Religion makes meaning out of life. We all derive meaning, in part or in whole, from our relationship with God. Our faith offers answers to the big questions of life. Why do we exist? To love others. What’s our purpose? Empowered by the Spirit, to make the world look a bit more like heaven. Our lives find meaning in Jesus.
Coming to church, we have that meaning reinforced. Our worship enlivens our spirits, connecting us with God. Our relationships remind us of the love of Christ as we experience our love for each other. The support we receive from this church when our lives take a turn for the worse reminds us of the care Christ gives us. The passion we feel for supporting our community reminds us of the way the Holy Spirit moves and shapes our lives.
All of this reinforces that meaning we make out of life, a meaning we can ultimately define this way: we belong to Christ. And so we belong to each other. We’re equally yoked as followers of Christ. Over and over again I hear how much you all love this church, love each other, find great support here. Certainly in the little less than a year I’ve been here, I have experienced that. This past week was such a great week for me to live in Eastman I have no doubt that I and my family belong here.
I feel I belong here. You feel you belong here. We have that powerful sense of belonging that gives us comfort, peace, and purpose.
So imagine with me if this was not the case for you. Imagine if you knew most of the people here, if you had relationship with them out in the town, but you were barred from coming into the church. How would you feel? Rejected? Inferior perhaps? Blaming yourself for something that’s wrong with you? That’s exactly how the eunuch, one of the characters in our story, feels this morning.
Let’s read together Acts 8:26-40.
Luke, the author of Acts, tells us that the eunuch is returning home from having attended worship at the temple. Jews from all over the world made regular pilgrimages to the temple because it was the only place where sacrifices could rightly be made, the place where God was most present, and the place of right and true worship.
And so this eunuch, a high court official of an African queen, has made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, leaving his home behind. But history teaches us that his reception would have been cool. Both Leviticus and Deuteronomy specify that the sexually immoral, which includes all eunuchs, could not attend worship at the temple. They were considered inferior, impure, and thus were barred from participating in the worship life of the temple.
So this high ranking, wealthy, official, the Secretary of the Treasury of some ancient African kingdom, can only approach the temple, standing inside its outer walls, but go no father. No matter his devotion, and it was apparently great as he owns his own scrolls and can read Hebrew, he cannot enter the temple with other Jews who have come to worship.
He’s just like you imagined yourself a second ago: he’s a devout person, but he’s barred from entering the temple. He belongs to no one.
So as he rides his chariot home, reading Isaiah, he’s undoubtedly feeling rejected, marginalized, inferior, and impure. He’s wondering if he matters to his faith, if he even matters to God, as he reads from Isaiah 53, the quoted portion of Isaiah in our scripture this morning. In asking Philip about whom the scripture speaks, he’s really asking, “is this scripture about me?”
For certainly this eunuch has experienced life as Isaiah describes: humiliation, justice has been denied him. He must feel like a lamb taken to the slaughter, for he approached the temple in innocent faith only to be rejected. His status as a sexually immoral person wasn’t his choice: someone decided for him that he would never go through adolescence when he was just a young boy. And because of that choice by some other person, he is rejected at the temple. That kind of rejection must feel not only like rejection from the temple but also, as a devout Jew, rejection from his faith.
This rejection comes because of the law. Lest we get too judgmental too quickly of those who made him stay in the temple’s outer court, temple officials have good reason and are well within their rights to bar this eunuch from entering the temple. Leviticus and Deuteronomy expressly forbid eunuchs from full participation in the worship life of the temple, just as they do other people like eunuchs who are considered sexually impure. The priests are simply following their standards, adhering to their understanding of morality.
But, our empathic hearts say, their law has caused someone to feel excluded, caused this eunuch to think that his life matters less, made this man, and probably countless others, feel like inferior Jews. We might respond by saying that’s cause to reconsider standards! Reconsider beliefs! Reconsider how closely we follow the law, how we interpret the law, how we live out the law. If our beliefs have hurt someone, that might be cause to rethink them!
Which is exactly what much of the church is doing today. In all corners of the western world, we’re rethinking our stances on a whole host of moral issues because we’re finding, all too often, people get hurt because they feel excluded. Churches, seeking to be more inclusive, are asking questions like: What’s the proper Christian perspective on marriage? What’s the proper Christian perspective on divorce? Or sex before marriage? Or, like with this eunuch, on sexual immorality?
Indeed, what’s the proper Christian perspective on atheism? Some churches have come to the conclusion that one can be an atheist and a Christian. A radical notion, but no different than many churches across the western world who have come to different conclusions on their answers to any of these questions, changing their stance to be broader, less definitive, or outright declaring that what used to be sinful no longer is. All of this out of a desire to become more inclusive of folks who, like this eunuch, feel rejected by their faith.
And that desire is good, to want to be more inclusive, want more people to know the love of Christ, but we have standards. Shall we water down our standards in the name of inclusion? Shall we declare that sin doesn’t really matter? Shall we declare that much of what we thought was sin no longer is? Shall we abandon morality, or at least make it less defined so that more people will feel included in the life of the church?
Many of us in this room would answer a definitive no! We have standards and those standards should be maintained. We have beliefs and we live out faith, in part, because our morality is part of how we make the world look a bit more like heaven. That’s part of our call. That’s part of how we make meaning out of life. That’s part of how we define our reason for existence. To water that down seems like a terrible idea.
And so, we’re stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place. This feels like our Sophie’s Choice: it seems either we water down our morality so that we don’t have folks who feel like this eunuch: rejected by their faith, rejected by religion, hurt and struggling to make meaning out of life. Or we keep our morality and accept that the consequence of doing so is that there will be people like the eunuch, an undesirable outcome, but one we must accept.
This is the problem. This is the debate: morality or inclusivity? This is the catch-22. And Philip rises above it.
Debates are raging during Philip’s time remarkably similar to ours. On the one hand, some argue for maintenance of traditional morality: that these new followers of Christ, not yet called Christians, should follow all Jewish law. That makes these followers of Christ exclusivist, and so some argue for increased inclusivity, by abandoning the law and, indeed, the entirety of the Old Testament. Their debate is the same as ours: morality at the cost of followers or inclusivity at the cost of standards.
Which means, at this moment in Acts, as far as Philip knows, Jewish law still applies. Which means while he can share the gospel with this eunuch, if he’s baptizing the eunuch into the faith, making him a full member of the followers of Christ, no different from anyone else, then he’s violating the law about eunuchs and thus being immoral. For him to take the action he does in our scripture this morning appears, at first glance, to be sacrificing morality for inclusion.
We might think that Philip has made such a choice, but notice that he adheres himself very closely to the scriptures. He uses the Old Testament to speak the truths about Christ into the life of this eunuch, obviously still believing it contains authority, believing it still sets the standards for faith. Remember, there’s no New Testament yet. At this point, no one’s written any of the gospels and there are no letters of Paul because Paul hasn’t even been converted yet. Philip has no guide except the Old Testament scriptures and the Spirit.
And the scriptures about the Messiah set the moral standard that Jesus wants relationship with everyone, on an equal basis. And the Spirit tells him that includes this eunuch. In this way, Philip rises above the debates of his age, the same as the debates of our own era, over inclusivity versus morality, to simply follow the Spirit’s lead.
He can do so because, unlike our human sensibilities, the Holy Spirit is moral and inclusive at the same time.
This story, in the end, isn’t so much about the eunuch, even though he tells us something important about making sure we don’t exclude people from the church. And the story, in the end, isn’t so much about Philip either, as much of a great evangelist and preacher that he was.
The story is about the Spirit; a spirit who is both moral and inclusive and beckons to us as it did to Philip.
The story begins with such beckoning. Philip had another way to go, but God said “take the Gaza road.” Have you ever been going somewhere and felt this urge, unexplainable but powerful, telling you to go another way? Have you been obedient when that comes?
Then the beckoning continues. This was a busy road, full of travelers engaged in commerce between the Greek world and the African world. Philip could have picked anyone to speak to, but the Spirit said, “go talk to that chariot” and so Philip did. In my mind’s eye, I see him jogging alongside it, breathlessly asking “do you understand what you’re reading?” probably wondering to himself what in the world he was doing. Have you ever felt the urge to call someone randomly? Or to check in on someone? Have you been obedient when that comes?
Then Philip shares his faith and the man decides that he, too, wants to confess his faith and be baptized. The Spirit says to Philip, “do it.” Have you ever felt this inexplicable urge to go and speak to someone, or to go and share your faith with someone, or to go and invite someone to church? Have you been obedient when that comes?
Those urges are the Holy Spirit, and the result is powerful. For this eunuch, the result was affirmation that God loved him, that God desired him to be an equal part of the worshipping community, that, in our modern speak, God wanted him in church. The baptism said that he finally, really, belonged.
He learned, through the gospel of Jesus Christ and his baptism, that he’s just as valued to God as anyone else, no matter his status, no matter his foreign nationality, no matter that he’s considered sexually immoral under the law, no matter his feelings of rejection; no matter what. There’s tremendous power in that message, for its a message of belonging. Unlike at the temple, and unlike our opening illustration, there’s no cause for anyone to stand outside of the church wishing they could come in. Everyone belongs at church because everyone belongs to God.
There are people in our community, just like the eunuch, who feel they cannot belong to a church, any church, because they will not be welcomed. They believe they have committed too many sins, or they live the wrong way, or they belong to the wrong clique, or they, too, are considered sexually immoral, or they aren’t sure they believe in God. No matter, says the Spirit. Jesus loves them and wants them to be a full and equal member of the life of the church. For Jesus, everyone is in, everyone belongs, everyone is included.
And believing that’s so doesn’t require that we water down our standards. The problem of morality is not a problem of our standards but a problem of how we use those standards. Our morality defines who we are, it gives guidance for how we are to live our lives and helps make us aware of sin as the Spirit reveals our sin to us. And that’s just the point: it’s the Spirit’s job to convict of sin and convert to the faith, not ours. We are powerless to change hearts and minds. That’s one of the limitations of being human. When we choose to use our morality to judge others, when we try and force our standards of morality upon those outside of the church, we abuse our standards. Conviction and conversion are the job of the Spirit alone.
Which means, if people we find despicable come to church with unconfessed sin, so be it. The Spirit will convict. If atheists and agnostics come to church with disbelief, so be it. The Spirit will inspire faith. If people we loathe come to church with hate in their heart, so be it. The Spirit will love. However the rejected, despised, and demeaned come to church, the Spirit will provide for their needs. That’s the power of church. That’s the power of this church. We love each other. We care for each other. We care for our community.
But for the folks who feel they cannot belong, they will have no opportunity to know that power until we invite them to church; until we follow the lead of the Spirit saying to us, “go speak to that chariot, that person.” That lead might be to someone very different from ourselves, someone who makes us uncomfortable, someone whose sins offend us, someone whose life repulses us; but if not for our invite, how will they know the love of Christ? How will they ever be able to say, like this eunuch, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” For the eunuch knew, in that moment, that nothing prevented him. He finally belonged. He finally mattered. He was finally included. He finally had a home.
The Spirit calls us to take the next step and invite the least, the lost, and the hurting, the awkward and the misfit, the poor and the meek, the atheist and the weird, the sexually immoral and those who lie, the downtrodden and the guilty, to come and join us at church, not for one special service but on a regular basis. God wants them to be a part of the life of the church because God wants them to know they belong, too.
No matter why someone thinks they’re unloveable, unwelcome, unacceptable; no matter if we agree that their sins are grievous; for folks in our community who feel like this eunuch, we are called to be Philips: vessels to tell our neighborhood eunuchs that they matter, that they belong, because they are loved by Christ.
It’s just like a story I heard earlier this past week, a story I’ve been given permission to share here. One evening, a church member’s brother came home drunk, again. For her, she was tired of her brother’s alcoholism and fed up with him failing to live up to the standards of their family. When he showed up at their front door, in the pouring rain, totally wasted, she exclaimed to her mother who had opened the door, “leave him out there to drown!”
Any of us who have had family members with unrepented sin in their lives, who keep causing drama and trouble for our families over and over again because of that sin, can certainly relate. We all get to a place with those family members that we just want to kick them to the curb, cruel as that sounds. It’s human nature. Their sin is causing a ton of trouble and it feels like it would be easier to kick them out of the family. Sin is naturally repulsive to the people of God.
But her mother, looking directly at this church member and pointing to her brother, said, “but you don’t understand. That’s my son.”
And that’s exactly what Jesus says to us, and to our neighborhood eunuchs today. No matter what we think of the people who might struggle to fit in here, of the people who have sin in their lives that we find repugnant, of the people who don’t believe in God, God says to us, just like this church member’s mother, “but you don’t understand. That’s my son. That’s my daughter.”
And that’s why we must invite them to church. We don’t have to water down our standards. We don’t have to change our definition of sin. The Spirit will convict and the Spirit will convert. Our job is to invite. Our job is to share the gospel. Our job is to be like Philip: obedient to the Spirit, inviting our neighborhood eunuchs to come here and belong.
So if, this morning, you have thought of someone while I’ve been preaching, whatever person has come to mind as someone outside of the church who needs to be brought in, as someone who might wonder if they’re acceptable or not, as someone who might feel like this eunuch: a misfit, a marginalized member, a reject; whomever that is on your mind, don’t delay, go and tell that person we want him or her in the church, for the Holy Spirit has put that person on your heart and mind.
When they reject your invitation, invite them again. And when they don’t come, invite them again. And when they hold you off, invite them again. And when you start to feel rejected by them, invite them again. Your invitations carry great power. More so than mine. People expect me to invite the least, the lost, and the hurting. When it comes from church members like you, the invitation carries far greater weight.
And if, this morning, you feel like the eunuch: scarred by church experiences, rejected by your faith, wondering if you really belong or if you’re really acceptable, or if Jesus loves you, the answer is the same for you as it was for the eunuch: The Spirit says yes, with enthusiasm. You are acceptable! You are loved! You are cherished! You belong. God says to you, no matter what’s in your background, “but you don’t understand, you’re my son. You’re my daughter.” Just like this eunuch, nothing prevents you from joining the worship life of this church, joining the family of God located here at Eastman First Methodist. You belong.
We belong here. We gain a sense of meaning and purpose and love and care from belonging to this church community. The Spirit is calling us to enlarge our church, to enlarge that blessing to our community, including our neighborhood eunuchs. God wants everyone outside of the church in Eastman and Dodge County to come be a part of the life of our church, worshipping fully and freely. God wants them to know how much they’re loved, no matter what kinds of sins or questions or doubts or troubles are in their background.
So go and invite them to church. Be obedient to the Spirit. After all, what is to prevent them from being baptized?
May the answer never be us.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.