Youth Sunday is always difficult to follow. Our youth, and the many adults who invest so much in them, and Taylor did a wonderful and faith-filled job, in liturgy and music and preaching. On the way out after 11 o’clock one of you looked at me and said, "They did a great job AND we’re out eight minutes early. What do you think about that?"
I am so grateful to Allie Ruffing, Jack Mountain, and Megan Pottenger for their sermons about vulnerability and trust, about how much a community, a home, that honors doubt and questions means to them, for pointing us to Luke 24:41 – that joy and disbelief and questions are often all mixed up, as we work to follow Jesus together. There was one line in Jack Mountain’s sermon that struck me. He was talking about an experience in which he was unsure, but some friends believed in him, how much that support meant. Then he connected it to the support that he experienced here. He said: "Knowing that I belong somewhere has allowed me to try to belong everywhere." Knowing that I belong somewhere has allowed me to try to belong everywhere.
This issue of belonging was at the heart of the early church: Who got to be a part? Who decided? It began with the wrestling between Jews and Gentiles, but quickly became more complicated. After the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to the disciples at Pentecost, the Jerusalem church is shaped through acts of communal prayer and service. While they begin afraid in a locked room, the Spirit keeps pressing the church into the world. As chapter 6 begins, the disciples are feeding widows. The work is growing, so they call seven men – the roots of our office of deacons – to share the load.
One of these seven, Stephen, is arrested for his preaching. The sermon he gives before the council in chapter 7 lays the theological foundation for subsequent chapters. He speaks to the religious leaders, reaching back to their common heritage in Abraham and Sarah, through slavery and the Exodus. Stephen challenges them to move beyond their provincial view of a God that belongs in the temple to a God that is free in the world through Jesus Christ. God, Stephen argues, is always bigger than we think, always – as with the Israelites in the wilderness – leading us out to foreign and risky lands. Stephen is stoned for preaching a God that cannot be contained by their rules, which begins a persecution that terrorizes the community there, but also scatters the disciples beyond Jerusalem, so that even more may hear.
After Stephen’s stoning Luke, in chapter 8, tells a pair of stories about Philip, the second deacon called, and the Spirit’s boundary-crossing power. Philip is sent to preach to the Samaritans, at the heart of a centuries old conflict, a group that, ancient historian Josephus writes, the Jews were forbidden to SPEAK to. The people of Samaria are converted, and this is confusing enough that Peter and John are dispatched from headquarters to check things out. The news is confirmed and, as today’s text begins, Philip is sent towards Gaza.
Luke, Robert W. Hall writes, combines the narrative of Philip in Samaria with today’s story of his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch.1 They are set against each other: Simon the Samaritan magician wowed people with his charisma, but it rings hollow when confronted with the power of God. But the Ethiopian eunuch is someone of spiritual depth and devotion, who is seeking something real. The Eunuch is a fascinating character. On one hand he is powerful, connected, exotic, in charge of the queen’s entire treasury. The queen’s entire treasury. But on the other hand, as a eunuch, he is excluded by the law, forbidden, in Deuteronomy and in Leviticus, from being admitted to the assembly of God, from being able to offer a sacrifice to his God.2 He is both the elite of the elite and an outcast. Yet Luke writes that he was coming back from Jerusalem from worshipping. I wonder how broken-hearted he was, longing to be a full participant in life in the temple, yearning to follow, but dismissed, cast out, cut off. I wonder how lonely that feels.
But – and this is amazing to me – he is still faithful. He is reading the prophet Isaiah. This is where the text is a little funny, and the Spirit calls Philip over to the chariot, close enough to jog alongside a moving chariot with a man reading from Isaiah loudly enough for Philip to hear it, to inquire. STOP, the eunuch shouts. He invites Philip in, they talk. The passage he is reading is from Isaiah 53:7-8, words the church has interpreted as pointing to Jesus’ endurance and faithfulness in the beatings, in his suffering and death, for the reconciliation of the world. Philip starts with this text, and speaks to the Ethiopian Eunuch of the good news about Jesus. I wonder, too, as they were talking, if they moved from reading Isaiah 53, to Isaiah 56, back, like Stephen does in the chapter before, as Luke reaches back into Israel’s own story, as they struggled with questions of belonging. Deuteronomy and Leviticus say the Eunuch does NOT belong. But Isaiah says he does. For thus says the Lord, in verse 4, to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me, and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, God says, 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.
The Eunuch hears in all of this that he is invited. That he belongs. That he is claimed by the God who created the world and all that is in it, who names us good, and who, even in this encounter, was sending the church out, out across boundaries, boundaries the church set up and boundaries nations set up, across all lines of race and ethnicity and class and identity, to proclaim that Jesus the Christ is Lord of all, and bids us come and follow. The eunuch heard those words, and stopped the chariot once again, and they scramble down the hill into the river and he is baptized in the name of the One who calls to him, who says to him that he belongs. And right when they came out of the water the Spirit snatched Philip away. The eunuch, Luke says, saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
You are loved. You belong. My gosh, isn’t that a word the world needs so desperately to hear? Regardless of whether we are inside the community, here in worship every Sunday, at the heart of things. You might need someone to say to you: You are loved. You belong. Regardless of where you come from or where you have been, regardless of your resume or anything else you have done or left undone. Here in the testing and graduation season we are measured by what you score. That’s NOT IT. Regardless of the grief or shame you may hold in your heart. You are loved. You belong.
And I wonder, if we took God’s call to all people seriously, what a radical word that might be to our world. What if the people marching in Baltimore – even with these amazingly fast charges coming on Friday – who don’t feel like they have a say and who don’t feel like the justice system works for them, could hear, could be told in a way that they would believe, that they are loved, they belong, that they are welcomed in the household of God?
What if the policemen and women throughout our country who risk their lives to protect and serve in often quite scary circumstances, when peaceful protests turn irresponsible and violent and they have to stand there and take it, could they hear a word of love, of belonging?
What if we – and Luke’s audience is the church, those on the inside – could be the kind of church that could say to the world, to our neighbors on the other side of town, to people affected by decisions we make, to the teenager, or the adult, who has been pushed away, who is exhausted, depressed, maybe not be sure they think this life is worth living. Can you feel what a radical word that is if we, you, me, the church, could put our arms around someone who has told all their lives they don’t belong, like the Eunuch had been told, and say, you are welcome here? You belong. So that God’s love might shine in a way that they will stop the carriage and hop out and pull Philip down the hill to the waters of baptism, because they have seen, maybe even in us, that God’s love MEANS something, that Jesus Christ has changed us for living in this world, even this world filled with so much sadness.
Here in a couple of moments we’ll come to the table. It is the table of Christ himself, I’ll say. It is not one we own. Not a table that belongs to the church. But a table at which Christ is our host. And in the breaking of the bread and the dipping in the cup we will see something of His grace, in a broken and fearful world, that says to us – you are loved. You belong. Now, go, and live with others as if you believed that were true.
All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume X, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), p 142.
2. Deuteronomy 23:1, Leviticus 21:17-24.