Feast of St Philip, Evangelist
I’m intrigued by the question the Ethiopian eunuch puts to Philip in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. Philip has joined this powerful man in his chariot and beginning with the words of the prophet Isaiah, has interpreted the scriptures and “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). “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?’” (v.38).
The answer is ‘nothing,’ it seems. And so they stop the chariot, go down into the water, and Philip baptizes him. I suppose Philip might have objected to the fact that this man was a foreigner or suggested that he needed further instruction and formation, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t hesitate at all.
Except that some ancient authorities add another verse following the eunuch’s question in which Philip does add a qualifier. In response to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart, you may” and the eunuch responds, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” (v.37) It’s likely that someone added that verse just to make sure that there was some agreed-upon criteria by which candidates would be admitted to the fellowship of the Church.
And here we touch into a tension. On the one hand, there is the radical welcome the Church extends to all, rooted in the radical welcome of Jesus. Like Jesus, whose compassion reached out to “outcasts and sinners,” the poor, the sick, the alienated, the oppressed, marginalized people of every kind; the Church extends a radical welcome. “There is no longer Jew or Greek,” writes Paul to the Galatians, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). The example of Jesus and of the early Christian communities push us to examine the barriers we may be tempted to erect in order to exclude those who are not of the same socio-economic or cultural background as we are, or who differ from us in ways that make us uncomfortable. The Church has sometimes practiced this kind of exclusion, preventing others from belonging.
A rector I know thought his congregation was unconsciously preventing newcomers from joining their church. He challenged his vestry by giving them a list of various types of people – a wealthy banker, a single mother with a handicapped child, a lesbian couple, a punk teenager, and so on – and asked them to rate them according to how welcomed they might feel in the Church. We need to always be challenging ourselves to see beyond our prejudices and stereotypes, lest we prevent some from entering the kingdom of God.
And yet there is a tension between radical inclusion and maintaining appropriate boundaries. Our community does not admit anyone who applies. We screen candidates because we want to make sure that they share our vision and will support our mission. We “prevent” some from entering to maintain the nature and focus of the community.
Every community needs to somehow define its boundaries. Who belongs and who does not? I was caught short the other day by these words from Matthew’s gospel – “when [John the Baptist] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?’” (Matt 3:7). Pharisees and Sadducees were coming for baptism, and yet apparently John discerned that these folks were not ready for baptism, that they needed to “bear fruit worthy of repentance” (3:8) before they could be admitted.
It’s a delicate tension, isn’t it, and one that has been at the heart of controversies in our own Anglican Communion in recent years. Perhaps it has always been so. Perhaps it always will.
The call to us today might be for us to examine ourselves, to look honestly and deeply within ourselves to see what prejudices are there which may be preventing others from coming to new life in Christ. The call to us today might be to consider our own assumptions about what it means to be a Christian, and to belong to the Body of Christ, the Church. The call to us today might be to seek God with all our hearts, asking for the mind of God, the wisdom of God, the compassion of God, that we might discern rightly how to respond to those who come, offering a generous welcome but not a ‘cheap grace’[i] that requires neither repentance nor discipleship.
[i] “Cheap grace” is a term coined by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book, The Cost of Discipleship.
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