Friday, April 30, 2021

Reflection for Easter 5 (Acts 8:26-40)

Acts 8:26-40
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now 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.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When 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. But 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.

Kittridge Cherry writes that Biblical eunuchs "can stand for all sexual minorities." Cherry maintains that "eunuchs served and guarded the women in royal palaces and wealthy households. Their employers wanted to be certain that the eunuchs would not get sexually involved with the women they were supposed to protect, so many eunuchs were castrated men, homosexual men, and intersex folk. Many, but not all, were both castrated and homosexual. Eunuchs were trusted officials who often rose to senior posts in government."

Philip is one of the seven Gentile deacons listed in Acts 6:5. In Acts 8, the encounter between Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a comment on our common practice of baptism, entrance, and initiation into the church. And, further, this story is a sharp critique on drawing theological and ecclesiastical lines in, at best, shifting sand.

Our story is part of the larger movement of the church traversing geographical, nation-state, religious, ethnic, racial, language, dietary, and cultural boundaries. Luke, who writes Luke-Acts, adds an additional boundary shattered by the movement of God's Spirit among the Gentiles: gender identity. Why does Luke include this amazing story in his account if not to expose the lines we create, that separate us from each other. 

The Ethiopian Eunuch is non-gendered, a non-Jew, and a foreigner. Believers who were not Jewish by ancestry were admitted entrance to pray at the Court of the Gentiles, but were denied entrance into the Temple.  Was the eunuch on the way out of Jerusalem rejected at the place of prayer? Consider the background in Deut. 23:1 "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord."  

The story hinges on the eunuch's questions of Philip. Questions tend to access power and also challenge accepted, unexamined practices and policies. There can be no greater equalizer than to ask a simple question. Questions can open the door to doing justice. Like the Easter narratives where the disciples need teaching to understand the meaning of the passion, death, and resurrection, the eunuch, reading from the scroll of Isaiah,  asks, "How can I understand, unless someone guides me?"  

The question, "What is to prevent me from being baptized," probably reflects the question Luke's church must have asked. The implicit answer is: absolutely nothing. There is nothing that prevents one from being baptized. The test case is, of course, one who was kept from the assembly for being non-gendered.  If we let that sink in, what does Philip's welcome mean for our accepted and acceptable practices of  baptism? 

"The whole church needs to be present." I've never presided at a baptism when the "whole church" was present.  Is this a magic number, or only certain public gatherings? The one whose few close friends and family become the body of Christ? The one whose public faith profession is not possible in a coma or ICU. Or the one whose public baptism alienates family and may bring shame to the family and/or recipient?  

"You cannot belong without believing." What about those who, in practical terms, do belong before they believe? Who can be baptized? Only people we deem ready?  What about the one who wants to believe and belong, love and serve? Are others excluded because their intention and desire isn't enough to satisfy the gatekeepers?

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in a fresco of the Apocalypse by Herbert Boecki

"You cannot be blessed by God." Acts 8 is descriptive of how baptism was practiced in the earliest church; however, its reading in the Easter season questions our common practice of limiting access to God's blessing to times and places and people that we determine. The text authorizes all of us, like the Spirit did Philip, to hear- and act on- the implication of the story: there is nothing that can prevent God in Jesus Christ from adopting all people as loved and beloved. We. All. Finally. Belong.   

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Gospel Reflection for Easter 3

Gospel for Easter 3, Year B  (
Luke 24: 36-48 CEB):
While Jesus' disciples were talking about what had happened, Jesus appeared and greeted them. They were frightened and terrified because they thought they were seeing a ghost. But Jesus said, “Why are you so frightened? Why do you doubt? Look at my hands and my feet and see who I am! Touch me and find out for yourselves. Ghosts don’t have flesh and bones as you see I have.” After Jesus said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. The disciples were so glad and amazed that they could not believe it. Jesus then asked them, “Do you have something to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish. He took it and ate it as they watched. Jesus said to them, “While I was still with you, I told you that everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Books of the Prophets, and in the Psalms[a] had to happen.” Then he helped them understand the Scriptures. He told them: The Scriptures say that the Messiah must suffer, then three days later he will rise from death. They also say that all people of every nation must be told in my name to turn to God, in order to be forgiven. So beginning in Jerusalem, you must tell everything that  has happened. 

As a background to this passage, Luke 24:13-35 is helpful. Initially, the Emmaus disciples "did not know who [Jesus} was." Or, in the NRSV, "their eyes were kept from recognizing him." The link between unbelief and faith, between not knowing Jesus, and recognition, is the proclamation provided by Jesus about himself: "'Didn’t you know that the Messiah would have to suffer before he was given his glory?' Jesus then explained everything written about himself in the Scriptures, beginning with the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets." Luke 24:26-27 Eyes are not opened and Jesus is not fully recognized until Jesus breaks bread with them. However, the beginning of that faith is found in Jesus' explanation about the Christ: "They said to each other, 'When he talked with us along the road and explained the Scriptures to us, didn’t it warm our hearts?'" Luke 24:37 The Emmaus disciples return to the city, to tell the Jerusalem 11 of their encounter with the living Christ. 

Important elements of this story are repeated in the Gospel for this Sunday, Easter 3. Jesus appears to them 1) like a unrecognizable stranger or ghost 2) a person with physical characteristics- such as one who eats with them 3) a teacher who proclaims the faith.  Today's Gospel also hinges on Jesus helping them to "understand the Scriptures." 

Seeing and touching the wounds of his suffering identify Jesus Christ. Still, after all the visible signs are displayed, seeing, even touching, is not equivalent to believing. Why would the proclamation about Jesus be necessary for the disciples to understand that Christ is Messiah? By itself, an appearance of Jesus, however, physically stunning, does not bring faith. Important, if not essential, is hearing and understanding the proclamation of Jesus Christ, Messiah and Lord. Recall the dialogue between Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Luke's second volume, Acts. In Acts 8, Phillip asked "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless, someone guides me?" 

How can we make sense of this passage? By the time Luke is written, Paul's Epistles and Mark's Gospel are probably available to the writer. Christian teachers and missionaries have already been proclaiming the Gospel. Luke's proclamation relies on decades of reflection on Easter and the Scripture of Torah, Prophets and Writings. Resurrection and Scripture exist in dialogue. Without the fruit of reflection-  understanding, illumination, recognition- the appearance of the risen Christ does not remove disbelief and wondering. Eyes remain closed.

Luke ends his Gospel with Jesus' proclamation, and he invites us to be hearers too, but also, bearers of the proclamation: that the Jesus whom they followed for three years, was also the Christ who suffered and on the third day, rose from dead. Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. This is the kerygma of Luke and the church.

Like the disciples, many today struggle to believe-in the material, literal sense- the account of Jesus living again in flesh and bone. But Easter is finally proclaimed as faith and trust, not certainty. Regardless of how we describe the resurrection body, whether a physical-chemical like substance, or a spiritual body, what would prevent us from exploring its deeper meaning for our present life in Christ? Being in Christ means we frame our lives, in all of the messy details, by Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection. We share in Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection. We are invited to "know" Christ, in his passion, death and resurrection- and in his proclamation. 

Is Christ alive in the limitations of skin and bone cells? If that is our belief, we can continue to explore the meaning of the resurrection. We don't have to try, by ascent, to believe in what we cannot. What is Easter's meaning in the long haul of discipleship? Luke invites us to discover that faith in Christ can be- must be- both sustaining and sustainable. This may lead us, by God's grace, to surrender our prejudgments about resurrection- to God. We can let God in Jesus Christ remake and refresh us, wherever we are. 

I wonder if the parable that Jesus tells in Luke 8 is informative here, in the sense that it comes in light of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection. It's about how the soil can sustain or fail to sustain a seed in its continuing growth. How is proclamation of the word of Christ being received? Notice how joy can lead to believing "only for a while" while good soil sustains "patient endurance."

"‘Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance." Luke 8:11-15 NRSV



Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Gospel Reflection: Easter 2

Gospel for Easter 2, Year B John 20:19-31 (CEB)
It was still the first day of the week. That evening, while the disciples were behind closed doors because they were afraid of the Jewish authorities, Jesus came and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. When the disciples saw the Lord, they were filled with joy. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you don’t forgive them, they aren’t forgiven.” Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!” But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.” After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!” Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.” Then Jesus did many other miraculous signs in his disciples’ presence, signs that aren’t recorded in this scroll. But these things are written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, God’s Son, and that believing, you will have life in his name.
There is absolutely no shame or deficiency in asking questions and searching for the way to peace of heart and mind and spirit. In our reading, Jesus stays true as the one who offers the gift of peace to his disciples. Recall his promise of peace in the present hour, in John 14: 27: "My peace I give to you." In praying the Fourteen Stations of Light, there are three Stations in this reading: Jesus' appearing before the disciples, the disciples receiving the power to forgive sin, and Jesus' strengthening the faith of Thomas. It encourages us to explore the whole passage, not just Thomas' story.
The Holy Spirit that Jesus breathes out on his disciples is the life-breath of God. It is also the power of forgiveness, given freely to, and without it, following Jesus is impossible. We move from "I should forgive," to "I can forgive." The power to forgive is here for us, given by Jesus Christ- if only we see it and use it. Without forgiveness, apostleship has nothing to offer except fear and shame. Don't pin failure to forgive on God or any church authority. The following quote from Holy Longing can serve as a powerful footnote to the power of forgiveness in the Body of Christ:
If a child or a brother or a sister or a loved one of yours strays from the church in terms of faith practice and morality, as long as you continue to love that person, and hold him or her in union and forgiveness, he or she is touching the hem of the garment, is held to the Body of Christ, and is forgiven by God, irrespective of his or her official external relationship to the church and Christian morality. Your touch is Christ’s touch. When you love someone, unless that someone actively rejects your love and forgiveness, she or he is sustained in salvation. And this is true even beyond death. If someone close to you dies in a state which, externally at least, has her or him at odds ecclesially and morally with the visible church, your love and forgiveness will continue to bind that person to the Body of Christ and continue to forgive that individual, even after death.
There are few better checks of my spiritual life than honestly exploring where I am in the journey to forgive those who have harmed me, even without knowing their intentions. My forgiveness is married to my forgiveness of others. I am also given the power to know my wrongs and pray God's love, healing and blessing over those whom I have harmed, to explore making amends for the benefit of a different future.

Thomas' absence from Jesus first appearance to the disciples prompts him to question the disciples' witness. Who appeared, was it was the Christ who suffered and died? The most important marks of the risen Lord are not his hair style, beard length, but rather, his suffering and death, the wounds of execution and the pierced side.  As a result of seeing and touching these marks of Christ, Thomas recognizes Jesus for who he is and thus becomes the first one to worship Jesus. He kneels down, an act of worship, and proclaims the faith of the earliest church, "My Lord and my God."

Jesus does not come down in judgement on Thomas' lack of lack of faith or believing. The CEV offers this wording of John 20:29-31: "Jesus said, “Thomas, do you have faith because you have seen me? The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!” Jesus worked many other miracles[a] for his disciples, and not all of them are written in this book. But these are written so that you will put your faith in Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. If you have faith in[b] him, you will have true life." Far from guilting or shaming of Thomas, these words may be seen as a direct encouragement to the Christians hearing John's Gospel for the first time. In their continuing faith journey, these believers hear words of blessing, not condemnation. They are words of the risen Christ. And, we are included in that church.

Oldies but Goodies