Let us pray:
Lord God, proclaim to us your good news. Speak truth to us today. Give us your Spirit, that we may have guidance wherever you send us. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
I once went to school with a particular group of people. They were the popular group, in every stereotypical sense of the phrase. They would always be together, it seemed like, in some combination or another, so that you would find two of them together in the library sharing a table, and then when I went back to the dorms there were three of them there in the common living room sitting together and sharing snacks. They would have parties and get-togethers, and at first they were pretty good at inviting people to join them–but as time went on, they closed in on themselves. They got less and less good at inviting, until one day that I vividly remember, where I was sitting in my room–probably doing homework, although I’ll admit I don’t remember that particular detail–when I heard them a floor below me. There was one particular person who had a very loud, distinctive laugh, which is what I heard first–but once I started listening, I could hear the murmur of people talking, with the occasional swell of laughter, and if I really listened I could hear the undercurrent of music. I hadn’t known they were having a get-together; no one had invited me.
That exclusion was so sharp that I still remember that moment, the dusky darkness and the spring warmth and the books spread across my bed.
We have all known exclusions, whether of ourselves or our children, our friends or spouses. I’d ask you to hold on to that sitting-on-the-outside feeling, the bitter hurt and pain of being closed out, as I turn to our reading from Acts today.
Philip is told to go to a specific road. When he arrives, he sees a eunuch in his chariot–and we the readers are told that this man is Ethiopian, that he’s a high-court official for the Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians, and such a trusted official that he has been put in charge of the Candace’s treasury. We are then told that this unnamed eunuch was returning to his home after being in Jerusalem to worship.
Non-Jews worshipping in the Temple is not unheard of. It was common enough that they had a name: god-fearers. It was common enough that there were rules around their worship: like any non-Jew, they could not approach the Temple so much as just barely get inside the gates before being stopped. Without undergoing conversion, which included circumcision, these god-fearers were allowed to hang around the periphery of the Jew’s worship life.
I’m not trying to make the Jews sound terrible; they had concerns about the Law, about the holiness of the Temple, that were rooted in their oldest, most precious traditions and their best understanding of how to worship God well. But being excluded can be a terrible, crushing feeling, which is only strengthened if it’s systematic and sustained.
For the eunuch, this feeling was only compounded, for not only was he excluded as a god-fearer, but even if he did want to or decide to convert to Judaism, he couldn’t get any closer to the Temple, to the place that to Jews and god-fearers was the center and concentration of God’s presence on earth, the holiest of places: for part of preserving and protecting that holiness was preventing imperfection and sin from approaching. That’s why Jews were so concerned with sacrifices, to cleanse their sin and the Temple grounds; that’s also why, as a eunuch, this man was considered too imperfect, too damaged, to get any closer to the Temple than the outermost court. No one wanted him to taint the holiness of the Temple with his imperfection.
And yet he is still reading from the book of Isaiah when Philip comes to him. He still sees something true enough, important enough, to be reading from what we’d call the Old Testament, to be searching for understanding in the Jews’ traditions and texts. And he longs for understanding enough to invite Philip into his chariot to explain.
I am so blown away by the eunuch’s persistence, by his continued thirst for knowledge, and by his humility–because let’s be honest, if some stranger asked to get into my car and explain a podcast or radio station I was listening to, I would not say yes. I would make sure my doors were locked and drive away. And not just for safety reasons, but also because: yeah, I may be curious, but I’d much rather go read about it later instead of having a real conversation now, when we could actually disagree, when I will have to confront a real, living human who might see things completely differently than I do. I’d much rather think about it somewhere safe, where I won’t be forced to do anything or make any decisions.
And so when Philip has finished explaining the passage in Isaiah, has finished explaining who Jesus is and what he believes, the eunuch sees some water and says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Even after being told that he couldn’t get any closer to the Temple no matter what he did, he still asks for baptism–and remember, this was so early in Christianity that everyone, including Christians, still considered themselves Jews, still considered themselves the culmination of Judaism. There’s no guarantee that Philip will say yes, no guarantee that this new form of Judaism will want to include him any more than the old did. But still he asks.
And Philip welcomes him in, baptizes him in the water by the side of the road and makes it very clear that this new form of Judaism is meant for all.
Christianity is meant for all. God’s grace is offered to all, poured out for all. That means that all those times you’ve been excluded–God doesn’t care, God welcomes you with open arms. All those reasons that you exclude yourself, that others exclude you, that you’re convinced disqualify you from church or God or love–your deepest shame, what you do that you’re terrified to reveal, your failures, your history–God reaches through it and over it and under it to offer you grace. God loves you. God offers grace to you.
But that also means that God offers grace to that person you don’t really like, who makes you uncomfortable, whose clothes or choices or mannerisms you really, completely hate. God loves them. God reaches out to the people you don’t even see, who you walk right past or think are unimportant. And that means that they are worthy of our love and attention, of relationship and inclusion. We have no right to put barriers around our God or church, not when God is inviting them in. God loves everyone, not just us.
And so let us welcome humbly. Let us search for God with passion, let us know God’s love in ourselves and others. Let us be like the eunuch.