An Unhindered Gospel
Throughout history, we have always distrusted the stranger, the outsider, the one who isn’t a part of our group. Even though the human family shares the same Creator, we live lives of estrangement.
This antagonism toward the stranger has often made its way into the life of the church. That is why the early church in Acts needed a lot of help from the Holy Spirit in learning how to make room for the person who seemed strange or different to them. As we have seen so far in our readings from the book of Acts, one of the first struggles of the Jewish church in Jerusalem was to accept Hellenist Jews who were not originally from Israel. And just about the time they figured out how to do that, the Hellenist Jewish Christian Philip went to Samaria to preach the gospel. You will recall that Jews despised Samaritans and would typically would not even walk through their land, their animosity was so great.
Well, while Philip was in Samaria, crowds of Samaritans believed, were baptized and joined the church. So now the body of believers in Jesus included not only the Hellenists, but Samaritans as well. As Philip was trying to decide how to break this news to the apostles back in Jerusalem, an angel of the Lord told him to get on the road that led from Jerusalem to Gaza. While he was traveling, he saw an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot. The Bible never gives us this man’s name. We only see him as Philip saw him – he is black, he is a foreigner, and he is a eunuch. In other words, he is not close to being an Israelite.
The eunuch was reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip got into the chariot and began to share the good news of Jesus with him. He had to wonder if the gospel would reach someone as different from the apostles as the eunuch was. But it did; and the eunuch professed faith in Jesus and was baptized. Now, Philip just had to figure out how to explain to the Christians back in Jerusalem that yet another outsider had become a believer.
All of this reminds me of a story the late Fred Craddock, preacher and teacher of preachers, told of his very first failure as a pastor. It occurred when he was still a seminary student serving a small church in east Tennessee, twenty miles from Oak Ridge. This is what he said:
Oak Ridge had gotten into place, the atomic energy thing was booming, and folk were coming and constructing that little town into a city.
People were coming from everywhere, in tents and trailers and little temporary carts, and all kinds of leanto’s, and they covered those beautiful little towns with temporary quarters, wash hanging out on the fences, and little kids crying through the muddy places where all these things were parked. And my little church, aristocratic little church, white frame building, was nearby.
It was a nice little church with wonderful people, and I called the board together and said, “We need to reach out to those folk who are here. They’ve just come in from everywhere, and they’re fairly close, and here’s our mission.”
And the chairman of the board said, “No, I don’t think so.”
And I said, “Why?”
“They won’t fit in, After all, they’re just here temporarily, living in those trailers and all.”
“Well, they’re here temporarily, but they need the gospel. They need a church, now why don’t…”
“Naw, I don’t think so.”
The upshot of it all was a resolution which said, “Members will be admitted to this church from families who own property in the county.”
It was unanimous, except for my vote, and I was reminded that I couldn’t vote.
“They won’t fit in, they just won’t fit in.”
How many times have we heard that sentiment, spoken or just implied, in the church of Christ? It had to be on Philip’s mind as he traveled back to Jerusalem. The water of baptism had made the eunuch and him brothers in the family of Jesus, but would the people back home ever accept it?
By the way, years later Fred Craddock went back to Oak Ridge and drove by that little church. As he came upon the parking lot, he saw it was full, BMW’s and pick-ups. And going inside were white people and black people, poor people and rich people, landowners and folks from the trailer parks. And over the door of the church a large sign: Barbeque Restaurant. All You Can Eat, $6.99. Come On In.
You see, the eunuch, and you, and I all belong in the family of God. Our names are written on the spiritual walls of the church. It has nothing to do with our limitation, sins, and hurts. It has nothing to do with the family we had, and it certainly has nothing to do with our own righteousness. But it has everything to do with Jesus, the one who died and rose outside Jerusalem to make you and me and everyone who desires a part of the family of God.
Come on in. All you can eat. Everybody welcome.
Thanks be to God!