Our first Scripture lesson this morning was a complete story in itself; you heard the beginning, the middle, and the end—the story has no other verses before or after: Philip, one of the seven first deacons of the church, appointed in the sixth chapter of Acts, was called by God to go to a road south of Jerusalem. There he met a man from Ethiopia, a eunuch, who was reading Old Testament scripture and looking for someone to explain it to him. Philip obliged, the Ethiopian professed his faith, and Philip baptized him into the early Christian church. A complete story.
Our second lesion this morning, however, requires a little background information first, since what we will read is just part of a longer story. In fact a scholar named Haenchen divides the whole story into seven scenes, and what we will be reading are scenes 4 through 6. So here are the first three scenes:
Once there was a man named Cornelius, living in the seaside town of Caesarea. Cornelius was a centurion, a captain of the Roman army, an Italian, a non-Jew. But Cornelius was also a devout worshiper of God, praying and giving alms to the poor faithfully. So he was a friend of the local synagogue – not a full-blown member, as a Roman, but a regular visitor and contributor, and quite welcome in that capacity.
One afternoon at home, Cornelius had a vision, in which he was told to send some servants to Joppa, a town down the coast a few miles, to ask a man named Peter to come visit him.
Meanwhile, in Joppa, Peter, the disciple of Jesus, the leader of the newfound Christian Church, was having a vision of his own. In his trance, he was given a lot of food, but all of it food which was considered unclean for Jews, which they should not eat, according to the law of God. And Peter said, in his vision, “No, I will not eat this; it is unclean.”
A voice came back: “What God has made clean, you must not call unclean.” And with that, Peter awoke.
While Peter was still trying to figure out the meaning of this vision, there was a knock at the door. It was the servants of Cornelius, inviting him to come to Caesarea. And the Holy Spirit said to Peter, “Go with these men, for I have sent them.” And it is here that our Scripture lesson begins: Acts 10:23b-28, 34-36, 44-48
In the final scene of this little drama, Peter goes on to the church in Jerusalem, where the main body of believers is gathered, and he has to defend his actions, his baptizing of Gentiles, for they say to him “How could you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” When Peter tells them his vision, however, and of the coming of the Holy Spirit at Caesarea, they are amazed. Then they praise God, saying “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
In both stories, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian and the story of Peter and Cornelius, what we have is a tension, between the way things have always been done in the religious community with regard to issues of membership, and the interest of a newcomer in joining that community. Will the tradition prevail, which says that some types of people are allowed to join and others not, or will the person be admitted?
In our first story especially, the applicant severely tests the rules. In the first place, he is a foreigner; he is an Ethiopian, not an Israelite, in a time when the Christian Church is still located only in Israel. Paul, who will lead the effort to take the gospel to the rest of the world, is at this point still a persecutor of Christians, not having had his own conversion experience yet. The Christian Church is entirely within the boundaries of Israel, and composed of Jewish people, not Ethiopians or anyone else. And as if to make the point further, this applicant is an obvious foreigner; his black skin, as an Ethiopian, is a very visible reminder of his non-Jewishness.
The reason only Jews were admitted at this point had been derived from Old Testament law, from Scripture. While the Bible did not explicitly state “You shall not associate with Gentiles, with non-Jews, or admit them as members of your church,” it did say, number one, that it is the Jewish race who is the chosen people of God. In Exodus, and throughout Deuteronomy, we find “you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. You are to be set aside from all other nations. The Lord has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be God’s people.” Not the Egyptians, not the Canaanites, not the Romans—the Jewish people.
Second, intermarriage had been specifically forbidden by the Law, in Deuteronomy and Nehemiah: “Do not intermarry with people from other nations, lest they turn your heart from God and lead you to sin.”
And third, there were those provisions about eating only certain foods, as in the book of Leviticus; dietary restrictions made table fellowship with Gentiles very difficult.
From those starting points had developed the tradition of not even associating with non-Jews. So the Christian Church at this point, emerging from the Jewish synagogues, trying to follow Old Testament law, was made up of Jewish people, and not Ethiopians.
Second, the Ethiopian was in direct conflict with Old Testament scripture in that he was a eunuch—that is, as a child or youth, he had undergone castration. This was not uncommon in those days for men who held responsible positions in the palace, where they would be working in close proximity to the women of the palace; it was thought that this was the best way to avoid certain potential problems. But the law is explicit, in Deuteronomy and Leviticus: “No one who has been castrated, intentionally or by accident, shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” The reasoning behind this provision had to do with bringing only one’s best to God—only the unblemished, best animals for sacrifices; only the healthy, best young men to be priests. The Temple was not to be a place for society to dump off its less-than-perfect, and eunuchs were put in that category.
So the Ethiopian is not a likely candidate for membership in the Jewish Christian Church; a foreigner, an obvious foreigner, disabled in a way specifically prohibited by law. And Cornelius, in our second story, was not much less unlikely, as a Gentile, and also an obvious Gentile, serving in the foreign army which was occupying and keeping under its thumb the land of the Jews. These are not candidates for whom “well if we bend the laws just a little we can sneak them in on a technicality.” These two are stand-out challenges to the tradition; to admit them is to change the rules of membership.
Yet in both cases they are admitted into the church. “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” “Peter ordered Cornelius and his fellow Gentiles to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Do Philip and Peter no longer follow Scripture? Are they being sinners? Do they think they are exempt from the dictates of the Bible?
Well if so, they certainly had encouragement from God. Over and over again, the author of Acts goes to great lengths to emphasize how much it is God who is behind these baptisms, not just human decisions. God tells Philip where to go, to the spot where the Ethiopian will be. The Holy Spirit says to Philip, “Go over to that chariot and join it.” The Ethiopian just happens to have his scroll open to a passage about a suffering servant, and is wondering who it is about, when Philip arrives. There just happens to be some water nearby as their conversation ends. And Philip is immediately snatched up by the Holy Spirit and taken elsewhere when the baptism is complete, when his work here is done.
Cornelius has a vision from God. Peter has a vision from God. The Holy Spirit tells Peter, “Go with these men to Caesarea.” And finally, in case Peter has any reservations at all about baptism, the Holy Spirit intercedes and comes upon the Gentiles, prompting them to praise God and speak in tongues.
How could Philip say “no” to the Ethiopian after having been guided by God to that moment? As Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit, just as we have?” The element of the miraculous, of God’s intervention, is more clear here than probably anywhere else in the whole book of Acts. God wants these people in the church.
So does God not care about those Old Testament regulations anymore? Was Scripture wrong about the boundaries of the religious community? Or could it be . . . that times have changed, that a new day has come? Isaiah 56: “Thus says the Lord: soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed. Do not let the foreigner say ‘The Lord will surely separate me from God’s people,’ and do not let the eunuch say ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house, a monument and a name. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord I will bring to my holy mountain. Their offerings will be accepted on my altar. For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.” End of quote. The day is coming, the Old Testament also says, when the eunuch and the foreigner will be welcomed.
So perhaps what we have in Acts is not that Scripture has been overthrown, but that it has been fulfilled: that the time has come, beginning with Philip and Peter and the Ethiopian and Cornelius, for God’s house to be for all people.
Well this is God’s house too, isn’t it? This is a religious community as well, like the Christian Church of Jerusalem, and just as they had traditions and historical practices about membership, so have we. Just as Peter had colleagues say to him “How could you welcome them as full members?”, so have 20th and 21st century American Christians been known to say in their churches, “What are they doing here?”
So an obvious application of these stories is: Are there people who should be included in God’s church who we’re keeping out, or discouraging, or treating as lesser citizens, against God’s wishes? Are there ways in which we’re siding with traditional membership standards, even some which could be defended with a verse of Scripture, when we should be welcoming someone instead, and being part of a promised new time with its new ways? Do we consider some people as being more worthy of joining us “chosen people” than others?
The church has frequently been warned that this is so. Scott Peck has written that, especially in times when they feel distressed or insecure about the future, congregations can have a tendency to become clubs rather than churches – social fellowships as opposed to theological communities. A “club” is closed, exclusive, and inward-looking. It can be the friendliest of places and put on the best potluck dinners in town, but the congregation-as-club is essentially concerned with past and present friendship circles, with maintaining the relationships and system and way of operating that it’s got.
A church, on the other hand, in Peck’s opinion, is meant to be inclusive, welcoming, evangelistic, challenging, and transformative. It is an outward-looking, future-oriented community which embodies the Great Commission, and implicitly understands that the newest visitor is no less important than the oldest member – even if that visitor might someday suggest a change. A club is primarily concerned with fellowship and making the people already there feel good; growth and change are seen as threats. A church is concerned with conversion and commitment, even when it might bring newness and difference.
Are we a club or a church?
Carl Dudley has worked with and written about mostly normal-sized churches, churches with 200 or fewer members, not oversized ones. He has described the evangelism of too many of them as being “birdcalls” – a way of identifying which other people out there are just like us. You call, and if they echo your call, if they’re like you, they’re welcome. If their call is too different, we don’t want them in our nest.
Is our evangelism “birdcalls”?
Do we fall into the pattern of thinking of the traditional Jerusalem church? Would we accept the equivalent of the Ethiopian today? Would we welcome equally: someone from another country, as he was: someone with a different color of skin; someone who hasn’t grown up around here. Someone whose family situation is different from the majority configuration here; eunuchs don’t generally have spouses and 2.3 children. Do we welcome someone who has some form of disability? Have we taken steps to make sure they feel just as welcome? Would we accept a Cornelius, a person who is in a category our congregation has always considered unacceptable, or questionable, as a full member? Sure he’s fine as a friend of the church, or a regular visitor, but he’s not quite “one of us” – or treated that way.
Do we welcome as enthusiastically an older adult, or are they OK, but what we really want is young people? Do we welcome fully a young adult, or only as long as they do things our way, wait their turn, promise never to change anything, and prove that they’re really one of us? Do the needs of our children count as much as those of adults? Are some economic circumstances more welcome than others? Some family connections? Some histories? Some styles?
The Ethiopian asked “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”, and heaven forbid the answer would be us. Peter asked “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”, and heaven help us if we say “we will.” God, the book of Acts relates, has called all people into God’s church, and next to that call, our traditions of exclusion are empty. Who are we to turn them away?
Let’s pray: God, all of us can think of certain people who make us uncomfortable, make us nervous, who seem too different or too challenging or too needy or too much not-just-like-us. Help us overcome our prejudices, to be a church, not a club, to welcome even those who challenge our traditions and might bring change. Help us rejoice with the apostles when we hear that you have given “even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” Amen.