People find church in a lot of different ways. Some people are walking down the street, hear music drifting through the open doors, and go inside. Some are invited by friends are family. You can actually find churches on Yelp now, complete with star ratings and reviews of bathroom cleanliness and the worship band. In the days before the internet, Pastor Brian Jones occasionally got calls from people he had never met before asking him to do their weddings. They had found him in the phone book.
He normally turned down these requests, not feeling comfortable performing marriages for people he didn’t have any relationship with. When a six foot tall woman with spiky hair, tattoos, and biceps bigger than his walked into his office, however, he was too intimidated to say no. The morning of the wedding dawned, and he showed up at the house feeling very out of place. The front lawn was covered with shiny, hulking motorcycles, and tough, tattooed people with beards, helmets, piercings, and all-leather outfits were milling around drinking beer, smoking, and laughing loudly. When it came time for the actual wedding ceremony, he kept things short: the best man was so wasted he could barely stand, and the assembled guests seemed more interested in breaking out the vodka than listening to Bible verses. As soon as the ceremony was done and he gave the couple his best wishes, he tried to slip out, but they insisted he stay for the party – and once again he was too intimidated to say no.
He was sitting awkwardly in the living room when the bride stood up, a glass of wine gripped between her tattooed fingers. “I want to toast you guy,” she said. “You are just like family to me.” She turned to her maid of honor and said, “You are just like a family to me.” Immediately her maid of honor, Jackie, stopped her. “You’ve always been like a sister to me,” she sobbed. “Do you remember when I lost my baby three years ago ago? I wouldn’t have made it without you.” She turned towards the group. “Or without all of you. I wanted to die. You gave me a reason to live.” For more than ten minutes, the bride, groom, and guests cried and thanked each others – for bringing groceries and school clothes over when they lost jobs, for supporting them through the deaths of family members, for bailing them out of jail and watching their kids. As Brian listened, he couldn’t get over the selfless love these people he had so quickly judged had for each other. “Church,” he thought, “should be like this.”
In Acts 8:26-39 we find the story of an unexpected encounter between two very different people. An angel tells the apostle Philip to “Go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza,” without any further instructions or explanation of what he’s supposed to do when he gets there (8:26 NIV). On the road Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot who is reading the book of Isaiah and has questions about the Messiah it describes in chapter 53. Philip gladly answers his questions and tells him about Jesus, the man asks to be baptized in some water on the roadside, and Philip welcomes him to the church, then mysteriously disappears, transported away by the Holy Spirit.
This story is usually referred to as “The Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch,” a cut-and-dried example of witnessing by an apostle. Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, however, suggests that the Ethiopian isn’t the only person experiencing a change of heart and perspective in this passage. If the eunuch was familiar with the book of Isaiah, she argues, he was likely also familiar with Deuteronomy 23:1, which orders that “no one whose testicles are cut off or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (NLT). Despite the Scriptures expressly forbidding him from the assembly of the Lord, he sought God anyway. “When the Spirit guided Philip to that road in the desert,” Bolz-Weber writes, “I wonder if she guided him to his own conversion. When Philip joined this person who sought to worship God despite his exclusion from the tent, maybe it was Philip himself who was converted to the faith. It was perhaps even a mutual conversion.” In the early church we see example after example of the apostles squabbling over who got to be part of the kingdom, including under the “tent” of God’s church – women? Slaves? The uncircumcised?
The book of Acts goes on to describe the experience of the other disciples as well. Peter and Paul are both directly confronted with the challenge of taking the message of Jesus to people outside the tribes of Israel. In this story, we witness an expansion of the Kingdom of God, reaching out intro broader circles, encompassing more people, and extending the reach of God's family on earth.
“The truth,” concludes Bolz-Weber, “is that I need the equivalent of my Ethiopian Eunuch to show me the faith. We continually need the stranger, the foreigner, the ‘other’ to show us water in the desert. We need to hear here is water in the desert, so what is to keep me the eunuch from being baptized?...Until we face the difficulty of that question and come up as Philip did with with no answer…we just look at the seemingly limited space under the tent and either think it’s our until job to change people so they fit or it’s our job to extend the roof so they fit. Either way it’s misguided because it’s not our tent. It’s God’s tent.”
Who are you excluding from God’s tent? Is God calling you to go into the wilderness and learn from someone you would never have expected to learn from?
Read Acts 2:5-13. How many different places in the world had Jewish people living there and speaking their languages? Do you think this helped to expand their idea of who would be included among God's people? Why or why not?
Acts 8:27 tells us that the Ethiopian Eunuch had travelled to Jerusalem to worship. Do you think he considered himself a Jewish person in a religious sense? Do you think that Jewish people would have considered him one of them?
In Acts 8:34-36, we see that Philip is willing to baptize this man after a conversation during a single chariot ride. How much time is enough time to prepare before you are ready for baptism? Can you think of some things about the Ethiopian Eunuch that might have made him more ready to be baptized right away?
One of the most important characters in Acts who works towards inclusion of other people besides Israelites is the Holy Spirit. He consistently moving the disciples of Jesus to accept new people. Read and compare Acts 8:26-29 with Acts 9:10-18 and Acts 10. Do you notice similarities in how the Holy Spirit leads people to reach out to others?
How can explaining our faith to questioning people from outside our religion force us to confront our own beliefs? Can questions from those not versed in our faith lead us to detect inconsistences or inaccuracies in our beliefs?
How can we meet people where they are? Does this mean that we need to compromise some of our beliefs or standards? Why or why not? See our video on Paul in Athens for more context: