Monday, May 11, 2015

Whose Conversion?

1 John 4:7–21
Acts 8:26–40

I was examined for membership in the Upper Ohio Valley Presbytery, back in 2009. I no longer remember who it was, but someone asked me what I thought of as a classic “Ordination Exam” question, like I might have had to answer in essay form before graduating from seminary. The question was this: A member of your church comes to you on Friday afternoon and says, “My daughter is going to be in town this weekend, visiting from California. We were hoping that you could baptize her new baby while she’s in town, so that the whole family can be there.” Do you baptize that baby on Sunday morning, or not?

I smiled. I smiled because I recognized that this was, simultaneously, a “gotcha question” and a grace-filled gift from the person asking. And so I said, “There are two answers to that question: the correct answer, and my answer.” There were glances around the room—I’d like to think they were “knowing looks,” but who’s to say? I continued, saying, “The correct answer would be to tell this church member that I cannot baptize her grandchild, because baptisms must be approved by the Session, whose approval I could not reasonably get on such short notice. My answer is that I would counsel the baby’s mother about the meaning of baptism, baptize the baby, and then ask the Session for forgiveness after the fact. After all,” I reasoned, “was Philip constrained by the Book of Order when he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on a moment’s notice, or did he follow the leading of the Holy Spirit?” 

Apparently, I gave the right answer; they approved my membership.

The above reading from John’s first epistle, a treatise on what love itself is and isn’t and a theological commentary on John’s gospel, declares that love is from God, because God is love; and we love only because God first loved us. And if God can love us, sinners that we are, then surely we can love each other. 

John notes that “No one has ever seen God,” which seems like a weird thing to say in this context, but it could be taken to mean two things. First, John follows this phrase by saying, “If we love one another, God lives in us.” In other words, though no one has ever seen God, evidence of God is seen in our love for one another, since we could not do so without God. 

Second, by “No one has ever seen God,” I would suggest that John also means that no one can claim to be more holy or more righteous in God’s sight than any other: that is, no one can lay a more special claim on God’s affection or on knowing God’s mind than anyone else. Therefore, we are no in position to exclude whom God wills to include.

Enter the story of the Ethiopian eunuch.

Luke, the author of Acts, makes it clear what makes this person interesting: he uses the word “eunuch” whenever he refers to him. Clearly, this is what Luke believes it is important to know and understand about this man (as opposed to his race, which would have been less of an issue for Luke’s contemporary readers than it is in our own time). A eunuch, of course, is a man who has been neutered, usually before they reach puberty. This makes them suitable, trusted servants in the courts of queens and princesses, or in the harems of powerful men. As it turns out, this particular eunuch was in the employ of an Ethiopian queen.

Being a God-fearer, one who worshiped the God of Israel though he may or may not have been a Jew, this man would have known that being a eunuch meant he was not welcome in the sacred assemblies of the Temple. The book of Deuteronomy makes it plain that no one who is sexually mutilated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut. 23:1). Now, the eunuch is not reading Deuteronomy, of course, but it is reasonable enough to assume that he knew his own status in the eyes of the very religion to which he adhered. 

Perhaps you can imagine growing up going to church your entire life, and that even though you had been baptized by this congregation, and they had promised on that day to love and encourage you in the way of Christ, they now refuse to allow you to partake in holy communion—denying you fellowship with them in Christ, denying you communion with the Lord and Savior you emphatically confess and follow—because there was something about you, something over which you had no control, something that marked you and identified you, even if only privately, which caused your congregation to exclude you. Perhaps you can imagine that. And if so, then you have some idea of what this faithful eunuch experienced, as his sexual status caused God’s people to marginalize him.

Philip, one of the first Deacons of the church, was traveling through Samaria on an impressively successful evangelism tour, when a messenger of God said to him, “Hang a left over there, and head south toward Gaza.” And without batting an eye, Philip did as instructed. Without further ado, he came upon the Ethiopian eunuch, who was traveling home after coming to Jerusalem to worship, and he overheard the eunuch reading from the scroll of Isaiah, a scroll that early Christians knew well, and particularly the passage that the eunuch happened to be reading. Isaiah has a number of passages called the “songs of the suffering servant,” and this is one of those passages. From the earliest of times, followers of Christ interpreted those passages to be in reference to Jesus. Jesus was known to read and preach from Isaiah himself, and to read himself into that prophet’s scrolls. 

Perhaps we should pause to note—as Luke did in writing this story—the passage in question. The eunuch, who had been dragged off in early childhood and mutilated against his will in such a way that made him ineligible for admittance to the holy assembly of God’s people, even though he’d had no say in the matter, was reading this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter. 
And like a lamb before its shearer is silent, 
so he didn’t open his mouth. 
In his humiliation, justice was taken away from him. 
Who can tell the story of his descendants, 
because his life was taken from the earth?”

Surely, for the eunuch that passage hit close to home. He knew that he was like a sheep, led to the slaughter. He knew that in his humiliation, he’d been denied justice. He knew that none would tell the story of his descendants, because in his mutilated state, he could never have any.

Philip asked the eunuch, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” (And there is one sense in which the eunuch understood that passage far better than Philip ever could.)

Nonetheless, he said to Philip, “Without someone to guide me, how could I? Tell me, who is Isaiah talking about here? Is he talking about himself, or is he talking about someone else?” Is this a word from God for some other person in some other time, or is this God’s word for me, today?

Philip, starting with that passage, and then also pointing out others, began to tell the eunuch the good news about Jesus. Isaiah may have been talking about himself. He may have been talking about the whole nation of Israel. He may have been talking about the Ethiopian eunuch. After all, our world is filled with such injustice. Filled with it. Most of all, taught Philip, Isaiah was talking about Jesus. The good news of Jesus is that, as the Word made flesh, as God incarnate, as God’s only begotten, Jesus had suffered that very injustice. The good news is that ours is a God who is acquainted with our grief, who knows what it is to be led like a lamb to the slaughter, to suffer the humiliation of human injustice, and to be cut off from the world he loves.

This was indeed good news to the eunuch. Not only does God know the eunuch’s experience of being mutilated, humiliated, and cut off, but in Jesus Christ, God had experienced that humiliation for himself.

I cannot read this story—I cannot immerse myself in the psychic and spiritual anguish and the injustice dealt to the mutilated, disenfranchised eunuch—without holding in my heart and mind the many people, like Freddie Gray, who like sheep are led to slaughter, who are denied justice, about whose descendants no one will speak, because their lives are cut short. 

Even when such injustice does not directly affect us, or our families, or our communities, it does not mean that it is “not our problem.” Whenever there is injustice, God requires of his people that we seek justice (Micah 6:8). We cannot claim to live in a free and just society unless that freedom and justice extends to everyone in it. And so it is our problem. Those of us who are privileged enough to have a skin color that makes our elected officials more likely to listen when we speak have a responsibility to speak on behalf of those who have not been heard. The prophet Isaiah—the very prophet this Ethiopian eunuch was reading on the day he met Philip—records God’s word to Israel saying, “Isn’t this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to untie the bonds of the yoke, to give the oppressed freedom, and to break every yoke?” (Isa. 58:6).

The eunuch heard the good news about Jesus—God’s Messiah, who was acquainted with the eunuch’s grief and who had experienced his humiliation and rejection—and knew that this was his Messiah; his Lord. Overcome by this realization, he said to Philip, “What’s to stop me from being baptized right here and now?”

His question, like the question asked of me when I was being examined by the presbytery, had a “correct” answer. That “correct” answer was, “Actually, sir, there are any number of things that prevent you from being baptized. Let’s start with your sexual condition, which prevents you from being in communion with your fellow disciples.” To this day, the church tells people that all the time. “You’re not welcome, because the Bible says.”

But that’s not the answer Philip gave. He didn’t give the “correct” answer. Led by the Spirit, he gave a better answer. “What’s to stop me from being baptized right here and now?” the eunuch had asked, and Philip heard the Spirit reply, “Absolutely nothing. Nothing whatsoever.”

That’s right: Deacon Philip, led by the Spirit, ignored what Scripture said, and baptized the eunuch right then and there, sending him home rejoicing in Christ. Philip discerned that it doesn’t matter what Deuteronomy says, it doesn’t matter what Leviticus says. God’s will, in Christ and by the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, is, as it is explained in the book of Ephesians, “to gather up all things in him: things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). The precedent for ignoring the “rules” of scripture in order to welcome one "gathered up" by God is to be found in scripture.

The one who was converted in this story was not the eunuch, it was Philip, who had to overcome the prejudices inherent in his religious traditions, and recognize that some rules—regardless of where they’re written—are an impediment to the gospel. The Church has a long and terrible history of using the Bible as a litmus test of the holiness of people not like us, while ignoring what scripture says about our own sinfulness. Our task is not to guard the door of the church, as though we were protecting some inner sanctum from those who would defile it with their brokenness. We’re doing a fine enough job of defiling God’s house already. Ours is the privilege to fling wide the doors of God’s kingdom, welcoming all whom God has called, even as we have been welcomed.

I imagine that the eunuch went on reading as he continued on his journey back to Ethiopia. (Once a book changes your life this drastically, don’t you want to read the rest of it?) And so it wouldn’t have been long before he got to Isaiah, chapter 56, which reads in part, “The Lord says to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, choose what I desire, and remain loyal to my covenant: in my temple and courts, I will give them a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an enduring name that won’t be removed… My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples, says the Lord God” (Isa. 56:4-5, 7b-8a).