A Sermon on Acts 8:26-39
The Rev. Christopher A. Henry
August 12, 2012
Shallowford Presbyterian Church
Many of you know that I am a PK; in my case, the acronym does not refer to placekicker or Philosopher King, but preacher’s kid. My father began serving Presbyterian congregations two years before my birth, and continues in that vocation now in Missouri. I have often heard that there are two kinds of preacher’s kids, though I don’t think anyone has ever described them in detail. In any case, as a child I adored being the son of the pastor. I count it among my greatest blessings to have been nurtured and raised by congregations filled with faithful and loving people, scores of unofficial grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Most of all, I am grateful that, from the earliest memories of life, the church has been for me a place of comfort, security, joy, and acceptance. As one who grew up hurdling pews, sprinting down hallways, and sneaking animal crackers from the nursery snack cabinet, I love being part of a community where children feel at home. The church has always been that kind of place for me, and I have always felt its welcome.
I also know that this is not the case for many among us, both within and beyond the walls of this sanctuary. Often, I hear the stories of those whose experience of the church sounds very different from mine. Those for whom the church has been a place of deep pain, of cruel judgment, of bitter rejection. In fact, these stories seem to be increasingly common in my conversations, as I speak with those who have found at Shallowford a place of grace that is somewhat surprising and new for them.
The question of who is to be welcomed is as old as the church itself. In its earliest committee meetings, the community of faith struggled with this very concern. Who is to be included in this new movement? In the Book of Acts, Luke records stories of how the church wrestled with this question—should the Christian church be open to Gentiles, those who had not been part of the Jewish faith? Many of them spoke different languages and had strange cultural and religious customs. None of them understood the great stories of the Old Testament and most had worshipped an array of idols only weeks or months before. Their ethical codes and traditions were quite different from those of Israel. Would a confession of faith in Jesus Christ be enough for them to be included?
Within the story of this struggle, Luke intersperses a number of accounts describing how individuals were transformed. There is, of course, Paul on the road to Damascus, who becomes an Apostle to the Gentiles and the strongest voice for their inclusion. There is Barnabas, who mentors Paul and gives him the opportunity to preach. There is Peter, who breaks bread with Roman Gentiles and has a vision that disrupts his perception of what is clean and unclean. And there is Philip, who is called by God to baptize previously-hated Samaritans.
And, at the heart of each of these stories, there is God’s own Holy Spirit, set loose on Pentecost, driving the church to cross boundaries and build bridges and tear down walls. The Book of Acts has been called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, and in Acts we see the church grow and thrive as it opens itself to new and different people. It is an unnerving, anxious, thrilling, extraordinary time as the Spirit of God pushes Christian leaders beyond their comfort zone and into the practical implications of the gospel. Our ancestors in the faith were forced to live out the words of Peter’s Pentecost sermon “for the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.”
This morning’s story is a perfect example. Philip, driven by the Holy Spirit to a wilderness road, encounters an Ethiopian official. In the First Century, Ethiopia was Timbuktu—as far away as you can get from the Jewish world. As a eunuch, the man was ritually unclean, and as a man of religious dignity, Philip should have kept his distance. But the Spirit of God keeps pushing—“go over to this chariot and join it.”
It is at this point that the miraculous begins to happen. This unclean, foreign official from the other side of the world is reading Philip’s Bible. He is reading the book of the Prophet Isaiah, and he needs some help. Philip is just the preacher to help him and so, breaking all rules of ritual cleanliness and proper boundaries, he sits beside the eunuch.
In the story that follows, the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip three amazing questions, each one a plea to be included and welcomed:
-How can I understand what I’m reading unless someone guides me?
-Is this prophet speaking about himself or someone else?
-What is to prevent me from being baptized?
The final question summarizes the crux of the debate in the church then as now: what prevents us from welcoming one another? Who is to be included and who should be left out? After reading and understanding the scripture, the Ethiopian eunuch wants to know if he also can be included.
Many years ago, when Fred Craddock was a young preacher out of seminary, he served a beautiful small church of wonderful people in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. At that time, Oak Ridge was rapidly expanding. Lots of new people were moving to town as the construction industry boomed. Many of the newcomers lived near the church in mobile homes, trailers, and lean-tos filled with young children and large families. Fred saw all those new people and thought his church ought to reach out to them. So at the next Board meeting he recommended a plan to reach out to the newcomers—“here’s our mission.” “Oh, I don’t think so” the chairman replied. “They won’t fit in. After all, they’re just here temporarily.” Fred was surprised, “They may be here temporarily, but they need the gospel, they need a church.” The meeting lasted a long time. Another meeting was called for the following week.
At that meeting a resolution was presented, “I move that in order to be a member of this church your family has to own property in the county.” “The motion passed unanimously once Fred was reminded he couldn’t vote. “They just won’t fit in here.”
Twenty years later, Fred and his wife Nettie were driving nearby and decided to stop by the church. It took a while to find it. Lots of new homes and Interstate 40 had been built. But they finally found the country road and, nestled in the pines, the beautiful white frame church was sitting there just as always. Except. Now there was a big parking lot out front full of cars, trucks, motor homes and even motorcycles. As they pulled into the lot they saw a big sign in front of the church. It said, “Barbecue: All You Can Eat. Chicken, ribs, pork.” They went inside and the place was packed with all kinds of people—white and black and Hispanic. Rich and poor. Southerners and northerners. And Fred said to his wife, “It certainly is good this isn’t a church anymore. If it were, these people would not be allowed in.” These folk would not be welcome. They wouldn’t fit in.”[i]
Brothers and sisters in the church of Jesus Christ, may such a story never be told of us. May we find ways to welcome those whom God calls in generous and expansive ways.
What is to prevent me from being baptized, the Ethiopian eunuch asks. The answer is really quite simple…a lot! There is much that might prevent this man from receiving the sacrament. The list of barriers is a mile long. He is the wrong kind of person in a dozen ways. But he has learned of a God who welcomes even him, and he has been transformed.
Philip has also been transformed by the encounter that began by the force of the Holy Spirit. You won’t find two people who have less in common than the preacher/evangelist/deacon Philip and the wealthy Ethiopian official, assistant to the Queen herself. And yet, by the power of the Spirit, they are both welcomed in to the same community of faith. They are both invited to share the same table of grace. They are both summoned to a life of adventurous faith, following the God who has always gone ahead of us and compels us to take the next step in faith.
And so, knowing that it might upset the council members back home, feeling a bit overwhelmed by the gravity of it, perhaps anxious and certainly surprised, Philip wades out into the water and claims God’s promise of grace for his new friend.
All the preventative barriers and exclusive restrictions are no match for the Spirit’s radical acceptance. Who are we to say no when it is so clear that God has already said yes? Can we ever overestimate the love of God?
As you receive the sacrament of communion this morning, consider this: at the Lord’s table, you are welcomed by the one whose grace and mercy takes in all the world. Some of you grew up embraced in loving arms of the church, some of you were turned away and cast aside, some of you are trying out faith for the first time, or coming back after a long absence. Some of you are here to raise your children with the support of a community, some of you are surrounded by your closest friends in this place. Some of you are still wondering if there is a place for you in the church, or if God can possibly accept you. Some of you need a fresh start, a helping hand, a place to worship and serve. Some of you are here to recommit and some are just about to give up.
No matter what (no matter what), at this table, these words were spoken for you, and for me, and for everyone else: welcome home, welcome home, welcome home. Amen.
[i] Fred B. Craddock, The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock. Westminster John Knox, 2011. pp. 224-225.