1 John 4:7-21, Acts 8:26-40
In these weeks following Easter we continue to celebrate resurrection, and we continue to seek to grow together in living out the resurrection in our lives, and all that it means for us as disciples of the Risen Christ.
Last week in the gospel of John we heard about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and while we talked about true care from our shepherd and from one another, there was just a hint of an ever-expanding inclusion: Jesus mentions that he has more sheep somewhere, that they don’t know about yet. It’s a mysterious verse- who was Jesus talking about? this does not seem to be totally resolved within the gospel of John. So the mystery sheep who are not yet known can serve as a continual crack in whatever fortress we try to build around ourselves, whenever we think, ok now we’ve got everybody. We always have to ask, well what other sheep that Jesus knew, might we be leaving out?
And the passage from Acts today takes on an extreme testing of that radical inclusion that Jesus encourages us to work toward, the crack that we need to open wider and wider.
Before I go on, I want to invite you to take a minute and think about something. If you had to pick one person you know, who you could never imagine becoming part of a church, who would it be? You don’t need to tell me, just think about it for yourself.
If you need help, I remember at a former church – not Palm, one member often complained about some neighbors who were loud at night and there was some suspicion of drug use, and someone said, well invite them to church! And the response was, oh no that’s not the kind of person I want in my church. I tell you this not to blame this person for that honest response but to point out- We all have an idea of who belongs, and who doesn’t. so think about someone who maybe subconsciously you think does not belong.
Because this story from acts has so much to teach us still today. the Ethiopian eunuch is someone who breaks all the nice, neat categories we like to have about people. This designation of Ethiopian could mean from the area south of Egypt at the time, it literally refers to the darkness of his skin, and it might simply mean someone from the very edges of the known world. So he was from very far away. Yet he had traveled to Jerusalem to worship. He may have been curious or already converted to Judaism. But because of his status as a eunuch, he would not have been allowed in the temple, according to Deut. 23:1. He would have been considered not exactly male, his gender category did not fit the categories the Romans had. So he was ethnically other, and of a non-binary gender category. Yet he is a person with some power and wealth, he is in charge of his queen’s treasury, riding in a chariot while Philip is on foot, perhaps jogging to keep up with the carriage until he is invited inside. This passage does not give him a name, some commentators have suggested different ideas, I’m choosing to call him Dawit, which means beloved in a language from where he may have been from.
According to the hierarchies that were carefully constructed and maintained at the time, it is hard to fit Dawit in anywhere. He has some power but is not from there, where those social interactions of “who you know” are so important; he owns his own scroll of Isaiah yet has trouble understanding it, his gender identity is between male and female, his religion even is even a kind of a not complete identity, because of his ethnic and gender identities.
But it is no accident that Philip comes upon him. According to these verses, it was none other than the Holy Spirit who whispered to Philip- why don’t you go catch up to that carriage and ask a question?
Philip is one of Jesus’ followers, a witness to the resurrection and a witness to the powerful coming of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2. He obediently receives this instruction because he knows the power of the resurrection to bring transformation and he knows the Spirit will lead him well. He begins with this verse about the vulnerability of the lamb, and his nonviolent acceptance of death to tell the story of all Jesus did and said, what he taught and how he rose from the dead: the good news.
But it is Dawit as I’m calling him, who asks another, important, Spirit led question: here is water! If all you’ve been telling me about Jesus and the way he ignores all the ways that society categorizes people and denies some of them, keeps some of them outside- if that is true, if there really is a power through his name available to every person, if God truly loves everyone equally: why shouldn’t I, too, be baptized?
And so this is a story not of one conversion, but 2. Philip probably never expected that someone, even if he was a believer in God and follower of Judaism, who could not even go in the temple, would be among the first generation of believers in Jesus Christ. Someone who he might not have been sure of how to address and how to interact- remember these languages whether they spoke Hebrew or Greek, they all have gender woven into every interaction, so maybe Philip stumbled over his words, but it was the Dawit, who was Ethiopian, who was a eunuch who immediately grasped the complete and radical inclusion of Jesus in his ministry and said, is there anything that would prevent me from being baptized? Is there anything to stand in the way of me being a part of this movement? And Philip had nothing to say. Because he sees what Dawit has already grasped, yes this gospel, this good news, is for him, too.
So Philip baptized Dawit. And the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Because he was now had an identity that was no longer an in-between, somewhat yes, somewhat no, kind of person. He was totally and completely received into the body of Christ, a Christian, a beloved child of God, no doubt about it. If Dawit wasn’t his real name, and I know, it probably wasn’t, this was now a name for him: beloved.
Dawit didn’t stop being Ethiopian, and he was most definitely still a eunuch. But just as he was, there was no reason to prevent him from being completely affirmed and included in the fold. Yes, I think Dawit must have been one of those “other sheep” Jesus was talking about.
And today if we look around, there are plenty of those “other sheep” – the bothersome neighbors or loud partiers who annoy you late at night, the people who might be drug users or even dealers, yes those who today say, no I don’t fit in neatly in a category of male nor female, I’m nonbinary, or whoever you might have thought of when I invited you to name at least one person you think really doesn’t belong in church. This passage is meant to challenge all of our assumptions about who God wants to go after so they will know themselves as beloved.
Many times in the church when we talk about conversion, we talk about the kind where someone does what Dawit did in deciding he wanted to become a follower of Jesus and asked to be baptized. But we have too often forgot about the other kind of conversion, the kind Philip had, the one where we who are already believers need the Spirit to lead us to have our mind opened beyond who we are already used to having as “our flock.”
In recent weeks there have been a smattering of laws proposed, thankfully not in California but in many other states, that are very harmful to people who today have gender identities that don’t fit nice and neat traditional categories. That many of them are proposed in the name of the Christian God shows just how badly the Church today needs this second conversion.
And what we need is the Spirit to lead us, and for us to truly trust in all that Jesus said and did, what he taught and the power to overcome every division that he unleashed in the resurrection. We need to go back to these basic verses of 1 John: beloved, let us love one another, if you know God, you love the person in front of you- if you don’t love, then you got to go back and get to know God because you really don’t. this is the ongoing conversion we need within the church- learning to love better and deeper because of knowing God’s love better and deeper, on and on. Always looking for who some more “other sheep” Jesus wants to include might be. and love never desires harm, humiliation or exclusion. Love builds up, love works for fullness of life, love includes. Always.
With the Risen Lord Jesus and the holy spirit he gave us, we should live out our faith by always seeking to include, to come alongside and ask questions, we should always be open to a new conversion of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, so the crack in that fortress we are tempted to build, completely comes apart and no one is left on the outside. This is our resurrection faith, a deep and radically including love that will never put up obstacles that God does not want, that will leave behind the categories for the sake of the people God loves. May it be so.