Fifth Sunday of Easter
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The first lesson we hear this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, is among my favorite stories in the Bible. But it is a story that, I suspect, is probably much overlooked by many people.
The reason I love this story is it explodes all kinds of assumptions about religion and religious rules. So I’d like us to spend a little time with it.
The story begins, like many of these stories do, with an angel. When you see an angel show up, you know something important is about to happen.
The angel appears to Philip, one of the first deacons mentioned in the New Testament.
The angel tells Philip to go walk the road from Jerusalem south to Gaza. This is no small request. The road to Gaza, then as a now, is dangerous.
On the road, Philip encounters a eunuch, who is a servant to the Ethiopian queen. The eunuch offers Philip a ride in his chariot.
We don’t know much about the eunuch. We don’t know his name.
But this we do know: he is drawn to the monotheism of Judaism. He carries with him a scroll with the writings of the Prophet Isaiah and he is intently studying them.
That the eunuch rides in a chariot and has this scroll is a mark of his status as a royal servant. Peasants do not ride chariots or own scrolls.
The eunuch tells Philip he can’t figure out what the scroll means, but he has figured out this much: he is not included in the religion that the scroll proclaims.
The reason: He is a eunuch. In the ancient world, young boys are taken from their mothers to become servants – slaves – in the courts of the royalty.
But before reaching puberty, these boys are castrated so that when they grow up, they can serve the royal women with no chance of impregnating them – a matter of great import to the royal men.
You know, I’ve told you before, biblical stories are not for the faint hearted.
This particular eunuch is drawn to the Jewish religion, and yet, he can never become fully Jewish himself because he has been castrated.
Under the prevailing religious rules, he is considered physically damaged and sexually impure because he cannot reproduce. He will never be allowed inside the Temple, the holy of holies in Jerusalem. He is automatically excluded.
Yet he has read this scroll from Isaiah about a suffering servant, and he wants to know if God will favor him in spite of his physical condition.
“I need a teacher,” the eunuch says.
Philip gets in the chariot. As they ride along, he interprets the scroll by telling the eunuch the “good news” that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah.
Philip tells him that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one of God, the divine one who came to earth to suffer as a lowly servant and to bring salvation to all people everywhere, or in the words of the opening prayer, “the way, the truth, the life.”
Philip tells him that there are no bodily markers of this faith – only the waters of baptism.
The eunuch is stunned. He has never heard anything like this. But has a question for Philip, and this is the acid test:
Is there any reason I cannot join you in this religion with Jesus, who is after all, Jewish?
The answer is not so obvious.
Philip could have said, well, you are eunuch; you are sexually impure and thanks for the ride, but we can’t have you in our religion. Sorry.
Or Philip could have said, you are an Ethiopian, you are the wrong nationality and your skin is the wrong color. Sorry.
But Philip casts all these excuses to the ground – and that is the point of the story.
There is nothing in your way, Philip tells him. Nothing. And so Philip baptizes the eunuch, and each then goes their separate way.
The story of Philip and the eunuch is the first declaration by the Church that all are included, none excluded.
In a way, this is a new creed about the nature and essence of God.
We are accustomed to reciting the Nicene Creed, that complex statement written in the Fourth Century about the meaning of the Trinity.
But that is not the only creed in our tradition. These lessons today are creeds.
Listen again to the words of the First Letter of John, and hear these words as a creed:
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
And hear this creed, from Jesus himself:
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
This creed declares that we are connected to God and each other in the same way that vines grow intertwined with each other.
God’s very nature is relational, not hierarchical. We are made to grow with each other, and with God, to bear fruit with one another.
Yet, it gets difficult from here: Jesus talks of pruning the vines, gathering branches to be “thrown in the fire.”
One of way you might hear these words is that there are good people and bad people. The good people – people like us – will be saved, and the bad people – people not like us – will be burned up.
The eunuch might have heard it this way and wondered where it left him. But hear the words this way: We are human and imperfect, and none of us are fully good or fully bad.
Jesus declares that God will prune away all that is bad within us, all that wounds and hurts us – and that will be cast away and burned.
And then God will bear good fruit within us, no matter the condition of our bodies, or our station in life, or any other human boundary.
This is what Philip tells the eunuch. And when the eunuch hears this new creed, he is overjoyed.
This new creed is not based on divisions of religion, class, social status, skin color or sexual differences. Those boundaries, those creeds, are based on fear. But this new creed is based on something else, something eternal.
This new creed is based on love. The First Letter of John sums up this new creed perfectly:
“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”
We are truly entwined through love with God like a vine, and we are truly entwined with each other. Hatred, vengeance, and violence and fear can have no place with us, or our way of life.
As John goes on with this new creed:
“For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”
Like the eunuch, and like Philip, we are marked as Christ’s own forever by our baptism, and we have miles to go on this road of life wherever it takes each of us.
Hear these words of the psalm and take them to heart: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: ‘May your heart live for ever!’ ”