A SERMON ABOUT ACCEPTANCE

This is a sermon from 2014 about Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. It’s a story about acceptance.

THE CONVERSION OF PHILIP

ACTS 8: 26–30 JANUARY 26, 2014

I. INVITED TO PREACH

I was invited to preach at worship at Synod School for a youth gathering. Nobody told me that the sermon should be no longer than 10 minutes. I said, “I was thinking about this sermon while I was shaving and I cut my chin.” After my 18 minute sermon the director said, “Next time, think about your chin and cut the sermon.”

I sometimes marvel at this endeavor called preaching. I mean who would want to listen to an explanation of scripture? I guess you do. Or at least you are polite enough to invite me into your chariot. I think the problem with some preaching is that we insist on answering questions no one is asking.

Philip was invited to preach. The first invitation came from the Holy Spirit which led him to a deserted road on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he finds an Ethiopian eunuch reading out loud a passage from Isaiah. When Philip asks if he understands what he is reading, the eunuch offers the second invitation to preach.

Now it’s helpful for us to understand a little about the three characters in this story. First there is Philip. He is called an evangelist. That is, he is one who shares the good news. He is a Jew. His willingness to help a foreigner is not uncommon for Jews. But my guess is that this is not what he expected. The early church was in a big quandary about who could be a real Christian.

The eunuch is a man who was probably a God-fearer. That is, he accepted the tenants of the Jewish faith and its scriptures. While he was in Jerusalem he worshipped the God of Abraham. But he was not allowed into the Temple. He was a eunuch. And Deuteronomy declares that anyone who is mutilated is unclean and cannot enter the temple. As is so often the case people who are biologically or sexually different form the dominant norms are pushed away, declared unclean and unacceptable and forgotten. But he invites Philip, this nice Jewish boy who represented the dominant culture of exclusion, into his chariot to preach. Because he has questions.

II. WHO’S IN? WHO’S OUT?

The eunuch has all kinds of attributes that made him an outsider. He is an Ethiopian, a black man, in the employ of Candace which means queen .His allegiance is to an earthly monarch and her money. And to top it all off he has been neutered. If he is up to Isaiah he has no doubt read Deuteronomy which explicitly banns him from acceptance. God’s people have always spent a lot of time and energy deciding who is in and who is out.

What would be the criteria for us in deciding who is in and who is out? Surely we would not keep a eunuch out of the fellowship. But for some it is still sexual orientation. There is a documentary film out called God Loves Uganda. It’s the story of how American evangelicals have influenced the government of Uganda to declare homosexuality a crime punishable by death. God’s people keeping God’s other children out of the fellowship of even being human.

For some it might be race or ethnicity or appearance. Did anyone notice the young man who was at worship last week? He is dirty with long stringy hair and a distant look in his eyes. I know a few of you spoke to him and tried to make him feel welcome. What about people with different views politically or theologically or socially? We still have to wrestle with the size of the tent. How different can you be and still be part of the people of God? Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote that “It is not our job to change people to fit into the tent. It is our job to make the tent bigger so they fit. After all, it is God’s tent, not ours.”

This outcast on the road to Gaza was not an outcast in the world’s eyes. He was wealthy or he wouldn’t have had a chariot or a scroll of Isaiah of his own. He had an important job taking care of Candace’s money. He was educated. And he invites this Philip walking on the road to sit with him and talk about God. It would be a little like a diplomat in D.C. picking up a street preacher in his limo to ask him questions about faith.

III. THREE QUESTIONS

The eunuch has three questions for Philip. First he asks “How can I understand the Bible if no one is there to explain it to me?” And Philip proceeds to help him understand the written word. Tom Long wrote that “We must always read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s Spirit of love.” Notice the Bible is not used as a weapon to condemn or a tool to exclude.

Then the outsider asks Philip what Isaiah is talking about when he reads this suffering servant passage. Philip now has the chance to expand the conversation to include Jesus as a fulfillment of a loving God’s invitation to ALL people to come into the tent of belonging. Just ahead in chapter 56 Isaiah says that God will lift the ban on eunuchs and they will be welcomed into the fellowship of God’s people. Now Philip tells him that in Jesus, that promise has been fulfilled and that he matters to God as much as the next guy.

But the third question is the one that really throws Philip for a loop. “Here is some water in the desert. What is to hinder me from being baptized?” Now this has gone beyond Bible study and theoretical issues of belonging. Now the eunuch is asking to be baptized into full membership in the fellowship of God’s people and Philip can’t come up with one reason to say no. While there had been several hindrances before, his nationality his race, his sexuality, now there are none. The walls of prohibition and prejudice come tumbling down like the walls of Jericho. I don’t know if Philip had thought that through before this encounter. But there he was, baptizing one who was the poster boy for outsiders.

IV. THE JOY OF INCLUSION

This is usually called the story of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. But it is also the story of the conversion of Philip. Attitudes change. Barriers are torn down. The conversion experience is not just for the outsider. The insider needs to stay open to the guidance of the Spirit to be changed. Remember I said there were three characters in this story? Well the Spirit of God is the third character; which is always true when human interaction is allowed to change us both.

I have changed my view of those who are different sexually. I never wanted to exclude anyone. But I was hung up on the cold ink on the page. I was missing the warm light of God’s love that says nobody is excluded; not even judgmental intolerant excluders like I was. This has been the story of MY conversion as well. The story line in the play Kinky Boots is about a group of people who move from prejudice to relationship with one transvestite whom they come to know and learn to care about. That’s usually how it happens. Like Philip, it requires us to make contact with one of those outsiders so that it is no longer an issue, but a personal experience.

And that freedom from marginalization is sweet for the outsider who is now included and for the insider who is now open to God’s Spirit. We are always being reformed. We are always seeing God’s truth in fresh new ways. And do you know what happened to these two as they part ways? They go rejoicing and telling others about this good news that excludes no one.

I have been invited to preach. We have all been invited to enter into this risky, beautiful experience of a faith shared. Are you in? Isn’t everybody?

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Rick Sweeney

The Reverend Dr. Richard Sweeney, Rick, is a retired Presbyterian pastor and author. Rick lives with his wife, Prudy, in Greensburg, PA.