More travel narratives from our friend and author, Luke. Like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, Luke does like him some stories about road trips. This time we have two men. A deacon of the church chosen to help out with the food ministry. And a foreigner who doesn’t belong with people of faith. A wealthy foreigner who doesn’t belong, as it happens.
How do we know he is wealthy? The reading doesn’t call him wealthy, after all. Here we use our context clues as we read. It’s all wrapped up in v28, “28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.” Seated in his chariot. The average person in those days got around by walking. If you had a certain amount of money you might have a donkey or a cart. If even more money you might drive your own chariot. But to be seated in a chariot meaning that someone else is driving? You’ve got some serious coin for that to be the case.
Not to mention the next part, “he was reading the prophet Isaiah”. That tells us at least two things. 1) the most obvious is that he is able to read. Not a particularly common skillset in that region 2000 years ago. Not only is he able to read but 2) he has a scroll. Now, by way of background, these days we don’t have much of an appreciation for how rare and expensive a scroll would be. For a scroll to exist, someone had to make the parchment or leather to be written on and someone had to do the actual writing. By hand. Letter by letter by letter. Word by word by word. Now? Hello Amazon! A couple of bucks and an instant download later, we have our ‘scroll’ ready to read.
He may be wealthy but he’s still a foreigner. Who no doubt has a name but that hasn’t been shared with us. He is THAT unimportant as the story goes. That’s how foreigners are properly treated. You don’t even get a name. And yet, we can learn a whole bunch from him. We can learn a whole bunch from a rich foreigner that wouldn’t be allowed into church thanks to his physical deformity.
One thing that comes to mind is how he responds to Philip when Philip kind of calls into question his ability to read. As noted last week we don’t usually like calling people out. Certainly not publicly. Philip isn’t exactly calling the Ethiopian man out for anything but he does rather boldly call into question his reading comprehension, asking him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” It makes me think of walking up to a small child who is holding a book upside down while they mimic reading. Now, picture your response to a question like that. Do you get your back up in indignant anger? Or do you acknowledge your inability by replying graciously as the Ethiopian did, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
So now we know a couple of things about the man with no name from Ethiopia. He’s wealthy, he’s educated, he’s a foreigner and he’s gracious. And… he’s not baptized. What do we do now? How do we respond? As people of faith how do we respond to someone who is the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time who is curious about our faith? Do we welcome them into our community of faith? Do we welcome the people who are different than us to join in worship and all the other activities? Do we welcome those who speak differently? Who dress differently? Who worship differently?
That’s the trouble with foreigners. Whether they’re from a different country, a different part of the nation, or from a different faith tradition, they force us to examine our preconceived notions about who is welcome to join us in faith and who is not. There are a whole lot of preconceived notions about who and what people are when we see people as being different than us. In Philip’s world there were a whole bunch of rules about who was welcome and the Ethiopian man didn’t qualify. In our world, how many times has that been true? Someone different comes to us but didn’t qualify?
You just never know who it is you are pushing away because they are different from us and don’t meet our standard of qualification. The person we push away just might be the person who saves our life.
Philip sets the bar for us when he meets the Ethiopian. There is nothing about the Ethiopian man that should allow him to be welcomed. Wrong nationality, wrong language, wrong skin color, and he doesn’t know anything about Jesus and certainly nothing about how church works. No way should he be invited in. And yet Philip takes him down to the river and baptizes him.
This is not a story about people from different countries as foreigners, this is a story about people who seem different than us being welcomed into our midst. It is s story that reminds us to not make everything complicated and to be gracious when dealing with others. Not only gracious, but welcoming.
It’s a story that we know pretty well. And we know how to be welcoming here at Spirit of Hope. We know it’s part of Bringing Christ’s Love to Life but welcoming people who seem different than us is a skill that doesn’t become part of our DNA unless we practice and remind ourselves that our welcome is how people meet Christ when they join in with us. Many of us have likely had the experience of going to a church and basically being ignored. If we’re brutally honest with ourselves we may have been part of the group ignoring the foreigner in our midst. I imagine that most of us fall into the majority group that I’m in. I want people different than me to feel welcomed, I just don’t want to be responsible for doing the welcome stuff. That isn’t my natural inclination. What I have to remind myself is, and what all of us must keep in mind is, the resurrected Christ’s presence is made known to the world through us and how we welcome others.
The trouble with foreigners is that they make us ask ourselves now and in the coming week if we’ve extended a welcome to anyone. Philip is our reminder to do just that. And who knows, maybe the person we welcome will someday want to be baptized. It’s certainly worth a try, don’t you think?