[A sermon on Acts 8:26-40, the Uniform Series text for Sunday, August 13, 2017.]
What in the world are we supposed to make of this story? This peculiar story about a meeting, as it turns out, an appointment, arranged by the Holy Spirit no less, so that from one side at least it looks for all the world like a coincidence – “it so happened that there was a man taking the same road, and it so happened that he was a Christian who knew the scripture …” – how else is the Ethiopian gentleman going to tell his story? Although perhaps he will believe, as many of us also believe, I suspect, because I have heard a lot of people say this, “In God’s world there are no coincidences.” An appointment in the middle of the desert between a pious man of God, a newly-ordained deacon, a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian of Jerusalem, and this other person, this foreigner, this stranger, this queer, confused bundle of power and privilege and loss and exclusion, in whom everything about him that counts for something is cancelled out by everything that counts against him, reducing him to the status of a human zero, at least within the institutional system of his ancient religious environment.
What in the world are we supposed to make of this?
Because as coincidental or unlikely as it seems, this appointment arranged in the wilderness by the Holy Spirit reveals something fundamental and radical about the nature of Christian identity. Which as we might recall is always and everywhere the work of the Holy Spirit to accomplish – in baptism, which is the entry point into the Church, what we understand to be the Body of Christ, and in which we are “sealed by the Spirit,” in communion where we pray that the Holy Spirit will make the ordinary stuff of our physical life, bread and liquid, the stuff of our life as members of the Body of Christ, in scripture, which we receive as the Word of God, that Word that we need to live, by the witness of this same Holy Spirit. We are individually Christians because of the work of the Spirit, and that work is the ground, the basis of our collective unity, or as some would say, our identity, our one-ness in belonging to the family of Jesus Christ.
We are supposed to make something of this, and what we are supposed to make of it is radical and fundamental, as radical and fundamental as the openness of the Body of Christ to incorporating – to in-corp-orating, literally to bringing in to the body – every one whom the Lord our God calls.
The dramatic and elaborate arrangements made by the Holy Spirit to facilitate the incorporation of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Body of Christ – down to setting the time for Philip’s presence on the deserted road, the intensive catechism class, the provision of that body of water in the desert, all indicate that this incorporation, this inclusion of the Ethiopian eunuch in the one holy catholic – universal – church was no accident, that this was a life that mattered vitally, and not just to that individual Ethiopian eunuch, but to the history of the Church itself. We have to infer this, because … it’s a Bible story, for goodness sake, it’s one of those stories that tell us who we are, where we came from, what we have been doing from the very beginning. And this story tells us that who we are are the people who bring in any one and every one we can, whoever the Spirit sends us to; we are the people who include everyone, anyone who will listen, anyone who will come, anyone for whom Jesus’ message of new life in the service of the God of love and justice is good news.
We are the people whose allegiance is to the Christ whose Spirit goes to great lengths, outrageous lengths, to get everyone into the picture.
Who has been to a family reunion – it doesn’t have to be one of the big kind, the ones that have to be organized by that over-achieving aunt, the ones that are held every couple of years and that require renting out the biggest shelter house at the local park, the ones that gather up as many of the second cousins and the first cousins once removed that we can get to come from out of state, the ones where the kids and even the adults have to keep asking “now how are we related??” It could be one of the smaller kind, the ones that happen at Thanksgiving or Christmas or Memorial Day, whenever all the kids and the rest of the family members come over for food and family connection. There’s always someone who has to take a picture. And someone always has to take that picture, and it’s often whoever at the party is a little bit less “part of the family.”
So in one family I read about on the internet, this was always let’s call her Mary, Mary’s “boyfriend,” year after year after year … as Mary’s brother got engaged and his fiancée got included in the picture, as Mary’s sister got married and then divorced, so that the pictures from years past now included her ex-husband, and finally, the year that Mary and her still-boyfriend of nearly 10 years were pregnant and her mother hands the camera to let’s call him John to take the picture, Mary put her foot down. “I want John to be in the picture.” Mom says “no” and Mary says “Mom, we’ve been together for almost 10 years, he’s the father of my child, your grandchild …” Mom says, “but he’s not family. I don’t want people who aren’t officially family in the family picture.” And Mary says “he’s my family, and I want him in my family picture.”
This is exactly what Christ says, what the Holy Spirit says, about each baptized Christian, in baptism itself.
This is exactly what Christ says, what the Holy Spirit says, about this queer figure in the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza, “he’s my family …” So of course there is nothing to stop him being baptized, there is nothing to stop him being as much the recipient of new life in Christ as Philip or you or I or anyone else. And the sign of this is that Philip and the Ethiopian go their separate ways rejoicing, because that Christian identity, that being one with the Body of Christ, that moving from being nothing and no one to belonging in Someone is life-giving, and that life is a cause for rejoicing.
Happy ending, we might be tempted to say. But what in the world, in our world, are we to make of this story? None of us is likely to be asked to explain the book of Isaiah to a lone Ethiopian. But we are likely to be asked what we think about the “politics of identity” that we read about in the newspapers over and over these days, we are likely to be asked whether we identify with the people who carried torches through the campus of the University of Virginia on Friday night, we are likely to be asked which of our identities governs our behavior, our loves, our desires, our determination, which of our identities has our primary allegiance: our white identity? Whatever it is we share with people whose main agenda is to regain and retain the power to exclude others from participating fully in our common world? Our gender identity? Our nationality? Our language? Our Christian identity?
Because our Christian identity is not a simple matter of “good guys vs. bad guys,” even when it requires us, as I am certain it does, to stand in solidarity with people of every race, and even when it requires us, as I am certain it does, to take special care to stand with people whose right to live is coming under violent attack. I am as sure as I can be about anything that in the world of the United States of 2017, my Christian identity requires me to recognize that any identity I construct on the basis of excluding and subjugating others is an identity rooted and grounded in sin. Whatever “white identity” is built and maintained by refusing to acknowledge that black lives matter, that brown lives matter, that white does not automatically make right, by insisting on celebrating whatever in our collective past is white whether or not it was good and kind and faithful, is not one I can believe is countenanced by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
And at the same time, I am required to acknowledge that this church, this Body of Christ, contains people who do not see what I see. This Christian identity makes me belong in some way also with people who stand on the other side of the police line, and who advocate a cause that I cannot believe is righteous, and who carry the cross in its defense. What do we share? What do I share with them? What can possibly make us, who on this dreadful and mournful Sunday morning are so opposed to one another and to the different things we want to make of our world, what can possibly make us one in Christ?
I don’t know. But this is what I think: that I am required to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ to anyone and everyone to whom I am sent, however foreign, however much a stranger, however much some queer confused bundle of power and privilege and loss and exclusion makes everything about them that counts against them seem to cancel out everything about them that counts in their favor; that this means telling the truth as best I can, which means it cannot simply mean saying “well, we are all entitled to our opinions,” but must sometimes mean saying “I think that is really wrong;” that sometimes saying “I think that is really wrong” is the closest I can get to saying “I love you;” that whatever else I do, I am required to pray without ceasing, also for my enemies, because God loves my enemies as much as God loves my friends and me, though I do not understand that; that now we see through a glass, darkly, but one day we will see face to face, and that now faith, hope and love abide, and that one day love will win.