Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday of Easter + April 29, 2018
Reading: Acts 8:26-40
We’re going to start off today with a little interactive sermon time. But those of you who are on the shy side: don’t worry, I won’t make you talk to anybody. All I’m asking you to do is get in touch with all the memories of Bible stories you have stored up in your brain. Think back through whatever ways you have learned the stories of our scriptures: Sunday school and Bible studies; sermons and your own reading; Jesus Christ Superstar and flannel boards and references in Bob Dylan songs. OK, now I’m going to give you a little Bible trivia quiz — but again, don’t worry, you’ll only be answering in your own head, and nobody’s keeping score. And none of these are trick questions: each one really does have an answer. Ready?
Think of a Bible story with a character who is really, really old.
Think of a Bible story with a character who is really young.
Think of a time the Bible talks about someone who is grieving.
About someone who is poor?
Someone who is rich?
About someone who is African?
About an immigrant?
About someone who can’t have children? Or someone who chooses not to have children?
About someone who is in prison?
About someone who has a lot of doubt?
About someone who feels like they aren’t up to the job they are given?
About someone who feels like they don’t fit in?
About someone who feels like they failed?
Given enough time, and access to experts or Bible dictionaries or Google, we can find a Bible reference to just about any life circumstance — so long as that circumstance also existed when the Bible was written. No Bible stories about misplacing your cell phone and having no one else around to call it for you so you can find it. But for all the really important, timeless things humans go through — things like loss and hopelessness and joy and hunger and wonder; even things like poverty and flawed government — we can find something in the Bible that speaks to that situation. We can find an example of a time that what we’re going through now has been on God’s radar in the past. And that can help us feel like we are on God’s radar now.
It doesn’t always feel like that carries over into the church, though. We might visit a different congregation on a Sunday morning, look around, and immediately feel like: There is no place for me here. Everyone else looks like part of a family, and I’m here by myself. Or, It looks like everyone here can afford to dress much better than I can. Some people might not come to church at all because they feel like — based on the church’s reputation, fair or unfair though it may be — that they don’t have the political beliefs or scientific beliefs or total lack of doubt in God’s existence or the infallibility of the Bible that the church requires. It’s often easy to feel like we have to fit a certain mold to even walk through the doors of a church.
And sometimes the church says more explicitly, “People like you aren’t welcome here.” Today in the United States we still have “white churches” and “black churches” — both as individual congregations and as entire denominations — because for so long in American history African-Americans were told “you can’t worship with us,” or, “you can sit in the pews, but you can’t be a leader here,” or “if you are here, the preaching will tell you that slavery or segregation are the way God wants things to be.”
Many of my friends who are gay look for churches that say explicitly that they are welcome in worship, because experience has made them assume that most churches will reject them – sometimes in hostile ways. Some of my female friends who felt a call to ministry have had to leave denominations where they were not allowed to preach or teach. Families with children with mental or physical disabilities might wonder if they will be welcomed or gawked at it, if sudden outbursts will be tolerated, if special needs will be met or just met with frustration. The church is often not nearly as inclusive as the Bible.
The Bible paints us a picture of God’s Kingdom: where poor and rich have dinner together; where the powerful genuinely care for the lowly; where people who have disabilities are vital parts of the community; where the people society calls “sinners” and people society calls “saints” are recognized as equals; where people of all nations and cultures are gathered together into one People of God. It’s a radical vision for the Church to try again and again to get closer and closer to embodying in our own communities. It’s a vision we have to work actively to keep in our minds and to live out in our lives, because if we are not actively working at it, we will slip into existing just like the world around us.
The biblical writer we call Luke — who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts — focused on helping his readers keep the radical, inclusive vision of God’s Kingdom alive in their minds and in their lives. He was always trying to drive home that God’s work included even more people than we would think to include on our own.
Luke emphasizes, even more than the other gospels, Jesus’s care for the poor and the sick and the sinful and the outcast, and Jesus’s teaching that his disciples should do the same. Luke mentions the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry more often than the other gospels. And then in the book of Acts, that same writer tells the story of how the Holy Spirit broke through the Church’s original boundaries; where at first people had thought the Jesus movement was meant for observant Jews, the book of Acts tells story after story of God moving to include people of other nations and religious backgrounds.
This special emphasis of Luke’s, this emphasis on how God’s mission keeps reaching out past human expectations and social boundaries and religious regulations and national borders — this is probably why he included the story we read earlier this morning, where Philip the Apostle is sent to a eunuch from Ethiopia, and this man is so moved by the story of Jesus that he asks to be baptized immediately.
This one, brief story tells us so much about how far the Holy Spirit expanding the Church. For one thing, first-century Mediterranean people would have thought of Ethiopia as the southernmost edge of their world, so this story shows how the disciples are doing what Jesus said, spreading the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). But this Ethiopian eunuch also represents a number of groups of people who have been left out of church life — both then and now.
This man was a foreigner, even working for a foreign government. Being Ethiopian, he was probably black-skinned. Because he was reading the book of Isaiah and had traveled to Jerusalem to worship, there’s a good chance that he was Jewish, though it is also possible that he was a seeker, someone curious about other religions, and had come from a different religious background himself. And the fact that he was called a “eunuch” opens up a huge range of possibilities: he may have been a slave or an ex-slave, as many eunuchs were in the ancient world. And as a eunuch – a man who had been castrated — he definitely didn’t fit the gender norms of his day, probably being seen as not-exactly-male, not a “full man,” unable to have children and pass on an inheritance – which was perhaps an even bigger deal back then that it is now. He would have been an outsider to the early Church in so many ways, and he would still be an outsider in most parts of the Church today, and yet it seems the Holy Spirit went out of her way to include him in the spreading of the gospel.
Many people who see themselves as outsiders in the eyes of the Church hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and find themselves included in the mission of God, welcomed into God’s Kingdom.
Lutheran churches hold that the Bible is the “source and norm” for our faith and our life together. Sometimes we have a tendency of taking that in a pretty legalistic direction, focusing on figuring out the “do”s and “don’t”s the Bible lays out for our behavior and our beliefs, and — quite frankly — focusing on what that says about who and what is “out” of the Church life.
But the Bible is more than just laws and teachings. It is also a record of God’s promises to all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, a record of God’s love for imperfect people, and a library of teachings and stories about how God’s mission keeps breaking down human boundaries to include more and more people in the Kingdom of God.
And if that is the “source and norm” for our life together — then we should also be paying attention to God’s promises to the poor, the sick, the people who don’t fit our social norms, the immigrant, the widow, the uneducated, the sinner-with-a-capital-S, and all sorts of people we may not think of in our day-to-day lives, and striving to make those promises come alive in our community. Striving to help all sorts of people see that there is a place for them in God’s Kingdom and here in the Church, and striving to help them figure out that place.
And if the Bible is the “source and norm” for our lives as individuals — that means that when the Church fails us, when we feel left out or unwelcome or unforgiven, we can always turn to scripture to find the story of how God is reaching out to call us in to God’s grace, and God’s transforming Spirit, and the mission of God’s Kingdom.
Let us pray.
God of all people: help us to see your Spirit at work even in the places we least expect, even among the people we least expect. Sometimes, when we don’t feel good enough or right enough, that unexpected place is our own lives. In those times help us to hear your word of grace and welcome anew. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
 Demetrius K. Williams, “The Acts of the Apostles,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 226.