May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Easter
It happened at my college reunion banquet. It happens often. She was a classmate’s wife who discovered that the fellow in the Panama hat and Hawaiian shirt sitting next to her was a preacher. Me. Before I finished my chicken leg, the questions started. She said she struggles with her Sunday school Bible stories. How could they really get all those animals on Noah’s Ark? Did Eve really come from Adam’s rib? What about creation and evolution?
Dear Lord. My sweet Lord.
In her case (God bless her), she had a genuine interest in learning. Most don’t. I weary of criticisms of the Bible from persons who criticize out of their own shallow, false, preening assumptions.
Many call themselves atheists, which I think funny.
I haven’t met an atheist yet. Everybody has a God. The curious question is: Which kind of God?
I’ve met a fair number of folks who enjoy flirting with the fantasy that they are atheists, but mostly what they reject are the narrow forms of religious expression or the clumsy manner in which God has been represented. Their criticism is third grade level. I’ve long said the more important than smarts is heart. Still, our other pandemic is an absence of critical thinking and lack of intellectual rigor and curiosity.
Most who scoff at such texts are ignorant of such texts. That’s why they can think them ridiculous. These are the same folks who taunt us to prove God. But the problem is: if we can prove God, it’s not God. I can no more prove God than I can prove I love my children. I can show it, but that’s not proof.
Did you see Jeopardy two weeks ago? The category? Books of the Bible. Only one correct answer.
A good part of this problem with perceived problems with the Bible is our own fault. We risk failing to help Christians mature past a third grade, pop-sickle stick puppet understanding of the Bible. There’s nothing wrong with third grade, if you’re a third grader.
“Low expectancy is a sin” [Elton Truelblood]. We’ve spooned up thin gruel. We delight in Christianity lite.
This, basically, is what my guide from the 4th century, Augustine, realized. Most folks who criticize religion actually criticize what they assume about religion. Augustine, one of the fiercest critics of the church who became one of its fiercest adherents, confessed how he ignorantly dismissed the Bible as silly, irrational, coarse. Augustine confessed how “passages had been death when taken literally but when they were explained in their spiritual meaning I began to blame myself …..”
I guess what ought sadden us the most is how a growing majority of people react this way out of ignorance of the Bible. They don’t take time to listen. The problem with people is how they want to hear what they want to hear, which is why we pray for their conversion.
Reading the Bible from cover to cover is great, though the real issue is: What does it say to you? Did you read with understanding? What meaning do you discern? What difference does it make in your life? How does the Word change you? Or are you too busy trying to make it fit your life? How does the message from the Bible inspire you? Engage you? Confront you? Convict you? If it doesn’t change you, you probably aren’t reading it right.
Nor are we called to listen to the Word and then weigh, assess, and decide if we wish to agree. We are called to hear, love, follow.
“It is not our heart that determines our course, but God’s Word”
--Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together”
And that faithful attitude that got dear Dietrich hanged by Hitler.
Dangerous thing this Bible. Thanks be to God.
Acts 8: 26-40
We arrivefresh on the heels of the Samaritan Pentecost, where outsiders could become part of the faith. We now take a seven league boot leap of the spirit.
Acts 8: 26-40 –
26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip [Philip the Evangelist rather than Philip the Apostle] “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”
31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Do you understand what you are reading?”
“How can I, unless someone guides me?”
So this high official from Ethiopia (high officials often were Eunuchs – then tended to be better educated, less distracted by other interests) is ready for a teacher, wanting to learn, ready to learn.
Those of us who are teachers know the secret about education: We teachers cannot teach anything. We can only help those who wish to learn, to learn.
Eunuch doesn’t ask the technical term for a teacher, a ‘didaskolos,’ an instructor. He asks for, in Greek, a ‘hodegos.’ A guide.
The word echoes a tour guide. Have you been the foreigner? How on my many travels I’ve overcome my younger aversion and embarrassment to tour guides. Like when I visited the Woody Guthrie museum in Okemah, Oklahoma, and JD Cosby. Or when my wife and I visited St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, then Canterbury Cathedral. It pays to follow a tour guide with their upside down umbrella guiding you around, pointing out fascinating facts you would have missed on your own. Connecting the dots.
Who is or was or has been your Philip, showing you the way?
Friends, this passage here is a Cracker Jack box -- there’s a prize tucked up inside this story.
Eunuchs were rejected by the Jewish big boys and their Bible interpretation. They were viewed as defective, impaired because they couldn’t procreate. They were denied, shunned. It was okay for them to watch over a kingdom’s treasury or for them to oversee the harem (for obvious reasons) but to the Hebrews eunuchs were excluded, forbidden any participation in the covenant with God.
Yet here this eunuch is reading a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah. There’s something is this scripture that compels him. He’s beginning to sense how the Hebrew faith is coming to the world. He soon discovers how Christianity offers what the barren, infertile world cannot offer.
Eunuchs: Not allowed to participate in the temple worship or the synagogue.
But he can read. He can study the Word of God. He can receive knowledge.
What’s the Crackerjack prize? Well, what passage was he was reading? Isaiah. He quotes Isaiah 53: 7-8, which I’m sure Philip explains that this passage is about Jesus the suffering servant and how Jesus did all this for him too.
Then I’m also certain Philip urges him to give the scroll a few twists till he comes to this passage, Isaiah 56: 3-5, three chapters away:
3Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”
4For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 5I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
Once cut off (a pun), now a brother of Christ, no longer cut off.
Do you understand, my friend? You belong. You are precious and loved. Christ upturning the world. And the first will be last and the last will be first, says Jesus, which no doubt will surprise a lot of us.
Double jeopardy question! Which is among the oldest, original churches still active in the world? The Ethiopian Christians, the church this disciple not from Israel, the church this eunuch fathered.
How was it that Christ’s disciples changed the heart of the world? Was it by getting disciples elected to the High Council of Israel and enforcing the laws of the land? No! Was it by Christ’s disciples becoming the movers and shakers of society? No! Was it by the very opposite? Yes! By a church of eunuchs and fishermen and shepherds and women and repentant murderers – men and women who thirsted, hungered to understand the Word and live the gospel of Jesus.
In fact, when the Church did become an arm of the government under Constantine – that is, when Christianity sold its soul for a bowl of pottage of power -- its ruin and downfall began in an horrific tumble until the Protest-tant Reformation, when others tried to return the church to its gospel powerlessness, till even us Protestants fell into this sin.
How change the heart of the world? By guiding the people in the way of the Word. By literacy. By understanding and standing under the Bible. By preaching. Most of all, by Sunday schools.
Kind of makes you scratch your head and wonder what is going on in the church today, why we are dumbing down education, and why the church wants to be so important by the measure of how a spiritually and morally castrated world defines importance? We cannot play by their rules. Every time we do, Christ suffers another nail in his skin. When the church seeks to be famous, popular, powerful, it is not God who is inspiring that desire but the devil.
Tell me now, who are the real Eunuchs?