Sunday, April 25, 2021

Phil Kniss: The Gospel’s expansive reach

New chapter, ancient story, same thread — Easter 4: Baptism without Borders
Acts 8:26-39

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In the Narrative Lectionary we’re getting near the end
of this first sweep through the biblical narrative.
Each year we go the whole distance,
from Genesis to the early church,
but with different texts each year.
Having finished Luke, we’re now in Acts,
watching this Jesus movement continue to cause trouble.

Resistance from the powers,
which Jesus met in his ministry,
is still a huge factor for the church.
Resistance, as I said last week,
that comes from various places—
both from external adversaries,
and from within their own discerning community.
The church carries the Gospel message forward,
but encounters circumstances they never had before.
Each time they need to figure out what to do next.

They ask, “What does a Jesus-shaped community look like,
and how do we behave?
How do we respond faithfully in a rapidly changing world,
with questions we did not see coming?”

Of course, we today don’t know anything about that . . . do we?
Well, you decide.

The push-back in the book of Acts comes from the fact that
the reach of the Gospel is expanding . . .
expanding into realms unimaginable a few years earlier.

[And keep in mind, whenever I use the word Gospel in this sermon,
and it will be a lot,
it’s a word that’s simply short-hand for “Good News.”
It’s joyfully sharing of a gift — the love and grace of Jesus.]

As the Gospel expanded its reach,
the church worked hard to keep up.
They were all—or nearly all—sincere.
They all took their faith seriously.
They all wanted to follow Jesus and share Jesus,
but they had different imaginations,
different ways of approaching dilemmas,
different levels of tolerance for change.

The model they started with played alright in Jerusalem.
But Jesus told them, before he left them, not to stay in Jerusalem.
He directly instructed them to take the Gospel
into all Judea, and Samaria,
and to the uttermost parts of the earth.
That spelled trouble . . . by definition.
Those were borders they were not used to crossing.

But Jesus envisioned a Gospel without borders.
God loved the whole world,
not just the Hebrew world.
God longed to see the whole world reconciled,
and healed and saved and redeemed.
And he wanted these particular people—
led by a band of Galilean disciples, now apostles,
to take the lead role in God’s expansion project.
Amazing, God’s level of trust.

Maybe you recall the border that was crossed in last week’s story.
The blue-blood Hebrew-speaking Jews in Jerusalem
held the power in this new church.
But when Hellenized, Greek-speaking, worldly Jews
complained they were discriminated against,
which they were,
the blue-bloods repented,
and turned over power to the Greek-speakers,
made them deacons, and gave them freedom to lead.

That courageous giving up power,
led precisely to the situation in today’s story from Acts 8.

We skipped over the first part of the chapter.
Read it when you get a chance.
After the stoning of Stephen,
another deacon named Philip did just like Stephen—
went beyond waiting tables and feeding widows.
He became an evangelist—a Good News spreader—like the apostles,
and headed down into Samaria,
another huge border self-respecting Jews rarely crossed.
But Philip went there, on purpose.

After causing a stir in Samaria (read about it),
Philip, we are told, turned south, at the direction of an angel,
and walked down a desert road to Gaza.

As he walked,
he met a man that Acts 8 describes as, and I quote:
“an Ethiopian eunuch,
an important official in charge of all the treasury
of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”).
(Funny who you run into on the road to Gaza)
And we get another interesting, and important, set of facts.
The man had gone to Jerusalem to worship,
and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah.
Whoa! Let’s break this down.

This was in all likelihood, not a pagan, but an Ethiopian Jew.
Jews were in Ethiopia long before the time of Jesus.
After the Babylonian conquest,
many Jews went into exile there.
We don’t know the genealogy of this particular man, of course,
but by the time of Acts,
it would be entirely reasonable that this man would be
from a multi-generational line of Jewish Ethiopians.
But not only Jewish,
also a powerful and trusted member of the queen’s inner circle,
in charge of her whole treasury.
A wealthy, powerful, chariot-driving, dignitary close to royalty,
who is also a Jew making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem,
and literate—able both to read and to own his own copy
of the scroll of Isaiah.
And, even more to the point of the story, yet not surprising,
is the fact he was a eunuch.
To say it plainly, and indelicately,
he was castrated at a young age—
sexually neutered.

That wasn’t unusual in those days.
The trusted inner circle of male aids to royal families,
not infrequently, were made eunuchs,
which prevented them from having offspring,
giving them zero chance of corrupting the royal blood line,
in case they got intimate with members of the family.

What makes this fact pertinent, and even essential to the story—
is that Jewish law (in fact many religions and cultures of the day)
did not look kindly on eunuchs.
The Torah—look it up in Deuteronomy 23—
says eunuchs are forbidden to “enter the assembly of the Lord.”
Whether eunuchs by choice or by accident,
they could not worship with the rest of the community.
They were excluded, for life.
Furthermore, as lifelong childless persons,
they were shut out of the economic and social benefits
of persons with families to care for them.

So this wealthy and powerful man,
simultaneously an insider and outsider,
had just come from the Jerusalem,
where he worshipped standing far off
in the outskirts of the Temple.
Now he was back sitting high in his chariot reading Isaiah.

Probably not a coincidence,
he was reading the “suffering servant” section.
Perhaps he could identify in some way with this prophet of God,
who suffered, and who was silenced.

So when Philip met this unusual traveler,
the Holy Spirit directed Philip to go up to the chariot and chat.
He saw the man reading Isaiah, and asked,
“Do you understand it?”
The man’s response was,
“How can I unless someone explains it?”
Now I grew up hearing this story,
and always thought that response showed the man’s ignorance,
and unfamiliarity with Isaiah.
But there are other possibilities,
especially if we assume he was a Jewish worshipper of Yahweh.
The way anyone understands scripture,
in good rabbinic Jewish fashion,
is with a conversation partner—
someone to be in dialog or debate with.
That’s how truth is uncovered—in conversation.
So maybe he just meant,
obviously I can find the truth better if you join me
and we discuss it together.
In any case, this passage from Isaiah gave Hellenistic deacon Philip
a perfect opportunity to connect some lines
in the biblical narrative.
He shared the good news about Jesus,
and how Jesus fulfilled the prophets’ expectations.
The eunuch then asked, when nearing a body of water,
“So what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Now, bear with me a moment as I point out a technical issue in the text.
Some of your Bibles have a verse number 37, but nothing after it,
only a footnote.
The King James Version I grew up with included
Philip’s answer to the question, in verse 37.
“If you believe with all your heart, you may.”
(be baptized, that is).
And the eunuch answered,
“I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
Then—in verse 38—they get out of the chariot for the baptism.

The reason verse 37 is not included in Bibles today,
is that the oldest and most reliable manuscripts don’t have it.
The verse was apparently added by a scribe around 500-600 AD,
to emphasize belief in Christ,
as a prerequisite for baptism.
Nothing wrong with saying that, of course.
Confessing faith in Christ is essential,
something we still require for baptism.

But I’m guessing that confession is not so much the point here.
The point is, there were all kinds of reasons
why Philip might have hesitated.
What is to prevent me from being baptized?, the eunuch asked.
Philip from Jerusalem could have said, “Well, where do I start?”
You are from another continent and culture I barely know,
and I barely know you.
You are not embedded in a Jewish faith community.
You are living in the Queen’s house,
and have your hands in all her wealth,
and are wielding her power . . .
what will you do with that power?
You have no community of Jesus-followers to walk with you,
and disciple you in the Way.
And on top of it all,
you are prevented, by our own Jewish law,
from even physically entering our worship space.

But instead of that kind of reasonable response,
Luke purposely recorded the story this way:
Without a word, without consulting Jerusalem,
the chariot stopped immediately.
Philip and the man went down to the water,
and Philip baptized him.

How did Hellenistic Deacon Philip,
newly appointed server of food to widows,
come to the conclusion that he had the authority
to baptize this Ethiopian eunuch?

It’s astounding.
But maybe not so surprising,
when you realize this was a baptism ordered by the Spirit,
and entirely in line with Jesus’ commission,
to go everywhere,
to the end of the earth,
spreading the Good News,
teaching and baptizing.

This Baptism Without Borders
was entirely in synch with the Gospel without Borders.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ then, and now,
has an expansive reach.
It is for everyone, bar none.
There is no one outside the love and compassion of our saving God.
All of us are in need of redemption and transformation—
the blue-bloods and the outsiders alike.
And once we turn toward Christ,
with open hearts and lives,
we no longer stand on the outskirts,
but are ushered into the inner courts of God’s love and mercy.

The Gospel of Jesus is far more concerned
about how we respond to the Gospel’s expansive invitation.
And seems not at all interested in playing hard-to-get.

Any border that prevents the Gospel from being heard
is a border we ourselves created.
It is not God’s doing.

The story doesn’t end here, of course.
And I mean that in two ways.
The story of Acts doesn’t end here.
Next Sunday is Acts 15, the story of the Jerusalem Conference.
This border-crossing problem will come to a head,
and they’ll call a summit,
to solve this thorny problem of border-keeping.
But the story continues today, as we all know.
We continue to wrestle with holding together both
the expansive vision of the Gospel,
and the human borders we live within,
that keep our social lives orderly.

I have no better way to conclude this message,
than with a poet’s words—which we are about to sing.

I want to read these words in their entirety,
as the conclusion of my sermon.

Go in grace and make disciples. Baptize in God’s holy name.
Tell of death and resurrection; Easter’s victory now proclaim.
Christ’s commission sends us forth to the nations of the earth.
Go in grace and make disciples, midwives for the world’s rebirth.

Go and follow Christ’s example, not to vanquish, but to heal.
Mend the wounds of sin’s divisions. Servant love to all reveal.
Roles and ranks shall be reversed; justice poured for all who thirst.
Go and follow Christ’s example. Forge a world of last made first.

Go in Pentecostal spirit, many tongues and many gifts.
Feed the hearts of hungry people. Spread the gospel that uplifts.
‘Til the day of Christ’s return, as disciples, teach and learn.
Go in Pentecostal spirit: let God’s flame of witness burn.

Let’s sing it!

—Phil Kniss, April 25, 2021

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