No longer strangers

This morning’s Scripture reading is kind of a strange one. It’s from the days of the early church. People were still getting used to the idea that Jesus was alive. All kinds of weird and wonderful things were happening every day.

People were making connections between the old way of life and the new one. Old prejudices were falling by the wayside. Let’s read the story together.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”).

This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home he was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I understand it,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.” [Isaiah 53:7-8]

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.

When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.

Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

– Acts 8:26-40

Like I said, this is a strange story. But it goes to the heart of the way the church was growing.

Have you ever heard a really outgoing person described with the phrase, “He never knew a stranger”? That’s what we’re talking about this morning.

Jesus was that kind of a person. Jesus never knew a stranger.

Jesus talked with all kinds of people. His circle of friends included fishermen and physicians. Jesus talked with people who had worked for the Roman government, as well as people who wanted to overthrow the Roman government.

Jesus talked with women who were rich and respectable, and women who definitely were not. He talked with foreigners, and with people who were social outcasts. Jesus didn’t seem to mind who he talked with.

Jesus healed the servant of a Roman soldier. He healed the daughter of the head of a local synagogue. He healed people who were mentally ill, who everybody else said were possessed by demons. Very possibly, a black man carried Jesus’ cross – Simon of Cyrene, who came from the north coast of Africa.

Later on, Paul did the same thing. Paul never knew a stranger. Paul talked with intellectuals and ordinary people. He talked with business people and sailors. He lived for a a couple of years in Corinth, which was like the Greek version of Las Vegas – Corinth was Sin City.

Paul spent a lot of time in prison, and it says that he got along just fine with his fellow prisoners. Paul’s letters mention quite a few women as church leaders. Perhaps most scandalous of all, Paul welcomed people who were slaves – not just former slaves, but people who actually still were slaves.

We talk about diversity today, but Jesus, and Paul, and the early Christian church had a whole lot more of the reality of diversity right there in front of them, every day. Cultural and spiritual diversity wasn’t an afterthought for them. It was the heart and soul of their religious journey.

One of my favorite stories is the one we heard today about Philip. Philip was minding his own business one day, when along came an angel. The angel told him, “Go down south of town, way out in the country, and stand there by the road.” OK. So he got up and went.

And along came a really fancy chariot. This would be like the Cadillac or the BMW of chariots. All covered with gold and fancy carving and stuff.

So Philip stands there, and he hears the guy in the fancy chariot reading out loud. That’s what people mostly did back then. When you read, you read out loud.

Turns out this guy was a high government official, the secretary of the treasury of Ethiopia. Ethiopia was not a poor country then. It was a rich country, with lots of gold mines. This guy was important!

Philip hears him reading out loud, from the book of the prophet Isaiah. See, this guy, the queen’s treasurer, had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and now he was on his way back home. He bought a souvenir scroll of Isaiah to take home, and now he was trying to figure it out.

So the Spirit says to Philip, “Go on over there.” Philip runs over, and he runs up alongside this government official’s chariot. He’s still jogging – the chariot doesn’t stop – and Philip says, “Do you got any idea what you’re reading?”

The guy says, “Nope, not a clue. Come on, hop in!”

This was not how Philip expected to spend his day. Get up, meet an angel, leave town, go out in the country all by himself, stand there by the side of the road like a sign post, and wait till a rich car comes along. Listen to this weird guy talking to himself, run up, get in, go for a ride. Sure.

But they start talking, and it turns out this guy – this foreigner – this rich foreigner – this rich guy was also a eunuch, which means that he had been cut so that he couldn’t have children. This put him way outside the traditional Jewish comfort zone. Jewish guys were supposed to be family men. Philip normally wouldn’t have even talked to this guy.

The eunuch was reading a passage where Isaiah talked about a suffering servant, who would be humiliated and killed, who would somehow redeem Israel and bear the sins of the world on himself.

And Philip says, “Wait, wait! – I know something about this! I think I know who this is about!” And in spite of the total weirdness of this entire scene, Philip and this rich, foreign, eunuch found something in common with each other. They found that in spite of being worlds apart, they had both had turned their lives around, because of Jesus.

That’s what I mean when I say that people were surprised. Surprised? They were dumbfounded! But they discovered something real in each other, in spite of their differences. They discovered something undeniably real. And they rejoiced in their discovery.

Diversity is only part of the discovery. We can all be different. What they discovered was that Christ was already at work, in both of their lives, before they even met each other.
That same discovery is at the heart of our spiritual experience today. We discover Christ, already present, in people we never imagined would have that experience.

My wife and I’ve been blessed to have the experience of people from other countries and other cultures, who have come and spent time with us. People from Kenya and Rwanda, Jamaica and Cuba, India, Bolivia and Japan, the Middle East and Europe, all over the world – and you know what? They experience the Holy Spirit, too.

They’re different from us. They speak different languages. They have different experiences. They may not see things the same way that we do. But somehow, God speaks to them as well as us. Even though they’re very different people, God loves them, too. And God has been working with them, even when we didn’t know each other.

That is the gift of true diversity. It’s the gift of having genuinely different experiences, genuinely different points of view, but where Christ is still genuinely and undeniably present.

And it’s not just that some people are different. That diversity is a gift. It’s a gift from God. And we would all be so much poorer, without all of our friends.

What would it be like, if we built our church on the basis of that understanding? What if our worship, our fellowship, our outreach, our service, our giving, our whole religious world view were to be shaped by the kind of insight we heard this morning?

In one of his letters, Paul says,

Do not lie to one another. You have stripped off your old self with all its practices, and you have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, foreigner and uncivilized, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Colossians 3:9-11)

If Christ is truly present in everyone, then it’s a whole new world out there. If there is truly “that of God in everyone,” our whole picture of the world needs to change. Who is my sister? Who is my brother? Who is my enemy? Who is my neighbor?

I’m not sure we know how to live that way. But I think Jesus wants us to try. I really do.
We don’t have to embrace everything that everybody does. We still have to figure out for ourselves what we think God is calling us to do. What is faithful for me may not be what is faithful for everyone else, and vice versa.

But when God has thrown open the door, who are we to close it? If God is at work in someone else’s heart, who are we to condemn that? And if we could be more open to the ministry that other people offer, we would be richer. So much richer!

I’d like us to take all this into open worship together. And one thing you might do, during our quiet time, would be to try to remember someone who was really different from you, who also seemed faithful to you.

What were they like? How were they different? How were they the same?

What were their gifts? How did their ministry affect you? What did they say, that you remember? How was God at work in them?

And if there’s something there that really stands out to you, or if there’s something else in this morning’s Scripture that you want to say, or if God has put some other message into your heart, please share it.

Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown

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