Breaking down barriers (May 21, 2023)

A lesson for May 14, 2023, about Acts 8 and expanding the boundaries of community.

Outlook Standard Lesson for May 21, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 8:26-40

By divine appointment

In the opening chapters of Acts, most of the dramatic events in the apostles’ ministry took place amid their ordinary comings and goings. Peter and John went to the Temple to pray, and they encountered a cripple whom they miraculously healed. The disciples waited together in an upstairs room, and the wind of Pentecost blew in. Peter’s shadow fell on those he passed while going about town, and they were healed.

That’s how it happens for most of us as well. We are going about our ordinary business when something extraordinary happens. Ordinary hospitality matters more than we can imagine, according to Hebrews 13, because in opening our homes we may be unwittingly entertaining angels.

But on rare occasions the angels of the Lord shed their usual incognito mode, and when that happens, we can be sure that there is a special divine purpose afoot. We sometimes call it an epiphany, an event in which we see or experience something unbidden and unanticipated that changes everything.

Philip’s visit with the Ethiopian traveler came out of an epiphany with an angel of the Lord. This job was too important in the early Christian church movement to wait for happenstance. It had to occur, and it had to do so now. Through it the Christian community learned things essential to its identity.

Crossing the margins

Ever since the age of the patriarchs depicted in the Old Testament, the people of Israel lived under a mandate of welcoming the stranger, and treating people on economic and social margins generously. This obligation was codified in Mosaic Law, and much of the prophetic burden in subsequent generations was an indictment of how those in power mistreated the outsider and the helpless.

Stories of the early Christian community visit this theme relentlessly. Inclusion of the Gentiles is a core topic of the apostolic narratives and writings. But in the Christian community, it’s about more than welcoming erstwhile outsiders in – it’s about pushing the boundaries of the community out. Outsiders don’t merely assimilate into the Christian community. Rather, the community’s boundaries are enlarged.

The story of the Ethiopian traveler underscores this by outing him from the start as a sexual minority. Deuteronomic Law barred eunuchs from entry into the Temple. The Ethiopian eunuch had been able to worship in Jerusalem, but likely couldn’t gain entrance into the Temple’s inner courts. Eunuchs were partly, but not fully welcome.

The Ethiopian traveler is referred to repetitively as a eunuch. For the writer of Acts, it is not incidental to who he was, but essential. His sexual identity is not hidden in the closet.

While in Jerusalem, the Ethiopian official could have been welcomed there into the Christian community. But rather than receiving him at their home base, they went out to him after he left. Philip met him in the wilderness, far from the faith community, and there marked his inclusion in the family of faith through baptism.

The story makes another significant point about the man’s identity – he is Ethiopian. African. Black. His ethnicity is not discounted but celebrated in the story.

The story ends not with the Ethiopian eunuch joining the new Christian society, but with Philip returning there while the Ethiopian continues his journey south. The margins of the Christian community expand, rather than the outsider being brought in.

Pathways to baptism

By the second century, baptism into the Christian community required intensive preparation. Those who wanted to be baptized went through a three-year period of catechesis before they were eligible for baptism. We think of “catechism” as a set of beliefs to affirm, but in the early centuries the “catechumenate” was marked not by doctrinal learning, but by behavioral training. Those who wanted to be baptized needed first to show that they could live in the Christian way, and only then were they baptized.

The Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism could hardly be more contrary to that pattern. He is baptized on the spot, and on demand. Ordinarily, baptism is initiated by apostolic invitation. But here the initiative is taken by the person desiring baptism.

There are multiple pathways to baptism in the stories of the earliest apostles. What matters less than the mode or timing of baptism is that it is a public act demonstrating a person’s genuine repentance and a sincere faith.

Questions for discussion

  1. Tell about one way in which your understanding of who belongs in the community of faith has been enlarged. How has your congregation stretched itself to engage and affirm people who may have been sidelined from church in earlier times?
  2. What preparation did you receive in preparation for your baptism or confirmation? Discuss the meaning of Christian baptism in light of the Ethiopian eunuch’s story, and consider the pros and cons of requiring more or less preparation for baptism.

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