The Journey on a Desolate Road
“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" (Acts 8:36, NRSV).
In this season of Eastertide, we find stories of how belief in the resurrection, which really is belief in the Resurrected One, transforms peoples' lives. This is the story of the Acts of the Apostles. It is the story of how the church was driven out of Jerusalem into the whole world. In a sense, we have the cart in front of the horse. Pentecost has not happened, but we have jumped ahead to the encounter of the Ethiopian Eunuch and Philip (Acts 26-40).
I was nurtured in the faith from early childhood. Sometimes, the way God works is unexpected, even shocking. In seminary, I had a couple of classmates that were “unexpected.” Class introductions went something like, “This is Margaret, she is 73-years-old and a seminary student.” Considering I attended a Southern Baptist seminary, maybe the real shock was not her age, but that she was a woman, but I digress. The other one, “This is Robert, he is a medical doctor and a seminary student.” The story of my journey to seminary surprised few people, but their stories made people pause and take a second look. It wasn’t shocking.
I get the feeling that by the way that this story is recorded, the writer understands that the Ethiopian coming to faith is unexpected if not downright shocking. We never know his name, but five times, we are told that he is a eunuch. He was the head of the treasury for Queen Candace. We know a few things about him besides that he was a eunuch. We know by his position that he was well educated. We can guess that he might have been a Jew, or at least a God-fearer. We know that he left Jerusalem curious about what God was doing. We know that he had a copy of the Isaiah scroll, which was a very valuable treasure.
As they sat in the chariot, Philip and the Ethiopian discussed Isaiah’s text. My understanding is that at this time, the prophets were not read that often. The emphasis was on the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). When Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll or the Ethiopian read from the Isaiah scroll, this was already a step out of the norm.
In their conversation, there were many questions. “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I?” ”Who is the prophet talking about?”
They come to a place where there is water, another shocking feature of this story, and the Ethiopian states emphatically, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
This is one of those central questions that the church must answer over and over. Too often, we get the answer wrong! We might reframe the question, “What are the limits of grace?”
Is my race a hinderance? No.
Is my being a eunuch a hinderance to Jesus like it was for entering the Temple? No.
Later, is the lack of circumcision a hinderance? No.
Is my being a Roman soldier a hindrance? No.
Is my being a female seller of purple cloth a hindrance? No.
Sometimes the church, like the Pharisees, forgets that the whole Bible is the story of God seeking to redeem a fallen people. Even in the book of Acts, the church has to expand their understanding of grace over and over.
When I was 15, I wanted to go on my first mission trip. A few years later, my parents told me that there were some in my church, the church where I had grown up, who objected to my going on this trip because I didn’t go to church on Sunday evenings that often and even more rarely on Wednesday nights.
At that church I was an outsider; as a family, we were all outsiders. Why would I go to youth group on Sunday evening if I didn’t belong?
The power of the resurrection is that God’s grace is sufficient. All those human boundaries that creep into our churches are simply contrary to the essence of the Gospel. At a time when so many Americans, young especially, but really people of all ages, are finding new excuses for not being engaged in a local church, we need to find ways of welcoming people like the man from Ethiopia and Lydia and Cornelius into the family. They may not look like us or share our heritage, but they are the reason we celebrate the resurrection. They need new life. As a long-time believer, I need to witness the newness of life in the church that they bring.
During COVID, we spent a lot of time just staying connected to our church folk because we were all scattered. I hope that in 2021, we will begin to intentionally find people who are seeking and help them connect the dots between their seeking and the Jesus of the resurrection.
Lord, shake me out of my comfortable place of what it looks like to follow you. Help me to see and hear people who are already on the journey of faith, but who need help taking next steps. Help me to see and take the next steps I need to take with you. Amen.
Northern Front Range and Southeastern New Mexico
Missions and Ministry Coach
American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains