The Eunuch asked, “What prevents me?”

Even after hearing Jesus’ Great Commission “go into every nation making disciples” (Matthew 28); after seeing Jesus gloriously ascend to heaven and hearing his command “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1); after experiencing the Holy Spirit miraculously un-bridling tongues with the languages of the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Africans, Asians and Arabs and witnessing 5,000 folks professing faith on Pentecost Sunday (Acts 2): the church did not leave Jerusalem.  The Jerusalem Church did many good works: running a food bank, offering healing, preaching with enough fire to get pastors jailed, sharing everything in common, and praying with enough power to shake the room.  Still, seven chapters into the Acts of the Apostles, the church was not living into the Great Commission. They did not go to ends of the earth, or too far past the end of the parking lot. The church had not crossed a single cultural boundary.

If a church fails to cross cultural boundaries, it is hard to know if the glue that binds the people together is the presence of Jesus or just mutual interest.

I do not think God sent persecution to get the church moving, but persecution engaged the church in mission in a way the commands of Jesus never did.  James 1:12-18 teaches that temptation arises from within us when our own sinful desires take hold. Acts 8 recounts, “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” Saul was an old-school, old-wine, old-time religion, old-ways loving guy, seeking to squash the nascent Jesus movement. God did not orchestrate Saul’s terror, but God is the redemption business, turning evil towards good.  God used the persecution so that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the Word.”

Scattered by Saul’s terror, Philip traveled beyond his comfortable culture, preaching to his “heretical” Samaritan cousins.  Philip preached to a strange culture mixed up with sorcery sharing the Good News of Jesus’ love, liberation, and salvation.  I imagine Philip’s stood a bit slack-jawed when “unclean spirits cried out with loud shrieks”. As the Samaritans embraced the Gospel, Luke narrates the missional outcome: “there was great joy in that city.

Fresh from converting the Samaritans, Philip gets little rest, for an angel says to Philip, “Get up and go! That phrase might stir a corny sermon: “Have we lost our get up and go?

God sends Philip to a wilderness road.  Looking up Philip sees a large luxury chariot rolling down the remote road.   It is a Royal chariot attached to the Ethiopian Secretary of the Treasury, Luke does not share the man’s name simply telling us that the Treasurer was a eunuch working for the Queen.  The Treasury Secretary sits in the back seat reading an Old Testament scroll.  In 34 AD, few people owned luxury chariots or hand-inscribed scrolls.  God sends Philip to royalty. The Holy Spirit prompts Philip to “go join the chariot”!

A friends’ mother worked as the Secretary for Polo Association.  One evening as we sat chatting the phone rang. Answering it, Sherry quickly clutched the receiver up against her, in the way we all used to mute a phone, whispering for our silence, “It’s a call from the Queen of England.” We all laughed but heeded her signal.  Sherry held the receiver to her ear, her face grinning ear to ear, and then in her most pleasant professional voice said, “Good Evening, Your Royal Highness!” We sat eavesdropping as our friend chatted with Queen Elizabeth about polo ponies and equine bloodlines.

The Holy Spirit sends Philip to “go over and join the chariot.”  The church is out of Jerusalem now. Philip chases after an Ethiopian Royal chariot flagging it down.  Get that image into your mind, Philip, filled with the Spirit, running alongside a royal chariot on a wilderness road. The church is now moving towards “the ends of the earth”!

The Ethiopian Eunuch welcomes the hitch-hiking evangelist. Philip interprets the Isaiah scroll sharing the Good News of Jesus beginning with the passage that reads “he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied.”   God sends Philip as the Eunuch read of injustice!  

It is strange that the Ethiopian Treasurer went to worship in Jerusalem in the first place.  Deuteronomy 23:1 states that “No eunuch shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Leviticus 21 precludes eunuchs and a long list of others from standing near the sacrificial altar.  Those with blemished brows or broken hands shall not stand near the altar!  Denied access to the place of atonement, Leviticus labels those afflicted people as profane.  How would it feel to be called profane? I can’t my status declared as “profane” or being from God’s assembly. Church has always been the safest place for me, I wonder what it feels like to feel cut off and excluded?

As Philip shares the love and grace of Jesus Christ, the Ethiopian Eunuch looks up and sees a river and asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”   I wonder, did he use the negative “what prevents me” to softens a possible rejection? Did the Eunuch imagine Philip answering, “I am sorry but Deuteronomy 23 precludes you from our assembly”?

In the first grade, I discovered that reading would resist my best efforts.  My letters spun and twisted in ways that other children’s words never seemed to bend.  Even today, I can famously misread highway signs that offer little context. I exclaim, “No ramp ahead” and my dear wife will laugh “that’s on ramp.”  It’s funny now that I graduated with “high distinction”!   But my dyslexia cut deep in the third grade.  Every day, we said the Pledge, heard squawky announcements and then a teacher’s aide appeared before the class calling out: Paul, Ron, and Liegh-Ann.  Hearing the daily roll call of special education, I timed my walk to never arrive too early and needlessly stand on display before the class, my head down to avoid eye contact, my ears attuned to snickers.  Once in the hall, I immediately turned right and escorted myself to reading group. Even as a third grader I wondered why they announced my separate status every day? Once my 30-minute reading lesson ended, I escorted myself back to class, waiting by the door listening for the right moment to enter without drawing more attention to my daily embarrassment.  Have you ever worn an unwelcome status?

Do you think it is accidental that the Holy Spirit sent Philip to one cut off by the Levitical Law or does this story tell us something foundational about the Christian movement?   Why with all the other people in the world, did the Lord send Philip to one banned from the assembly?  Of all unrecorded conversation between Philip and the Eunuch, why did Luke included the question: “what is preventing me from being baptized?”      

Some translations do not include Acts 8:37. The NRSV offers it as a footnote: “Other ancient authorities add all or most of verse 37” because some of the oldest scrolls do not include the verse.  Acts 8:37 answers the Eunuchs’ question: “what is preventing me from being baptized?”  Surely, Philip answered the question, so let us hear Philip’s answer: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip answered “If you believe with all your heart, you may be baptized.”  The Eunuch replied “I believe!”  And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing! 

Perhaps, Acts 8:37 defines who can be included in the church!  Philip’s answer defines Christian faith not by the ancient exclusions but by “believing in Jesus with all your heart.”   Philip never mentions the Levitical Law, but trusts the very Spirit that sent him chasing after that royal chariot.  Without benefit of church councils or rule-books Philip trusts the same Holy Spirit that compelled him to “go and join that chariot.”  Philip proclaims that Christianity flows from a heart full of belief and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing!     Nothing prevents the Eunuch from belonging.

As we celebrate the baptism of the Ethiopian Eunuch, let us not miss the Gospel’s deeper message.  Let us not fail to allow the Gospel, that stretches to the ends of the earth, stretch us.   The Gospel is going to new places, new people, and new cultures.   It will reach new conclusions on its way to ends of the earth!

We tend to love the old ways, the old answers, the old rules, and the old wine.  The old is comfortable and leaves us alone to do our thing.  The rules allow us control.  The old patterns resist the Spirit snatching us up and putting us on new wilderness roads.  If Jesus is our Lord, then Jesus must be the Lord over our theology.  In Matthew 23:29-29, Jesus warns us against enshrining the past while ignoring the prophetic or spiritual voices in our midst.  If Jesus is not the Lord of our theology, then we are the lords of our theology.

Acts is a wild ride of faith, new encounters and new contexts.  Acts asks new questions as it moves out to the ends of the earth. Who will be exclude?  Must Christians be circumcised? Can we eat pork at a church barbecue?  Who is my sister in Christ?   How deep is the love of God?  I do not pretend to know all the answers. But the radical love of God poured out on sinners through the cross challenges all our old-school thinking.

On the cross, Jesus entered the assembly of the sinners.  Jesus was afflicted for our afflictions.  Jesus hung amid our profanity.  Jesus suffered for our injustice.  Jesus endured our humiliation.  For those cut off from the redemptive sacrifice, Jesus became our sacrifice. Christ is disfigured, bleeding, blemished, and wounded to make us whole.  He tore the veil to bring us into the Assembly.  Jesus bore our afflictions, wore our sin, embodied our shame, and overcame our humiliation.  Philip preaches “There is nothing to prevent you! Believe in this Jesus and you and be cut off no more!”  Christian friends, do you believe there is something New in our New Testament?   Do you believe the cross changes everything? Do you hear our Crucified Lord crying out “Father forgive them”?   Oh, friends, the cross changes everything!   Amen!

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