Musing on the coming lectionary text from Acts 8.26-40:
St. Luke’s story of the Ethiopian Eunuch is poignant because of what Luke doesn’t tell you. What Luke leaves unsaid.
Luke tells you that this “man had gone to Jerusalem to worship but was now on his way home.”
What Luke doesn’t tell you is that the Holiness Codes in the Book of Deuteronomy consider eunuchs to be sexually deformed. And thus ritually impure. And thus barred from the Temple. And thus barred from the worship life of Israel.
What Luke doesn’t tell you- and it’s kind of PG13 and I only mention it because it’s actually relevant- eunuchs in the Ethiopian Court were’t just castrated. They were dismembered too.
And so it’s not just a case of ritual impurity. He could never be circumcised.
And thus he could never follow the Law.
And so he could never become Jewish. And so he could never be welcomed. Or included among the People of God. And so what Luke leaves unsaid is that this man, the unlikeliest of seekers, has come all the way to Jerusalem, from a great distance, of his own accord, on his own dime-
Because he’s curious, because he’s hungry, because he wants to connect to God, because he has questions he wants answered, maybe because he can’t have a family of his own and he wants a community where he can belong.
What Luke leaves unsaid is that this man has taken the risk of being a newcomer, being a stranger, being an outsider- only to be turned away by a community that valued its traditions and its customs more than they valued him.
Luke leaves it unsaid but that’s why he’s on his way home.
Luke leaves the important parts unsaid.
Luke tells you it’s the Holy Spirit’s idea for Philip to be on that road to Gaza.
What Luke doesn’t tell you, what he leaves unsaid, is that as soon as Philip see that Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip would’ve had all the same reactions to him as the priests in the Temple did back in Jerusalem. Luke tells you that the Spirit commands Philip to approach the Ethiopian’s chariot.
What Luke leaves unsaid is that before Philip takes a single step towards that chariot he has to choose.
What’s more important?
The customs and traditions and categories he’s grown up with and always assumed?
Or the opportunity to help someone understand and experience the grace of God?
Luke leaves unsaid that before Philip gets up into that chariot, Philip has to decide. Is changing another’s life in Jesus Christ worth him having to change his?
And you can guess Philip’s answer because when the stranger asks Philip: ‘What’s stopping me from being baptized?’ Philip leaves unsaid every possible objection. Because none of those was as important as seeing this man rejoice in the grace of Jesus of Christ.
No amount of “obedience to scripture” then trumps seeing someone rejoice in Christ’s grace.
According to the Pew Research Foundation, if you gathered together all the non-religious people in the US they would comprise the 11th largest nation in the world. According to that same research, 80% of Americans self-identify as Christian. But less than 1/4 of those Americans participate in a local church.
In other words- as the cliche goes: They like Jesus, just not the church.
In other words- They want to experience God; they just don’t think that’s going to happen for them Church.
Why is that?
I mean- sure, you could say they’re just not interested in the church. But I wonder how much of that is just us blaming the victim? I wonder if those statistics are the way they are because the grace and openness and welcome that people find in Christ is harder to be found in Christ’s Church?
The truth is-
Every church struggles with ‘here’s our version of Christianity and if you can find your spot in it, if you can adapt to our way of doing church, if you can accommodate us…we’d love to have you.‘
The first church struggled with this right out of the gate.
It starts with Philip here in Acts 8.
The first church struggled with which version of Christianity would be theirs, who they’d include and who they’d exclude, which ways of doing church would be the ways they would always do them.
And they eventually brought those struggles to a church-wide meeting in Acts 15.
And it was at that meeting that James, the brother of Jesus, made the decision for the first church, about what kind of church they would be. And what James said to the first church couldn’t be more important to today’s church.
‘We should not make it difficult for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ.’
Not even by abiding the sexual mores given to us in scripture.
I’ll let you connect the contemporary dots on that one.
The first church was able to move beyond Jerusalem and beyond the first century because they decided early on that they were going to be the kind of community that valued people more than personal preferences. They were going to be the kind of community that would remove-rethink-adapt anything they were doing that got in the way of people turning to God.
How they did church was not going to be as important to them as seeing new faces rejoice in the grace of Jesus Christ. And they were able to make this decision because they realized it was the Holy Spirit driving them to it. And if they resisted, they’d be resisting the will of God.
That’s why Luke describes Philip in the passive voice: Philip is led. Philip is directed. Philip is told. Philip’s mouth is opened and he’s given words to speak.
Which is interesting.
Because when it comes to church we don’t ever speak in the passive voice.
It’s always: This is what I like. This is what I prefer. This is what I enjoy. This is what I want. This is what I think. This is what I believe. This is how we’ve always done it.
But if the Book of Acts is to be believed then the opposite of a Spirit-led Church is a Church based driven by personal preference. The opposite of being a Spirit-led Church is being risk-adverse. The opposite of being a Spirit-filled Church is caring more about preservation than transformation.The opposite of following the Spirit is developing strategies, inadvertent or not, that keep others out.
Luke in Acts 8 would have us ready to rethink anything we do, any assumptions we have, that might make it difficult for others to find Jesus. Or, rather, have Jesus find them.