Date: May 2, 2021
Bible Text: Acts 8:26-40 | Bart Smith
A modern-day version of this story might go something like this… The finance minister of a country on the other side of the globe is in Washington, DC for some reason. His security detail is chauffeuring him around the Beltway. A street preacher — no robed seminary graduate, just a woman with a word from the Lord on her heart — hears a voice, “Go get him!”
So she breaks out into a sprint and flags the black Chevy Tahoe down. “Stop the car!” the finance minister orders the driver.
“Do you understand what you’re reading there, on your lap?” the street preacher asks, nearly out of breath.
“I’m not sure,” the finance minister confesses, “But I’m drawn to it. Hop in. Let’s talk.”
It’s wild, isn’t it? They’re not supposed to be riding together! There’s no way under normal circumstances that these two paths would cross. But this is the Acts of the Apostles. This is the work of the boundary-busting, wall-crumbling, line-crossing, category-defying Holy Spirit.
Let’s keep playing with the plot for a moment. The finance minister and the street preacher talk for who knows how long about what he’s reading. An ancient text. In a language he may barely understand. Maybe these days we’d call him a “seeker.” But the text moves him. The street preacher persuades him. So he decides to commit.
“What is to prevent me from being baptized? Look, there’s a ditch right there and it rained last night.” So again, he orders the security detail to stop the Tahoe right there on Interstate 495. And the two get out and there the finance minister is, standing waist-deep in water, his $1000 suitpaints practically ruined, but his soul is more buoyant than it’s ever been. Joy! New life!
This is vintage Holy Spirit right here! This is who God is: the one who leaps over the arbitrary lines human beings draw between themselves, of culture and caste, the structures that maintain power and keep people in their respective “lanes.” I should add gender to that list, because that’s a factor here too. Back to the original story, not the version I told with creative license, the Ethiopian treasurer was a person of privilege, for sure, with a prestigious position and access to the halls of power, but he was also marginalized. This was someone who didn’t fit into the neat gender boxes as a eunuch, as someone who was castrated at an early age. This person may or may not have been Jewish, but either was, on his trip to Jerusalem he wasn’t allowed in the Temple due to his “status.”
So as someone who was a bit of an outcast himself, isn’t it amazing that he resonates with the scripture? He’s reading from the prophet Isaiah about what the tradition calls the Suffering Servant. Isaiah’s words in their original setting refer either to a past or future person or to an entire community of exiles. After his execution, Jesus’ disciples see him in those words. Philip explains how Jesus was maimed, humiliated, subject to injustice and shame. And now the Eunuch sees himself in these words. That’s what the Spirit does, you see, lift the words straight off the page and breathe new, urgent life into them.
Then comes the question,“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (That’s how it reads in the NRSV). Did you notice that there isn’t an answer in the text, that Philip doesn’t say anything? Later editors added an answer (that’s why there’s no verse 37, because it doesn’t belong there), maybe because they couldn’t handle not sliding a requirement in there. But Philip’s answer could have been: “Plenty! There are plenty of things to prevent you from being baptized. We’ve got rules, man! I’m Greek; your Ethiopian. I’m Jewish; you’re not (or barely). I’m a man; you’re a eunuch. I’m a deacon, and the apostles haven’t authorized us to do baptisms yet.” We could probably think of some other reasons, but most of the reasons orbit the fact that stark lines were drawn between these two people.
The problem comes, as we know all too well, when we start drawing those lines between people. Those lines can be obvious and uncomplicated on the playground, or as subtle and sophisticated in the boardroom, or as insidious in the halls of legislatures. The lines of “what it is to prevent” are carved deeply in the sands of race, class, sexuality, citizenship, age, ability, and status. They mark boundaries between us and them, insiders and outsiders, deserving and undeserving, haves and have nots. We human beings are good at that, aren’t we? Creating categories. Guarding access. Hoarding resources.
But the Holy Spirit crosses those lines. In the words of a favorite hymn at the former 8:30 service, what the Spirit does time and time again is “Draw the circle wide. Draw it wider still. No one stands alone. We’ll stand side by side.” The Spirit makes room! The Spirit brings people together! And one of the ways it does that is to gather folks around the story of Jesus — which itself is a continuation of the story of what God has done with the people of Israel, redeem them so they can bless the whole human family — and it makes room for people of every type and place to see themselves within it.
And even though we the church mess it up sometimes… ok, often… by creating enclaves in which people look and think and live conspicuously like us, our calling remains: to draw that circle wide and draw it wider still. This is an orientation of radical, constant inclusion.
Such an orientation reminds me of a story my good friend and mentor, David, told me. The story was about a man named Bill who attended a different worship service as part of a pulpit exchange between two churches. The church Bill attended as part of this exchange was an African-American church in Austin, TX, and their service was on Sunday evenings.
Bill said the service was good. The music was great. But the best thing about it was the deaf interpreter, someone signing American Sign Language up at the front. A woman who was obviously an elder in the church did it. Bill said she was elegantly dressed and had a beautiful, graceful demeanor to match. And she was eloquent in the expression of sign language. Bill’s sister is deaf, you see, so he pays attention to such things.
Afterward, at the coffee hour in the fellowship hall, he saw her. Bill went up to her and said, “Your translation ministry gifted me in the service.”
“Thank you,” the woman responded.
“My sister is deaf,” said Bill, “and I appreciate that you have a deaf ministry in the church.”
“Thank you,” the woman responded.
“How many deaf persons do you have in the congregation?” asked Bill.
“Oh, we don’t have any,” she said
“None?” asked Bill. “Then why do you offer a deaf ministry.”
“Oh,” she said. “We’re getting ready.”
St. Mark’s, as we begin this new era of being the church — because we are not and should not be the same as we were in February 2020 — we have to get ready. We have to tell the gospel, the story of God’s abundant love, in a new way, not in its essence but in its shape. And we have to get ready by probing the question, “What is to prevent…?” and then working with the Spirit to find the answer and overcome it, to find that line and cross it.
The answer over the last 14 months was so simple. “What is preventing us from gathering as a community?” Well, a potentially lethal virus, a global pandemic. There was a barrier. People could come to church (it wasn’t safe for them) so church came to people, over their phones and laptops and TVs.
Even before that, those 90-degree angle, static pews were grand but they were also a barrier for many people— people who were tall, people with back pain, people with different abilities. So we adapted how we do what we do. And look at us this morning— scattered around the room, masks on, livestream camera rolling. We adapt for the sake of gospel hospitality.
All of those examples are in physical and spatial, but what about those other, social barriers? What other pre-drawn lines prevent participation? What stands in the way of the Spirit bringing unlikely characters together in the community of faith? What prevents people who didn’t grow up in mainline Protestantism, or people from other cultures, or people who aren’t middle class, or people who aren’t neurotypical, or… fill in the blank with the lines of difference between those who are already here and God’s other children. Who’s missing?
I hope you know it in your bones that this gospel, this story of Jesus and his love, that was for Philip the Greek, and the Ethiopian Eunuch, and generations before us, includes you too. It is for you. It is for me. It is for all God’s children. The Spirit makes it so.