Beyond Safe Territory

Beyond Safe Territory

Pastor Mitch Coggin April 28, 2024 Easter 5B

During the Sunday’s following Easter, we’ve been reading from Acts of the Apostles to understand more about our role as the Church. The word translated in our English Bible as “church” comes from the Greek word, ekklesia. The word means “the called out ones.” Often, in our understanding of the word, we think of the “church” as the people who gather as opposed to the people that are sent.

The term “apostle” is a noun in the Acts narrative that refers to the leaders of the Early Church and used as an adjective in our creeds, for example, the “apostolic church,” which comes from the verb “send.”

Walter Bruggemann explains, “The apostles are the ones sent. They are not custodians, or managers, or caretakers, or bureaucrats.They are the ones so grounded in faith and so empowered by the Spirit that they are sent beyond safe territory for the risky truth of the Gospel.”

From the reading in Acts, we see the apostles leading the church further than it had ever intended to go. It began as a Jewish church and in today’s scriptures the apostles broke with old purity laws of Judaism to spread the church to outsiders who would not have traditionally been accepted.

The last thing Jesus said before his ascension was, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” The book of Acts begins, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” These sound like a really far reach for us. For those who were hearing these words, Jerusalem was their center of worship. Judea was only 30 kilometers from Jerusalem, so that you shall be my witnesses in the next town. Even though Samaria was further to travel, the most important aspect was that Hebrews went around Samaria and avoided it because Samaritans were outsiders. In other words, you shall be my witnesses in the closest places but also in the most extreme places in terms of your understanding and your acceptance of those places and those people.

We read in Acts the story of Philip, who was one of the apostles commissioned to go to the Gentile nations. The Gentile Christians, at this time, had surpassed in number Jewish Christians. The church was growing rapidly and Philip was called by an angel of the Lord to “get up and go toward the south…from Jerusalem to Gaza (this is a wilderness road). So he got up and went.”

Between Jerusalem and Samaria, Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch in the desert. This eunuch was a court official in charge of the Queen of Ethiopia’s treasury. He had traveled to worship in Jerusalem and was on his way back to Ethiopia. According to Hebrew law, as depicted in Deuteronomy 23, a eunuch was not allowed in the holy places. He went to the temple to worship, but he was forbidden from entering the court where the Gentiles were permitted. The church considered him an unclean outcast.

The eunuch appears to be educated enough to read Hebrew and Greek, privileged enough to ride in a chariot, devout enough to study Isaiah. In this way, the eunuch seems to have power and influence but in reality, was outside the mainstream.

The Holy Spirit directed Philip to “Go over to this chariot and join it.” Philip did and heard the eunuch reading one of the most difficult passages from Isaiah 53. Philip asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch invited Philip to get in and sit beside him to explain the text’s meaning.

Professor Tom Long writes that the eunuch is reading Isaiah, who gives a more hopeful word that is personal to the eunuch. In Isaiah 11:11, the prophet proclaims that God will ‘recover the remnant that is left of his people…from Ethiopia’ (Isaiah 11:11); he also promises that ‘eunuchs who keep my sabbaths’ will be welcome in the house of God and will receive ‘a name better than sons and daughters’” (Isaiah 56:4-5).

As they continued to read in Isaiah, the eunuch would see that he was included, he was not cast out, he was one that God was mindful of.

As they finished reading the scroll together, the eunuch asked Philip, “Is this about the prophet or someone else?” I think he was asking, is this story really about me? Can this story be for me?

And really, that is the central question facing the church today. To whom is our message directed? Is it a message of hope to lonely people looking for hope? Is it a message of inclusion? I accept you as the person you are; not as the person I need or want you to be in order to make me feel comfortable.

Returning to the story in Acts, after Philip explained the passages from Isaiah, the eunuch asks, “Is there anything to prevent me from being baptised?” As Professor Tom Long says, “well, actually there was.” The man was from the wrong country, had the wrong job with the wrong government and he had the wrong sexuality. But still the eunuch asked, is there anything that would prevent me from being baptised? In other words, give me something tangible. Give me a clue that God sees me. The Ethiopian eunuch already had a copy of scripture, all he needed was a human to make it personal.

The Acts passage shows Philip enacting God’s love in tangible ways. 1 John has all the right words to portray love the way God sees it. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God”…Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Fear is a barrier to our being sent. But, perfect love casts out fear.

In the passage we read from the gospel of John we read, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” Radical love shown in tangible ways is often not predetermined but flows spontaneously from the abiding presence of God in us. It becomes the manner in which nameless and faceless persons become real to us and God’s love is made perfect through our actions and attitudes.

Dutch Jesuit Priest, Henri Nouwen explains what it means to abide. I deeply know that I have a home in Jesus, just as Jesus has a home in God. I know, too, that when I abide in Jesus I abide with him in God. “Those who love me,” Jesus says, “will be loved by my Father” (John 14:21). My true spiritual work is to let myself be loved, fully and completely, and to trust that in that love I will come to the fulfillment of my [sending].

Are we the ones so grounded in faith and empowered by the Spirit that we are sent beyond our safe territory for the risky truth of the Gospel?