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Text: Acts 8: 26 – 40
In the United Church, we use the term “congregation” to apply to individual churches. We are the combined congregations of Mount Paul United Church and Plura Hills United Church. We don’t use the term “Parish,” more common in Anglican and Catholic churches, which has an historic connection to when churches in Europe were also administrative centres; in Britain, you had Counties, and then below counties you had cities and parishes. But the United Church was never an established church, was never part of the government, so instead we use the word “congregation.” Which focuses less on the sort of administrative identity of the church and instead refers to the people of the church; we are people congregating together.
And it is the more literal translation of the Greek word used in the New Testament for “church,” ecclesia. “Church” comes from Old English, which in turn borrows from ancient Greek kuriakon, meaning “belonging to the Lord.” But the word kuriakon never shows up in the New Testament, but when you see the word “church,” it’s translated from ecclesia, the root of the French église, and ecclesia means “a gathering of people,” and “assembly.” You see this in how some Pentecostal churches name themselves “Assembly of God” or something like that.
And, at the heart of it, it is what the church is: people. People who have gathered together, whether in person or online.
I bring this up because the eunuch asks Philip, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” Baptism is our initiation into the church, into the assembly. But Deuteronomy 23:1 says, quite clearly, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” The Bible is very clear. To Philip, a faithful Jew, who heard Jesus say, “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished,” there was plenty to keep this eunuch from being baptized.
Philip was given no explanation by the angel. He was not told, “Oh, God has changed His mind” on this. He was simply told to go. He does not understand why things have changed; he does not need to understand. He simply needs to love and welcome and when the eunuch asks to be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, to the church of Jesus, he baptizes him.
Philip does not try to understand. There’s no theological anguish over why god has now chosen to let eunuchs into the church, no discussion about what bible verses do and do not apply anymore, no moralizing, no distress; Philip just does. He recognizes that what is happening is now a new story, one where the old rules maybe don’t apply, and anyone can find a place.
I hope the parallels are obvious. Gay people, trans people, single mothers, offenders, atheists; anyone for whom there is “biblical justification” for discrimination. It isn’t necessarily important about whom exactly we are talking, the point is simply that the kingdom of God, the new thing that God is doing, includes everybody. Our job, as apostles, along with Philip, is not to decide who is in and who is out; it is not to defend the gates of Heaven from the encroaching hoards of defilers; it is to go out and invite, to welcome, to greet, and to love. Because in the outcasts, in those traditionally excluded from the assembly, from the congregation, from the church, is the closest thing we have to the second coming of Christ.
The text says the eunuch was reading from Isaiah 53, which is a passage that Philip says is about Jesus. Isaiah 53 also includes a lot of words about being “crushed” and “cut off,” and other wonderful phrases we heard used for the eunuch in the book of Deuteronomy:
- “He was wounded for our transgression; crushed for our iniquities.” (53:5)
- “For he was cut off from the land of the living” (53:8)
- “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain” (53:10)
Perhaps the eunuch, knowing that he was an outcast according to the law, having gone to Jerusalem to worship and to pray and probably having been denied entry into the temple, felt a kinship and connection with whomever this passage was speaking of. To the Jewish people of Jesus’ day, eunuchs were considered foreign, unnatural, something those people did. Sure, this eunuch, from Ethiopia, actually a person of privilege in the court of the queen, might have been Jewish, but to the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jerusalem, Jews from outside of Judea and Galilee weren’t really Jews.
So we have a story of an outcast, one whom the bible says should be excluded, being included. It itsn’t the first time Deuteronomy 23 has been overridden, either. Deutereonomy 23:3 says that no Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord, nor any of their descendants. A Moabite, Ruth, became the great grandmother of David; Jesus is one of her descendants. Jesus should have been excluded, with biblical justification, from the assembly, from the church.
We find the image of Jesus most fully not in ourselves, if we are privileged, but in others and in particularly those who have been excluded. God welcomes all, opens wide her arms, and our job is not to ask why, to argue about who should be let in and who should not; our job as Christians is simply to love and to invite in. We are the servant the master has sent out to invite the rabble from the streets to the wedding when none of the invited guests would come. We are Philip, being told by the Holy Spirit to go, and to baptize.
This week is mental health awareness week, and one of the things I feel passionately about is the inclusion of people with mental illness, disabilities, and neuro-divergent people in the church. And our churches have done a horrible job, historically, of doing that. We don’t take disruptions well. Whether it’s rambunctious kids, or someone on the autistic spectrum dealing with a sensory overload, we demand quiet, silent attentiveness. We demand socialization in a particular way to “really” be part of the church, leaving out people with anxiety or who can’t socialize. To say nothing of how we handle more severe illnesses.
But the church needs to be a safe place for all people. Not just people who make us look good with their inclusion, but disruptive people, unpleasant people. The church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints.
During the season of Easter, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost, the church has historically read from the book of Acts rather than the Old Testament; the reason for this is to tell the story of how the first Christians, in the wake of the Resurrection, began to view the expansion of the covenant. In the Hebrew Bible, God says to the Israelites, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” The story is about their relationship to God. In the Christian New Testament, God says to humanity, “I am your God.”
That includes those who were excluded from the covenant before. Gentiles, eunuchs, outcasts, sinners, whomever. God is for everyone.
This is, of course, not to say that Christianity is better than Judaism, it is important to note. Nor is Christianity inherently more inclusive. We have thousands of years of church history to disprove that idea. And, of course, in the Old Testament, God also overrules what “the Bible clearly says” in drawing the line of Kings from the great grandson of a Moabite.
So when I say, when I invite you to the table, that all are welcome, that gone are the days of communion tokens and preparatory visits from elders to see if you are “worthy,” that no one is cut off from the assembly here, I mean it. And God commands us to take this sacrament She has given us, and let it infuse our lives, welcoming all to the table of Christ, whether literally by inviting them to church, or metaphorically by loving them with the same self-giving love Jesus demonstrated here.
Christ is alive. What once was has passed away, and living as an Easter people means going out and being a people of the new, expansive covenant of God’s love. Hallelujah. Amen.