If you grew up in the Baptist tradition or a more Evangelical (with a capital E) tradition, then you were probably instructed to memorize a number of Bible verses as a child. But I am willing to bet your Sunday school teacher never asked you to memorize Deuteronomy 23:1. Because the language of this verse is PG – 13 and this is a PG pulpit, I’ll censor the verse a bit and quote it saying, “A eunuch shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord.”
In today’s lesson from Acts, we find an Ethiopian eunuch reading from the Jewish scriptures, and I am certain he had memorized this passage from Deuteronomy. He knew well that, according to the scriptures, he wasn’t worthy to enter into the household of God – not because of his status as an Ethiopian but because he was considered sexually impure.
But Philips finds the eunuch reading from a different part of the scriptures, from the prophet Isaiah who sheds a different light on the status of a eunuch in the eyes of God. In this passage from Acts, the eunuch is reading the heart-wrenching verses of Isaiah 53 which describe our Savior as a Suffering Servant – “like a sheep he was led to the slaughter.”
If the eunuch were to continue reading from Isaiah, he would eventually run across the verses in chapter 56 that read, “To the eunuchs…I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters…an everlasting name.” Now picture this eunuch reading these words from the prophet.
I can just see him weeping with tears of joy. For his entire life, he has been told that he is not allowed to enter into the Jewish synagogues to worship the God he loves. For his entire life, he has heard that he is sexually impure and therefore unworthy to enter into household of God. For his entire life, this eunuch has heard it from the religious authorities, “You can’t be one of us because the Bible tells me so.” But the prophet Isaiah paints a different picture, a picture where even a eunuch can reside in the household of God.
Our lesson from Acts tells us that when Philip stops to talk to the eunuch, he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replies, “How can I understand unless someone helps me?” And then Philip tells the eunuch that the hope to come described in Isaiah is fulfilled now in Christ Jesus.
Philip tells the eunuch that in Christ Jesus everyone is invited into the household of God, in Christ Jesus everyone is given an everlasting name. Essentially, Philip tells the eunuch, “Jesus loves you, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
The truth of God’s limitless love is made known in the eunuch’s life when he is baptized. Like all of you who have been baptized, the eunuch learns in his own baptism, he is a beloved child of God, he is a member of Christ’s family.
And in baptism, we learn that Christ’s family is formed not because all of its members measure up to the holiness code but because its members believe that only the perfect love of Jesus can make us holy. In baptism, we proclaim a faith that says without God’s love we are nothing.
So, if we believe that only the love of Jesus can make us holy, then what is to stop anyone from being baptized? What is to stop anyone from entering the household of God built by the radical love expressed in Christ crucified?
Well, as you all well know, Christians have given all kinds of excuses for not letting people enter the household of God. They aren’t the right color. They aren’t from the right neighborhood. They aren’t wearing the right kind of clothes. They are attracted to the wrong kind of people. They aren’t good enough. The list goes on. And somehow scripture gets wrapped up in these excuses and the Bible becomes a weapon.
Somewhere along the line we forget that scripture is not meant to support our limited worldviews. Scripture is not meant to support the status quo. Rather, scripture is meant to challenge and change the way we see and act in the world. In particular, scripture is meant to call us into relationship with the One who changes the world with a love more powerful than sin and death.
If scripture never becomes more than a book that tells us how we are supposed to live, then we are destined to use the book to serve our own agendas. If scripture never becomes more than a rule book, then we are destined to use the book as a weapon to push the proverbial eunuchs of this world out. Someone said, if God wanted the Bible to be an instruction manual, surely, he could have done a better job.
Like the example I just gave between Deuteronomy and Isaiah, there are plenty of passages that contradict each other in scripture. St. Paul said to the Romans, we are saved by faith alone. St James wrote a letter that said, faith without works is dead. 1 Peter tells us to submit to the ordinance of man while Acts tells us to obey God above all else.
Even Jesus seems to contradict himself in the same sermon! In the Sermon on the Mount, he says, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. And a few lines later, he says, when you give alms, do not blast a trumpet in the street in order to be seen by others…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
So, you can see that if scripture is simply a rule book, then we are in real trouble. If scripture is nothing more than a book of best Christian practices, then we will spend the rest of our lives trying to win an argument that cannot be won. We will resort to the easy out and pick the scripture that conforms to our lifestyle the best while conveniently ignoring the ones that don’t support our lifestyle. If you insist on taking this route, then I advise that you at least be consistent in your hypocrisy!
Thankfully, scripture is more than a rulebook, more than a book of virtues. The writer of John’s gospel makes it clear that scripture is written to point to the Messiah – the One who reconciles humanity to God and each other through a love that lays down its life for even the enemy.
Scripture is all about how God’s inexhaustible love is saving a people who are destined to destroy each other. So, if you ever get confused or run into a contradiction that you can’t get past, remember the words of our Presiding Bishop, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.”
If you ever get to the point where this whole being a Christian makes you hateful or fearful, remember this passage from I John, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”
The Christian witnesses is not inspired by fear but by love. And we love because he first loved us. God’s unconditional love is the remedy for our sin and the sin of the world. God’s perfect love for you and every other person on this planet is the remedy for a people who think they need to put others down in order to prop themselves up. God’s merciful love for all humanity given in Christ Jesus is how God wins the argument about who is in and who is out.
God wins the argument first by showing us that none of us, by our own merit, deserve to be in – all of us, at some point, will fail to love as Christ loves us. And then God does something that goes beyond human understanding and forgives us even after we kill God’s Son – the only One who measures up. God forgives us even after our petty arguments over who is in and who is out kill the One who dies for all of us. God wins not by seeking to destroy those who seek to destroy him but by reaching out his arms of love to die for them – to die for us.
One famous theologian was asked to summarize this life’s work. He replied, “In the words of the song I learned on my mother’s knee, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” So, if there is ever any doubt as to what the scriptures are about, if there is ever any doubt as to whose God’s love is meant for, remember the lyrics of this simple hymn, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Amen.