Sunday, April 29, 2018

Easter 5 - Grace for Those Just Passing Through

Acts 8:26-40

This morning I want to go back to our first reading, and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and a spontaneous baptism. Because this is a weird story. It pops up out of nowhere, and it ends abruptly, and no one ever talks about it again. It’s not particularly flashy, like the tongues of fire resting on the disciples’ heads that we’ll hear about in a few weeks for Pentecost, and there’s no miraculous healing like we hear Peter doing in Acts, Chapter Three. Yes, it’s a bit unusual that Philip is directed by an angel of the Lord to go down to that wilderness road south of Jerusalem, and it’s definitely odd that he is suddenly whisked away from the scene at the end of the story, but other than that, it’s one of the tamer stories in Acts. So what are we supposed to learn from it?

In every congregation I’ve ever been a part of, either as a pastor or a regular worshipping person, the most frequent complaints I hear are about “those people” who come to church but don’t help out and “those people” who show up just to have their children baptized or confirmed and then never come back. I understand why this is a concern. It takes a lot to keep a congregation going - there’s a lot of work that happens behind the scenes, as it were, both on Sunday morning and during the rest of the week. People organize the church events that happen, people give their time and energy to planning and running Sunday School, and hosting coffee hour, and setting up for Communion and cleaning up afterwards. People are involved in preparing for a child’s baptism, and in helping with Confirmation. And especially when it comes to baptisms and confirmation, churches don’t charge for those things, and so it almost seems like some families are taking advantage of these opportunities for their children without making any kind of reciprocal commitment in return. They show up, get what they need, and disappear. They’re just passing through. And we worry that it turns the church into a kind of spectator sport. We think that if people are going to take advantage of the benefits of the Christian community, they should be a part of the community.

And along comes our reading from Acts and, in the eunuch from Ethiopia, we see that we are, to put it bluntly, wrong.

To put it quite simply, for the Christian community beginning to develop in Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch was a temporary person. He was just passing through. Just like the story itself seems to pass through the book of Acts without leaving any impact, the same is true of the Ethiopian. First, he was from Ethiopia. The kingdom of Ethiopia during the time Acts was written covered the area that we now know as modern-day Sudan and parts of Egypt and Libya. It was essentially the southernmost edge of the “known world.” It was as far from Jerusalem as one could possibly get. It is highly unlikely that the eunuch was coming to Jerusalem to worship on a regular basis. It’s possible this was a once-a-year trip, but even more likely that this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey. He definitely wasn’t coming to Jerusalem every week to worship. There is absolutely no way that he was a contributing member of either the Jewish community or the Jewish community of Christ-followers, and he certainly was never going to be. He was, geographically speaking, just passing through.
Second, he was a eunuch. He was a not-quite-male, at a time when you were either part of the male community or part of the female community. Biologically speaking, he was never going to be a contributing member of either of those communities either. While born a male, he was, again, just passing through that community.

None of which seems to concern God in the least. Rather the opposite. God directed Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, to leave Jerusalem and walk down the road that travelled through the wilderness from Jerusalem to Gaza, about the distance from here to just past Nanton. Philip had to chase down someone travelling away from Jerusalem in a chariot. And for what? For a spur-of-the-moment baptism. And then Philip was whisked off and the Ethiopian continued on his way. And that’s it. That’s the end of the story. In a nutshell, Philip baptizes someone who has not committed to being part of the religious community, who is probably never going to come back, and who has had virtually no baptismal preparation. And God is apparently cool with this.

But isn’t that the epitome of God’s grace? That God offers us grace, as a gift, without any expectation that we do anything in return? God’s grace is a gift. It’s right there in the Bible, in the letter to the Ephesians, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ––by grace you have been saved––and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus... For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God––not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Baptism, which is the marker of God’s grace that makes us members of the Christian community, is a gift. There is nothing we need to do beforehand to earn it, and nothing we need to do afterward to pay it back. Baptism has no expiry date. There are no membership fees for belonging to the Christian community, no service hours, no attendance requirements. 

Which, on the one hand, is somewhat annoying for those of us who are committed to the Christian community, and spend a lot of our time and energy serving it. I can imagine some of the disciples chastising Philip for spending the better part of a day down on that road baptizing just one person, who was never going to come back to Jerusalem anyway. The Ethiopian eunuch, who never even shared his name with Philip, was definitely not going to be spending his time helping the disciples gather funds for the widows and orphans of Jerusalem, or travel around healing the sick, or sharing the good news of Christ with others in Israel. Philip had just spent his time welcoming someone into the Christian community who was never going to give back to it. It’s frustrating; these people who are just passing through take a lot from us and they don’t give back.

On the other hand, though, as someone who has been also been on the taking-and-not-giving end of belonging to a Christian community, I am immensely grateful for all of that grace. My children were baptized in congregations where I was not a member. We came on a Sunday and then we left again. When we were living in California, and my kids were very little, and I was studying full-time, I was one of those people who made it to church once or twice a month, took advantage of Sunday School, stayed for coffee after, but never joined a committee, never served on Council, never helped out with extra events. We were there for about two years, just passing through. And of course I felt guilty about it, but I simply couldn’t be there more. But every time we showed up, the people there were sincere in their hellos, they welcomed my kids without reservation, they never once made me feel bad that I couldn’t be more committed or more involved in their community. They cherished us because we were just passing through. They embodied the grace of God as a gift. 

The story of Philip and the nameless Ethiopian eunuch invites us to remember that God’s welcome of us is truly a gift. The Holy Spirit sought you out and brought you into this community, on this morning, as a pure unmerited and undeserved gift to you, so that you might be filled with new life and go out rejoicing. You didn’t need to prepare in any way to be here, and you don’t owe anything when you leave.

The Christian community, whether that means denominations, or congregations, or small groups, and its emphasis on grace is unique. To be welcomed and included and served without any obligation is not the way our world typically works. In every other organization, we are expected to pay for the privilege of belonging, whether with money or with service or even with our regular attendance. We are expected to give back. But baptism, and the community that it gives us, and especially the new life that it brings us, is pure gift. It’s almost as if God means it to be for people who are just passing through, for people who, for whatever reason, can’t make any commitments or help out in the community in any way, for people who can never pay back what they have been given, for people whose names we might never know.

God invites the church to be this embodiment of grace, to welcome the stranger, to share the good news with all, without any expectations. But first God invites you to receive that grace, to know that you are welcome in God’s eyes just as you are, that you are granted forgiveness and healing for as long as you need, because you, too, are just passing through. And so, like the Ethiopian eunuch, rejoice––all of this is Christ’s gift to you. Thanks be to God. Amen.

No comments: