“The Scandal of Inclusion”
Isaiah 56:3-5, Acts 8:4-8 & 8:25-39
Lisa Salazar ~ Northwood United Church ~ November 19, 2017
Thank you for allowing me to share my theological ramblings with you this morning. I've titled my talk, "The Scandal of Inclusion." Hopefully, in the next twenty minutes, I will be able to unpack what that means and why this theme is relevant for your community at Northwood United. First, let me congratulate you for the hard work you have been doing to be recognized and known as an affirming congregation, who welcomes and embraces members of sexual and gender minorities. I say it that way so as not to risk excluding anyone who stands under one or more of the growing number of letters under the rainbow umbrella, you know, the list that starts with L, G, B, and T. For the call to worship, I wanted us to declare the invitation to come and see. Come and see are three words that suggest inclusion. And for the Scripture reading, I selected verses from the book of Isaiah and the book of Acts which also suggest inclusion. But as we will see, a type of inclusion that is downright scandalous.
The word scandalous comes from the Greek word SKANDOLOS, which means a stumbling block. A stumbling block is something that trips people up, jars them, messes with their brain, and creates what sociologists call cognitive dissonance. I suggest the reason these accounts of inclusion are scandalous is that when we stop and consider the context of the stories, what we know of the respective hearers of the day is they would have been scandalized. Their assumptions would have been challenged. What excited me, and continues to excite me about these passages is how they relate to each other. What we read in chapter 8 of the book of Acts points to the book of Isaiah, and the book of Isaiah points to the Book of Acts.
Let me add a small sidebar here about how much I have come to appreciate the Apostle Philip. I like how he seems to be someone who believed the experience was more convincing than explanations. In truth, Jesus and the Samaritan woman shared that quality as well. Instead of trying to convince with words, they said, "Come and see." On the numerous occasions Jesus was tested and tried, didn't he say "If you don't believe what I have told you, then let my works convince you." "Come and see" could be expanded to "Come, I invite you to see and experience it for yourself, because once you've seen, you will understand. I want you to be included in this."
Before I forget, let's also stop and consider Luke, the disciple who traveled with Paul and was also a physician. He is the anonymous author of the two-part work, the Gospel of Luke and Acts, usually dated to having been written around 80–90 A.D., that's between 40 to 60 years after all the events he records in the two volumes took place. I have a couple of questions for you to consider about Luke as editor of the Book of Acts.
1) How did Luke learn the stories, who told them, and why did Luke, as the editor of the book, pick them?
2) What was it about the stories Luke compiled that had given them currency? In other words, what kept them top of mind for so many years?
Think of a moment about an event you remember clearly from fifty years ago, such as JFK's assassination, and then ask yourself, why does it still have currency for you today? Could it be that it is because we tend to remember events that cause us to trip up, that creates cognitive dissonance and shatters our assumptions; events that scandalize us? This is what I believe: Luke, the disciple, physician, and editor chose many of the stories in the Books of Acts because those where the stories people were still talking about them fifty years later. And I believe the reason these stories still held currency is that they were scandalous stories. The next time you choose to sit and read the Book of Acts, read as if is the National Enquirer. Put yourself in the first century as a Jewish or Gentile person, and then consider the events using that filter. You may be scandalized many times.
There is another aspect I would like you to consider; it has to do with Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian Eunuch. Why did Luke feel it was necessary to identify the treasury official of "Candace, queen of the Ethiopians" as a eunuch? Why mention the person's gender identity and sexuality at all? Is that detail essential to the story? The answer is no, on a surface reading of the passage. But if we look deeper and recall that Luke was a physician, could that be why this aspect of the person fascinated him? Here was someone who was a sexual other; perhaps from birth, or perhaps as a form of subjugation for servanthood. That, we don't know. I'm going to suggest we can safely assume there was an aspect of the person's appearance or presentation that Philip picked up on, and which grabbed Luke's attention as well. Perhaps the person's physicality or their voice gave them away. Then, there is the possibility the Eunuch ‘outted’ themself.
Could the untold part of the story be that Philip was amazed and delighted he had been sent by an angel to speak to "one of those persons" Jesus had talked to the disciples about (in Matthew 19)? In that account, Matthew recounts how the Pharisees came to test Jesus on the issue of divorce. He answers them by quoting from Genesis, that in the beginning "God created them male and female." Then he tells them divorce is only allowed in the case of infidelity and warns that divorcing someone who later remarries causes them to commit adultery.
The disciples are jarred by this and conclude it is best they do not marry so as not to run the risk of going through a divorce and their ex-wives committing adultery if they re-married. Jesus talks to them about eunuchs and encapsulates his words with a very interesting proviso: "Not everyone will be able to accept this, only those to whom the knowledge has been given." He then declares that "some are born eunuchs from their mother's womb, others are made eunuchs by men, and others choose to become eunuchs for the Kingdom of God." Then he ends with another strange caveat: "If you can accept this, receive it." Jesus is not talking about some secret, mysterious, special knowledge here. By can you imagine how the competitive and insecure disciples might have felt? I wonder if any of them feared they weren't special enough because they didn't have a clue what Jesus was saying to them? Did they look at the other guys to see if any of them got it? And if not, how do you get this secret knowledge?
Actually, what I think these statements suggest is a type of inclusion that comes from having seen something. Consider that what Jesus is really saying is quite straightforward. If he were using our language, he might sound like this: "I want you to get this because the reality for some people is they are born neither male or female, others have been made this way by men, and others have been chosen to be this way for the kingdom of God." If you know someone like this, chill out. If you are a person who believes Jesus is the incarnation of God, that he is God in the flesh, then it follows that what Jesus says here is the equivalent of God declaring: "In the beginning, we created them male and female, but it doesn't always work that way." Let's go back to Acts. Could it be Philip (and the other disciples) had already undergone a paradigm shift concerning eunuchs, so when Philip encounters the Ethiopian, he made sure that detail didn't get left out of the story? Enough questions. Now, I'm going to try to weave all of this together for you. Here it goes in bullet point:
Philip reports to other Jewish believers that he escaped into Samaria after Stephen's murder by stoning, which resulted in the first persecution of believers. Philip ventured into forbidden territory to escape the violence! That's scandalous. Why? Because Jews and Samaritans were like oil and water; they didn't mix. But Philip no longer sees things that way. He saw Jesus talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, and later to the people of her town. Philip's experience trumped tradition and theology. Philip not only goes into Samaria, but he also preaches and tells them about Jesus, and the Samaritans receive the Good News gladly. This, too, is scandalous. Here we begin to see what inclusion in God's new economy is going to look like; even the despised Samaritans, who were considered “half-breeds” were included. Scandalous!
Then there is the Ethiopian Eunuch, who was not a true descendant of Abraham and is, in fact, a foreigner is now included. That is scandalous! Though this person may have been a convert to Judaism and may have complied with all the requirements for full membership into the assembly, there was something that held this person back; they were a eunuch. The book of Leviticus declared eunuchs are ceremonially unclean and therefore excluded from the assembly. Imagine, the Eunuch has traveled all the way from a region south of Egypt, all the way to Jerusalem so they could worship the God of the Jews even though they knew they would have to remain behind the fence and not be a full participant in that Holy Day. This person is included too! How absolutely scandalous. Wait, what is that he is reading? He's reading from the scroll of Isaiah, from a passage that predicts the Messiah would be rejected and suffer, and then Philip connects the dots for the Eunuch (and for us), that Isaiah points to Jesus. That is scandalous! Well, it scandalous was to the Jews, who expected a Messiah King who would restore the Kingdom of David. How could Jesus be their Messiah?
Do you see how scandalous these stories were to the first-century people? These and many other stories disrupted the hell out of them. So many of their traditions, beliefs, and assumptions were being challenged and shattered by what God was doing. Could this be why these stories were told and retold and would eventually be memorialized by Luke as a compilation of scandals? Here is where it gets interesting. Earlier I said the Book of Acts points to Isaiah. Philip connects Jesus to Isaiah's description of the Messiah; who would be rejected and suffer. In essence, then, the Eunuch points us to Isaiah. But then, as we unroll the scroll of Isaiah a little further, we read about a day in the future when the foreigner and the eunuch will no longer be excluded; instead, they will be included as equals into God's economy. Here we clearly see the connection in reverse: Isaiah points to Acts. Think of it, Isaiah points to the eunuch, who is both a foreigner and a sexual other. Scandalous! But isn't it also marvelous! This is why I call inclusion scandalous.
In closing. I want to look at the significance of Isaiah's description of the suffering servant and then the pregnant questions the Eunuch asks Philip. "Is the writer talking about himself, or someone else?" I'm convinced the description of someone who is despised and rejected, and who is cut off from his descendants resonated deeply with the Eunuch. Isaiah's description of the Messiah mirrored the Eunuch's life on so many levels. We are told that as Luke and the Eunuch rode along in the chariot, they came to some water. Perhaps a creek or a pond. The Eunuch asks Philip; "What prevents me from being baptized?" Philip says, "Nothing!" and proceeds to baptize him. I call this a pregnant question because I hear it differently. It has another life hidden in it. What the Eunuch is really saying is this: "I have been a devout proselyte, even though I am not from the seed of Abraham, and I have done all the things that I am required to do to be a Jew. But I am still excluded. Is this what my fate will be in this Jesus Movement, or will I be considered an equal? Will I be included?"
And Philip's response could be read as: "No one excludes you; you are an equal!" Could Acts 8 be a time capsule for us today, now that we have a deeper understanding of human sexuality? That's how I see it.
Come and see.