Sunday, May 6, 2012

(Easter 5) Love and Boundaries

Acts 8:1b, 4-17, 25-40

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Easter is a season, not a day.
We’re still in the Easter season,
the 50 days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.
We are at day 28, more than half-way through.
On these Sundays
we celebrate the Risen Lord
and we celebrate the spread of the Gospel of the Lord.
In the weekly readings from Acts,
we see the early church being swept along
by the astounding implications that Jesus’ death
was not the end of Jesus’ living presence among them.

In Acts, the church lives, truly, in light of the resurrection.
They bear the Good News that Jesus lives,
and share that news with amazing results.

So every Sunday, in our scriptures,
we hear yet another angle on this Good News,
another part of the deal.
like a kitchen knife sales pitch on TV,
“But wait! . . . There’s more!”
Except in this case, there really is something more.

Because Jesus Christ lives,
because the tomb opened up
the church of Jesus Christ also opens up
and demonstrates that resurrection is still God’s agenda.
God is still all about taking what is dead,
what holds us back,
what sucks the life out of us,
and transforming it into something new—
what is life-giving,
what is healing,
what is peace-building.

And today, on Easter 5,
the next part of the deal that is revealed,
is that the gospel is for all people . . . for everyone.

You know, we human beings have divided ourselves
very neatly into social groups.
Big groups and small groups.
And we group and sub-group and sub-sub-group ourselves
according to things like national boundaries,
language, race, culture, tribe,
wealth, religion, and—especially here in our country—
political ideology.
But the good news is that the gospel of Jesus Christ
is bigger than any of those groups.
No group can ever contain the whole of the gospel.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ crosses all boundaries of our making.

Of course, that good news has a flip side.
It’s usually hard and painful to cross the boundaries that we made.
Boundaries serve an important purpose.
They keep our lives structured in an orderly way.
They help keep the peace,
because when we group with people like us,
there is less reason for conflict.

But, the very nature of the gospel of Christ
requires that we cross these constructed barriers.
The gospel is bigger than any of the groups we construct.
The gospel is universal.

It’s fascinating to see how the first church crossed barriers.
We sometimes think the early church—
with their explosive growth and evangelistic fervor—
just ignored all barriers.

Not so. The first Christians most definitely belonged
to a particular, constructed, social group.
Jesus was a Palestinian Jew,
and his followers were Palestinian Jews.
And Jews in that time and place in history,
were extremely conscious of their social identity.
They were a minority—an oppressed minority.
They had strong social, cultural, and religious traditions
that tied them to each other
and that kept others at bay.
The boundaries were almost impenetrable.
It was possible, but not easy, to become a practicing Jew.
And, of course, all the early Christians were practicing Jews.

So who was the first Christian to reach across this huge social barrier
that separated Jews from the rest of the world?
We usually think, Peter—
who went to the home of Cornelius the centurion,
and baptized his whole household.
That might have been the first time a Gentile
was baptized in the name of Jesus,
and joined followers of “the way,”
later to be called Christians.
That was certainly a bold initiative on the part of Peter.
But he wasn’t the first one to cross
that sacred, constructed boundary.

The first one, apparently, was the one we just heard about this morning
in our lengthy reading from Acts chapter 8.
Here, the church crossed two significant social barriers,
and the church was led in this initiative
not by one of the 12 apostles,
not by one of the recognized, authorized, pillars of the church,
but by a newly appointed deacon—Philip.
By one of the church leaders who were being severely persecuted,
and were on the run, literally, for their lives.

Remember the first verse?
“That day (meaning right after the stoning of Stephen)
a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem,
and all except the apostles were scattered
throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.”
It’s a bit curious to me why the apostles weren’t scattered.
Maybe they felt it essential, as leaders in “The Way,”
that they stay close to the heart of their Jewish community.
They were likely well-hidden, and well-protected,
by the rest of the church.
But the church couldn’t afford to provide that kind of protection
for all their leaders.
So everyone else got out of town.
And the “everyone else” included
what was left of the seven Greek-speaking deacons,
appointed in Acts 6, to care for the Greek-speaking
Jewish widows and orphans.
Stephen, the deacon who just died as a martyr,
was one of those.
The other six now had to flee.
And Philip was one of the six.

So it was the Greek-speaking, Hellenistic Jewish deacon, Philip,
not one of the twelve apostles,
who was the first one to lead the church across the social barrier
that defined Palestinian Judaism.
Of course, radical boundary crossing
rarely does come from central headquarters, does it?

First, Philip went down into Samaria and started preaching about Jesus.
Now, we just don’t get how significant this is.
Philip was preaching, healing, and ministering to Samaritans.
Samaritans were half-Jews, despised by full Jews,
because they married pagans,
and diluted Abraham’s ancestral line.
Self-respecting Jews went the long way around Samaria.
Philip went directly there. On purpose.
He had good news to share.
And he had enough respect for the people of Samaria
to think they were worthy of hearing it.
And in fact, they were eager to hear it.
They responded with joy, and Philip baptized them.
Philip, a deacon, not an apostle,
was baptizing Samaritan half-breeds,
giving them full entrance into the fellowship.

It wasn’t long that word got back to headquarters.
The apostles in Jerusalem found out
that Samaritans were accepting the good news of Jesus,
so they went down to see for themselves.
I’m sure Peter was among them, and taking notes.
Now, we aren’t told what their first reaction was to hearing this.
And we aren’t told
why they went down so quickly to check things out.
But we can guess.
We can certainly guess they were suspicious.
There were obviously red flags here.
But without any explanation from the writer of Acts,
we simply read that they ended up being supportive.
They filled in a few missing pieces of Philip’s preaching.
They preached about the Holy Spirit,
and laid hands on the Samaritans,
and the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit, it says in Acts.

Then, after the work in Samaria seemed to be off to a good start,
and had the blessing of the apostles,
Philip felt a call from God to move on.
An angel directed him to go down a certain road in the wilderness.
And he came upon an Ethiopian eunuch,
high official of the Queen of the Ethiopians.
Now here, Philip was faced with yet another social barrier.

Exactly what kind of barrier, we don’t really know fully,
because we aren’t told about the man’s religious status.
We know he was Ethiopian, not Palestinian.
So right there was a huge gulf—
in culture, ethnicity, wealth, geography, and language—
that separated him from Philip.
We know he was returning from Jerusalem,
where he went to worship.
That makes for several possibilities.
He could have been a full Jew.
There were Jews scattered all over the known world.
Probably more likely,
he was either a proselyte or a God-fearer.
A proselyte is someone who went through all the steps
to become Jewish,
and follow the law of Moses completely.
The God-fearers—a specific category in Jewish life—
were quite common among Gentiles in those days.
They were persons intrigued by monotheism—
the worship of one God.
They participated in many of the feasts and practices,
but didn’t take the more difficult step
of crossing the boundary, and joining.
The Gentile Cornelius, that Peter baptized,
was in this category—a God-fearer.

But whichever religious category the Ethiopian belonged to,
there was clearly a huge boundary,
a constructed boundary,
that separated him from this humble Jewish deacon, Philip.

But Philip initiated the conversation,
and ended up inside the Ethiopian’s chariot,
sitting beside him,
interpreting the prophet Isaiah to him.
This Ethiopian was seeking better understanding of the one God,
and Philip opened the scriptures more fully to him,
and explained the good news of Jesus the Messiah.
And the Ethiopian believed.

A little farther down the road,
the Ethiopian saw some water and asked Philip,
“What is there to prevent me from being baptized?”

Interesting question! What is there to prevent?
Well, where should Philip begin?
There were all kinds of reasons to prevent this Ethiopian,
member of the Queen’s royal court,
very possibly Gentile,
from being baptized.
2,000 years of sacred religious tradition, to begin with.
And the fact that Philip was not one of the apostles.
Who was he to be the first one to break down this barrier?
No one back in Jerusalem had remotely suggested
they should extend their mission
into Ethiopia and its royal halls filled with Gentiles.
This was completely new territory.

If the apostles back in Jerusalem rushed to Samaria to investigate
the minute they heard Samaritans were being baptized,
what would they do if they heard a rookie deacon
just baptized an Ethiopian court official?
I wonder sometimes
if this quiet little baptism just stayed quiet for a while.
I have no way of knowing, of course.
But two chapters later in Acts,
Peter gets credit for opening the doors to the Gentiles
when he baptized Cornelius and his family.

After the boundary-crossing ministry of Philip and the other deacons,
and after the pillar apostle, Peter, followed suit,
Gentiles all over started joining the movement,
and changed the face of Christian faith forever.

But . . . if Philip and Peter hadn’t done it, somebody would have.
The very message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ requires it.
The story of the tomb that burst open,
and broke the chains of death,
simply . . . leads in that direction.

The power of love moves people outward.

God is love, as we heard again last Sunday,
and the love of God draws all people toward, and across,
all kinds of socially-constructed boundaries,
and into a reconciled relationship with God and each other.
God’s desire was and is
that people of all tribes and nations and social position
be reconciled and invited into the kingdom of God.
The very nature of the good news of God’s kingdom,
is that it not stay inside the confines of our human containers.

Love, which is of God, and which is God,
crosses all our boundaries.
Love does not eliminate boundaries.
Some boundaries, in fact, exist because of the love of God,
and are defined by love.
By definition, when love creates a bond, it creates boundaries.
The words even seem linked—bond and boundary.
Love leads us toward covenant,
covenant creates community,
and communities thrive when there are wise boundaries,
permeable boundaries.
So the goal is not to destroy all boundaries
or dismiss boundaries as un-important.

Rather, we must be discerning.
There are boundaries that keep us from going
where the love of God in Christ is taking us,
and that is simply wrong.
Letting those boundaries stop us is to work against the Kingdom.

It was hard for the pillars of the church
to make the shift,
once the power of the Gospel of resurrection
started messing with the boundaries that prevented
Samaritans and Gentiles and Ethiopian eunuchs
from being baptized and brought into the body of Christ.
But by Spirit-led communal discernment and accountability,
the boundaries were not eliminated,
but redrawn.
And thanks be to God, they were redrawn in ways
that came to include the likes of us.

Yet, here we are today,
as the church of Jesus Christ,
empowered by the same love of God that broke open Jesus’ grave,
and we keep being held back by constructed boundaries.

It’s hard for middle class white American Christians like us
to go very far past our boundaries,
and truly, welcome into our family,
in full fellowship and in power-sharing relationship,
the poor, the immigrant, the people of color.
We make attempts.
Park View is doing so right now,
as the second team of partners arrives in New Orleans,
and in a couple hours will be welcomed by
a congregation of African Americans,
who live in—or on the edge of—poverty,
and they will worship together as sisters and brothers.
And next Sunday, I’ll be there, preaching in Pastor Jones’ pulpit,
and, he hopes, doing some whooping.
He can always hope.

And there are political and ideological boundaries
that work against the spread of the Gospel of resurrection today.
Conservative Christians and liberal Christians
pit themselves against each other.
They make such a big, public deal about their ideology,
that they basically say to the world,
if you don’t look and act and think like us,
you’re not only wrong, you’re stupid,
and you belong on that side of the boundary.
Not our side. Go find your own country.
That way of being, has no place among people
who have been transformed by the Gospel of Christ,
who live as Easter people.

If Philip and the other deacons, and the apostles,
had thought in those terms,
we wouldn’t have the book of Acts,
we wouldn’t be here today worshiping the God of resurrection.

Easter people recognize that the work is not ours anyway.
It’s not up to us to protect the Kingdom
from those who don’t deserve it.
I repeat.
It’s not up to us to protect the Kingdom
from those who don’t deserve it.
It’s our only task to go where the love of God is taking us,
looking for God’s saving activity in the world,
and going there, like deacon Philip, to be part of it.

The work is God’s alone.

Let’s affirm that by singing together,
HWB 396, The work is Thine, O Christ our Lord.

—Phil Kniss, May 6, 2012

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