And the Doors Were Opened: A Reflection on the Ethiopian Eunuch

One of the Revised Common Lectionary readings for this coming Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, is Acts 8:26-40, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. This story has always been one of my favorites from the book of Acts, but lately, I have come to see a deeper meaning to the story than I heard preached during my formative years in evangelicalism.

The unnamed eunuch is a servant in the Ethiopian Queen Candace's court. He is in charge of all of the treasury. He is a high-ranking official in Ethiopia, however in Jerusalem, where he is departing, he is an outsider. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship, but he would not have been allowed into the Temple. He might have faced exclusion and humiliation when he made the attempt to worship Yahweh in Jerusalem, but we nevertheless see that he made the attempt. On his way home, he is reading from the prophet Isaiah, struggling with the passage, trying to understand who exactly this servant is of which the prophet speaks. This is when Philip, lead by the Spirit, inquires of the eunuch if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch invites Philip into his chariot and they ride along as Philip explains to him the story of Jesus, the culmination and fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures, much like Jesus had done on the road to Emmaus.

Coming to a body of water, the eunuch asks Philip: "Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?" Some early manuscripts include verse 37 here: "Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may.' The eunuch answered, 'I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God,'" but most manuscripts do not have this verse. Philip doesn't give an answer in most manuscripts. Instead, the eunuch commands the chariot to be stopped, and Philip and the eunuch go down into the water, where the Ethiopian eunuch is baptized, and welcomed into the Way of Jesus. Philip is taken away by the Spirit, and the eunuch continues on his way rejoicing.

African church tradition maintains that this Ethiopian enuch, named Bachos according to Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo tradition, was the first Christian missionary to share the Gospel in Africa.

What sticks out the most to me, as I read this passage, is the question Bachos asks Philip. "What can stand in the way of me being baptized?" Is he expecting rejection? He has almost certainly faced exclusion at the temple in Jerusalem. Does he expect Christianity to be the same? Unwelcoming to minorities, both racially and sexually? What is astounding to me is Philip's (most likely) non-answer. In that space of silence, nothing is found to prevent Bachos from being baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. He comes as he is, and is welcomed into the body of Christ. No temple is needed to worship, no priests are required, simply an evangelist, the scriptures, and an inquiring heart and mind. God is already at work in reaching out to Bachos through the scriptures when Philip arrives. We can learn a valuable lesson from this passage. Rather than thinking we can "take Jesus" places, might our efforts be more fruitful if we trained our eyes to see where God is already at work, and joining that work? Might we be a better example of the Kingdom reality in the midst of the current systems of the world if we stopped excluding people from our fellowship because they (in our arrogant opinion) don't have it all together?

Another thing that jumps off the page at me is the passage which Bachos is reading as he travels along. "In his humiliation he was deprived of justice," quotes verse 33, referring to the suffering servant. The humiliation of the servant makes possible the welcoming into beloved community of the Ethiopian eunuch, who in humiliation was excluded from temple worship. And so we must take notice that the same is true for us. Christ died upon the cross, bearing the full weight of the world's wickedness, and then in resurrection defeated death. Our sin, brokenness, and humiliation are defeated at the cross, revealed for what they really are, powerless. It is through Christ's finished work upon the cross and his resurrection that anyone can be welcomed into the body of Christ. We join by being baptized into his death and resurrection.

Here we see an opening of the doors. Luke writes that the first non-Jewish (if indeed he is non-Jewish, as it is up for debate) convert to be baptized into the faith is a eunuch from Ethiopia. This man who would have faced exclusion from the religious folks in Jerusalem finds welcome at the feet of Jesus. May we never be so arrogant as to decide anyone is unworthy of that welcome.

Repent and Believe

 

Over the course of the first three weeks of Lent, I have been thinking a lot about two words. They’re very appropriate words for Lent, and they’re words that one hears week in and week out in churches all across the country. The two words that I’ve been dwelling upon are repent and believe. These words get a lot of coverage in altar calls and baptismal vows, in evangelical churches and mainline churches alike. I grew up hearing the message proclaimed weekly: “Repent, and believe the Gospel!” But what does this mean? Growing up in rural Southern Baptist churches, this meant acknowledging our sins, apologizing to God, and asking him to come and live in your heart, to enable you to live a Christian life. Is this really what Jesus meant when he went about proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news!”? Have we watered down the Gospel to an affirmation of certain doctrinal statements and intellectual agreement when it is so much more? How can we reclaim the full message of the Gospel? To do so, we must repent, and believe.

            Repent, typically understood in modern-day Christian culture, means (basically) to acknowledge your sins and to apologize to God for making them. This is a purely spiritual understanding, which only affects an individual’s real life secondarily. In many churches this is a means to becoming a member of the in-crowd, of being welcomed into the church family, of being called a Christian. Nothing else is required except that you repent and believe that Jesus died for your sins and rose again, and you’re good to go! This is where we water down the Gospel.

            Jewish historian Josephus tells a story from his days of being military governor in Galilee. In the 60s he was sent to deal with issues being created by faction of the army bent on violently overthrowing Roman rule. When he discovered a plot against his life by the leader of the separatist faction, he offered him a chance to smooth things over. The words that should interest us here are his command to the potential rebel leader: “Repent, and believe in me.” Now, Josephus certainly wasn’t commanding the leader to have a sad religious experience and devote his soul to Josephus, but instead, to turn from his violent, revolutionary aspirations and to instead follow Josephus’s plan instead.

            The word repent literally means to turn around. This involves every aspect of one’s life. The word believe means to place our whole trust and whole devotion into another plan of action. Repent and believe the Gospel is therefore not only a command to feel sorry for our sins and affirm certain doctrinal positions. Repent and believe the Gospel is a call to abandon our way of doing things. It is a call to abandon our militarism, violence, busyness, aggression, domination, dehumanization, and our upholding of systems that thrive on these false demonstrations of power and success. It is a call to abandon the ways of the world, in light of the breaking in of the kingdom of God. It is a call to turn away from placing our hopes and trust in anyone other than Christ crucified and risen.  To repent is to turn away from the Caesar’s of the world and to wholeheartedly proclaim that Jesus is Lord. To believe is to live the kingdom reality into the world around us each and every day.     

            This Lent, may we daily repent and believe the good news, that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again, and orient our lives around this truth.

Through the Eyes of a King

          

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            With today being Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I have to ask some questions. How can a man who was so unpopular, who was so demonized, and so despised in his day and age be so popular today? Taking this even farther, how can a man who was not widely accepted during his tireless work against injustices be idolized by the same people who view Black Lives Matter as a terrorist group and continue to support systems that perpetuate injustice and oppression of certain demographics of people, and as such, perpetuate our nation’s original sin?

            It is my belief that Dr. King’s vision, his dream, if you will, is the vision God has for humanity. Dr. King’s hope for peace, reconciliation, and community align with God’s dream for Shalom in his creation. This takes us into a little bit of the reason, I think, of why most people today affirm Dr. King, while not fully understanding what all he stood for, and against.

            Dr. King was more holistic in his fight against injustice than many realize, or want to know. In saying this, I mean that he cared for much more than racial injustice and fought for much more than racial equality. King listed the three evils of society as racism, militarism, and capitalism. These three ism’s in King’s estimation, accounted for much, if not most of the oppression and injustice that was being carried out by the American government during that time. We must ask, in 2018, have things gotten that much better?

            King’s consideration of capitalism as an evil of society, in the nationalistic empire that is the United States, worshiping Mammon and the capitalistic economic system as it does, earned him the derision of being called a communist by  many of his contemporaries. His speaking out against the war in Vietnam, which was little more than another attempt at American imperialism, angered many.

            King’s stand against racism, however, seems palatable to most today. I propose, however, that this isn’t because American society has progressed in the way it treats persons of color, but because Dr. King’s legacy has been white-washed. In focusing so much on Dr. King’s work for racial equality, without taking into account his whole message against violence, racial superiority, and economic greed, we focus not on the real Dr. King, but a nice, sanitized version we’ve created for our own comfort. So many white people, in my estimation, can point to Dr. King as a hero, even while deriding the Black Lives Matter movement or any other group striving for justice today, because it’s easy to look into the past, and point at those people as the racists. We boil racism down to personal prejudice and point the accusatory finger at others, saying “They’re the true racists, not me.” Failing to consider our complicity in the societal ills that Dr. King stood against is failing to truly honor Dr. King. Giving him lip-service as a great leader, or an honorable man who fought for a worthy cause ultimately means nothing if we don’t see the work that is still left to be done, and with Martin Luther King, Jr.-sized boldness and courage, step up to the task.

            Into this thought process, we must inject what Dr. King viewed as the work of the Church, and how we should respond to these issues today. Dr. King once said:

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

And elsewhere he wrote:

“The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.”

 

            If we are to have a vision for the Church as Dr. King did, and indeed as I believe God does, we must embody not the status quo of society, with all of its violence, inequity, and prejudices, but the Kingdom life of peace, equality, and community. If we are to be effective in our God-ordained task as the Church, we must not be the lapdog for any political party or economic system. We must not forsake our prophetic voice, speaking truth to power, even if capitulating to power and doing as the powers wish would be more comfortable. Our voices in matters of racial and economic injustice, and violence, as well as in the ways women are so often mistreated in our society, matter. And indeed, our silence for far too long has been deafening.

            We must recapture the vision of Dr. King from those who have white-washed his legacy. We must remember the whole Dr. King, and not only the man who delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech. We must join with those who strive for justice, and work for peace. We must forsake the Empire, and confess that Jesus is Lord, and therefore Caesar is not. This is the work of the Church in the twenty-first century. May we not miss our chance to embody Christ to those who suffer under oppression and injustice. May we find our voice, and find it quickly.

When the Bottom Falls Out

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Certainty is a funny thing. It can give great comfort to you while you have it, but if a crisis occurs, it can crumble and leave you feeling lost, broken, and untethered.

When I graduated college, I moved to East Tennessee, where I took a job as a student minister at a Southern Baptist Church. I was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention. It was all I'd ever known. I spent my college years diving deep into apologetics and proving why Jesus would support the Republican candidate for President. I was as certain of my theological understanding of God as I was that gravity would continue to hold my feet to the earth if I attempted to flap my arms and fly away.

I picked up some questions during college from religious studies classes. I was introduced to authors and theologians I had either never heard of, or whom I had been told to avoid. I began to think about things in a new light, even while rooting for Ken Ham in a creation vs. evolution debate against Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Trying to reconcile my budding questions with my evangelical worldview plunged me into a pretty substantial faith crisis. I felt the need to take apart the faith I had been handed from my fundamentalist upbringing and to reclaim what I truly believed, and why. Looking back, this was one of the most formative periods of my life to this point, and a time I would not give away for anything. During the time, however, it felt like the floor fell out from beneath my feet. My certainty had crumbled, and I felt untethered. I sought a true connection with God, but my church began to feel less and less welcome to someone who was asking the questions I was asking. Add to this dynamic the 2016 election, and 81% of white evangelicals supporting Donald Trump's presidential candidacy, and you have a volatile situation. I was faced with a daily dilemma of speaking up for what I had begun to believe about the Gospel and its relevance to everyday life, or keep my mouth shut to keep my job. I'm certain you can ascertain a guess as to which choice often won the day.

On Christmas Eve of 2016, my wife (then-fiancee) and I visited Church Street United Methodist Church for a late-night candlelight service. The worship space was one of the most beautiful spaces we'd ever seen. The music was beautiful, and the liturgy was so well-crafted that we felt God dwelling within us and walking among us. We found so much space available to facilitate true worship, and true realization of God's presence, highlighted in partaking of Holy Communion. This was a vital time for me, as I had been longing for such meaningful worship, and for such openness and mystery. I had lost all interest in the god who fits into the neat little box I had created for him. I had developed an insatiable longing for the God who gave his life for his enemies and welcomed all to his table. In that service, I began to feel myself being rooted once more, although not to certainty, but to a community.

Since then, my wife and I have joined the United Methodist Church, and I have begun the process to become ordained. I have also been accepted into Duke Divinity School to begin working on my M.Div in August of 2018. Looking back at the time of deconstruction and reconstruction now, I am grateful. At the time, I felt lost and hopeless, and little made sense. And yet, the wonder of it all is that God was with me the whole way, beckoning and calling me further and further into his love, mercy, and compassion.

If you are reading this and you have been through this sort of faith crisis, you will understand very well what I've written here. If you are reading this and you haven't experienced this, I am happy for you, as long as you are truly where God would call you to serve and are open to his renewing Spirit to blow at any moment. If you are reading this and you are in the middle of this faith crisis, I want you to know that God is with you. God doesn't forsake you for questioning a literal six 24-hour days of creation, or biblical inerrancy, or how the God revealed in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus could order the Israelites to slaughter man, woman, and child in the conquest of Canaan. God won't leave you for wrestling with questions and doubts and fears. In my experience, it is precisely in and through these moments that God draws nearest. My hope for you is that you will realize, even in the darkest of nights, that God is with you.