Heritage Presbyterian Church

May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Scripture readings: Acts 8: 26-40 and Acts 10: 44-48

On the bookshelf in our church office are a pair of coins encased in plastic.  Both of them are Communion tokens given at some point in history and at some church somewhere.   They were used to clearly identify exactly who was eligible to receive Communion when it came around…like it does today.  The history of these coins is pretty easy to understand: the pastor would visit everyone within his church during the preceding week before a Communion service; if the family was in good standing in the eyes and judgment of that pastor, then a single Communion token was given to the head of that family; when Sunday came and Communion was served, those with tokens got the bread and cup…and those without…well, I think we all know what happened there…

In following this system for hundreds of years, the church clearly identifies who was in and who was out.  If you were a visitor to that church or new to that area, if you suddenly decided to turn your life around and begin following Christ, I am not certain when or how you could receive a token.  All I know is that it was used to include some and exclude others.

In many countries around the world, it is pretty easy to spot who is in and who is out; the outsiders look and dress and speak differently than the insiders.  There are churches right here in our own country that if we were to enter it and hope to join the worship service, it might cause problems – again, because of how we look or dress or speak.  

And yet, in both New Testament Scripture readings for today, we are clearly shown exactly what the Holy Spirit demonstrates to believers in Jesus Christ when it comes to who is an outsider and who should be an insider.

And we are shown the timeline for how outsiders become insiders: straight away…right NOW.

I chose two selections from the Book of Acts because the same lesson is demonstrated but in two different ways.  First, let us begin with Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  

Philip was one of Christ’s twelve Apostles, but there is not much known about him.  What is clearly known is that Philip was a Greek.  Because we know this, we can safely assume that Philip was routinely exposed to Greek mythology from an early age, with all its grand idol worship.  For any Greeks to worship just one God – the Hebrew God Yahweh – was weird for them.  Yet many early Christians also began their own lives as Greeks.  Paul made it a major part of his ministry to convince the church fathers in Jerusalem that the Greeks should be acceptable as Christians.  Yet stubborn biases remained in the early church for many years. 

But that prejudice doesn’t end with how the early Christians felt about Greeks; there is another person in this passage: an Ethiopian eunuch.  Three strikes for this man:

  1. He was from Ethiopia, which was also known as Cush in the Old Testament; Cushites were not thought of highly by the Jews.  And this…foreigner served the royalty there.
  2. He was a eunuch, which means he was castrated as a boy so that he could serve the royal household safely and without any fear of him becoming involved with anyone.
  3. Because he was a eunuch, he could never be fully accepted by those who ran the Temple.  One could not be “damaged” and still approach the Temple for full worship according to Deuteronomy 23, verse 1.  A eunuch was an outsider by Law.

So neither Philip nor the Ethiopian should have been in any story involving worship in any Scripture…except that the Holy Spirit was teaching us all a lesson.

First, Scripture tells us that Philip was told by an angel to go to a certain road between Jerusalem and Gaza.  Next, the Holy Spirit tells Philip to get close to that Ethiopian.  Now the Ethiopian…this…OUTSIDER is reading from the book of Isaiah, and it just so happens to be a verse about the Messiah.  Philip overhears it, begins talking and interpreting it to the Ethiopian, and all is well.

Except…we are forgetting the concept of NOW.  Both Philip and that Ethiopian were ready and eager for that baptism.  Why should they meet with a committee?  Did John the Baptist do that before he baptized anybody?  Was their paperwork in order?  Had they been approved for baptism by a vote of the membership – and if so, was it a close vote?

No.  The movement of the Holy Spirit in this scene is perfectly obvious.  For Philip not to have baptized the Ethiopian would have been to go directly against the work of the Spirit.  So Philip and the Ethiopian acted immediately.

Then, just to seal the deal, that same Spirit that had driven both of them together, took Philip away to his next assignment…

Wonder what he did next…wonder what the Ethiopian did next?  We don’t know.  All we have is what happened NOW.

Next we get Peter and Cornelius, the centurion.  Now we all know Peter…he’s okay with us…he’s in.  But a Roman centurion?  Are you kidding?

Don’t let the Gospel stories sway your stiff-backed opinions, Christians; don’t be softened into feeling sympathy for centurions just because they showed up well in the Gospels.  

Yes, one centurion asked Jesus to save his beloved slave; this man was an example of faith in Jesus’ amazing healing power.  Another centurion – or was it the same guy? – remarked at the crucifixion, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”  So we get an open-minded, faithful look at two centurions.  But the rest who were assigned to Judea were each in charge of 100 Roman soldiers.  You don’t get that sort of assignment unless you can handle 100 battle-hardened Romans.  You can’t handle it unless you are the toughest of the tough.  You don’t get that job unless sentiment is lacking from your box of leadership tools.

And yet, we have Peter going to this centurion’s house…just because the centurion asked him to come.  He didn’t order Peter to come – which he could have done; instead, despite the fact that he was used to giving orders and having them followed, he sent three men to ask Peter to come.  And Peter came straight away…in other words, NOW.

Not only did Peter come immediately, he also came with a very recent lesson from the Lord in his own heart.  When Peter saw his vision of unclean animals and the Lord told him to kill and eat something, Peter refused because of his previous training.  Unclean according to the Law was UNCLEAN. That’s it.  No debating it.

But the Lord changed Peter’s heart – and puzzled his mind.  Then Peter received a “right-in-your-face” lesson when he encountered this righteous outsider Gentile Roman centurion.  (Did I get all the labels?)  And Peter paid attention and applied what he learned.

Notice that Peter applied it right then and there.  And he even rejoiced.  He didn’t need to return to Jerusalem and take it up with the leadership.  He didn’t go off by himself and inquire of the Lord.  He didn’t even stop to pray.  He gave a speech in which he stated that he knew the Lord showed no favoritism at all; in fact, the Lord accepts everyone from every nation.  

To seal the deal, the Holy Spirit came upon the centurion and his entire household.  No denying that.  Case closed right NOW.

So now it’s time for my favorite type of questions…the “what-if” kind.

What if a big Cushite Ethiopian transgender man wanted to worship with us?  I mean what if it happened right NOW – not after surviving a withering exam of questions from your Session of elders?  And what if this Ethiopian wanted to be baptized by me right NOW?

What if a foreign military leader – let’s say he’s a sergeant in the Iranian Republican Guard – brought his whole family into the ballroom next Sunday and wanted to hear the sermon and the prayers and the songs and become part of our family of faith?  And what if they wanted to stay for lunch?

What if Heritage invited a Greek minister to preach, and this minister admitted in his opening remarks that he was raised by pagans in a pagan country who worshiped graven idols (in fact, they were all over the place back in his home country), and furthermore…this guy wanted to baptize ANYBODY who wanted it, right outside in the lake that’s next to the Lodge?  And if that weren’t enough…what if he didn’t want to wait for presbytery’s or Session’s approval?  He wanted to do it right NOW!

You see, dear saints…the lessons we heard from Scripture today are applicable in our own lives.  At least, they are unless we choose to block them from our hearts and minds.  

Sometimes we in the modern times struggle to relate to the incidents from the Bible.  “We are unlike those people,” we tell ourselves comfortably.  “We don’t have too many Greek pagans, Roman God-fearers, or Ethiopian Cushite eunuchs.

But we should relate to the lesson.  In Christ, there should be no outsiders at all.

Instead, we should follow the Spirit and welcome and include others NOW.