Rev. Dr. Troy K. Hauser Brydon
October 8, 2023
Acts 8:26-40; Galatians 3:26-29
We humans like to have our teams, don’t we? We like identifying with something — a university, a country, a ball club — and then all of those universities, countries, and teams that are not the one we like become, on some level, the enemy, the outsider, the less than. Now, in some ways, we’ve taken this very human impulse to divide ourselves into teams and moved it into expressions that are usually less violent than warring against the clan next door. It’s mostly for fun, right?
We joke that we live in a house divided. My allegiance as a fan is to the University of Michigan — Go Blue! — but my car has a Michigan State magnet on the back because my daughter and my tuition dollars all go to East Lansing — Go Green! Go White! Generally the Spartans and Wolverines get that this is all in good fun, but sometimes the rivalry turns violent, as though someone looked under the hood to see what is really going on with why we play competitive sports. We want to win, and we want them to lose. It’s just a more civilized way to deal with “the enemy” than raiding their cities or telling nasty stories about them.
The baseball postseason is underway, and my beloved Yankees stunk it up this year, so there are no playoffs for us. (Notice I said “us,” as though my following the team makes one ounce of a difference in their playoff fate.) But I used to live that way, particularly when the Boston Red Sox finally got good. I remember hanging on every pitch and even losing sleep over the games. Silly, I know, but I desperately wanted my guys to win and their guys to lose. So, I’m grateful the Yankees are out. It eliminates the temptation to be angry about sports, as ridiculous as that sounds.
Throughout history the message of the world has been, “My group is better than your group, so don’t mess with us!” Think about it, the modern Olympics transfers that impulse into athletic achievement. I suspect that you’re like me — I can’t help but pull for the Americans in the Olympics. I feel that national pride when our medal count is higher than others or when our 4×100 freestyle relay finishes with gold. But, why do I pull for my team rather than for overall excellence? What does it really matter if we lose a basketball game to Greece?
Our world is divided into us and them. We draw borders to declare this is the U.S. and that is Mexico. We have district boundaries that declare you’re a Spring Lake Laker, you’re a Grand Haven Buccaneer, you’re a Fruitport Trojan, and you’re a Mona Shores Sailor. It’s the way we’ve organized our world, and we all live with the consequences of that, some positive, some negative.
Into this deeply divided world, the church arrived 2000 years ago with an agenda that threatened all of those divisions. The world Jesus came into had so many divisions. There were Jews and Gentiles (that is, anyone not Jewish). There were Roman citizens and those who could not be citizens. Male and female. Rich and poor. Adult and child. But on the Day of Pentecost, God moved to change all of that. Right there in Jerusalem the divisions broke down. The Spirit moved Jews and Gentiles to hear the gospel. People couldn’t understand the language used by their neighbor, so God’s Spirit made it so all could understand each other. Religion that was once defined by a homeland radiated outwards to the ends of the earth. The good news is for all.
As the movement of the Holy Spirit led, so the people of God learned — in fits and starts — to leave their old divisions behind. God loves the world, which is why God sent the Son, not to condemn the world, but so that the world would be saved through him. In Christ, the dividing walls of hostility that separated neighbor from neighbor were torn down.
Today we’re continuing in our “God is…I am” series. Here’s our focus today: God is the Lord of all the nations, so I am designed to love all God’s children. It’s timely to have this theme because we have the privilege of hosting Bob and Kristi Rice, our Presbyterian Mission Co-workers who serve in South Sudan. We’ll hear from them a little later this morning, and I want to thank Bob for sharing his insights with me on this passage. Those helped shape this sermon.
I want to start with this idea that the missionary nature of the church stems from our belief both that God does send the church to all that world but also that God sends us to partner with what God is already doing all over the globe. God’s love for us in no more and no less than God’s love for the people in Rwanda, Bhutan, or Estonia. God is Lord of all the nations, and we are designed to love all God’s children.
We see this in one of the earliest post-Pentecost stories, which we read from Acts 8. It’s the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. You’ve heard the story read, so I won’t rehash its details, but there are things we need to know about the ways God is breaking down boundaries left and right in this situation. First, let’s note a few things about this man. He appears to have a deep desire to understand God. Even though he’s from Africa, he has traveled to Jerusalem. He’s not Jewish, so he would have been limited in his access to the Temple. Also, his service in the court of the Candace (not her name, but a title) rendered him a eunuch — a common practice for those serving in royal courts then — and this physical difference would have pushed him further from the Temple. He is a powerful man, but his status isn’t enough. He’s also a seeker..
The Lord sends Philip to this wilderness road for this encounter. It is clear from the few instances we know of Philip in Acts that he is faithful, but there’s nothing powerful about him. He just steps into a strange situation trusting God to use him. And God does. The man asks Philip about a passage from Isaiah, and Philip is able to explain it to him because of his encounter with Jesus. The man asks for baptism, initiation into the family of God.
In this encounter all of those walls came down. The eunuch’s access to God had been limited, but now he was welcomed. His understanding wasn’t complete, but now he knew. Philip, who was not powerful, could share life with someone who was, and they were now brothers. The dividing wall of hostility had fallen down.
The Bible doesn’t directly talk about the aftermath of this encounter, but I do think it’s important for us to appreciate that Africans have had a profound impact upon the church. We never hear from this African again, but here’s what we know. First, he was not from present-day Ethiopia. The term “Ethiopian” referred to anyone with dark complexion living beyond Egypt. He was from the kingdom of Meroe, which is in present-day Sudan. That kingdom became the Christian kingdom of Nubia for around 1000 years, beginning in the mid-fourth century. This area would become the heart of Christianity in Africa. Was this due to the Ethiopian eunuch? We don’t know, but we do know that Christianity spread well into Africa very early on.
I suspect we fail to appreciate the impact that Africans have had on Christianity from its earliest days. Simon of Cyrene carried Jesus’ cross. Cyrene is in northern Africa in modern-day Libya. Apollos was an early evangelist like Paul. Apollos was from Alexandria in Egypt. The church in Antioch, which was in Syria, had leaders from northern Africa. Some of the earliest and most influential theologians were from Africa — Clement and Origen of Alexandria, Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage, and Augustine of Hippo. From the beginning, people from the African continent were central to Christianity.
Getting back to our text, baptism becomes the marker that everything has changed. This man has a new identity. It’s more than Ethiopian. It’s more than eunuch or the queen’s treasurer. Those are still true about him but his identity as a baptized child of God has now become primary.
That’s what Paul’s powerful words in Galatians 3 are all about. “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” he writes. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Into our world filled with divisions, we have a status that overwhelms those. We are Jesus’ family. That doesn’t mean all of our identities disappear. Paul still writes about being Jewish. He’s aware of gender. “But the point is that all these [identities] are irrelevant for your status in Christ. The ground is even…at the foot of the cross.”
God is the Lord of all the nations, so we are designed to love all God’s children. This doesn’t emerge as something we should do simply because we’re nice people. It comes from a deeper rooting in understanding that God created and loves all people, that God offers salvation through Jesus to the whole world, and that, therefore, we are to treat others the way we know God cares for them. This is evident in our baptismal identity — that we are now clothed with Christ.
Still, the issue is that we keep finding new ways to build these divisions back up. We constantly are finding new teams to join. And, sadly, most churches today do not come close to reflecting the boundary-breaking love of God for all. We find comfort in our teams and in being with people already like us.
Friends, in baptism, we have been clothed by Christ. He is our Lord. He provides our common and primary identity. Everything else is important but is ruled by our identity in Christ. Which means we need to be known for how we learn to love all people in the manner of Christ.
Followers of Jesus should love all people because God is Lord of all the nations. That’s who we are because that’s who God is.
 Wright, N. T., Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians, 42.