Read the Sermon
For the past few weeks we have been talking about how to read the Bible and today we are reading, from the Bible, a story about someone reading the Bible. It’s Biblical inception.
But before we get to our text today, let me tell you about how we in the United Methodist tradition of Christianity are encouraged to read the Bible. Our reading of the Bible is not, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
In 2 Corinthians 13:12 Paul writes, “Say hello to each other with a holy kiss.”
When this pandemic is over and we can say hello to each other in person, do not greet me like that.
Let’s pick on Paul again and point to another of their odd phrases in the first letter to the Corinthians where they write, “Doesn’t nature itself teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him; but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Corinthians 11:14-15).
We should ask ourselves what exactly does Paul mean by nature here? Because when it comes to lions, which are, naturally, apart of nature, male lions have long manes but female lions do not.
As a Jewish person, and as a Pharisee on top of that, Paul would have known the teachings of the the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In Leviticus it is written, “You must not cut off the hair on your forehead or clip the ends of your beard.” (Leviticus 19:27). In the later Rabbinical writings of the Talmud, it’s said that this commandment only applies to men, which means men should have long sidelocks, called peyot by the Orthodox and Hassidic Jews that continue to follow that commandment. Those men have long hair, at least on the sides of their head, Paul likely would have too, and Paul would have thought that those long hairs were natural and normal.
There are a ton of other passages that we could point to and see how the idea that thinking the Bible can be reduced to, God said it, I believe it, that settles it, doesn’t work.
In the United Methodist tradition, we sometimes use the fancy term, quadrilateral, to describe how we read the Bible. We try to hold together scripture with an understand that as we read the Bible, we also carry with us tradition, reason and experience. We read the Bible, and as we do we can study what others in the history of the church have said about a passage, we can also reason through how a passage of scripture relates to the rest of the Bible, we can have reasonable thoughts about what genre of literature we are reading, is it poetry, is it allegory, when was it written, all that fun stuff that points to the context behind the words we read, and as we do all of that, we also bring our own experience to the text. As much as we read the Bible, the Bible reads us when it brings to mind feelings, experiences, and memories that shape and inform our reading.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition that Grace is a part of, never used the phrase quadrilateral, but we can see it in Wesley’s writings. One of Wesley’s early writings, “Thoughts Upon Slavery” was so popular among abolitionists that in two years it was published in four editions.
What is fascinating about “Thoughts Upon Slavery” is that Wesley disregards a lot of scripture and tradition. There are numerous passages in the Bible that are be OK with slavery, there are even passages in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament, that encourage slavery. On top of that, tradition, up to the time of Wesley, was steeped in slavery. Slavery was an economic reality and a part of the social order.
When Wesley wrote “Thoughts Upon Slavery” slavery was traditional and Biblical, and Wesley still knew it was sinful, immoral, and wrong.
So what does Wesley do to faithfully and Biblically argue against slavery?
Wesley clings to the primacy of the greatest commandments, loving God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. This love and liberation is lifted up as primary above any other passage of scripture. With this, Wesley uses reason and experience to proclaim, “Liberty is the right of every human creature, as soon as [they] breathes the vital air. And no human law can deprive [them] of that right, which [they] derives from the law of nature. If therefore you have any regard to justice, (to say nothing of mercy, nor of the revealed law of GOD) render unto all their due. Give liberty to whom liberty is due, that is to every child of man, to every partaker of human nature…Away with all whips, all chains, all compulsion! Be gentle towards [everyone]…”
In “Thoughts Upon Slavery” if scripture, tradition, reason and experience were the legs of a chair, those legs wouldn’t be of equal length, it wouldn’t be the most balanced seat, and yet, it points us in the direction of God’s love and the new exodus that we are a part of when we live with Christ’s grace and peace.
With all of this in mind, let’s now look at our reading and this moment in the Bible, where two people talk about learning how to read the Bible.
Our text starts with Philip and like most early followers of Jesus, Philip was Jewish. Philip knew all about the story of Exodus, the exile that happened after Solomon, the hope of a new and greater Exodus that would bring all people into the covenant at Sinai and Philip would have also followed rules, traditions, and commandments about what to eat, what not to eat, how to observe the sabbath and more.
Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch meet on a road as they are leaving Jerusalem. It is a small detail in the text that the author of Acts writes, “the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza” (Acts 8:26) but it’s an important detail because it points us in the direction and the movement of the early church.
The book of Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke. The same author writes both texts and at the beginning of Acts that Jesus, “instructed the apostles” (Acts 1:2) for 40 days.
40 is a special and symbolic number in the scripture, because 40 is said to be the number of years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, for 40 days and 40 nights, Noah was in the ark, and Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness to prepare for his ministry and next month we will begin our own 40 day journey as Lent begins.
The last thing that Jesus says to the apostles as they being 40 day journey into the new exodus is, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Being a witness in Jerusalem isn’t all that interesting because that’s where they are. But to say that they will be witnesses in all Judea and Samaria, that complicates things. There was a lot of animosity between these two regions, there was a lot of bigotry and racism and misunderstandings that perpetuated their divide, but Jesus mentions them together.
It is as if Jesus is saying start at home, do the best you can exactly where you are, and if you can figure out how to love your neighbor as yourself at home, that love can’t help but overflow and bring healing and reconciliation even to people that are at each others throats.
But it’s not just that this good news can bring hope and healing to Judea and Samaria, Jesus goes on to say that it will reach the ends of the earth.
The prophets had spoken of God’s grace reaching the ends of the earth, the covenant at Sinai God says “the whole earth belongs to me” (Exodus 19:5). God’s liberation has always been about everyone, everywhere, which means it can’t stay in Jerusalem, it can’t stop at the borders of Judea and Samaira, it has to reach the ends of the earth.
In our text today, Philip meets and Ethiopian Eunuch, and in the ancient near east, Ethiopia might as well be the end of the earth.
The Ethiopian eunuch is reading, out loud, from the Prophet Isaiah. These details tell us a lot about this Ethiopian eunuch. First, literacy was rare in the ancient near east and the vast majority of people could not read so it was common to read out loud so that others could feel included in the reading. Second, scrolls were a luxury item in the ancient near east. This is centuries before copy machines, let alone paper. If you had a scroll, you had a handwritten copy made of parchment, animal skins. Making parchment took a lot of time, and therefore a lot of money, just like making a handwritten copy takes a lot of time and a lot of money. This eunuch is in charge of the treasury of the Ethiopian queen, and the author of Acts makes it clear that the eunuch has their own treasury too.
The eunuch reads from Isaiah, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent so he didn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was taken away from him. Who can tell the story of his descendants because his life was taken from the earth?” (Isaiah 53:7-8) and when the eunuch asks Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this, about himself or someone else?” (Acts 8:34) to Philip, it’s clear that Isaiah was writing about Jesus.
As Philip looks back at the life of Jesus, Philip sees Jesus lead like a lamb to the slaughter. Jesus did not put up a fight against the soldiers that arrested him. Jesus stayed silent before Herod and Pontius Pilate. Jesus was humiliated when Jesus was stripped and nailed to a cross, denied justice due to an unjust trial. Now, after those final 40 days that Philip and the other apostles had with Jesus before Jesus ascended into the heavens, the question is, who is going to tell this story?
Philip sees Jesus in this text from Isaiah and Philip has to tell this Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus so the new exodus can reach the ends of the earth.
As Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch travel away from Jerusalem and towards the ends of the earth, they pass by some water and this Ethiopian eunuch asks, “What would keep me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:37).
The Ethiopian eunuch asks, “What would keep me from being baptized” as if they as if they have asked this question before.
Perhaps the Ethiopian Eunuch had read from Deuteronomy 23, “No man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off can belong to the LORD’s assembly.” (Deuteronomy 23:1).
By the first century, this passage would have been understood as meaning Eunuchs could not fully participate in worship at the temple because they were ritually impure. The temple did have an area called the Courtyard of the Gentiles, a space for non-Jewish persons to worship the God is Israel, and as far as we know, no one was standing at the entrance of the temple to enforce this passage from Deuteronomy.
Making sense of ritual purity is a bit tricky, because it is not something that we especially mindful of, even though it is still something that we carry with us. We all have ways of marking spaces and times as more sacred and holy than others. Our service is taking place at the same time now as it was before the pandemic, but we all know it feels different online than it feels in the sanctuary. We have a ritual purity that lingers in all the ways that some spaces and times feel more special than others.
In the first century, most Jewish people lived the vast majority of their lives ritualistically unclean and that was just fine because the majority of their life wasn’t lived at the temple. But when they prepared to go to the temple, when the readied themselves for worship, these practices of ritual purity helped to keep the temple sacred, holy, and special.
And yet, as a eunuch, no matter what they got right, to many in the ancient near east, this eunuch would have been seen as damaged goods, as never worthy and always unable of being ritually pure.
When the Ethiopian eunuch asks, “What would keep me from being baptized” I imagine that it’s a question they’ve asked many times before, and they’ve been told every reason that keeps them from being baptized.
For Philip, the question from the Ethiopian eunuch raises another question, what do you do when you realize that your religion is smaller than the movement of God?
This is the tension that is just below the surface in the letters of Paul and for Paul this tension seems to be less about religious rituals and practices, and more about manipulation, guilt, and fear.
Paul never renounces his Jewish faith, he loves it, he embraces it, and, for Paul, his Jewish faith is informed by the teachings, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Paul preaches to non-Jewish people that are starting to follow the teaching of Jesus, what Paul hates is when other Jewish followers of Jesus say to these non-Jewish followers of Jesus, “It’s great that if you want to be one of us, and if you’re really going to be one of us you’re going to have to go all the way, so don’t look down and don’t worry about the knife in my hand.”
What Paul is against is using religious rituals to force feelings of guilt and fear on to others, to use faith in ways that make folks feel they are illegitimate, condemned and not good enough because that’s not liberation, that’s coercion.
It doesn’t matter what kind of religious language is used, it doesn’t matter how many passages of the Bible you can quote to support your position, if it’s destructive and demeaning it’s not what God wants for us.
In Galatians, which is likely Paul’s first letter, they write, “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation. May peace and mercy be on whoever follows this rule…” (Galatians 6:15-16).
For Paul, Christ is initiating a new creation, one that extends the covenant of God’s love to everyone, to the ends of the earth and we can all be a part of it.
Which brings us back to the road leaving Jerusalem and the pregnant pause where Philip pondered what, if anything, could keep this Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized.
Philip, just like Paul, would have been circumcised when he was 8 days old. That was something that Jewish families did and have done for generations. As non-Jewish persons started to follow Jesus, some were told you can be part of the family, but you’ve got to be initiated, which is what Paul rails against. But what about this Ethiopian Eunuch? For obvious reasons, they can’t be circumcised. Can they still be a part of the family?
Philip could think about their scriptures, which at that time would not have included the Gospels or the letters of Paul. Philip could have looked at their tradition, they could have said what was good enough for me is good enough for them. There are all sorts of ways that Philip could have responded to the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip could have pointed in the opposite direction of the water, yelled, “What’s that” and ran away so he didn’t have to deal with the tension of the moment, but instead, Philip baptized Ethiopian eunuch and proclaimed that they are loved and worthy.
After this baptism, we don’t know where Philip goes, but we do know that this eunuch continues to travel away from Jerusalem and toward Ethiopia on a chariot.
If you have been with us for the past few weeks, you might remember that we’ve talked about chariots before. During the first exodus as the Israelites were lead into freedom, Pharaoh sent chariots to chase after them and keep them in slavery. Solomon bought and sold chariots, Solomon amassed wealth as a weapons trader in the ancient near east. Throughout the Bible, the chariot is a symbol of oppression, empire, and violence.
There is a Psalm where it’s written, “Some people trust in chariots, others in horses; but we praise the LORD’s name.” (Psalm 20:7).
But this chariot is different. This chariot isn’t being used for war, this chariot is not being used for violence, coercion or oppression, this chariot is being used to bring good news of liberation and love to the ends of the earth. This chariot speaks to the hope of Isaiah that the nations might, “beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools” (Isaiah 2:4), this promise and hope that one day our weapons of war would be turned into gardening tools, because God’s hope for us is still the goodness of the garden.
The chariot is a fantastic little detail in this story, but the Ethiopian eunuch’s job is an even bigger one. This eunuch was responsible for the treasury of Ethiopia.
The wealth of a nation was part of the problem with Solomon. Solomon had wealth and privilege and power, but used it in the wrong way, building palaces and the temple with slave labor, causing the cry of the oppressed instead of hearing the cry and responding with love and liberation.
The Ethiopian eunuch points us towards the economic realities of this new exodus. There’s a passage earlier in the book of Acts where it is written, “All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.” (Acts 2:44-45).
There is the greed and the coercion of the empire, we know that kind of chariot, but then there is the generosity, the kindness, and the liberation that is shared from the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot.
Philip had all sorts of traditional and scriptural reason to say no to the Ethiopian eunuch, but Philip still said yes because they trusted that God’s good news is really that good.
If an Ethiopian eunuch came to Grace and said, “What’s to keep me from being baptized”, I think we’d baptize them faster than Philip did. We strive to be an inclusive church and I am proud of that. There are folks that have found a home at our church that haven’t been able to experience God’s grace and peace elsewhere. Grace is a church that says yes to a lot of people that other churches have said no to.
We know that the Ethiopian Eunuch is welcome here, because everyone is welcome here and God’s new exodus is about the liberation and love that God wants for all people.
But, if a Qanon conspiracy theorist came to Grace and said what is to keep me from being baptized, I could come up with a few reasons.
If someone that stormed the capital on January 6th came and asked to be baptized, I’d hesitate and excuse myself from the conversation to call the FBI.
If someone said to me, “I’m not racist, but the Klan has some good ideas, can I be baptized at Grace” I would say, without hesitation, “Grace probably isn’t the church for you.”
We read the Bible the wrong way when we only read the words on the page simply ask ourselves what does this say instead of also asking what do they mean.
The Bible is the story of God’s liberating love extending to the ends of the earth and people like me stopping to ask God, “Do you mean that person too?”
I don’t have a solution in this sermon, but I do have a question, what does it look like for you to extend this love to the ends of the earth?
I’m not saying anything goes. Jesus welcomes everyone to the table, but table manners are still important. We must challenge and confront what is sinful and untrue, but when Philip baptized the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip doesn’t stop to ask “What are you going to do with this chariot and how is your faith going to change the way you run the treasury?”
What does it look like for you to join God in extending the new exodus to the ends of the earth? What does it look like when we, like Philip, know what the story says, but choose to live into the love that the story means?
Again, this doesn’t mean anything goes, it doesn’t mean that we’re saying accountability doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to let ourselves be doormats that don’t stand up against evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, but it does mean when we wonder if God loves and cares about them too, we have to say yes, just as quickly as Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch.
So what will it look like for you to live with that love? What is the end of the earth for you, and how can you witness to God’s grace and peace being found even there?
February 1 – 6, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Matthew 22:36-40
Notice – Asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus chose not one but two. The first was Deuteronomy 6:4: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.” But he added Leviticus 19:18: “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Jesus said the point of all other truths is to lead us to love God and neighbor more fully. God wants us to show contagious love to all we know. Jesus said every key Bible principle, all the truths we know about what God wants, “depend” on the two commands he quoted. What do you believe made these two commands so foundational in Jesus’ thinking, teaching, and living? Can you recall any time when some belief you held led you to love God or some of your neighbors less, maybe even without realizing it? That second command can be challenging. Loving others the way we love ourselves is based on how God loves us—never giving up, no matter what. Our humanity makes it hard for us to love ourselves or others with God’s unwarranted love with no hesitation. But God calls us to move toward that, for our own sake and the sake of others. What has stopped you or made it hard for you to love yourself or someone else persistently? How might you love more fully?
Pray – Gracious God, thank you for loving me unconditionally. Help me to recognize the moments in my life when I can relentlessly love those around me. Amen.
Read – 1 John 4:16-21
Notice – John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, preached a sermon on April 21, 1777 that quoted John and invited all Christ-followers, “Let us provoke all [people], not to enmity and contention, but to love and good works; always remembering those deep words… ‘God is love; and [those] that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in [them]!’” *Why would John say, “Perfect love drives out fear”? 1 John 4:20 said, “Those who say, ‘I love God’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars.” Do you agree that it is often fear that leads us to hate other people? Why would hating others block any genuine love for God? Can you think of practical ways to let God’s perfect love move you in the direction of acting in love toward “others,” even if you think they deserve fear and distrust rather than love?
Pray – Jesus, you embodied God’s love for me. Now you call me to embody your love as I deal with other people, even people I may not like, may even fear. Grow your love in my heart. Amen.
- From Wesley’s sermon “On Laying The Foundation Of The New Chapel, Near The City-Road, London” at http://www.godrules.net/library/wsermons/wsermons132.htm.
Read – Ezekiel 34:1-8, 11-12, Luke 15:1-7
Notice – Jesus, God in the flesh, came to this planet on very real rescue mission. Drawing from the image in Ezekiel 34, he told a story about a shepherd who lost one sheep from his flock. That was only 1% of the flock, but the shepherd cared deeply about any lost sheep. He dropped everything, searched until he found that sheep—and felt great joy when he found it. Jesus’ critics thought he should write off the human “lost sheep” (Luke 15:2), but Jesus in fact searched tirelessly for them. “[Ezekiel’s] metaphor goes beyond the normal responsibilities of making sure that the sheep are protected and fed. Instead it focuses on the remedial duties, caring for the sick and finding the lost. These equate to the need for kings to bring about justice for alienated and disenfranchised people.” * What are some of the ways you can actively support and work for justice for alienated or disenfranchised people around you?
Pray – Jesus, thank you that you’ve never seen me (or anyone) as a “disposable asset,” as someone who doesn’t matter. Give me your heart for everyone in your human family. Amen.
- HarperCollins Christian Publishing. NIV, Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, eBook: Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture (Kindle Locations 190424-190426). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Read – Romans 13:8-10
Notice – Paul sent this letter to Roman house churches (there were no big cathedrals in his day). Some were mainly Jewish; others mostly Gentile. Their standards of “righteousness” varied (cf. Romans 14:1-15:13). It was easy for them to criticize each. Paul said the purpose of God’s law or rules is to help us love. “Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor” was a big challenge to people who disagreed. It was (and is) vital, because “Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law.” How might ugly religious conflicts (e.g. the Salem witch trials, the Inquisition) have been different if Christians had always aimed to fulfill the law by loving? How can you stand for truths that matter to you without acting in unloving ways toward those who disagree? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you grow in the inner qualities (that may not come naturally) that help you live out the law of love.
Pray – Jesus, “love is what fulfills the Law” sometimes feels too easy to me. Until, that is, I try to do it—then I realize how high and hard a standard that is. Teach me how to love the way that you love. Amen.
Read – Matthew 9:35-38, Luke 19:1-10
Notice – Jesus did many admirable, valuable things during his ministry on earth. Jesus healed the sick, broke down barriers of prejudice and exclusion, taught people how to live better lives, and challenged religious hypocrisy. Yet all that grew from Jesus’ central mission, as Jesus said, he came to seek and to save the lost. Jesus yearned for God to “send out workers into his harvest field.” To what extent do you think “troubled and helpless…sheep without a shepherd” expresses the spiritual state of your neighbors, co-workers, even some people you know in church? Are you willing to become one of the workers Jesus wished for? What abilities and resources has God given you that you can use to help reach troubled, helpless people with the good news of Jesus?
Pray – Jesus, thank you for coming “to seek and save the lost,” including me. Guide me to the ways I can join you in doing that great, world-changing work. Amen.
Read – Colossians 3:12-14, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
Notice – Paul was emphatically practical in his letters to the Christians in Ephesus and Corinth. He would have grown up reciting the Shema, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). Jesus, Paul’s Lord, said that was the greatest commandment, and added, “You must love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). The next logical question for Paul, like Christ’s followers ever since, was, “What does it look like to love my neighbor?” These were his answers. It looks like being humble—not thinking of yourself more highly than others. It looks like being gentle—take a deep breath if you feel angry, speak carefully. It looks like being patient—while waiting, focus on God instead of yourself. Love requires compassion (suffering with others), kindness (honor and consideration) and forgiveness to all God’s children. As you read this list of loving actions, how do you feel? Great? Guilty? Condemned? If you’re not perfectly living this list, remember: none of us are. Start with, how can you be more loving this week? Instead of trying to grow in all areas at once, choose one characteristic Paul lists and focus on living into a new way of loving. And loving attitudes and actions are both individual and public, local and general. Think more broadly than just yourself. What can your family, your community, your church, your city, your state, your nation do to be more loving to people you’ve never met? How can you join in God’s work to extend divine love to all people?
Pray – Jesus, I want to love all my neighbors, everywhere. Help me start close to home and guide me as I expand my vision to be more and more like your vast, world-changing vision. Amen.