Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
May 2, 2021
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21
In the reading from Acts, we continue to get a peek into the life of the early Church just after the resurrection of Jesus. Most scholars believe that the book of Acts was part of a two-part work comprised of Luke and Acts together, authored by St. Luke the Evangelist. St. Luke was a Gentile, meaning he wasn’t Jewish, and Luke-Acts is the only book in the New Testament written for a Gentile audience. Acts is a book written by an outsider for outsiders.
The story begins with an angel telling Philip to go out into the wilderness. There, he encountered an Ethiopian eunuch who had come to the Temple to worship and was returning home. The differences between the eunuch and Philip are striking. First, the fact that he’s Ethiopian in 1st century Palestine means that he had much darker skin than the Hebrews. He’s of a different race. Second, he’s a foreigner from somewhere south of Egypt, which is largely an unknown place to the Hebrews.  He’s of a different ethnic background and nationality. And third, he’s a eunuch. In ancient times, a eunuch was a castrated male servant who was trusted to perform social functions for royalty. Essentially, they were neutered male human beings. As long as the deed was done before puberty, they were deemed safe to serve among women of the royal household. Despite this, eunuchs were stereotyped as sexually immoral people. His sexual state seems to be rather important to Luke as each of the five times he refers to the Ethiopian in this passage, he’s identified as “the eunuch.” The bottom line is that this Ethiopian guy was different in so many ways from both Philip and the earliest Jewish Christians. He was an outsider.
He was reading the book of Isaiah when Philip ran into him. After reading the passage from Isaiah which we now refer to as “the Suffering Servant” passage, the eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Christians today often say that Isaiah meant to refer to Jesus, but that’s not actually true. Isaiah, after all, died about 700 years before Jesus was born. We never hear Philip’s answer to the eunuch’s question. Instead, Luke tells us that Philip begin to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus.
While they were riding along in the wilderness in the Ethiopian’s chariot, they came to some water. The Eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized!” After hearing about the Good New of Jesus Christ from Philip and randomly seeing some water, this guy asks a theological question about why he can’t simply be baptized. The only response to his question was the baptism itself. In other words, nothing is to prevent him from being baptized. Baptism is the great Sacrament of inclusion. It is open to all, without rules or conditions. It’s open to black and white, young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, cis-gender and trans-gender, Jew and Gentile.
In this story, Philip listens to the voice of God via the angel, and when stumbling upon some guy who anyone in their right mind would consider a weirdo, he shares his faith with him. And this is the way the Christian faith has been passed on ever since. Person to person. Insider to outsider. And when the outsider decides to respond by asking to be baptized, the Church does so.
In today’s church, there are those who believe there should be a lengthy catechetical process prior to baptism. Some believe that priests shouldn’t baptize people who aren’t thoroughly trained and prepared for what they’re getting themselves into. I fear that they’re missing the point entirely. “Look,” the Ethiopian said, “here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer is absolutely nothing. Immediate baptism: if it’s good enough for Philip, it’s good enough for me. If you have not been baptized and would like to be, come talk to me, and we get it scheduled soon.
Baptism is the great Sacrament of Inclusion. It’s open to all without condition. Baptism is the great leveler of humanity. We all process back from the baptismal font the same as the person standing next to us. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch are both baptized Christians, and yet are very different people. Baptism doesn’t erase the differences or remove their human individuality, but it serves as the beginning of the Christian life and the entrance into the household of God in such a way that they are equals.
One of the things I love most about St. Mary’s is our diversity. I miss the Reception after Mass where it was common to see a young person who’s been here two months sitting next to an older person who has been here for decades, or the rich person chatting with the poor person, or the black person having coffee with the white person. These conversations can be gristly and rough around the edges at times as the two people are coming from completely different contexts and perspectives. But through our common faith in Christ, these sorts of relationships are not only possible, but are life-giving and beautiful, and have so much to offer our fractured and polarized world. When you encounter someone who is radically different than you, and open yourself up to talk about something as intimate as your faith, both of your lives are enriched, and your hearts are changed.
Sometimes, we are afraid of people who are different than we are. That’s an instinctual human response. Fear is a powerful force, and it can lead to ignoring God’s voice when we are called like Philip was to go on a journey to which we don’t know the final destination. How can we overcome fear and say yes to God?
Not romantic love, not the love you feel for your parents or siblings, not sentimental love. The love we heard about our second lesson in John’s first epistle. The Greek word used throughout this passage is agape, love that gives without expecting a return, sacrificially. God is love, agape. Jesus died for us as an act of agape, and we ought to agape one another. In other words, friends, you and I are called to express outwardly what we have received personally from God – a sacrificial love that gives without expecting a return. Love in this sense isn’t an ideal to aspire to or an emotion we feel, it’s a tangible choice.
As we hear and respond to God’s call to share our faith with others, we will encounter fear. Let us respond to this fear with agape love, a sacrificial love that gives without expecting a return. Let us reach out to the outsider that is different than we are and share our deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. And then, when the outsider responds in faith, let’s bring them into the household of God in the waters of baptism.
 David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Louisville (Ky.): Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 457.
 Ibid 469.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!