2018-05-15 / Columns

It is a beautiful day!

By Pastor Kent Terchunian

Our God is a god of abundance! The bulbs are proclaiming their freedom, the buds are green on the lilac bushes promising future beauty, and the willow trees are proclaiming that Spring is here. The wild turkeys are feasting on sunflower seeds at Wilson Hollow, the deer have discovered and are devouring the new tender shoots of grass, the eagles have assumed their perches and their ‘claim’ to all they survey. Creation’s bounty is giving new birth in the pastures.

We are overwhelmed with abundance. Most of us are stymied just thinking about the chores ahead and how we might get a handle on them.

As I re-imagine the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, I wonder if the apostles, fresh from Christ’s empowerment of their ministry, felt overwhelmed by the task before them. What were the expectations of these passionate apostles? Did they expect new converts would be reflections of themselves (pious Jews)?

How might we perceive this encounter today? The Ethiopian was a foreigner who looked different and practiced cultural traditions that were abhorrent to Philip. Yet the Angel of the Lord and the Spirit speak to Philip (8:26, 29) telling him first to Go and take the road down from Jerusalem to Gaza and then Go join himself to the Ethiopian’s chariot. In Acts (12:7, 8) the Angel of the Lord Releases people from bondage. The Angel of the Lord and the Spirit facilitate the divine-human encounter that results in releasing the Ethiopian from bondage to the ‘literal’ text enabling him to see beyond the text to the risen Jesus.

The story of the Ethiopian is a conversion narrative that emphasizes the spiritual change within a person. Initially the Ethiopian’s ethnicity is highlighted; he is described first as an Ethiopian and secondarily as a eunuch. His status as a black Ethiopian expands this concept of “different”. In the second half of the story (verses 34, 36- 39) the physical condition of the Ethiopian as a eunuch is highlighted. Eunuchs were excluded from participation in Temple rituals and from full admittance, as proselytes, into Israel’s community. As a eunuch he is ritually or religiously far off.

The story informs us that the Ethiopian was able to ascertain the literal meaning of the scriptures. Yet, he refused to allow his abilities to blind him to his limitations of understanding. These passages in Acts challenge us to practice a faith that continually seeks understanding rather than an “understanding that is seeking faithful followers.” For God is the ultimate object of our faith; and, God remains inscrutable less God become made in our image. The humility by which the lamb endured his death is embodied in the Ethiopian. The Ethiopian demonstrated humility in relation to Philip and the scriptures. Despite his social status, he invited Philip to join him and sought enlightenment.

According to scripture, Philip and the eunuch enter and emerge from the waters of baptism together. Why did the Ethiopian so readily accept Philip’s interpretation? Perhaps, even though the text does not say so, the Spirit spoke to the Ethiopian too. How might we envision what God accomplished in the encounter, which is never exactly the same as the story told? God, like human life, is living and multi-dimensional. One can read scripture without being able to experience or see in the text what God did in Jesus. The Ethiopian realizes that scripture must be interpreted or translated. Interpretation is seeking to understand what the words signify or point to beyond the symbols on the page.

The Spirit, a constant presence, snatched up Philip who landed in Caesarea. This is God’s Spirit doing as it pleases and not boxed in by human expectations and limitations. We rediscover a pattern in Acts of how, or when, God’s unbridled Spirit anoints people. Just because we construct a theology that boxes God’s Spirit, does not mean that God IS in the box.

So what are our expectations of what an acceptable Christian might look like? Are we willing to listen to the Angel of the Lord and the Spirit facilitate the divine-human encounters that result in releasing “an Ethiopian” from bondage to the literal text, enabling him to see beyond the text to the risen Jesus? Who does that Ethiopian represent? How will we respond? Will we go where the Spirit sends us; will we ascend the chariot of the unknown in response to the whisper of the Angel of the Lord? Has our theology sought to box God’s Spirit?

Are we focused on discerning God’s vision for His Church?

Rev. Kent Terchunian is the lead pastor for the Western Catskills Parish, serving Colchester Community United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church of Walton; cell: 631-258- 3490.

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