This sermon is the eighth and final in a series entitled “Our Common Humanity,” in which we examine the ways that the stories of the bible are affected by things like bigotry, prejudice, nationalism, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and the like.
Psalm Reading: Psalm 22:25-31
Scripture Reading: Acts 8:26-40
Back in what Matthew’s gospel records as the early days of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus had to insist that he was not some weird cult leader starting a new religion. His message of the immanent accessibility of God and the Kingdom for all people felt so radical to much of his audience, that they presumed he was abandoning his faith and his heritage, and encouraging others to do the same.
Of course, there (in Matthew 5) Jesus had just insisted that even the poor, the grieving, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the victimized, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the persecuted are capable of living blessed and fulfilled lives. If that doesn’t still sound radical, you’re not taking Jesus seriously enough.
Because in our world today, we still dismiss and discount these people that Jesus lifts up:
We accuse the poor of being lazy or making foolish choices.
We accuse the meek of being weak.
We accuse victims of injustice of not following the rules.
We accuse the merciful of being foolish.
We accuse those fleeing violence of participating in it.
We accuse peacemakers of being unrealistic and having their heads in the clouds.
We accuse those abused by spouses or employers of not having a spine.
We dismiss and discredit and even undermine the wellbeing of these marginalized folks just as readily today as they did in Jesus’ day. And that means that if we are hearing Jesus clearly in these verses, they’re going to be just as confrontational to us today. Jesus is going to drive us to go a bit on the defensive, because it will feel like Jesus is throwing away everything we care about…… everything we honor in our faith.
Like the Pharisees, we know there’s problems… But that’s no reason for Jesus to throw the baby out with the bath water, am I right?——or so we show our true allegiance: not to Jesus but to the world.
You see, Jesus’ audience could not easily recognize how their faith had become entwined with the systemic sin of their society—and neither can we.
That’s why they thought Jesus was a full-scale attack on everything holy—because that’s what it felt like. And that’s why Jesus had to insist in Matthew 5:17:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5:17 NRSV)
Pivot to Acts 8
Though it may not be immediately obvious, this is really what today’s scripture text is all about—it is about the early church learning what it means to put their faith in Jesus into practice within the context of “real life.”
The story we read today from Acts 8 is (I hope) a familiar one. It is one I’ve preached on before, discussed in Youth Group, brought up in Sunday School classes, and probably even written about in a church newsletter article. It is, to me, one of the most important and timely stories outside the gospels themselves.
The Acts 8 story is one that depicts the early church learning to work out all this Jesus-stuff…… learning to set aside their prejudices and judgments and assumptions and expectations, and just let the radical love of God have its way with the world.
The Eunuch (like Moses’ wife a few weeks back) is from Cush—the present day region of Ethiopia. Given his role in that government, it is reasonable to assume he is a native of that area. And that means—and I realize I’m starting to sound like a recording, even to myself—that his skin color was different than that of Israelite Jews, his culture was different, his native language was different, his clothes were different, his food was different….. you get the picture?
He is also different in a way that is particularly significant for this story: his biology and his gender are different. As a eunuch, he was considered by his world to be neither male nor female.
All these things stood in the way of his worshipping in Jerusalem. And yet all of them—as Philip discovers—have become irrelevent on this side of the Cross.
Peter & Cornelius
This isn’t the only biblical story of the early church “working it out” in real time. A couple chapters later (Acts 10), Peter will have his own come-to-Jesus moment, as a series of visions, an encounter with an Italian centurion named Cornelius, and a healthy dose of the Holy Spirit leads Peter to proclaim that:
“God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34–35 NRSV)
Even this foreigner.
Even this soldier.
Even this non-binary Ethiopian.
Even the poor.
Even the meek.
Even the merciful.
Even the abused.
Even the victims of injustice…… Are you starting to see how this comes together?
A Rolling Stone…
As the story of the early church in Acts continues, we see that this “working it out” (that happens with individuals in these stories) ends up snowballing into the larger church of Jesus.
Peter reports to everyone about Cornelius and his epiphany.
As the apostle Paul begins ministering further afield to non-Jews, he and Peter struggle through conflict and then to resolution.
The affirmation of the early church as they “work this all out” is that all these limitations…… all these disadvantages that the world heaps up on our shoulders to divide and conquer us—these have no basis whatsoever in the true reality of the Kingdom of God. On account of the grace we have through Jesus Christ, the love and life of God is open to each of us:
No matter how much time we spent in prison (Paul)
No matter our nationality (Cornelius)
No matter our biology (the Eunuch)
No matter our gender (Mary Magdalene)
No matter our occupation or reputation (Matthew)
It’s one thing for Jesus to say “I came not to abolish the Law” (Mt 5) but quite another for us to come to terms with what that really means in the context of discipleship and life. Jesus said these words because that’s exactly what it felt like to those hearing—Jesus was throwing away everything important.
But hear me church…… Listen well: When God works resurrection in us, it feels that way too. It feels like everything that was ever important to us is under threat—and we’re right in a way, it is. But what is under threat is not anything that has anything to do with true faith in God. What is under threat are all those other things that we came to value in Jesus’ name—despite the fact that Jesus wants nothing to do with them. What Jesus throws away is not the baby with the bath water, but all those sacred cows that we built and deceived ourselves into believing they were more important than the gospel and people to whom God intends show grace.
This is not easy.
Need More Data
In life, we never have all the information we need. It’s a constant across human experience, whether we’re talking about becoming a couple, or raising children, or finding a job, or becoming at home in a local church, or (I don’t know) navigating a pandemic, or whatever other decisions or experiences you can imagine. We never have all the information we need.
A good deal of what maturity looks like is the ability to operate effectively without all the information—to navigate uncertain and difficult circumstances despite knowing you do not understand all the pieces in play…… that you cannot be sure your path leads to success.
Maturity indicates that what we don’t know doesn’t keep us from attempting to do the right thing or to live a full life.
In these stories from Acts, we encounter the early church at a place and time when they most decidedly did not have all the information they needed to live out their faith. They did not yet know how to live out the space after Jesus’ departure from this earthly realm and before his return and rule for eternity. These stories tell us how the early church worked it out for themselves, guided (of course) by the inspiration of the Spirit.
These in-between and unknowing times are delicate spaces…… vulnerable spaces…… spaces where the future of the Jesus-movement was in many ways at risk. And through these experiences, the church of Jesus Christ made the difficult choice to continue down the path of radical inclusion initially marked out by Jesus. This could not and would not have happened were it not for the ways that folks like Philip, and Peter, and Paul, and others, came to discern and understand how to live in the present moment without all the information.
Now you probably know where this is going, right?
How do they work it out?
How do they live in the uncertainty of the present without all the information they need?
How do they navigate from here to there, and end up in a place of wholeness and hope?
And perhaps even more importantly: How do we?
They trusted God.
They trusted God.
They actually believed that this Holy Spirit is with us and among us and in us.
They believed that this Holy Spirit will speak to us and lead us if we will give her a chance.
They believed that this Kingdom of God (that Jesus kept talking about) was actually present with them and brimming over with an unlimited energy available to sustain and empower them at any moment.
Their belief led them to relationship which led them to trust. And they trusted God so fully that they stopped caring what the world thought. They stopped caring about the social rules with which they had been indoctrinated.
And what they found when they trusted God was liberation.
But let’s not sugar-coat this:
They trust God and are attacked.
They trust God and are imprisoned.
They trust God and have to flee for their lives.
They trust God and are murdered by the state.
Their trust in God did not protect them from the damage the world is willing to inflict to preserve the status quo.
Their trust in God simply enabled their perspective to grow in parallel with their compassion—they came to see life from the angle of eternity instead of the few decades this world would give us.
That they risked so much, however, should also help us see that their faith was not passive. They were not contented to sit back and let God do all the work.
They understood an urgency to the Kingdom mission of Jesus that was worth getting arrested for.
They recognized that God’s radical plan of inclusion and reconciliation was so vital that they worked to abolish the segregation imposed by the systems of the world.
They came to know that the availability of the Kingdom life to all people—all people—was so central to the cause of Christ that they were willing to open up the deepest darkest places of racism and elitism and misogyny within themselves and invite God to rewrite their DNA in a new birth through Jesus.
Just 350 years or so after Jesus ascended into the heavens, Saint Augustine of Hippo was part of perhaps the greatest shaping of the Christian Church after the apostle Paul. Augustine lived and worked at a time just after the life of St. Athanasius, who was himself ridiculed and dismissed by his enemies as “that black dwarf”—(clearly society’s sins have always infiltrated the church).
Among the many words of challenge and inspiration that Augustine offers us is this tidbit, often paraphrased and rarely cited. He said: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”
It was this commitment that led the later Benedictines to adopt the motto: Ora et Labora—pray and work.
if we are following Jesus’ example……
if we are continuing the path of embodied faith worked out by the early church……
if we are building on those saints who journeyed before us……
then we too will trust God enough to pray and work out liberation for those enslaved and damaged by the sinful systems of power and privilege in our world.
Over the last eight weeks or so, we have been reading some of these bible stories through the lens of brutal honesty, trying to see in them more clearly the expansive work of God in the world.
Time and time again, we see God working against social sins such as racism, misogyny, bigotry, prejudice, and the like. And for all the stories we have examined, we have hardly scratched the surface.
Now is not the time to decide we have read all we need to read; now is the time to keep reading as we have been learning to read—with an honesty that is hard to muster up in faith because we often lack the humility to allow Jesus to teach us.
But we cannot adopt the values of the world and serve it while taking the name of Jesus on ourselves. To do so is blasphemy.
That doesn’t mean we can’t fail. Of course we can. And when we do, we will discover again and again the truth in Paul’s words to the church at Rome: “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20 NRSV).
It’s simply that an experience of God’s expansive love and grace is such that we can only respond with gratitude. And true gratitude drives us to action—specifically acting in ways that align with the priorities of our God.
At the same time, an experience of God’s love and grace is so amazing and pure and wonderful that we cannot help but both to want it again and to have others experience it too.
That’s what evangelism is about. It’s not about knocking on doors. It’s about being vulnerable.
A city on a hill cannot hide.
Salt is changed as its purpose is realized.
The good news of Jesus is most attractive to others:
when people are so in love with Jesus that it cannot be hidden……
when folks are so in tune with God’s priorities that they pursue the good of others even when it seems to disadvantage themselves……
when believers become followers, who then become a force for the Kingdom because they are learning that there is no limit to what God can do……
The good news of Jesus is most attractive to others when we use our God-given creativity and the insight of the Spirit to work out the challenges of the uncertain present while we keep our eyes steady on eternity of living with Jesus.
That’s our task. And if we will trust enough to work it out with God’s help, all things are indeed possible.