April 29, 2018

5th Sunday of Easter Year B

It just feels better to belong than to be an outsider. When you walk in to the place “where everybody knows your name,” as the sitcom “Cheers” made ubiquitous; when you come home to hugs and kisses and maybe a dog who jumps in your lap and licks your face like you are the most treasured prize they had ever dug up; when you arrive at a dinner party and people speak your name with affection and greet you like you truly matter to them; hopefully, when you come to Grace to worship and are greeted warmly by people who may or may not know you well, but you sense a genuine warmth and acceptance. It just feels better to belong than to be an outsider.

But all of us have experienced that other feeling, probably too many times in our lives, one of being a stranger in a strange place, of being an outsider and feeling like you don’t belong, where our insecurities overwhelm the best sense of ourselves and we begin to believe the lie that maybe we are not loved in this world and maybe we don’t belong. Too many of us have experienced those feelings during our lives even if our head tells us that is not true, our hearts betray our insecurity.

Our readings this morning bear heavily on this notion of belonging, from the grafting of a branch into a vine so that we might abide in Christ as Christ abides in the Father, and therefore we are grafted into the very heart of the Godhead – talk about coming home and belonging! To the beautiful language of John’s first epistle where perfect love casts out fear – and what is love if it is not profound belonging – and what is fear if it is not profound alienation, the absence of love and belonging. To the beautiful story of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the Deacon, Philip who arrives on the scene in the same way Jesus appeared to his disciples after the resurrection and disappears in like manor.

This high officer of a Queen in Africa who has been castrated as a requirement to serve in this esteemed office, but with the bitter irony that with this requirement he has been alienated from not only having his own family as a place to belong, to love and be loved, but is also made an outsider to his family of faith, for no Eunuch can be accepted as a full member of the Jewish faith – they must forever be what was called a God-fearer, a second class worshipper of the God of Abraham, who must always stand on the outside looking in. One who would not ever fully belong, even at his high imperial office.

So this unnamed Eunuch is travelling back home to Africa and reading about the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 when Philip the deacon shows up and asks him if he understands what he is reading. Now you need to understand that this is a highly unusual scene. The trip from central Sudan, a region known as Kush, would have easily taken over a month each way, to get to and from Jerusalem. And that means taking enough provisions to feed a caravan of people who probably attended to this Eunuch who was the treasurer to the Queen. Not only that, but this Eunuch had his own copy of at least one of the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah that he was travelling with. These scrolls were extremely rare and valuable. Remember, the printing press will not be invented for over 1400 years, there are no Bibles, he was not thumbing through the King James and happened to find a passage he didn’t really understand. No, he was reading from a papyrus scroll! This guy is like a synagogue on wheels.

So the Eunuch responds to Philip the Deacon and says, “How can I understand this scroll unless someone explains it to me,” you can almost hear the after-thought – I’m an outsider, I don’t belong, I don’t get what it’s talking about, they wouldn’t let me into the inner court of the Hebrews where they explain this stuff when I was in Jerusalem because I’m a Eunuch. “Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” I wonder what Philip said? Maybe something like this – we have come to understand this passage and many others in the Hebrew scriptures as being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, an outsider like you. Philip may have pointed the Eunuch to look just beyond the passage he was reading to Isaiah 56, where it says this:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

Oh my! You mean that by following this Messiah Jesus, I can finally belong? That I no longer will be an outsider? That I can be grafted into God through Christ and find my abiding place? That I can move from a place of fear to the embrace of love? Even though I am a Eunuch, I am not cut off?! (I’m sure Isaiah did not intend the double entendre!) What is to prevent me from being baptized? And to no one’s surprise they find themselves coming upon some water and Philip baptizes the Eunuch.

Baptism is the sacrament of incorporation into the family of God. It is the ultimate expression that you belong, that you are loved, that you have died to being alienated from God and God’s family and are now and forevermore sealed by the Spirit as one who belongs. No more fear, because love has cast it out and welcomed you! No longer are you a dry tree, but you have been grafted into the true vine that gives life so that you might bear much fruit. This is truly good news.

Like Philip it is our job to share this good news of God’s welcome and acceptance in Christ to those we meet on our journey in this life. To those who feel like outsiders because they have been cut off from belonging. To those who live in fear of being rejected by others and by God because of no fault of their own; to those who know only isolation and alienation and not love and compassion.

But before we can do that we must recognize our own acceptance in God’s family. No matter what our condition or self-perception, no matter what kind of Eunuch we might be, we too are welcomed in Christ. There are no barriers to God’s love in Christ other than the self-imposed ones we have created by not accepting God’s love. And each week we have this tangible expression of that acceptance as we are welcomed to the Lord’s table and feast on the heavenly banquet as members of God’s family becoming more and more the body of Christ for the world.