As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, A Most Unlikely Hero, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday April 20, 2018. The Reading was Acts 8:26-40.
A Most Unlikely Hero
Steve Rogers was always fighting… and always losing. He was a short, scrawny little kid, who tried to enlist in the United States Army after being appalled at Nazi Germany’s horrific atrocities. However, because of his diminutive size, he failed to pass the physical requirements. His frustration and desire to serve attracted the interest of one Professor Abraham Erskine. He convinced Steve to sign up for a program he was involved in called Operation: Rebirth, which would enhance US soldiers to physical perfection through injecting and ingesting a “Super Soldier Serum” and controlled bursts of “Vita Rays”, which left Steve a perfect 6’2 and 220lbs, with very high intelligence, agility, strength, speed, endurance and reaction time. This scrawny little kid – the most unlikely of heroes, became Captain America, the first avenger and the group’s long time leader.
Yes, I’m talking about a comic book character, and I’m super excited because the new Avenger’s movie is out and while I love my Star Trek, I’m loving the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well, so it’s quite easy for me to get excited about these things. But I’m fascinated by the origin stories of the various characters. They tell so much about the character, but also about the world that the comic is speaking to at the time.
Take for example, Spiderman. When Spiderman first came on the scene, Peter Parker was an average teen who had no luck with the ladies, and was bitten by a radioactive spider.
However, when the 2002 film was released, we weren’t as scared of Radioactive things anymore, so it was changed to a genetically engineered “super spider”, and it’s been that way ever since. But even still, it took this idea of an unlikely hero, a teen who’s parents had died and was being looked after by his aunt and uncle, who gets these incredible powers and becomes the “Friendly, Neighbourhood Spiderman” that we all know and love.
And I think it’s stories like these that many people can relate to. The idea that anyone could be a hero. We don’t need to be super rich like Batman, or super smart like Bruce Bana, who became the Hulk, or an alien from another planet like Superman or Thor (who is either an Alien or a god, it’s a but unclear from the last movie). It’s these ordinary, unlikely heroes, that we love and get really attached to.
In today’s reading, we also have a couple of unlikely heroes. We have Philip, who was not the Philip of the apostles, but was one of the seven chosen as Deacons, appointed to serve the community, ensure equal distribution of food, and allowed the Apostles to focus on prayer and serving the word. Except this wasn’t what Jesus had commissioned the Apostles to do. The apostles were commissioned them to do from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to all the ends of the earth. But instead, they decide to hang around Jerusalem, praying and serving the word.
And so it is that in Jesus’ continuing upside-down kingdom, it is the table-servers who take centre stage, and show us what it is that we are meant to do. Having been pushed into the mission field following the continued persecution, Philip finds himself going to Samaria and preaching the word there, performing miracles, baptising believers, so much so that the Apostles had to accept that God was moving outside of Jerusalem and Peter and John went to them.
It is easy to take a narrow view
And then Philip is told by an angel to continue on, heading towards Gaza. On this road, he comes across another intriguing character. You see, in Leviticus 21, we read:
“No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God. 18 For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, one who is blind or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or a limb too long, 19 or one who has a broken foot or a broken hand, 20 or a hunchback, or a dwarf, or a man with a blemish in his eyes or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles. 21 No descendant of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the LORD’s offerings by fire; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the food of his God.
Similarly, in Deuteronomy 23:1, we read
No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.
If we were to take those two passages, it would seem pretty clear that the Eunuch in this story had done something wrong. We read that he was on his way back from Jerusalem after taking part in some worship there. And whether he was a eunuch by birth, or by choice, or by accident, these two passages make it pretty clear that he should not have been admitted to the assembly of God. He was not welcome. And if we were to take into account these two passages alone, then that would be the end of the story.
And this is a worrying trend that happens in our Christian culture. Too often, we resort to the simple, “Well, the Bible clearly says this, therefore it must be this.” And when people do that, they will often bring out one or two verses – taken completely out of context – in order to prove their point. This practice is called proof texting, and it is an issue because it leads to a superficial reading of scripture, without taking into account the context of the passage, the intended audience, the true meaning of the passage, and often leads to exclusionary behaviour which is quite at odds with the wider themes that is found throughout scripture.
God challenges us to take a wider view
God instead challenges us to move away from proof texting, and to take a wider view of scripture. If we were to do this, we would see many other passages that include a eunuch.
For example, just prior to the passage that the Eunuch asks Philip about, Isaiah says:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;
and do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the LORD:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off.
God includes the Eunuch in his household, and gives them an everlasting reward.
Similarly, the inclusion of this Eunuch in this story in Acts shows us that God is moving towards a community that includes all people. Tradition has it that it is this Eunuch – the one that should have been rejected by the Jewish community – is the one who brought the message of Christ to Ethiopia, and founded the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the oldest faith communities in the world that is still around today.
By looking through the lens of love, we will change the lives of others
So how do we foster that wider view of scripture? Well, one way is to try not to get into the bad habit of proof texting to prove your point. The other is to establish a framework that allows you to look at issues that come up. For me, that’s the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, which asks us to interpret everything through the four lenses of Tradition – what the Church has traditionally taught; Reason – what outside sources say that help us understand our faith; Experience – what our own experiences teach us about our faith; and the most important of all, Scripture. Wesley would take these four lenses and use them to defend the doctrines he was teaching. Scripture is held as the most important of all, and so I like to argue that each of these four lenses must be interpreted through the lens of Scripture.
For me, that is through what Jesus teaches, in the two great commandments. Love God, and Love others as you love yourself. Jesus says that all the law and the prophets hang on these two pegs – if something in scripture doesn’t allow you to love God or love others, then you need to look deeper at scripture.
Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this two-fold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.
And this is backed up by the first letter of John. In Chapter 4, we read,
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
This is a brilliant passage by the writer of this letter. It tells us so much about how we are to live in community. We must love – because love is from God. No one has seen God, but if we show love to others, then God – who is love – lives in us, and his love is perfected in us, and therefore others will see God in us.
I love the meaning behind verse 8. It says “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Now that could be read as exclusionary, but because love is a doing word, once that person is introduced to love, then God then lives in that person and is seen through the loving actions of that person.
Later in the passage, after reaffirming that we are all God’s children and loved by God and able to live in love, we are warned. The writer says “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” We must be careful that when we are sharing God’s love, we don’t fall into using fear. We mustn’t say things like, “I’m saying this in love: You’re going to hell.” We mustn’t say things like “God welcomes all people… except you”.
This is the commandment we have from God: “Those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters also.” We must show love to all people, no matter who they are, and let them know that they are welcome and loved in the body of Christ.
Go and live in love
Last week, Liesl preached from a passage in 1 Corinthians, where Paul is teaching the Corinthians about the different parts of the body and the different gifts of the spirit. We don’t all have the same gifts – we don’t all have the gift of teaching, healing, interpreting, etc. But Paul continues his argument into the next chapter where he explains that the more excellent way is the gift of Love – and this is a gift that we can all have. It is the gift that never ends, because of all of the gifts, the greatest is love.
So Go and live out your life in a life of love. Show love to all people. Show God to all people through your love. Because it is through this love that others will be introduced to God. And may our church be a place of welcoming love that is shown to all who come through the door.