The Ethiopian Eunuch and Black Liberation Theology

Transcribed from the sermon preached May 3, 2015

The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor

 Scripture Readings: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21

 

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

This is one of my favorite lines in scripture. I love the “let’s do this” attitude. Then Philip is like, “Well, now that you mention it, no, let’s do this.”

This is one of the reasons I don’t push a long and difficult process for baptism and joining the Church. Faith and understanding are a process. Now we can make a decision on the spot to receive God’s grace and commit our lives to living in gratitude. We can receive the Holy Spirit and be transformed right now, stop sinning and be born again. But a full understanding of the faith comes over time of both study and living together in community. When you join a church you don’t simply want to know what the church “believes” you want to learn and experience how it lives. And that will take some time.

 

On the other hand, if we hear the Gospel, about how amazing a person Jesus was, about the integrity of love that leads to the cross, and how that cross shows that grace and love are stronger than our sin and death, then by all means, let us be baptized.

Now with the current state of affairs in our own nation we might be a bit surprised with the quick unity, solidarity and commitment of the African and Philip. We could imagine a few things that might prevent this black man from being baptized. “Well, yes, there may be a few things that would prevent me from baptizing you.” Heck, a white American Christian may not have even gotten in the chariot with the Ethiopian. Philip the American might say, “He looks scary; I would rather walk.” Now the Ethiopian was likely a fairly high-ranking emissary to have a driver and a chariot. But that wouldn’t necessarily prevent him from being profiled and pulled over…I mean, what is this black man driving this nice chariot for anyway? Where did he get it? How did he get it? Why is he in this neighborhood? What if he had gotten into some trouble before he got this job? Christianity supposedly offers forgiveness for sins, but is that realistic in this real world? If he checked the box he wouldn’t have gotten the job and been in the chariot to pick up Philip. And then Philip may have wanted to keep Christianity pure, without the riff raff of other races. Sometimes I am afraid when people say America is a Christian nation what they really mean is that America should be a white Christian nation. Or that everyone should be Christian, so they think like us, but they should still stay in their own neighborhood and country.

I know it seems self evident to us here at St. John’s that from its very beginning, Jesus and the Church expanded who was or could be a part of God’s family. We are all here by the grace of God, grateful and honored: I too get to be together with you, no matter who you are or what you look like or where you come from. We are so grateful that Philip says to the Ethiopian, stop the chariot. “Let’s do this”, because that is us; he is us. We get to be baptized. Our lives matter to Jesus.

Despite how self-evident the beauty of diversity and equality is for us, it doesn’t appear that way in our society today. It is not self evident that Black lives matter. So I am going to share with you excerpts from James Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree.” Cone is a professor at our Union Seminary in New York, and other books like A Black Theology of Liberation, God of the Oppressed, and The Spirituals and the Blues. These excerpts are taken from an article by another Presbyterian minister, journalist Chris Hedges of truthdig.com http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/god_of_the_oppressed_

 

“I started reading about lynching,” says Cone, “and reading about the historical situation of the crosses in Rome in the time of Jesus, and then my question was how did African-Americans survive and resist the lynching terror. How did they do it? [Nearly 5,000 African-American men, women and children were lynched in the United States between 1880 and 1940.] – To live every day under the terror of death. I grew up in Arkansas. I know something about that. I watched my mother and father deal with that. But the moment I read about it, historically, I had to ask, how did they survive, how did they keep their sanity in the midst of that terror? And I discovered it was the cross. It was their faith in that cross, that if God was with Jesus, God must be with us, because we’re up on the cross too. And then the other question was, how could white Christians, who say they believe that Jesus died on the cross to save them, how could they then turn around and put blacks on crosses and crucify them just like the Romans crucified Jesus? That was an amazing paradox to me. Here African-Americans used faith to survive and resist, and fight, while whites used faith in order to terrorize black people. Two communities. Both Christian. Living in the same faith. Whites did lynching on church grounds. How could they do it? That’s where [my] passion came from.

 

“Many Christians embrace the conviction that Jesus died on the cross to redeem humankind from sin,” he said. “Taking our place, they say, Jesus suffered on the cross and gave his life as a ransom for many. The cross is the great symbol of the Christian narrative of salvation. Unfortunately, during the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, the symbol of salvation has been detached from the ongoing suffering and oppression of human beings, the crucified people of history. The cross has been transformed into a harmless, non-offensive ornament that Christians wear around their necks. Rather than reminding us of the cost of discipleship, it has become a form of cheap grace, an easy way to salvation that doesn’t force us to confront the power of Christ’s message and mission.”

 

“I look around and see the same thing happening today in the prison industrial complex. You can lynch people by more than just hanging them on the tree. You can incarcerate them. How long will this terror last? I’m Christian. Suffering gives rise to faith. It helps you deal with it. But at the same time, suffering contradicts the faith that it gave rise to. It is like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I can’t give up with the wrestling.”

 

Cone sees the cross as “a paradoxical religious symbol because it inverts the world’s value system with the news that hope comes by way of defeat, that suffering and death do not have the last word, that the last shall be first and the first last.”

“It’s like love,” he said. “It’s something you cannot articulate. It’s self-evident in its own living. And I’ve seen it among many black Christians who struggle, particularly in the civil rights movement. They know they’re going to die. They know they’re not going to win in the obvious way of winning. But they have to do what they gonna do because the reality that they encounter in that spiritual moment, that reality is more powerful than the opposition, than that which contradicts it. People respond to what empowers them inside. It makes them know they are somebody when the world treats them as nobody. When you can do that, when you can act out of that spirit, then you know there is a reality that is much bigger than you.

Now if you are silent, you are guilty. If you are gonna worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy. It will make you end up on that tree. And so in this sense, I just want to say that we have to take seriously the faith or else we will be the opposite of what it means.

Someone probably could have come up with reasons why the Ethiopian couldn’t be baptized, but not him and not Philip. Look, there is water. Is there any reason why I should not be baptized? Nope, stop the chariot. Let’s do this.