Embracing Outsiders

Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 10/2/2016

This is the fourth week of a series called “A Missional Community.” If interested, here are the links for Week 1, Week 2, and Week 3.


An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”

Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?”

The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. This was the passage of scripture he was reading:

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
    and like a lamb before its shearer is silent
    so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was taken away from him.
    Who can tell the story of his descendants
        because his life was taken from the earth?

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. As they went down the road, they came to some water.

The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.


 

I realized the other day that my group of friends isn’t very diverse. I mean, in many ways, they are diverse. But like 90% of my friends are church people, churchgoers. I mean, I just made up that percentage, but you know what I mean. And since I’m a pastor, a lot of my friends are pastors too. That might be better or worse, you decide that. But I don’t have a lot of friends who are not church people, who aren’t “Christian,” per se.

Is that true for anyone else? How many of your friends or acquaintances are not church people, unchurched? How many of the people you spend your time around and feel comfortable around are not Christians? There are probably several answers among us. Some of us have family members, or some of us live with people or work with people who are not church people. Others of us are surrounded all the time by church people.

Whatever our answer is, I think there’s a tendency among us who would identify as Christian to separate ourselves a bit from what we would call “the world,” and separate ourselves from the non-Christians around us. Maybe that’s true for you, maybe it’s not, but whatever you answer, I was challenged about this by the Scripture passage that was read a couple minutes ago, and that’s what I want talk about today.

Before I go on let’s get oriented again. We’re in week 4 of our series called “A Missional Community.” For the last two weeks, we talked about what God’s mission looks like in the big picture. But for the next two weeks, we’re going to zoom in a bit and talk about what it looks like to be a community who follows that mission – what a missional community looks like.

So this passage tells us something important about a missional community. A missional community embraces outsiders. Now we can see this in Philip’s character, right? To give you a bit of background, Philip had planted a church in the city of Samaria and saw miraculous growth there through the power of the Holy Spirit. But then, in the Scripture passage you heard earlier, God called Philip out of his work there and told him to go to this road running between the cities of Jerusalem and Gaza in the middle of nowhere, in the wilderness.

And on this road, he encounters a man who is a eunuch from Ethiopia. Now there are a few things we need to know about this Ethiopian eunuch.

First, and most obviously, he’s from the country of Ethiopia on the continent of Africa. (Duh) So that means that his skin is probably darker than the people in Jerusalem, he’s probably dressed differently, and he probably talks differently, so he’s an obvious foreigner in Jerusalem.

Second, he’s obviously a powerful and influential person. The passage says that he’s the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia – a very high-ranking position in the government. Actually, to get a good picture of this, imagine a diplomat in Washington, D.C. with his suit and tie and power and influence riding in his limo and coming across Philip, a street preacher standing on his soapbox on a street corner. Got it?

Third, he’s a eunuch, which means he’s a castrated man. Probably according to some kind of customs or laws in his land, he’s been castrated. If you want to know more, look it up on your own. What’s important here is to know that his status as a eunuch means something not so good to the people in Jerusalem.

Anyway, we read that this Ethiopian eunuch was coming from Jerusalem where he had just been worshiping at the Jewish Temple. Now this tells us something very important about his situation when Philip comes across him.

As I said, he’s a eunuch, a castrated man, and that made a difference. In first-century Jerusalem, there was a lot of prejudice and several laws against eunuchs that excluded them from several parts of society. They were different, and they were seen as shameful, not full persons. People didn’t want to be around them.

So what this means is that no matter how powerful and influential and privileged this Ethiopian eunuch was in his own country, he was solidly an outsider in Jerusalem where he’d come to worship. Because of his ethnicity, but mostly because of his status as a eunuch, people probably whispered as he walked past, maybe shot him dirty looks when he was standing in the temple for worship. We know what we do when we want to express our displeasure at someone’s existence.

And it is to this man who the Holy Spirit draws Philip. It is this outsider who Philip tells about Jesus. In fact, Philip does more than tell him about Jesus and leave – Philip baptizes this outsider Ethiopian eunuch.

I love the Ethiopian eunuch’s question in the passage. Philip has told him the good news about Jesus Christ, the message stirs something deep within him, and they come to a river or pond or some body of water, and the Ethiopian asks “What would keep me from being baptized?” Actually, a lot could have kept him from being baptized. Realize, this happened mere months after Jesus died, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven – months. So the early communities of believers still identified themselves as a sect of Judaism who believed in this guy Jesus. They’re not even sure whether or not non-Jews can be Christians. So the barriers that separated this man from worshiping at the Temple would’ve kept him from many parts of the Christian community too – the whispers, the glares, all because he was an Ethiopian eunuch – an outsider.

And yet…Philip baptized him. It’s not that Philip just told him about Jesus, helped him pray the Sinner’s Prayer, and then left him. No, Philip initiated this outsider Ethiopian eunuch into the Christian community. Through Philip, the Christian community embraced this outsider and welcomed him in.

Now we don’t really know what happened to the Ethiopian eunuch after this. Some in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church today trace their origins to this man. Some say he returned from this encounter and evangelized his own people and started the Christian community there. But whatever happened after this story, it tells us something important for today – the missional community embraces outsiders.

Now, we know this. Even if you’ve never thought about this in the words I’m using, we understand this concept. This is why we talk about evangelism, this is why Alger First has our Commodities, our food pantry. This is why we sponsor missionaries and why we do any kind of outreach event, right? We know that, in some way, we’re supposed to embrace outsiders – people who aren’t here yet.

But the problem is – we get complacent. We like how our church looks, we get really comfortable with who is here now, and we start thinking that maybe this is how our church should stay.

At MTSO, my seminary, I’m in a group that’s simply called the Spiritual Practice Group. We gather for an hour and a half each week to pray together and to work on our life in God together as a community. Now last year, we stayed pretty small. The same 5 people, including me, formed the core of this group, and we formed really strong relationships. My friends in SPG, this group, have become some of my best friends. I pray for them each day, and I know they do the same for me. I know them and they know me.

But at the beginning of this school year, we had to decide what this group was going to look like. Were we just going to be a prayer and share group, meaning that the group would dissolve when we all graduate? Or did we want to create something more lasting? Did we want our group to continue after we left and bless more people at MTSO? We knew that there were other people who were in need of the kind of community we had created. So the question was – would we reach out to them, or stay as our own little group?

Now, all of us had the desire to stay as our own little group, because we had created such a deep community among ourselves, and we recognized that welcoming new people in meant that that would change, and we didn’t want it to change. What did God want us to do with our group?

Now, for this group of students I just described, either choice would be perfectly fine. It wouldn’t necessarily be wrong for us to stay as a prayer and share group or to open up our doors and invite more people – neither would be a wrong choice for us. BUT for a local church, like Alger First, I think there’s really only one correct choice here – God has called us to embrace outsiders.

So that calls us to ask a question – who are the outsiders in our Village of Alger? Every single community has “outsiders,” no matter how close knit the community is. It’s human nature. So who are the outsiders around us? Who are the forgotten? Who would we rather ignore and forget they lived in our neighborhood, our community? Maybe they look different, talk different, maybe their life is so different from ours that we can’t understand them at first, so we give up and ignore them?

But as the church, these are precisely the people God has called us to embrace – the outsiders.

So my challenge for you this week brings us back to where we started – church people or Christians are often friends with other Christians and hang out a lot with other Christians.

Now, hear me – Being friends with other Christians is not bad, I’m not saying that. In fact it’s necessary to have strong ties to other followers of Christ because we do not follow Christ alone, but only in community with other Christians.

But the problem I’m looking at comes when we are only friends with church people. Because that isolates us from the world and makes the Gospel powerless.

What good is the Gospel of Jesus Christ if we have removed ourselves from the possibility of sharing it?

So here’s my challenge for you. This week, find ways that you can be around more outsiders – meaning non-church people, non-Christians, the unchurched, whatever you want to say. Find ways where you can be in relationship with them. You see, we’ve been given the Good News of Jesus Christ to share with the world, but we can’t do that if we are only surrounded by people who already know the Good News.

Now I’m not telling you to find the first non-Christian you can and preach the Gospel to them straight off. I’m challenging you to do what Philip did. He followed the prompting of the Spirit to approach the carriage of the outsider Ethiopian eunuch and stay with it, but he didn’t start preaching the Gospel right away. This calls us to pay attention who the Spirit has already placed you with – who around you is not a church person, not a Christian?  And pay attention to what unchurched person the Spirit is calling you to, and go be with them.

Then in the Scripture, only after Philip had been invited in and listened to the outsider Ethiopian eunuch did Philip tell him about Jesus. And I don’t think this was any kind of well-developed evangelistic sales pitch. Philip knew that he had encountered Jesus and been changed by it, and he simply saw that this man needed that same change.

Your relationship with Jesus, your experience of Jesus is something that others need to hear about. We have the ability to tell outsiders the best news they will ever hear. We have the opportunity to tell outsiders about the most complete love they will ever experience, the most complete life they will ever have. But we won’t be able to tell anyone about it if we spend all our time around people who have already heard and accepted this. We must put ourselves around the people who need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ the most. We must embrace outsiders if we are to be the missional community God has called us to be.

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