seeing the gift of the other.
Seeing a complete and whole person.
Seeing a child of God.
We get this amazing story, wrapped in exotic images like “Ethiopian” and “eunuch,” of how the church is called to be with those who are told by the world that they are “less than,” that they are not “in” – those who with all courage and vulnerability dare to ask us: this grace of God, this everlasting love, this holy community – is it really for me? I’m so used to being told that it’s not, or told that it is and finding out later it wasn’t. I’m so used to hearing, “we’re a welcoming and loving place,” only to learn what they really mean is they’re a friendly place for those already there. I’m so used to hearing people say, “we value diversity” when what we really need people to be working toward is equity. I’m so used to being told that I’m loved for who I am until I come to see that it’s love with strings attached, which isn’t really love at all.
So I’ll ask again: this grace of God, this everlasting love, this holy community – is it really for me?
People of God – may we never cease in our labors to make it so. To make the church a place where all are truly welcome, however that challenges and changes us. May we follow Philip’s lead in ensuring that our answer to their question is always a resounding “yes!”
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.