April 24, 2016, 5th Sunday of Easter
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
One of the wonderful things that happens in the book of Acts that we often miss, is how assumptions people have about what is good and holy and right get blown out of the water.
The book of Acts is a continuation of the story of the gospel of Luke which is also a story about how the life of Jesus blows people’s assumptions about what is good and right and holy right out of the water.
Now as the early church is finding its way of being the story continues with the same theme.
What they thought was good and right and holy isn’t so. They’ve got the right idea; but not the details and not the living it out quite right.
What is amazing is that they were willing to adjust so quickly. This usually isn’t the case with us humans. Especially when it comes to our understanding of what is good and holy and right.
I want to take you back in time to one of the first blown out of the water moments: we didn’t cover this one in this cycle of Acts readings and I think it is important to get a sense of the work the early Christians were doing together.
This is the from Acts chapter 8. Many of you know the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. The disciple Philip was urged in a dream to go to a certain road south of Jerusalem. Along this road Philip met a man reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip explained to the man what it was and who it was he was reading about. The eunuch was amazed, moved and became a follower of Jesus. Philip baptized him and went on to his next adventure as a disciple of Jesus.
Now what is so amazing about this, isn’t just the encounter, but the fact that the gospel was revealed to a eunuch and was heard by a eunuch and was received by a eunuch.
We don’t know much about eunuchs now a days. Our leaders don’t have harams that need protecting. That was a eunuch’s job, protecting the bevy of women ancient leaders kept on retainers either from the spoils of war or the treaties made with other countries. These women were property and keeping them safe, fed, warm and away from other men was an important part of a royal court.
So what this meant was that the men who were eunuchs were altered so that they wouldn’t be tempted to use the women for their own pleasure.
In ancient times, eunuchs were not considered fully men. They were honored for their work but not for their being. They were not allowed to enter the holy places in Jewish life and worship. They were the outsiders.
So when Philip was led to meet with the eunuch the challenge wasn’t just, will I speak with him? Will I engage him in conversation? The challenge was Will I acknowledge his worth?
And you say, well, the eunuch was reading scripture why wouldn’t Philip engage with him? That is what disciples of Jesus Christ do. They engage with others who are seeking the truth of God’s WAY.
Unfortunately, our stories of being disciples of Jesus Christ include terrible stories of ignoring and even demonizing people who don’t fit our definition of what is good and right and holy. We have people in our church today who are seeking to read and understand scripture who are not honored for all that they are because of their sexuality.
Philip went beyond the social and religious norms of what he was taught was was good and right and holy when he acknowledged the worth of the Ethiopian eunuch.
Now I have had the question asked recently by some of you, why is the understanding of what is good and right and holy so different between the old and new testaments? Why did the teachings of Jesus change things so radically?
I want to point out to you with this story of the eunuch that it isn’t that Jesus changed what was good and right and holy, what Jesus did was, he reminded the people he taught of the true teaching of God, from time immemorial.
We think we are evolving into something better and new, What we are evolving into is what God created us to be in the first place.
Disciples, people who follow the WAY of God no matter how much it contradicts what we have been taught about what is good and right and holy.
So, let me tell you about what the prophets said about eunuchs in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament. Now this is a delicate conversation to have in church and I apologize but in the scriptures there are a few places that are both profound and somewhat hilarious. The writers of the scripture use profound humor to get across their point.
So, as I said, eunuchs were not allowed in the holy places of Jewish worship because they were not considered whole human beings. They weren’t able to function as a man who could procreate.
However, in the book of Isaiah 56 the prophet writes: do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.” 4 For 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.
An everlasting name that shall not be cut off. Do you hear the humor and profound welcome there? Others may cut you off from society by cutting off your manhood, but, God will give you a place that can never be cut off.
What the early church did in welcoming the unwelcome. What the early church did in eating with those whom others considered unclean was return to the way God intended us to be before we mucked it all up with our rules, rites and laws about what is good and right and holy.
This is what makes the books of Luke and Acts so amazing. These are stories of the people of the WAY learning how to be people of God. Evolving into the WAY God intended people to be.
And you ask, why didn’t it continue like that? Why did the church become so rule bound and exclusionary? Why did we return very, very quickly; less than 100 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus to the place where we would rather kill someone rather than welcome us into our doors?
It gets discouraging doesn’t it. To relive the story year after year, generation after generation. It gets discouraging to wonder if we will ever evolve into who we are to be.
It does get discouraging. Until we remember that we, WE are the people of the WAY. WE are the people of the resurrection. We are the people of the book of Acts.
What our ancestors did is one thing. But what we do is another.
We can follow the WAY of Jesus. We can decide that we will welcome the eunuchs of our day. We can decide that we will make a life commitment to grow into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
We can eat at the table with anyone that God invites to our table. We can decide that we will vow never to cut off the name of anyone who desires to learn more about Jesus.
We can lift up all that God calls good and right and holy rejecting those who would tell us differently.
This is not the easy way, but it is the WAY. Jesus said I am the WAY. It is a way that leads to a cross, but it is a way that leads to a resurrection.
It is a way that leads to open tables that others will judge us for but it is a way that leads to parties and celebrations that we would be foolish to avoid.
It is a way that leads to judgment and sometimes even ostracizing from other’s tables, but it is a way that leads to freedom and life living among ALL the people of God.
Why would we not want to join the party of God’s world? Why would we not want to eat at a table that is spread with God’s abundant feast? Why would we not want to be people of the WAY?