When candidates for the diaconate are in the discernment process they are required to write Ember Day letters (every three months or so) to the bishop telling him what was happening in one’s process. I recall that during the third year of the process while doing my church internship I wrote the bishop that I was preaching once a month. In his reply to the letter he said to be sure that “I was preaching with a deacon’s voice”.
Today’s lesson from Acts involves one of the seven “original deacons” Phillip and his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. We have been reading Luke’s account of Acts during the Easter season and will continue through the Day of Pentecost. Our reading of the book is not chronologically sequenced, for it will be in three weeks that we will read from chapter two when the Holy Spirit enters the lives of the people. The book is about the life of the early church before popes, bishops, cathedrals, stained glass, and even creeds. It is exactly what it proclaims, the acts of the apostles during the very early days after the resurrection of Christ, a time when the early Christians are building a community of folks attempting to discern the spirit of God. That term is used quite liberally in the book. In John’s epistle today we read that the Spirit of God is given to us and abides in us.
If we were to back up two chapters in Acts to the sixth chapter we see the origin of the deacons. The twelve disciples were apparently too busy in prayer and serving the word that the widows were being neglected, therefore the disciples called together the early converts and said choose “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who will “wait on tables.” And so Stephen and Phillip and five others were chosen to “wait on tables” while the
apostles continued in their work of prayer and the scripture says “the word of God continued to spread.”
While this was the primary duty of the seven, the lines of responsibility soon became blurred. Stephen preached in the synagogue of the Freedmen and was brought to trial where he delivered his famous Jewish history lesson in Chapter 7 concluding that the Jewish leaders were forever opposing the Holy Spirit. When he gazed to the heaven and pronounced that Jesus was standing at the right hand of God, he was taken out of the city and killed, stoned to death an event witnessed by Saul of Tarsus, later to become the disciple Paul.
We then come to Philip who is preaching to the Samaritans and is told by an angel of the Lord to get up and go south on a wilderness road, apparently not to wait on tables, for he meets a eunuch from Ethiopia, a God fearer perhaps, maybe a proselyte, who is seated in his chariot studying writings from the prophet Isiah, a scripture foretelling the execution of Jesus. The Spirit tells Philip to join him and he does spending what was probably a good amount of time explaining the scripture and the good news about Jesus.
It is important that this man is Ethiopian both geographically and racially, for this is the first New Testament connection with sub-Saharan Africa. Luke, however, appears to feel it more important to make the distinction of his physical abnormality by identifying him as an Ethiopian eunuch at the beginning of the passage, but then referencing him as the eunuch four times as he tells the story. Eunuchs were not considered whole people, they were crippled to use the old terminology of the day, handicapped or disabled to use that jargon. Even if this man was a converted Jew, a proselyte, he would not have been able to approach the altar at the temple. Under the old way he was not seen as fully human.
Forty-three summers ago as a rising 19 year old junior at The Citadel, I began working at what was then called the South Carolina Crippled Children’s Camp-Camp Burnt Gin, in Sumter County South Carolina.
The camp was poor, even in disrepair those first few years I worked. A slimy, warm alligator infested lake served for boating and swimming. A 6 X 8 foot shed served for arts and crafts. The cabins were dark, dank places tht broiled in the summer heat…..It was the most wonderful place I have ever spent time. The kids, so many of them never having been in school were a varied bunch; many equipped with crutches, wheelchairs or other appliances. Some were deaf or had an extremity amputated. There were youngsters afflicted with muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy, and other anomalies. Those nine summers I worked as a counselor and later program director impacted me more than any time in my life.
The majority of the children were black, most of them lived in poverty (inability to pay for services was a criteria to being eligible for Crippled Children’s services including camp), and many were denied access to public school. It wasn’t until Public Law 94-142 passed in 1975 that schools had to provide services for all children regardless of handicap. Seems amazing now that children were excluded from school due to a handicapping condition. It also seems amazing that the S.C. Crippled Children’s Camps had been two camps, segregated by color from its founding in 1946 until 1966. But times changed, color became less of an issue, our language and approach to children went from crippled to handicapped to those with special needs.
But at Burnt Gin I experienced a truly inclusive community of all God’s children. We as staff did not see the summers as ways to serve others, (although it may have begun that way), but rather the summers became ways to enter into community with others. So many of those kids became staff members during my nine years, until by 1980 at least 25% of the staff were former campers. Two of those campers, now grandparents, came from South Carolina to my ordination two years ago. The famous Billy Jett, the triple amputee whose feat was his ability to swim across the lake, was one of my presenters.
The story of the deacon being sent out to the Ethiopian eunuch is a story of inclusion. The early church, the followers of Jesus were not limited those of the Jewish faith, those of the Mediterranean World, those who had previously been thought of as somehow less than whole. My sisters and brothers, the tent is large and big enough for all kinds of people. The Acts of the Apostles shows how these first generation Christians lived. According to the story today, Philip spent time with this stranger explaining scripture, sharing the good news of incarnate and risen Jesus Christ. The impact was such that the eunuch asked to Philip to baptize him. Phillip went down into the water with the eunuch and baptized him. The sacrament of baptism represents our acknowledgment of God’s spirit which abides in us and we in him. Whereas the Spirit snatched Philip up, the eunuch went on his way rejoicing, the Spirit of the Lord having filled his heart with joy.
It seems to me that continues to be our call to share the Spirit of God that John has written abides in each of us. With this love we can move closer to what our prayer states that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
So to answer Bishop Powell’s request that I preach with a deacons voice, I say is there any other way?