The Stranger on the Way

Acts 8:26-40

There is an idea in Franciscan thinking called Mirroring.  Like so many Franciscan ideas it’s built on a chain of other ideas, so stay with me as I try to explain this.  

One of the things we are called to do as followers of Jesus, as people of Christ, is to reteach everything its loveliness.  We are called to reteach each other our loveliness.  

The world finds a lot of ways to tell us that we’re less than lovely and loveable, that we’re flawed and unacceptable in one way or another.  Even a lot of our theology does that, unfortunately.  So much of Christianity has adopted Augustine’s idea of Original Sin.  You hear it in a lot of our church language.  “We are born children of a fallen humanity.”  We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  To quote Richard Rohr, if you start with a negative anthropology, you’re going to end up with a negative theology. 

The Franciscans don’t ignore sin.  They just don’t think it’s the defining factor of human nature, at least not in God’s eyes.  They don’t start with Original Sin.  They start with Original Blessing.  God saw everything that God had made, and behold it was good.  Christ has come to remind us that we were created good, and to help us recapture that goodness.  

We are, in fact, children of God.  That is such an enormous idea with such far-reaching implications that I can’t generate a complete understanding of it in my own mind.  The idea that I, Steve Beckham, born in Missouri, of limited intelligence, and sinful like everyone else, am a beloved child of God is so momentous that the he mental circuitry just can’t handle it properly.  I’ll either under value it or over inflate my ego with it.   No one can properly process that idea.  I can’t.  You can’t. 

So we need people who, little by little, mirror it to us.  We need people who reflect back to us the image of God that is in us.  We need people who show us we’re beloved—they mirror God’s love and image to us.  They reflect the image of God that’s in us back to us.  One hopes it starts with parents when we’re babies and that it continues as we grow.  And one hopes that you are mirroring it to others.  So when you read in the scriptures that you are a beloved child of God, you’ve already got a template in place to help you believe it and process it. 

We mirror the image of God to each other to show each other our nobility, to remind each other of our worth and loveliness.  

I came upon a great example of mirroring in a letter written by Erin Poulson to Chadwick Boseman: 

In May 2018, I was newly Queen of Newcastle at the Georgia Renaissance Festival.  Black Panther had come out just three months before and it was on everyone’s mind.

I was still learning how to Queen, as the shoes before me were large, and pavilion time was always a time when I felt particularly inadequate.  It was one of my insecure days when I had a young black girl and her dad come and visit the Royal Court.  I introduced myself as Queen of England and the girl said, “I’m a princess!!”  And then she got shy.

I wanted her to keep talking so I said, “Oh, are you a Princess of England?”  She shook her head.  “Are you a Princess of France?”  Another head shake.  I don’t know why, I’d never done it before, but I thought I’d take a chance.  “Are you a Princess of Wakanda?”

Her eyes grew so big.  Her father jumped with excitement.  And she nodded regally.

I crossed my arms over my chest.  “Wakanda Forever, my Princess.  We are so honored to have you in our Kingdom!”  Now she stood a hundred feet tall, and her dad nearly trembled behind her.

I touched Joshua Miller’s shoulder, who had been carrying on a very different conversation as King Henry, and said, “My dear Henry, we have a visiting guest from Wakanda!”

Without missing a beat, his arms crossed over his chest.  “Wakanda forever, dear Princess!!  And welcome to England!!”

That shy girl walked out of the pavilion with her head held high like an empress.  And I remember her dad just dancing next to her, whispering, “Wakanda, baby!! They know you’re from Wakanda!!  You’re royalty too!!”  

Mr. Boseman, I’ve worked Renaissance festivals for almost twenty years now.  Since that point, I have seen dozens of black boys and girls accept themselves as royalty in a way that I’m not sure they would have before.  The doors you opened echo throughout time like Arthur pulling the sword from the stone.

Thank you,

Wakanda Forever

Mirroring,  reflecting someone’s essential goodness back to them can be transformative and can send ripples farther out into the world than you would dare to imagine.

In chapter 8 of the Book of Acts we read the story of the Apostle Philip who is suddenly told by the Holy Spirit to “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.”  Philip obeys this prompting of the Spirit which must feel like some kind of mad impulse and promptly heads off for that road in the wilderness.  And there he encounters one of the most unexpected characters in all the Bible.  

“Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”

This is such a unique person, this eunuch.  He personifies all the margins of his world.  He has rank and privilege as a member of the queen’s court, but what power does he have here on the wilderness road?  And as a eunuch, where does he fit in to the social structure of the world he is exploring?  He may be Jewish or a Jewish proselyte—there were Jews in Ethiopia—or he may simply have been drawn to know more about the God of the Jews.  Either way, Deuteronomy 23 states that neither a eunuch nor a foreigner is allowed in the assembly, so after all his long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem he wasn’t allowed inside the temple.  At best he would have had to worship from the Court of the Gentiles.  His heart was drawing him closer to God but the rules of admission were keeping him at arm’s length.

As he travels he is reading the scroll of Isaiah, reading about the sheep who is led to slaughter, about the one who is denied justice, whose life was taken away from the earth.  He is lingering over that passage when Philip approaches him and asks if he understands what he is reading.  “How can I, unless someone guides me?” replies the eunuch.  So Philip tells him who that passage is about.  Philip tells him  about Jesus. 

He tells him about travelling with Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea and everywhere else they went.  He tells the eunuch about Jesus’s confrontations with the scribes and the Pharisees because Jesus expanded his circle of friends to include sinners and tax collectors.  He tells the eunuch about all the trips back and forth across the Sea of Galilee so Jesus could heal and feed and preach to gentiles and include them in the community he was forming.  Philip tells the eunuch about the Kingdom of God as Jesus was building it.  The Kin-dom of God, and that in Jesus’ vision there are no outsiders.   He tells the eunuch that Jesus was building a community for all the people in the margins, all those who didn’t quite fit in so nicely and neatly.  He tells the eunuch about their last week in Jerusalem, about the arrest and crucifixion when Jesus was the lamb led to the slaughter, silent before the shearer, when he was denied justice and his life was taken away from the earth.  That’s who Isaiah was talking about, he tells the eunuch.  And then he tells him about the resurrection.  He tells the eunuch how Jesus has given him a new life, has reflected the image of God back to him so he could see it in himself,  how Jesus has shown him that he, too, is a child of God, that he has value.  That he is loved.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

“What is to prevent me?”

Do you hear the eagerness in that question?  Do you hear the anxiety–the hope mixed with a realistic anticipation of disappointment?  This is a question being asked by a person who had travelled a very long way to encounter God at a place that, when he finally arrived, wouldn’t let him come all the way inside.  So now he stands at the edge of an altogether new kind of intimacy with God, the doorway to a new kind of holiness.  And he asks the gatekeeper, “What is to prevent me from being immersed in this new way of being?  What is to prevent me from diving under all the barriers that have kept me separated from God all my life?  What is to prevent me from being part of the community of Jesus?  What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 

Philip doesn’t say a word.  The Holy Spirit answers the eunuch’s question with a silence that echoes across the water and leaps across the wilderness.  Nothing!  Nothing!  Nothing, nothing, nothing is to prevent you from entering the community of Jesus!

“He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.”

Philip mirrored the imago dei to the eunuch as he told him the story of Jesus.  He reflected back to him the image of God within him.  He reminded him of something he had always known even though the world had tried to tell him otherwise, especially at the doors of the temple.  This man who spent his working life in a court of nobility was reminded that he, too, was noble, and he immersed himself in that new identity as a child of God, a prince of the kingdom.

How many times in the history of Christ’s church have we put up barriers at the font?  How many times have we made criteria for who is acceptable and welcome at the table and who is not?  How many times have we set boundaries around who is and who is not acceptable for the anointing and ordination to proclaim the word of God and the grace of Christ—boundaries that have taken generations to break down?   

How many times have we been trying to close a door that the Spirit is trying to open?   

How many times have we been focused on someone’s sin when Jesus has called us to help them find their original goodness, truth, and beauty?

The question is not about the wideness of God’s embrace.  God’s arms are always open wider than ours.  The Spirit is always running ahead of us and calling us to catch up somewhere on the wilderness road.  The question is whether we can polish our own understanding of what it means to be a child of God so it shines clearly enough to mirror the image of God back to others. The question is whether we are bold enough to trust our own nobility as baptized children of God so we more fully participate in Christ’s resurrection work of re-teaching the world its goodness, truth, and beauty.

Look, here is water.  What is to prevent us from diving in?

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