May 10, 2009

Listening & Doing

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, RCL
St. Stephen & the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC
May 10th, 2009

There are many things that I love about the lectionary. The lectionary (so I don’t lapse into speaking too much churchy language) is the schedule of readings we have for every Sunday and other major feast day in the church. The earliest Christians borrowed the order of readings for Sabbath from the synagogues, and as they became available, Christian writings were incorporated into readings from the Psalms, the Torah and the Prophets. Once the Church became more established, readings for specific times of the year and seasons of the church were established. For most weeks, the Hebrew Scripture, or Old Testament, lesson has some parallel to the Gospel reading, while the Epistle, one of the many letters in the New Testament, offers some instruction for Christian living or offers a glimpse into the early church’s witness of the resurrected Jesus. The Psalms were the hymns for Jewish worship, used no doubt by Christ himself in worship in the synagogues and the Temple. Our use of the Psalms today keeps us liturgically connected to our Jewish brothers and sisters and to the very roots of the Christian Church. Very early in the Church’s development it was decided to use lessons from the Book of Acts during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. The general idea is that during this season of celebrating the resurrection of Christ, we hear the stories of the earliest missionary work to spread His message of the coming kingdom of God.

So it is in this early period of the Christian movement that we find the Apostle Philip being called by the Spirit of God to go from Samaria, where he had been converting people to follow Christ, down what the author calls a “wilderness road.” And while some scholars question why it was called that since it was pretty well traveled, Philip goes and he finds an Ethiopian court official sitting in his chariot reading from the Prophet Isaiah. This particular man is in charge of the queen’s treasury, meaning, he is a man of good standing and very well trusted. He was returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship in the Temple. There was likely a problem with him worshiping there, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

There was a strong Jewish presence in Ethiopia dating back to the time just after King Solomon. Solomon married Sheba, who was herself Ethiopian. Many Jews migrated to Ethiopia a few generations later when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. For a time after the destruction of the Temple and the Babylonian captivity, Ethiopian Jews thought they were the last remaining Jews in the world. Ethiopia is mentioned several times in the Hebrew scriptures, mainly by Isaiah and Jeremiah.

Back to our story about Philip… He answers the call of the Spirit and finds our court official struggling with this passage from Isaiah, what we know as the chapter 53, verses 7-8. Philip sees this as a prime jumping off spot to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus and how Jesus was and is the fulfillment of this scripture passage. The Ethiopian desires to be baptized, and so Philip baptizes him in the nearby water. The story ends with Philip being snatched away to Azotus to continue to proclaim the Gospel and the Ethiopian going on his way rejoicing.

I like this story is because it has so much in it to dive into. Let’s talk first about the Ethiopian himself and what he represents. He was an Ethiopian and a eunuch, meaning not only was he was a castrated male, but his physical location meant he was considered an outsider by the Jewish community in Jerusalem. His status as a eunuch would also have been problematic for his worshiping in the Temple. Leviticus 21 prohibits men with any deformities, specifically listing a lack of testicles, from making an offering to God. So it is possible that his not being able to worship led to an added spiritual hunger and desire to know God.

Much like the woman the well and the story of the man born blind, both in John’s Gospel, the Ethiopian represents the disenfranchised and disinherited groups of an exiled Israel that are the choice recipients of God’s promises. Those promises are made in Isaiah 56, and come to fruition with Jesus’ ministry. Isaiah 56, which would likely have been a different scroll than what the Ethiopian had with him, says: Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.

In last week’s Gospel, Jesus talks about being the Good Shepherd and says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” These passages, both Isaiah 56 and this one from Acts, re-affirm this teaching of Jesus. In multiple places in the Gospels, especially in Luke and John, Jesus talks about reaching beyond the family of Israel to bring all of God’s children into a closer relationship with the Creator. The Ethiopian is part of this common thread of restoration of the outcast, of gathering closer to Christ those who are on the outside looking in.

The Ethiopian represents the continued spreading of the Gospel, and it is spreading fast! We don’t know how long it has been since Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but we are only eight chapters into Acts and the Gospel is being preached in Samaria and now it will be carried to Ethiopia and likely other parts of Africa as well. The message of Christ is spreading, and it is spreading to those on the fringes of the known world, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

This is the message of the Gospel, that those on the outer edges of what society says is the “norm” are the ones that Christ desires the most. As one of my mentors is fond of saying, “God did not become flesh and dwell among us for the goody-two-shoes of the world. Jesus came for the wretched sinner. He came for you and for me.”

Even though St. Stephen’s probably works as hard as any local body of Christ to serve those who are on the fringes of society, it is a message that we cannot hear enough. The good news of the Kingdom of God is that it is a place where all who desire a closer relationship with God can have one. God came near in the person of Jesus to show us that God is not far away. The message Philip shares with the Ethiopian is that no matter what your physical or locational “deficiencies” may seem to be, the kingdom of God has room for you. That is a message I need to hear on a regular basis and a message that it is our responsibility as Christians to share with each other and with those we encounter outside the walls of this place. The kingdom of God has room for all.

How are you going to share that message this week?