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?

Catch the Wind

But some of the believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” Acts 15:5

Sometimes it takes the Church a while to get in sync with what the Spirit is doing. That’s nothing new. You don’t have to read too deeply into the Book of Acts to see that this has been the story of the Church from the very beginning. The Holy Spirit keeps surprising the members and leaders of the nascent Church by inviting, inspiring and embracing persons they would never have thought to invite into their movement. The apostles keep trying to do the right thing as they see it, but the Spirit often has other plans.

Take the appointment of Matthias, for instance. In the first chapter of Acts the disciples decide that they need to replace Judas. Apparently they’re just uncomfortable with a core leadership of eleven. Twelve is a better number—much better mojo than eleven. So they find two men who meet the job qualifications, Justus and Matthias. They roll the dice and Matthias wins the job. And then he promptly disappears from the pages of the New Testament. The Spirit, it seems, had other ideas about who the new 12th Apostle should be. We’ll come back to that.

It takes the Church a while to work things out, to figure out who they are, to figure out that the Spirit is radically inclusive in ways that push their buttons and stretch their boundaries. It takes them a while, for instance, to accept that the Holy Spirit is embracing both Hebrews and Hellenists, two Jewish groups who were pretty good at finding reasons to dislike each other, into Jesus’ family of faith. You can find hints that it’s not all peaches and cream between these two groups in chapters 6, 9 and 11.

Imagine how startled they all are when Philip baptizes a Samaritan sorcerer named Simon (chapter 8). Is new life in Christ available for Samaritans? How can it be possible that a magician is acceptable? Doesn’t Deuteronomy 18 clearly say that we’re to have nothing to do with magicians? Doesn’t Leviticus 20 say that they should be put to death? But Philip just goes and baptizes him because the Spirit moved Simon Magus to believe in Jesus!

Oh, and then there’s the Ethiopian eunuch. Talk about a guy who’s cut off! This is a guy who had to stand outside the temple to pray (Leviticus 21, Deuteronomy 23). But the Holy Spirit hand delivers Philip to the side of his chariot so he can lead the Ethiopian through a Bible study in Isaiah and explain that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophesy he’s reading. And once again, thanks to a handy pool at the side of the road, Philip goes ahead and baptizes him—makes him part of the Church! He’s not allowed in the temple, but Philip brings him immediately into the company of Jesus whether the company likes it or not.

This is the repeating thread of the Book of Acts. The boundaries are stretched. The door is pressed open a little wider every time. The Spirit pushes aside their preconceptions of just who can be part of the movement, just who can belong in the Church of Jesus. And apparently the invitation is open to people you would least suspect or ever imagine.

Let’s go back to Matthias. The Spirit certainly put Matthias to good use. Tradition says he preached in Judea, Cappadocia, Aethiopia and, eventually Georgia (the one next to Russia, not the one next to Alabama). But useful, honorable and productive as he was, God had someone else in mind to be the designated hitter and it turned out to be someone that the other 11 would never have thought of in a million years.

If you had told the apostles on that chapter one day as they rolled the dice for Matthias that Jesus was going to make a guy who was viciously persecuting the church, a guy who would stand approvingly as the official witness as one of their own was stoned to death—if you had told them that a guy they feared more than anyone would end up being tagged by the Spirit to become the most enthusiastic and productive of all the apostles, they would have thought you were possessed. And not in a good Holy Spirit kind of way. But resurrected Jesus, himself, appeared to Saul of Tarsus and set him on a path that would convert him from Persecutor Saul into the Apostle Paul. Jesus invited the Church’s worst enemy to become one of its greatest leaders. You’d better believe it took the Church a while to get used to having him around and to accept that he really was one of them. See Acts 9 for details.

And then came the most difficult transition of all. In chapter 10, Peter has a vision where God shows him every kind of animal and invites him to “kill and eat.” Peter protests that he has always kept kosher and, gosh, thank you, but “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.” “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” says God, and repeats the lesson a couple of times just to be sure Peter gets it. Then the Spirit sends Peter to the house of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. An Italian. A gentile.

I don’t think we can adequately grasp in our day and age just what a huge leap this was and just how difficult it was for the Church, which still understood itself as a Jewish movement, indeed, saw itself as the fulfillment of all that it meant to be Jewish—how difficult it was for them to accept that Gentiles were being invited to join the fold. We can get a hint, of course. In chapter 11, Peter is called to task and has to defend his decision to baptize Cornelius and all his household. In chapter 15 the apostles all assemble in Jerusalem in the first Council of the Church to decide if gentile believers have to be circumcised and keep Jewish dietary laws. And even after the Council makes its decision the issue isn’t entirely put to bed—it continues to rear its head in Galatians, Ephesians and Romans. And that’s part of the problem. Instead of seeing them as persons whom Jesus loves and the Spirit has called, some believers, especially the Pharisees, continue to see them as an issue. But the Spirit blows where it wills (John 3), and the door gets opened ever wider.

This is the history of the Church: the Spirit opens the door ever wider. It takes time, sometimes, for the Church to catch up. It takes time for people to realize that women and men can sit together in worship. It takes time for people to accept that worship doesn’t have to be conducted in the language the grandparents brought from the old country. It takes some getting used to the idea that Germans and Swedes and Danes and Norwegians can all be part of the same denomination or even the same congregation. It takes time to agree that women don’t have to wear hats. Or gloves. It takes time to accept that persons of all races and ethnic backgrounds can sing together in the same choir and sit together in the same pews. It takes time to agree that divorce is no reason to exclude someone from Christ’s table. It takes time to realize that 1950 has come and gone and that’s not a bad thing–good riddance to it. It takes time to realize that these other people who puzzle us or make us wary are also called by Christ and moved by the Spirit to participate fully in our family of faith. It takes time to stop thinking of them as an issue and start to see them as persons. And yet the story of our faith from the Book of Acts to the present day is a story of God opening the door ever wider no matter how often we try to close it.

In my own congregation we are taking steps toward becoming a Reconciling in Christ congregation. That means that we would make a positive statement of invitation to our LGBTQ neighbors and actively invite them to join us at the Little Church With A Big Heart. I wonder, though, if we aren’t being too careful in our process, in our efforts to give our members a chance to ask questions and state opinions and voice their anxieties. As I read the Book of Acts I note that God did not call a congregational meeting or present a series of articles on Evangelizing the Stranger before sending Philip to Simon Magus and the Ethiopian eunuch. Jesus didn’t take the church through a Bible Study on Conversion before yanking Saul off the Damascus Road and drop-kicking him into leadership in the movement he once tried to destroy. The Spirit did not prepare a series of instructive sermons on inclusiveness before sending him to the Gentile Roman Commander with the words “You must not call profane what I have made clean” still ringing in his ears.

We must not call profane what God has made clean. I must not think of anyone as an “outsider” if God is inviting everyone inside. And most of all, I need to remember that in this strange and wonderful organism called the Body of Christ there is room even for me. A gentile.