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Beware of deciding who God might want excluded
Oct. 28, 2012
Background Scripture: Acts 8:26-39
Devotional Reading: Isaiah 56:1-8

One summer, probably between fourth and fifth grade, I was at the local playground where I spent a good deal of my daytime vacation from school. Standing next to me were two older boys who played on our playground baseball team.

They were talking about the next team on their schedule. “When are we playing them?” I asked.

One of them turned to me and, with great disdain, wrinkled his face as he asked, “What’s this ‘we’ stuff?”

Immediately, I realized he did not regard me as really “part of the crowd.” That I still remember this experience reveals that I can recall the feeling of exclusion, of being an “outsider.”

According to the teachings of Jesus, the gospel is much more about inclusion than exclusion. The earliest history of the Church, as we observed last week, can be likened to the ever-widening circles that spin out when a stone is thrown into a body of water. The tiniest circle is continually widened and extended.

Yet, at the same time Christianity was breaking out of the tight circle into which it was born, there was also always another ever-present force within the Church that attempted to push the gospel back into an exclusive posture. People were constantly trying to draw lines of exclusion, lines that God just as constantly confounded.

I like the way in which the encounter of Philip and the Ethiopian begins: “But an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza’” (8:26). No lecture, no persuasion and hardly any advance information, just “Rise and go …”
Perhaps we may wonder why the Spirit doesn’t ever seem to rouse us, to give us specific instructions. Might it be because Philip was tuned-in and often, usually, we’re not?
An answer?

My regular prayer time is scheduled between getting out of bed, feeding the cat and eating breakfast. Sugar, my cat, is rather impatient, particularly early in the morning, so I usually feed her first and then start my prayers.

Sometimes when I ask God questions aloud, if I stop talking and wait in the silence, an answer – not audible perhaps, but compelling – seems to arise within me. I suspect maybe I do not get an “answer” because I don’t stop talking, or thinking, aloud. Could that be your problem, too?

The story of Philip and his encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch illustrates the inclusion/exclusion phenomenon. The Ethiopian would have been excluded from the faith of his choice for two reasons: he was not a Jew, not a resident of Palestine, nor even a Semite, but a dark-skinned Ethiopian “heathen;” and, worst of all, he was a eunuch.

In the Near East a eunuch was usually a castrated man in charge of a royal harem, although some of them were highly placed officials. This man whose name we do not know was obviously one of the latter.

Candace is the Nubian word for “queen.” Nubia was an African land to the south of Egypt. Eunuchs were excluded from the Jewish congregation as “impaired” and “defective” people.

While the term “eunuch” is not much used today, there are people who, because of their disabilities, are regarded as “impaired” and “defective” and they are often officially or practically excluded from normal associations, including some churches. (For example, if a church doesn’t provide facilities for people in wheelchairs, that is a practical exclusion.)

The suffering servant

It is interesting that the Ethiopian is reading from Isaiah 53:4-8, a passage which describes the vicarious suffering of Israel and associated with the role of Jesus as the “suffering servant.” The eunuch may see his own status reflected in this passage, so he asks Philip: “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (Acts 8:34).

Philip responds to this question with the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. We don’t know what he told the eunuch specifically, but it appears the eunuch decides this is something he himself must embrace: “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?”

If Philip had answered that eunuchs could not be baptized, that would have prevented it. But Philip, under the power of the Holy Spirit, wastes no time with a verbal answer. Instead he takes the eunuch to the water and baptizes him – for the exclusion is not of God, but of human origin.

I close with these apt lines from Edwin Markham’s wonderful poem, “Outwitted.”

He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in!
If we need to include those whom God does not want excluded, we need to start drawing outside the lines.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.