Let me start with an introduction, because if you’re reading this, you’re probably expecting Pete. My name is Sam Altis. About two months ago, my wife, Kaylan, and I loaded up all of our belongings and moved from Indianapolis to Napa, where she’s finishing her doctorate in clinical psychology by working at Napa State Hospital. While in Indy, I co-pastored a quirky, eclectic church called Trinity. Crosswalk quickly resonated with us in a lot of ways, so it didn’t take long for us to land here.
It also didn’t take long for Pete to hand over the mic on a Sunday morning, which, you should know, is a rare quality in a pastor. When asked what he wanted me to talk about, he wrote me a blank check, “Talk about whatever you want.” Normally that kind of freedom would lead me to pick something that might ruffle a few feathers. From what I can tell though, Pete has done everything he can to ruffle your feathers, and you’re unruffle-able. That’s also far too rare. Way to go.
So instead, let’s talk about something we presumably all have in common: church. First, you should know that I never liked church growing up. So much so that I developed a Sunday ritual to avoid it. Here’s how it went. My dad was always the one to take my brother and me to church. My dad also loved to sleep in. So, each Sunday, I’d do everything in my power to make sure he slept as long as possible, in hopes that we’d be so late, we’d just skip church. Most of the time that consisted of lying motionless in bed, trying to remain absolutely silent so my dad wouldn’t wake up. If that failed, I’d go into stall mode: the 30 minute shower, the lost shoe, or, if times were really desperate, the feigned stomach ache.
It’s not that the people at church were awful. They were actually really nice. It was more about how church made me feel. Normally, I left feeling crappier than when I came in. Hearing about how sinful you are for an hour will do that. I also never felt like I could be myself. If I wanted to talk about music or movies, it seemed like I had to talk about Third Day and Kirk Cameron movies. No offense to either of them. They just weren’t my thing. At the heart of it, church felt too small. Too narrow. Like it wasn’t actually leading me to a God worth believing in.
Fortunately, my church experience has been redeemed. It has a lot to do with a story that I want to tell you about. It’s a weird story, but a powerful one. It’s found in Acts 8, right as the church was beginning. It goes like this.
Some sort of heavenly being told Philip, a church leader, to go out into the desert. When he got there, he found an Ethiopian eunuch riding in a chariot, reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip ran up to him, asked him about the text, which led to a much longer conversation about Jesus. After awhile, they came across some water. The Ethiopian looked at Philip and asked, “What can keep me from being baptized?” Next thing you know, Philip is in the water, dunking this guy. As soon as he’s baptized the Ethiopian, Philip is zapped away, Star Trek style, to another location. Story over.
Weird, huh? And what does this have to do with church? Once we unpack it, quite a lot actually. When we see the story from the perspective of the two characters, we see the values church is meant to embody. Let’s start with the Ethiopian.
Safety and Inclusion.
The Ethiopian eunuch is a complex character. We aren’t told his name, but we can know a lot about him just by a few details. First, he was probably pretty rich and powerful. The text says he was in charge of the treasury for the queen of Ethiopia. That probably paid well and came along with some status. The fact the he was riding in a chariot and reading a scroll give away his wealth too. That would’ve been the equivalent of a Rolex and Bentley.
At the same time, he was almost certainly a social outcast. In the ancient Roman world, society was divided by gender, and your gender gave you certain roles. They might not have been fair, but it provided a clear system. If, however, you didn’t fit neatly into one gender category, you were seen as less than human. That’s how eunuch’s were seen. Not female. Not male. Something gross. In many ways, they were the ancient equivalent to transgender individuals, and they suffered many of the same stigmas. Their families abandoned them. “Decent” people wouldn’t talk to them. They often lived isolated, lonely lives.
Religiously, Jewish and Christian communities didn’t have a place for them. At that point, the church was abiding by pretty strict Old Testament standards for inclusion. You had to be circumcised, follow the law, obey ritual cleanliness rules. Unfortunately for eunuchs, Deuteronomy 23:1 made it pretty clear that they could never meet those standards: “No man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off can belong to the Lord’s assembly.” (You never had to memorize that verse in Sunday school, did you?)The Ethiopian was unclean. Forever.
He wasn’t allowed in Roman communities. Jewish and Christian communities had no place for him. So, when he asks Philip, “What can prevent me from being baptized?” that question is dripping with context. Baptism is a means of inclusion. It says you’re a part of a spiritual family. And up until now, the eunuch was prevented from inclusion by every other family.
In response to the question, Philip gives my favorite answer in all of scripture. Silence. He says nothing, because nothing can prevent this man from being welcomed into the church. He just gets down, dunks him, and is zapped away. The whole story is about radical, unheard of inclusion.
Side note: the church eventually became so uncomfortable with Philip’s silence that it added in another verse a couple hundred years later. You might see it in some translations, but it’s not in the oldest copies of the story. It didn’t take us long to be uncomfortable with God’s radical inclusion.
Inclusion and safety are meant to be at the heart of what it means to be the church. Any genuine encounter with God should lead us to greater openness to others, not a more closed off community. This is hard, even unnatural for us. Psychologically, there’s a phenomenon called splitting. It’s when we divide the world into good and bad, and put something or someone entirely into one category because it’s easier for us to deal with. It allows us to exclude and dehumanize. Churches have been doing this well for years, yet when we do, it shows that we’ve not truly connected with the divine. If we had, we would see the divine image in each of those around us and open ourselves to them.
Movement and Progress.
There’s another perspective from which to look at this story: the church’s. Like I said above, at this point, the church had no formal means of including the Ethiopian because he didn’t meet Old Testament purity standards. The text says he just came from Jerusalem to worship. What it doesn’t say, but any Jewish reader would have known, is that he was almost certainly turned away when he tried to go in the temple. Since he was unclean, he was unfit for the presence of God. But our story shows us something different. It shows us that the church had actually missed God. God was out in the desert, welcoming the Ethiopian into the family.
Fast forward seven chapters to Acts 15. Church leaders hold a council and make the revolutionary decision that inclusion in the church shouldn’t be based on Old Testament cleanliness rules. The revolution was late though. God had already done that in our story, the church just missed it. They were late to the party. God was moving, and the church was trailing behind. This is what it means to be the church: to try to keep up with the movement of God around us.
This movement is a theme in Luke and Acts. Luke and Acts were meant to be read together, so they contain similar themes. About halfway through Luke, Jesus is said to “set his eyes on Jerusalem.” For the rest of Luke’s gospel, Jesus gets, to put it honestly, kind of mean. It’s like he’s hyper-focused on getting to Jerusalem, and the closer he gets, the more intense things get.
Jerusalem is where everyone thought God dwelled. Specifically, they thought God dwelled in the temple. More specifically, they thought God dwelled in the inner most room of the temple: the holy of holies. So Jesus is laser focused on getting to where everyone thinks God dwells. But when he gets to Jerusalem, he’s crucified, seemingly ending his journey. Something strange happens at the time of his death. The curtain that separated the holy of holies rips. I was always taught that meant we can now, through Jesus, come into God’s presence. But if you look at the narrative of Luke and Acts, it’s actually the reverse of that. Jesus unleashes God’s presence into the world, and everything is turned upside down.
As Acts unfolds, you can literally track the movement of God’s presence geographically. As it moves, more and more people are welcomed into God’s family, like our friend the Ethiopian eunuch, even if the church isn’t ready for them. All of a sudden, the church’s job isn’t to monitor who has access to God. It’s to try to keep up with the movement of God.
That movement didn’t stop two thousand years ago. We’re still struggling to keep up. It’s easy for us to settle into an understanding of church that says we need to get back. Back to the early church. Back to the way we used to be. Back to the fundamentals. But while we’re looking back, God is moving forward, constantly surprising us.
This doesn’t mean we ignore the past. On the contrary, we have to know where we’ve come from to know where we’re going. Looking back allows us to see more clearly the way forward. But forward is always our primary posture, because it’s where God is moving.
What is God moving towards? Scripture talks about is in a lot of different ways. Reconciliation. Shalom. Love. Life. Healing. They’re all the different aspects of the same reality: wholeness. A way of living where everything and everyone belongs. And for some strange reason, God invites us into that journey, to help bring about that wholeness.
That, I believe, is the primary purpose of church. To keep up with God on the journey toward wholeness. It’s not a simple or painless journey. It requires creativity, risk, and love. It’s by no means the easiest way of being a church, but I’ll tell you this, it’s more than enough to get me out of bed on a Sunday morning.