Has a stranger ever changed your life?
There was a man named Philip who taught many people about the good news of Jesus in the early days after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Book of Acts tells us that Philip is travelling from Samaria when an angel speaks to him, telling him to go south on a wilderness road towards Gaza. Along the way, Philip comes upon a great chariot. Inside this great chariot is an important court official who oversees the treasury of Candace, Queen of Ethiopia. He is also a eunich: a man whose genitals had been removed at a young age.
The Holy Spirit tells Philip to go over to the great chariot of this important official from a foreign land; and Philip boldly goes. As he gets closer, he hears the stranger reading the words of the Prophet Isaiah; words Philip knows and loves. Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the man replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” He invites Philip to get in and sit beside him in his great chariot, and they travel on together, discussing the scriptures. Over the course of their conversation, Philip explains the connection he sees between the prophet’s words and the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Not much later, the chariot comes to some water, and the stranger asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” So Philip baptizes him, and he goes on his way, rejoicing.
Has a stranger ever changed your life?
It’s hard to explain how amazing it is that this conversation ever happened. The text tells us that God had to send both an angel and her Holy Spirit to bring these two people together. Just think about how different they are. They have a different faith practices. Philip is a Jewish follower of Jesus, fully integrated into the emerging Jesus movement in Jerusalem. The man identified as the Ethiopian Eunich was interested in Judaism, but as a eunich was considered by some in that tradition to be impure or immoral. He was not allowed to worship in the temple in Jerusalem, and it seems he has never even heard about Jesus. These men also have different amounts of money. Philip has been spending his time caring for the needs of the elderly, and is now a travelling preacher; so he’s probably not rolling in dough (just a guess). The Ethiopian Eunich runs a royal bank. These two men also come from different places; grew up in different cultures; probably have different primary languages; even their mode of transportation is quite different; I imagine Philip was travelling on foot.
It’s amazing that this conversation happened at all. But what happend during the conversation is even more amazing. Maybe the Holy Spirit is not only bringing them together, but opening both of their hearts. Because Philip is awfully brave to strike up a conversation. And the Ethiopian Eunich is very willing to receive religious instruction from a fellow traveller; and very hospitable to invite him up into his chariot. But the end of the story is the most incredible piece of it all. After they have talked for some time, the Ethiopian Eunich asks: What is to prevent me from being baptized? And Philip goes down to the water, and baptizes him.
So much is changed in this one conversation, in this one encounter.
The Ethiopian Eunich is changed. He finds out the good news about Jesus. And the good news about Jesus turns out to be a new pathway for him, a way to be fully accepted into a faith that honors the God of Israel. Regardless of his nationality, his position in society, his gender or sexual identity, he is in: part of the Body of Christ.
The Ethiopian Eunich is changed. But he’s not the only one. Philip learns that despite their differences, he and an Ethiopian Eunich share interests and values, and in the end, a common belief in Christ. And he discovers, perhaps to his own surprise, that there IS no reason why this man cannot be baptized. He realizes that he should be a full and beautiful part of the body of Christ.
The Ethiopian eunich is changed. Philip is changed. And as a result, the church is changed. It is enlarged by accepting a man with a discerning mind, and an open heart, and a vastly different life experience than most of his fellow Jesus-followers. The church is changed, on its way to becoming more diverse and more accepting of sexual and cultural and racial and financial difference.
Of course – it didn’t all get done that day. You could say we still have some work to do. This past week, it was still “news” in the New York Times that “It’s not gay marriage vs. the church anymore.” Churches have a history of judgment and exclusion that directly contradicts the teachings of Jesus and the courage of the earliest leaders of the church. We have a lot to confess and be forgiven for; a lot still to learn.
And of course, it’s not only the church who creates the barriers that we find dividing us today, some of which Wayne pointed out a few weeks ago. There are prison walls. National Borders. Privilege and prejudice. Wealth and Poverty. There are barriers between members of the Baltimore police force and the black community of West Baltimore. There are barriers between those of us who can marry in all 50 states and those who cannot. There are old barriers that we can’t believe are still standing, racism and sexism, and new ones we’re just beginning to understand and recognize, the imposed gender binary.
All of this makes me so glad and grateful that this community made a decision in 1999 to be the kind of church that broke down barriers. Those of you who were here then, you gave us a gift. You came together to embrace a really audacious statement – especially then, but even now. What’s more, you knew that claiming these words wouldn’t be enough: you acknowledged that we would still need to talk, to learn, to work, to explore, to strive. And you were right. We’re still a work in progress.
We could be discouraged by how much more work there is to do – here, in this community, and in the larger church, and in our wider society. And yet, I think it is important to recognize how much we have already done; and also hwo God can help us move forward.
What it takes is conversation. What it takes is encounter. That can be all it takes — with the guidance of angels and the Holy Spirit; with open hearts, and great questions, and passionate answers, and leaps of faith.
Has a stranger ever changed your life? Will you be ready, when you meet her, when you meet him, ready to be changed? What barriers are still up in your mind and soul, that need to come down?
God, we are different from one another, and different can be beautiful. Help us not to pretend that differences don’t matter, but to do the hard work of learning about them instead. Help us not to pretend that barriers don’t exist, both within us and outside of us. They do exist; not because we are bad people but because of how we have all been taught and the communities and systems we have lived in. Make us fierce for the causes of justice and compassion, and still humble beyond measure, because there is so much we have yet to learn. Send your angels, and your Spirit, and help us to truly be changed by the strangers we meet on the road. Amen.
Read our Open and Affirming Statement here.