Sunday, April 28, 2024
The Fifth Sunday of Easter

All are welcome

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

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I have read the passages from the Easter season many times. This is now my seventh time through preaching year B in Easter yet I had never really caught how the Spirit is woven through out all of these passages in Acts. Peter, Stephen and now Phillip.

One message that we can take away from all of this is that the Spirit is always there, but we need to be aware of the Spirit. We need to look for and follow the leading of the Spirit. I have been especially aware of the Spirit these past few months as I mentioned in my sermon last week. God is always there for us, but we must be ready and willing to look, listen and act. I can hear one of the brothers at Saint John the Evangelist reminding me that prayer is an important way to be open to conversation with God. Obvious, but how many of us forget about prayer or simply do not take the time to sit in God’s presence on a regular basis. A relationship is not built on a once-a-week conversation.

Another message is that God may speak to us in many ways. In this passage we have not only the Spirit as a driving force, but also an angel. The key is that Phillip and the angel were both open and willing to listen and then respond to the message no matter how it was sent. So what was so important about the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch here in the book of Acts?

What do we know about the Eunuch? He is wealthy, he is riding in a chariot that is large enough for himself, a driver, at least we assume a driver since he is reading a scroll and Phillip. He has a copy of the scroll of Isaiah. He is a member of a royal court, the queen’s court in particular. Eunuchs were often used to serve the queen for obvious reasons.

However, despite all of his money, power and status the eunuch was not welcome in polite Jewish society. A Eunuch was considered damaged not a man. Many made no room for them in the life of the synagogue or temple. Deuteronomy specifically states that those who are disfigured shall be barred from the temple. He had gone to Jerusalem to worship, but he would not have been allowed past the Court of the Gentiles. Rejected by his faith because of his physical condition he is returning home and is reading one of the suffering servant passages from Isaiah.

Now lest you think Phillip has been granted some special ability so that he knows what the Eunuch is reading. In those days it was not hard to tell what someone was reading; he would have been reading out loud. Silent reading just wasn’t done then.

I wonder what this man was thinking as he read the passage. This is a message of hope and welcome, but he certainly had not experienced being welcomed in Jerusalem. Instead, he had been rejected and turned away.

It is worth noting that he was banned from the temple by a passage in Deuteronomy but there is a passage that contradicts that ban in Isaiah, the scroll he has in his hand. If you take nothing else away from this morning please know that just because something is banned in one book of the bible, it may have a different answer in a different book of the Bible. I knew a person that was a debater and had the topic does the Bible endorse or condemn capital punishment. She had to argue both sides and won both times!

As Phillip speaks to him you can almost feel the excitement of both men. They stop by the water, and he exclaims “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” As we have already heard, from a Jewish law standpoint several things. He was a foreigner. He worked and owed allegiance to a foreign ruler and his sexuality was an issue. Phillip however does not hesitate but welcomes this outsider into the life of the early church. From this one baptism the Ethiopian church traces its roots.

What does this have to do with us today? The sad fact is that more times than you can imagine a person looking for a church seems to feel the need to ask me if they are welcome here. Many people have been so abused by the church that they wonder out loud if we really mean what our sign says before they walk in our door. Why, because their experience of church tells them otherwise. Their experience tells them that because they are different, they are not welcome. The message in Acts is that they are welcome. The message from Jesus is that all are welcome, and all are loved.

There is a wonderful hymn in the Gather Hymnal that some Roman Catholic churches used. I had copies of an older addition at another parish when my friend who was an organist replaced the old edition with a newer one. To be honest she hated to give them up but the hierarchy had decided some of the hymns needed to be eliminated. One in particular was entitled “All are welcome in this place.” I loved this hymn, but the bishops had forbidden it to be used. Why? Because as one bishop said, “This isn’t really true. Not all are welcome in this place.” I was one of those as an Episcopalian at a Jesuit retreat center where I should have been excluded from communion. Now I think that bishop and I know the Jesuits disagreed with that so they stopped singing the hymn, but they continued to invite me to receive communion at their chapel.

The message in our gospel as in Acts and the gospel is that we cannot do this alone. Christianity only flourishes in a community and baptism is one of the two sacraments that form the basis of our community. In our current Prayer Book neither of the two sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist are celebrated in private, they are celebrated in community. A Christian community is all about being connected, we are all part of the vine and branches of the church. Building strong relationships is one of the 8 marks of good church leadership and a sign of a healthy parish.

Baptism requires a community. Many may remember private baptisms done on Sunday or Saturday afternoons followed by party at someone’s home. What changed is the addition of a question to the community. “Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?” Then, “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?”

The change is the addition of this question: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” The congregation answers: We will. The entire congregation affirms that they will support the newly baptized to become a disciple of Jesus. This is why baptism is no longer a private affair. It is the most public affair that we have in the church and for good reason.

Baptism is how we are grafted into the vine and become part of the vineyard. This imagery is wonderful and important. When a branch is grafted onto the vine the two grow together, the branch gaining its life from the vine. This is also true for those of us grafted onto the body of Christ through our baptism.

The Message translation says this so well. John 15:4  “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.”

Remember the Eunuch, a well-educated court authority says, how can I understand this if I do not have someone to teach me. We all need mentors, teachers, and leaders to help guide our growth. That is a vital mission of the church and it is how we live into the command to make Christ known to the world. Lifting up and training is the most important part of what I do as a priest and certainly what we do as a parish. All other ministry flows from this. That ministry is to all people regardless of their flaws, real or perceived.

What is to stop the Eunuch from being baptized? What is to stop the Eunuch or anyone else from becoming a member of our community? Nothing and that is how it should be. For God blesses, God loves everyone, no exception. In a church faithful to the gospel all are welcome no exceptions.