Sunday, May 6, 2018

Unhindered Grace (Sermon)

“Unhindered Grace”
Acts 8:26-38
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went.
Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.
He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?
 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

       On Easter morning, Jesus isn’t all that gets raised. Questions and concerns get raised. As the Christian community grows, hackles get raised. The Jesus-followers not only preach and practice a message of radical welcome, they pool their wealth and share it. Threatened by such uncensored grace, the secular and religious powers-that-be in Jerusalem begin to persecute the new community.
       Some Christians flee, and when they take the gospel with them, we’re reminded of the parable of the sower. Scattered by persecution, followers of Jesus are seeds carrying the germ of the gospel. While I don’t believe that God causes or celebrates any sort of persecution, I do believe, that as the creative and defining force within the universe, God is known through God’s inclination to redeem even the most unholy and inhuman actions. God’s magic is to use them for good. But positive results arise from painful events. They come as gifts of resurrection. That’s what Easter is all about – God creating something so unexpected and transforming out of the atrocities of Friday that we actually remember that day as Good.
       The disciple Philip has just returned to Jerusalem from Samaria. Ministry is making him open and available to the Holy Spirit in ways he never imagined. As Philip travels southward, into the wilderness, the Holy Spirit, ever the opportunist, makes the disciple aware of a nearby chariot carrying a high-ranking official in the Ethiopian government.
Things get a little PG-13 here. But let’s face it; the Bible is not a G-rated book. This official is a eunuch. He’s been castrated, probably at a very young age.
Widely practiced in ancient cultures, intentional castration created a pool of male servants who lacked the hormones that could lead to willfulness and aggression. Eunuchs could be trusted to care for kings, and queens, and harems, and money.
       In Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch is a Jewish proselyte – a convert. He’s been to Jerusalem to worship. Think about that: The Queen of Ethiopia allows the keeper of her country’s wealth to travel to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. She allows him to ride a thousand miles away to worship the one who makes barren wombs fruitful, the one who heals the sick and the blind, the one who resuscitates the dead. She sees no threat in allowing her emasculated servant to engage the power of the one who makes somebodies out of nobodies.
       Seeing that the man is reading Isaiah, Philip says, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
       ‘I could use some help,’ says the man, and he invites Philip to join him in the chariot.
       The eunuch is reading Isaiah 53, the prophecy concerning the Suffering Servant. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter…like a lamb silent before its shearer…In his humiliation justice was denied him.”
The eunuch, who has been physically mutilated in order to be trusted, finds a scripture that gives voice to his own humiliation and to his sense of injustice. His involuntary sterilization not only robbed him of the possibility of a normal life, it makes him unclean. According to the Mosaic law in Deuteronomy 23, eunuchs are ineligible for full participation in the community.
It begs the question, Why would he even want to become Jewish? It also clears the way for him to receive the gospel when Philip offers it to him. The eunuch hears the gospel as the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy – and not just the suffering servant part. As the Ethiopian continues to read Isaiah, he gets to chapter 56. “Do not,” says the prophet, “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, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.”
Isaiah’s next verse is a wonderful line that was Freudian long before Freud. “I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” (Is. 56:3-5)
       Isaiah shaped Jesus’ own theology. So, Philip accepts the man where he is, as he is, because that’s Jesus’ way. As the Church, though, we often make some self-serving presumptions. We often assume that when someone hears and receives the gospel, they will think and act like us. Homogeneity makes us feel safe. It makes us buy into the fiction that sameness equals rightness.
It used to be the practice that all men came to church in coats and ties, and all women wore dresses, hats, and gloves. The “Sunday best” dress code was imposed, and to fail to comply was to show contempt for God. Those who defied the code represented something dark and foreign, something spiritually suspect and impotent.
Liberated by the gospel, Philip shares the good news with one who is both a eunuch and a foreigner. And being welcomed and affirmed, the man recognizes his own humanity, his own worth, and his own powerful potential.
       “Look!” he says, ‘There’s some water! What’s to prevent me from getting baptized?’
       The law says, Everything. People like you can’t belong.
       The Gospel says, Nothing. Nothing can hinder your inclusion in the body of Christ!
       The gospel declares to the eunuch that he has been created in God’s image. His life is bright and pregnant with possibility.
Listen: Before the Church can be a place for all people, we have to learn to be a place for all of ourselves – even those parts that we have learned to deny, repress, and exile to some distant desert. Those dark and foreign parts of us belong to God, too. They’re holy and full of promise.
Some of us may wrestle with a deep-seated urge toward violence and control. And as harmful as that urge can be, simply to label it sin and repress it is to reject a potential gift. If we harness that energy and incorporate it onto a foundation of compassion and humility, it can be resurrected into decisive and prophetic leadership.
       Conversely, to judge oneself for feeling indecisive and non-committal may be to ignore a call to ministries of discernment, a holy work that requires hearing and considering many voices.
       I think God wants us to accept, to make peace with, and to assimilate even those parts of ourselves we have tried, in effect, to castrate. God wants us to love all of ourselves as we are loved by God. With that in mind, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” takes on new significance, doesn’t it?
       Recognizing the power and potential of his own life, the Ethiopian eunuch sees the sparkle of water and asks, What is to stop me from claiming my wholeness and my Belovedness in Christ?
And Philip’s says, Nothing. Nothing can hinder you from your full humanity in Jesus.
As we gather around the Lord’s table, God meets us where we are, and loves us as we are. But God doesn’t seem satisfied to leave us there, either. At this table, we don’t shamefully cast off sin nearly so much as we gratefully take on and take in God’s redeeming grace.
       And no one will be hindered from God’s table of grace.