I’ve been pondering all week some questions from our forum on “Millennials in the Church or Not” last Sunday. One of you asked, “How are they going to receive the sacraments if they aren’t in church?” and another, “How do they expect to grow in faith if they don’t go to Bible Study or hear sermons?” This is where it happens for you, and has always happened for you. Yet not for everyone. Thanks to the Holy Spirit, for this reading from Acts today.
Philip got the message to go to a wilderness road, and in that empty, abandoned setting, to approach the other lone soul, a eunuch from Ethiopia.
“Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asks him.
“How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
We could make the case here, if we wanted, that people have to go to church to hear a preacher who has been to seminary, or to be surrounded by people with “mature” faith. How will we understand unless someone guides us? But, ummm… Philip hadn’t been to seminary, nor had he believed in or been proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus for very long. Yet, when asked what he thought the Scripture meant, he was willing to try. After all, Scripture is best understood in community. I’d go so far as to say that the Word of God comes alive, breathes in the space between us, when we wonder about it together. And that can be done in the most predictable of places, or where some of us would find the least likely places.
Notice what doesn’t happen, what isn’t recorded in this story. There’s no explicit answer to the theological question asked by the eunuch. Perhaps the author of Acts knew how we tend to mine the Scriptures for answers. It was a pretty clear question: Is the prophet talking about himself, or someone else? Philip could have answered with one word. Instead Philip starts with the verse the man is stuck on, then goes on to share the good new of Jesus as he understood it. 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?” So they did. Engagement with the Scripture, and a baptism, in the middle of nowhere.
There is permission here, to loosen up on our definitions of what it means to “do church.” Perhaps even to get back to the roots of Christianity, before the Church. If this makes you uncomfortable, you are in good company. Did anybody notice that verse 37 is missing? Somebody added into later manuscripts, “Then Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” That’s not originally part of the story. It goes straight from “What prevents me from being baptized?” to “so they did.” But somebody – I’m guessing after the Church was solidifying into more of an institution – thought “No, no, no, there has to be a requirement, a confession of faith, a commitment, for an adult to get baptized. That’s what we teach. I’m sure this should be in there.” So it was added. It doesn’t appear in the version we generally rely on here because it is not in the original Greek manuscripts, which the NRSV is translated from. It’s in the Latin ones, which are not original. But truly, they were doing church right out there on the wilderness road. Not like in here. But church nonetheless.
Besides permission to make our definitions of being faithful more flexible, there’s a promise in this story: You will be changed, by listening to God’s call to come up alongside people and being willing to wrestle with the meaning of God’s words and actions with them. In the case of the Ethiopian eunuch, the person himself, his existence, proclaims a new dimension to the Gospel we probably wouldn’t get in church. Philip didn’t sidle up to a nondescript person just like himself. If we can speak in generalities, in Israel this person was (1) a foreigner, (2) a sexual minority, and (3) quite literally the servant of a foreign power. Pick the one of those things that makes you most uncomfortable, then let’s find someone who meets the description to talk about the Bible with! I believe we would hear some new and different interpretations. That encounter would not just “change” them, bring them to faith, or whatever we think we’re doing. But it would change you and me, certainly.
Hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments in a homogenous community be very insulating. We only see or hear from people who resemble ourselves, so we can only conceive of the Church being like how we do it. The Gospel becomes not really a radical encounter with God’s boundless mercy, but a standard of behaviors that uphold traditions. But here’s the good news of Jesus Christ: God lives out in the world, certainly as much as in here, which makes walking alongside or talking to people who have no reason to come in here, actually doing church, being faithful. Scripture is best read and interpreted in community, with others to guide us, but that does not mean we have to all gather round and listen to the expert in the pulpit. We need to listen to each other. And sometimes the interpretation we need, to really grasp what God is up to amongst us, is the presence of the person who makes us most uncomfortable: an Ethiopian eunuch. How shall we understand without someone unlike us, to guide us? Thankfully, God provides.