Saturday, April 17, 2021

Acts and the Kindom of Heaven - Sermon for week ending April 17, 2021

Scripture Reading: 

Acts 8: 26-40 (The Message)      

 An angel spoke to Philip: “At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.” He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia. He was in a chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah.

 Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him. The passage he was reading was this:

As a sheep led to slaughter,
   and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
    He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
    since he’s been taken from the earth?

 The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?”  Using this passage as his text, Phillip told him about Jesus.

As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water. The eunuch said, “Here’s water. Can I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him. He went on down the road as happy as he could be.

 Philip continued north, preaching the message in all the villages along that route until he arrived at Caesarea.


I thought that the book of Acts which portrays the earliest Christian community as a model of what Jesus taught the disciples about the kindom of heaven and demonstrated throughout the gospels deserved one more sermon. As you probably know, Acts was written by the same person who wrote the gospel of Luke, and it is sort of a narrative sequel, showing how the apostles continued the mission that they all started together. It wasn’t perfect. The best ideas, in the hands of naturally self-centered and greedy humans, can get messy. But they tried. The very beginning of Acts shows the point where they went from being disciples to apostles. As they are watching Jesus leave the earth, someone, perhaps an angel said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”  Jesus had already taught them what they needed to know. It was time for them to stop looking toward him and start looking outward. His spirit was with them. It was time for them to be Jesus to the world. To join together as a community of faith, to heal the sick and feed the hungry and care for the marginalized and the outcast. To spread the good news that everyone is loved, and everyone is included in the kindom of heaven. And they did. We saw last week how in this new community, no one claimed private ownership of anything, but everything was held in common and distributed to each as they had need. That came from Rabbi Jesus’ interpretation of Jubilee from the book of Leviticus, which the biblical prophets also used to denounce the nation when the rich grew richer while the poor grew poorer. And it’s also why Jesus told them in the Sermon on the Mount that they didn’t have to worry about what to eat or drink or wear, because everyone would always have what they needed. In chapter 6, So many hungry people joined the community that the apostles became overwhelmed and sometimes missed folks when distributing food. So they called everyone together, and as a group, they selected 7 people of good standing and wisdom and consecrated them to be in charge of the daily distribution of food. The first deacons. But as this idealistic community developed into the early church, it got a lot more complicated. What began as a group of followers of Jesus of Nazarethstarted to split into Jews who believed Jesus was the Messiah and Jews who didn’t. There were also gentiles or pagans and God worshippers or God fearers, pagans who rejected their Gods, embraced Jewish monotheism and had different levels of commitment to Judaism.  And there were arguments over whether these people had to be circumcised or just profess that Jesus was the messiah. Arguments about who was in and who was out that continue to this day. But to me, the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch clearly shows that no one is excluded from the kindom of heaven. Everyone is included. And that is one of Jesus’ primary teachings. The eunuch was a foreigner and a sojourner. We know that the Israelites were in constant tension with foreign nations, yet the Old Testament is filled with verses telling them to welcome the foreigner and the sojourner travelling through their land. Jesus reiterates this in the parable of the sheep and the goats. But the reality was, foreigners in Jewish lands were outsiders: geographically, ethnically, and socially. Eunuch could mean different things. Usually, it was a surgically altered male, the surgery done before puberty, so that he likely looked more female than male. Or he might have been born that way.

And in a statement made by Jesus in Matthew, It seems it could also refer to someone who has chosen to remain celibate. Whatever the particulars were, eunuchs had no family, so in the familial and patriarchal structure of the time, they were marginalized. Under ancient Jewish law, they could not participate in temple rituals or be permitted into the community. But the prophet Isaiah says that eunuchs who keep God’s covenant will be honored, admitted to the temple, and their sacrifices accepted. In the Wisdom of Solomon, part of the apocrypha, they are given special favor, including a place in the temple. We see in Matthew 19:12 that Rabbi Jesus is inclusive of eunuchs. And in this passage in Acts, we witness their inclusion in the early Christian community. It was Open and Affirming. Phillip doesn’t reject the Ethiopian eunuch because he is an outsider or because he is different. Like the prophets Elijah and Elisha, he reaches out to him and offers assistance. He doesn’t require any conditions for his baptism. He doesn’t talk to him about moral standards. He welcomes him. He affirms him. He declares him a child of God and a beloved member of the kindom of heaven. This lesson of inclusion is a reminder for us, in a world where Asian Americans are being attacked and killed and black Americans are gunned down by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Where brown children are still in cages and transgender children are banned from participating in sports for no reason except prejudice. Where churches still exclude people who don’t measure up to their moral standards. And the Pope, who we thought was more progressive than his predecessors, just last month said that priests cannot bless same sex unions because “God cannot bless sin.” Where in our own liberal, progressive denomination, only 1500 of the 4800 churches are open and affirming. There is more work for us to do to ensure that all God’s children are included and affirmed and cared for equally. May we not rest until we have done our very best to fulfill these words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, just as you did this to one of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me .”

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