1 John 4:7-21
The subject of all three lessons today is love, particularly Christian love, which seems most apt for Mother’s Day, which is coming up next week. The love of a mother for her child is directly related to, parallel to, God’s love for us.
This love serves; it puts the needs of the other first; it is a love that endures beyond bad behavior and difficult times; this love gives itself, even to death, to save the life of the other.
Nonetheless, Christian love is harder still. We think it natural that Mother’s love their children, but their children are just that — theirs! Christian love demands that we love other mother’s children – even other tribe’s children, other nation’s children. Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad. It’s easy to love little children, especially from a distance, but you know it doesn’t’ stop there. Little children have this habit of growing up!
It’s not so easy to love other grownups, especially the ones who are killing each other in places like Israel, or Syria, or Baltimore. Even though we know these parents are children too – someone’s children – certainly God’s children.
The story of Phillip and the eunuch illuminates this aspect of Christian love – being able to love someone who is wholly “other.” You may need some background to see just how radical Phillip’s behavior is in this story.
In the years after the Jews returned from Babylon, Jewish communities sprang up all over the Mediterranean world. The temple no longer existed and worship occurred in Synagogues. During this time Jews were actively seeking converts to Judaism. Such converts were called proselytes.
Proselytes accepted all Jewish practices including circumcision. It is perhaps no wonder the majority of proselytes were women. Many people from pagan cultures were drawn to the monotheism and the ethical precepts of Judaism. Those who studied and/or worshipped, but did not actually convert, were called God-fearers.
The Eunuch in our story was probably such a one. Eunuchs were men who had been neutered, much as we neuter our pets. They were usually slaves who served families of high estate or royalty. They were made eunuchs so that they could guard the women’s quarters and could serve the king without any thought of usurping the throne.
A eunuch could not convert to Judaism, even if he wanted to, because all impaired and defective people were excluded from the covenant congregation, nor could they worship in the temple of Jesus’s time. Deuteronomy is very specific about this. And people who were deformed or defective, not just eunuchs and lepers, but the blind, mute, club-footed, etc, whether from birth or by accident or illness were considered impure. A truly proper Jew would have nothing to do with them.
Yet we see no hesitation on Phillip’s part. The Eunuch was probably very dark skinned, as he came from Nubia, south of Egypt. He was a gentile or a pagan as well as a eunuch – and yet he was reading scripture. Still, what Phillip did was so outrageous that we’re told he did it because the Spirit told him to. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain his approaching this man.
Their conversation begins and Phillip shares the Good News with the eunuch as they journey down the road. Later, when they come to a stream, Phillip baptizes him.
Think what baptism might mean to someone who was considered “defective.” I suspect that the willingness of the early church to accept everyone who believed, accounted, in part, for its amazing growth and success. What must their inclusion in the Christian community have felt like for slaves, outcastes, beggars, tax collectors and prostitutes? It’s hard to even imagine for people like us who have almost always been “in” and seldom “out.”
If we did not have the book of Acts, we might think that the “Church” sprang up, full-grown, after the death of Jesus. We still have to remind ourselves that there were no clergy in the early church; there were no rules about baptism, there were no “authorized rites” for marriage, confession, ordination, and consecration. In fact, there were no bishops to maintain good order. The downside of rapid growth for the church was that it very quickly reverted to rules, to an established hierarchy, to excluding women and others from the leadership, not to mention an end to sharing everything!
Remember the church of our childhood? No communion until after baptism and confirmation! That usually meant that children went to church for 12 or more years without being able to participate in the feast! And we kept wondering why they left after confirmation!
When the issue of open communion first came up I remember that my opinion was changed by someone who said, “Would you invite your friends to Thanksgiving dinner and then tell the children they couldn’t eat because they didn’t understand Thanksgiving, but later on when they did, they could join in the meal?” How would that line sit with Jesus? Don’t we learn new things by participating in them too?
We are coming to see that baptism is not the same as a life-time membership in the Country Club. It is a response to the reality of God’s love for us. It is our way of saying “Yes!” to God. We want to follow your way.
Phillip had to put aside his early training, his prejudices, his distaste, his old attitudes, and his assumptions in order to include this foreign eunuch into the Christian community. He stepped up – to love some OTHER mother’s child and to include him in fellowship.
And so must we. And so must we.