On the Road that Goes Down from Jerusalem, Race and Good News – A Sermon for May 2

Texts: Psalm 22: 25-31; Acts 8:26-40

There’s a story about a theologian from Texas who was invited to give a lecture on the campus of Harvard University. The theologian wanted to get some work done before giving his lecture, so he set out to find the library. Looking for some help, he asked a passing graduate student, “Excuse me, where’s the library at?” The graduate student replied, “Sir, at Harvard we don’t end a sentence with a preposition.” The theologian rephrased, “Okay, where’s the library at, jackass?”

I like this story because it reminds us that sometimes in our urge to be presentable we miss what’s important. I also like it because it reminds me that there are worse things than ending a sentence with a preposition.

So in that spirit here’s a question to get us thinking about scripture today: When we read the Bible, what are we looking for?

There could be any number of answers to that question, but in the context of worship one of the most important things we look for is good news. So, we ask ourselves, “In the passage before us today, where is the good news at?” Or if we want to keep our English usage on the straight and narrow, we could ask the preacher, “In the passage before us today, where’s the good news at, jackass?”

My claim is that this passage does, indeed, contain good news for us. Specifically, good news related to one of the most important issues of our day, the matter of race and the Christian community.

The passage before us is known as the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. It could also be known as the story of the Ethiopian accountant or the story of the treasury secretary. We will not focus on his job today or his gender identity, though both are interesting. Our focus will be on the fact that the text tells us he came from Ethiopia.

For ancient Greeks and their cultural descendants, Ethiopia was considered a very distant land with a distinct culture. It lay more than 2,000 km south of the coastal city of Alexandria. Alexandria was located at the outflow of the Nile in the Mediterranean and Ethiopia at the headwaters of one of the river’s major tributaries.

In the first century Egypt was well within the reach of the Romans. Egypt was deeply influenced by Greek culture, just like Judea and the rest of the Mediterranean region. Both Judaism and Christianity quite naturally developed a major presence in Egyptian cities like Alexandria.

But with Ethiopia, things were different. When our text tells us that this accountant was Ethiopian, we are being told that he came from a land beyond. Ethiopia’s key commercial links were with the Arabian Peninsula and India further east. Significant waterfalls on the upper Nile blocked commerce with Egypt and the Roman world. In the eyes of the communities of the Mediterranean Basin, Ethiopia was ‘other’.

The author of Acts includes this story in chapter 8 to show that the news about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was reaching the “ends of the earth.” You might remember that the last words of the risen Christ (Acts 1:8): “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” If you are looking at a Bible right now, you will notice that the previous section in chapter 8 is about the good news spreading to Samaria. Indeed, verse 25 ends with reference to the “Samaritans.” And so now, in verses 26 through 40 the news spreads to the ends of the known world.

The following chapters in Acts tell how the story of Jesus reached the port city of Joppa, the trade city of Damascus, and the city of Antioch, which lay in modern day Turkey. In just a few chapters the focus of the story will shift from Peter and the leaders in Jerusalem to a former terrorist named Paul. The book will end with Paul on his way to Rome.

You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The author of Acts is making a theological point through geography. It’s a little like those multi-national companies that list where they have offices. They don’t mention the little towns. They mention the centers of power and influence, “With offices in London, New York, and Tokyo.” It’s an indirect way of showing that they’re a big deal.

Here in Acts the author is using a similar tactic, but toward a different end. He’s trying to show that God’s Spirit is at work and the ministry of Jesus continues just as he said it would.

So in the story before us today, the Ethiopian accountant needs help understanding the scroll of Isaiah. Philip shows up with an explanation.  The Ethiopian is baptized and presumably carries the message to his home region. Indeed, if we want to refer to a country as a Christian nation, Ethiopia has more claim to that title than most. The Orthodox church in Ethiopia traces its lineage to this treasury secretary. There are other ancient sources that say Ethiopians were present in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost.

But, now our question: Where is the good news at?

Now remember, news being good does not necessarily mean that it is news we want to hear. Goodness cannot be goodness if it does not disrupt the wrong.

One of the deepest and most heart-wrenching matters of our day that of racism. It is the cry for justice. The cry that says for far too long some members of the human family have been racialized, stigmatized and marginalized. And it goes on at a time when many of us are concerned with the equivalent of prepositions at the ends of sentences.

The confession of the white church must be that we have not done our work on this. Yes, the church has been a source of strength for people experiencing oppression. But the white church has remained an agent of that oppression. It has sought to retain control, to dominate the discourse. If you’ve observed white-dominated faith communities, you know that the unspoken message has often been that others are welcome, so long as they learn to speak like us, so long as they learn to like our music, so long as they dress like us, so long as they learn to love our theology. And too often white-dominant faith communities have been inclined to pat themselves on the back for token gestures of inclusion.

If that is a fair assessment of Christian communities that we have inhabited, we should ask the question again: In the passage before us today, where’s the good news at?

I think there is good news here. Let me explain.

First, notice something fundamental. That is, our passage does not assign to the Ethiopian a ‘race’. It assigns to him a place of origin, it connects him to land, but it does not assign to him a race. Given how often we identify ourselves by race today, that might sound a bit strange. We often assume that race is a fact, that nature somehow places people into simple racial categories. But there are no white people in the Bible. There are no Black people in the bible. There are no Asian people in the Bible. Most of the biblical characters are Asian by geographic origin, but they are not identified that way.  

As many social historians have pointed out, the idea of race is a much more recent invention. Being more recent doesn’t mean the idea of race isn’t important, but it does mean that it’s an idea. It’s an idea developed with the intent to dominate and control. It’s an idea developed in order to rank, categorize and provide cover for European colonization. But watch this: if race is an idea, as our text suggests, then the employment of that idea is something we can change.

Next, we should notice who is doing the including in this passage. The ones who are doing the including are Jewish followers of a teacher names Jesus. It isn’t until Acts 11 that the name ‘Christian’ is applied to these communities. To this point they are Jewish followers of the way of a Jewish rabbi.

One of the things that has facilitated a white-dominated Christianity has been our historic removal of the Jews from the center of the story. Forgetting that the children of Abraham and Sarah are the trunk into which we are grafted has allowed us white folks to imagine that we are the trunk into which others are grafted. We white folks think, oddly enough, that it is we who are doing the including. Our Anabaptist communities are by no means without guilt here.

The third bit of good news is something we see throughout the book of Acts. It is that there is no such thing as a Christian culture. There is no Christian language. Those who are drawn to the community of faith come from many cultures and they retain those cultural particularities. The Bible shows us that the good news spreads and takes unique shape in an exploding number of cultures. The words of the founder of the faith were recorded in a different language than the one he spoke. The language he spoke was different again from that of his scriptures. The overriding conviction has always been that the Bible is translatable, that the church of Christ looks different in different contexts, none given priority.   

We must conclude far too soon, but in summary the good news is that if we bring our questions to the text we find that it speaks to us. The Bible does not have all the answers. And many times readers have smothered the scriptures, picking out a few odd lines to defend their own privilege. Yet, the good news is that these scriptures, and the God of which they speak, leads and encourages us all in the work of naming and rooting out racism.

Think the things that Philip and the Ethiopian discussed. Think of the words of Isaiah, referring to the way the Anointed One would experience injustice: “In his humiliation, justice was denied him.” Remember how it unfolds. Philip would have told the Ethiopian about the way God vindicated the experience of the Anointed One, how the mighty Spirit of Love showed up on the side of the one wrongfully accused, wrongfully arrested, wrongfully sentenced. Easter is God’s solidarity with and defense of those who suffer violence.

The Ethiopian was baptized. It would not have been surprising if the author of Acts had Paul’s words wringing in his ears as he wrote his history: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Baptism should be an anti-racist practice, just like the celebration of Communion. Neither of these are practices that any church owns. They are not something ‘we’ offer others in patronizing fashion. These are not ways a European religion benevolently includes others. These are practices through which all are grafted into the tree of life.

After the encounter with Philip, the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing. He was rejoicing! He had heard good news! And for us there is good news too. The deepest convictions of our faith are aligned against one of the most pernicious evils of our time. There is strength and encouragement. There is the joy of being a part of God’s mission to set things aright.

*Though I don’t mention them above, my thinking here has been informed by people like J. Kameron Carter, Willie Jennings, Philip Jenkins, and Robert Louis Wilken.

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