Fifth Sunday of Easter; Year B; May 3, 2015
Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 22.25-31; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson
Grace and peace to you from the true vine, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
When I was in seminary some friends and I played music, preached, and did some visitation for Salem Lutheran Church, a tiny little congregation 60 miles south of Dubuque, Iowa. On average, there were probably 15-20 people in worship any given Sunday. One particular Sunday in the spring, 4 unknown people entered the church for worship. This was quite exciting for all of us, being that we did not have visitors in worship often. Two of the visitors were a couple probably in their 60s and the other couple was in their 30s or 40s.
I noticed the younger woman, who I came to know as, Suzi, paying particular attention during the sermon, which happened to be on our very same reading from Acts today about the Ethiopian Eunuch. I saw tears in her eyes as she came forward for communion, and nothing could have prepared me for what happened when she was on her way out of the sanctuary after worship.
As she shook hands with my seminary professor, I heard her ask him: “Do you think that you could baptize me?”
My professor smiled big, asked her if she has been baptized before, and upon hearing that she hadn’t, he raised up his hands to all who were still in the sanctuary and said, “For those of you who would like to stay, we’re going to have a baptism right now!”
The three people who were with her looked just as shocked and as excited as the rest of us. There was such a buzz of excitement in the room. I’ll never forget Suzi’s face because it was pure joy. Surrounded by her new brothers and sisters in Christ, and with tears in her eyes, she was baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
It was a gift to witness such an event. Acts 8, the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch, took on flesh and happened right before our eyes. We all exited the Sanctuary that day rejoicing.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is quite remarkable, remarkable enough to inspire the woman to be baptized that very day. Every aspect of the story is so unlikely, and yet the Spirit of God brings Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch together.
Philip was a Greek who was commissioned by the disciples to help them share the story of Jesus. The Spirit in the story is on the move and active as she brings Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch together on a wilderness road.
The fact that the Ethiopian Eunuch was in Jerusalem at all is nothing short of mind boggling, needing to have traveled hundreds of difficult miles to get there. Not only that, once there he would not have been permitted to worship with everyone else in the temple because of Jewish law.
Deuteronomy 23.1 basically says that no one who has been castrated is permitted to enter the temple. Eunuchs served women royalty. To be a Eunuch was socially difficult because they were people who were considered to be neither male nor female, and they were unable to have children. In the Jewish world, they were outcasts who were not even permitted to worship with the rest of the people.
Yet, this particular Eunuch was in charge of a queen’s treasury, making him quite wealthy. He was very educated and devout, traveling all that way to worship in Jerusalem, even when he wouldn’t be allowed in the temple. He was also hospitable, inviting Philip to join him in his chariot.
Author, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that this story would be a modern day equivalent of “…a diplomat in Washington, D.C., inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study (Feasting on the Word, p. 457).”
The Eunuch is reading from the book of Isaiah, and he asks Philip who the passage is talking about. “About whom…does the prophet say, ‘In his humiliation justice was denied him?”
Philip takes this opportunity to tell him about Jesus…the One who was God incarnate, the One who died on the cross and was raised from the dead for the Eunuch’s sake. Like Jesus, the Eunuch has faced humiliation and justice denied him. The Eunuch identified with Jesus, and felt the grace of God for him.
When the Eunuch hears about Jesus, he says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He didn’t say, “Oh, the law is to prevent me, my status as a Eunuch would prevent me, I don’t know enough about Jesus, etc. etc.”
The hearing of the Word, leads to faith and baptism. One who was an outcast and excluded was now included in Jesus and his body. The Eunuch felt included into the people of God, included in the promise of the good news, that he too is given faith and eternal life.The book of Acts, and this story in particular, is about the radical grace and inclusivity of God. Who are today’s Eunuchs, people who are judged and excluded?
If there is anything Acts 8 should do for us, it should expand how we understand the radical and inclusive nature of God. Is there anything about you that might keep you from being a full participant in the people of God? No! Not your past…etc.
Is there anything that might prevent anyone who responds to the good news from being baptized and becoming a full participant in the people of God?
This story of the Ethiopian Eunuch says no, there is nothing that should prevent people from being brought more fully into the loving embrace and community of God.
The Sunday morning worship experience at Salem Lutheran Church was so moving because we all understood that the Spirit of God, the same Spirit that brought Philip and the Eunuch together, led Suzi to the baptismal font that day.
I learned from the older woman in worship that they were from Tennessee and in town for a family reunion. Suzi was engaged to their son and had been in a relationship with him for over 10 years. All three of them had been patiently and lovingly praying for her that she would come to faith in Jesus. She attended worship with them regularly and read Scripture, but never quite felt ready to be baptized, and they never pressured her.
Suzi, who had been skeptical and uncertain of the whole Jesus thing, came to realize that the good news and love of God was also for her. Her response to understanding this was to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, baptized into a new way of being, and into a community and body of faith to which she now belonged.
What was to prevent her from being baptized that day? The answer is…nothing.