Readings: Acts 8: 26-40 and John 15:1-8
I was never good at Maths! But I have come to understand the ideas of Paul Hiebert about sets – in relation to people and organisations! There are two kinds of sets – he suggests. Bounded sets – and centred sets. He wrote about this about 30 years ago! A bounded set is a group – an organisation that we belong to – because we’ve recognised that you have to cross some kind of line to get there. For example – if you join a club, you agree up front on the rules and expectations, including dress code and fees. Churches have traditionally been like this – you had to apply to be a member and read the expectations first (helpful) and then agree to abide by them.
I recently encountered a local church that has as a requirement of membership that you attend church twice on Sundays. By joining you agreed to that. No exceptions. And in the organisation all pastors have to offer two services every week. All churches have minimum expectations for members like this – and the basic one is Baptism which should come with a public profession of faith. And with this comes certain responsibilities and privileges.
A great example in Bible history of a bounded set is found in the reading from Acts today. The travelling treasurer – a eunuch from Ethiopia who went to Jerusalem – encounters Philip the evangelist on the road. This man had come to worship! (v27). It is not surprizing that an Ethiopian should do that. There had been Jews in Ethiopia since the time of King Solomon. (Isaiah 11:11 and 56:4-5 refer to Ethiopia and to eunuchs by the way).
The Jewish organisation of the day was a bounded set – as was seen in the structure of the temple – which had a series of areas that people were not allowed into. This temple had been developed by Herod the Great over 40 years – and was like a wonder of the ancient world! People travelled from all over the Mediterranean region and Asia to see it. It was like the Taj Mahal today – or Christchurch’s cathedral when it was standing. People marvelled at it.
But only Jews really belonged and had access. And the requirement for being a Jew (circumcision) was a serious business – plus adherence to many laws!
If you were a traveller and not Jewish you could get into the outer court (of the Gentiles). But no further. Odd really because when you read the Old Testament it was clear that what they had was to be for all the nations! The God they worshiped was the God of all the earth. Listen to Psalm 22 which is one of the readings for today: 27 All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, 28 for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations.
So when this Eunuch comes in Acts 8 – all the way from African Ethiopia – a long way in his chariot – he would have had limited access. In fact Deuteronomy 23:1 specifically excluded men like him: No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the LORD.
Others also had restrictions – look for example at the court of the women. Ritually pure Jewish women of course were allowed. There were specific exclusions for those who had menstruated or had had sexual intercourse and so forth.
Then there was the Court of Israel. The men only – and again ritually pure men! There are similar things that would have excluded men.
The real temple area – the Sanctuary – was for ritually pure priests and Levites. Nice music, prayer and sweet smelling incense for them only.
And then there was this enormous curtain at the rear of the Sanctuary where you found the Holy of Holies! The high priest went in there once a year on Yom Kippur – and sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat in the pre-Babylonian exile days. After the destruction of the first temple that space was empty.
Now do you remember what Jesus did – we looked at this before Easter? He went in there and messed up their tables in the courts of the temple. He would have been zealous for the temple because of its intended purpose – as a house of prayer! They had turned it into something else.
Jesus not only cleansed the temple – he broke ALL those rules all the time about sin and ritual purification. He was not keen on their bounded and exclusive set!
He also totally redrew this map of access to God!! He talked to and touched Gentiles – lepers – and bad people. And all kinds of ritually unclean people touched him!
Jesus connected with all kinds of people who were exluded from the temple. – people like the Ethiopian who would have wanted to worship but could not really have full access.
How exciting therefore when Jesus says: “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret!” That’s radical and revolutionary stuff! There are no exclusions here at all. The holy place is redefined!
So back to Acts 8:
And when Philip starts talking to this man on his chariot – a physically deformed eunuch who had travelled SO FAR to just get to the outer court – this encounter is DYNAMIC! The eunuch is reading His Old Testament Bible out loud – which was common in those days (in Greek)– and needs someone to explain the words of Isaiah! Philip asks him a question – and the man invites him into his chariot!
There is something very moving about the conversation – because of the passage itself. There are two possible applications to the eunuch: “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”
This man had been physically cut – castrated. Not by choice. Like a sheep to be slaughtered. And – “in his humiliation he was deprived of justice”. Being a castrated male was an in-between state and not a great position socially. Deprived of justice – I think so. And so the man asks: “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”
In other words –“ could this apply to me?” A conversation follows and a conversion! And he gets baptised! Brilliant! The line that I love is this one: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (NRSV v 37)
I am sure there were lots of things that prevented him from progressing in his Jewish faith. And there would be churches today who would make it difficult for people to get to that point too! But not on this day! And he goes on his way rejoicing – which implies he had a story to tell.
How startling and radical has the Easter story not been? What happens when Jesus dies? That heavy duty curtain shutting us out of their view of the presence of God – that last barrier – is ripped! Yay and Hallelujah!
Here’s a thought. Are we not a bit like this too? We want people who show up to conform at least to our brand of thinking or worship!! Mandatory things from OUR POINT OF VIEW.
The BOUNDED SET is a very exclusive kind of thing.
CONTRAST THAT WITH A CENTRED SET.
A centred set is a bit different. This kind of organisation invites people to journey towards a common goal or set of values. It is not a closed group but more like a loose association of people moving in the same direction.
For Christians – the centre is not a belief or a tradition but a PERSON! The first Christians were called people of THE WAY!
I am beginning to wonder whether we should even use the word Christian at all! Follower of Christ – yes! Disciple of Jesus – yes! Jesus-follower – Oh Yes!
The set of the Christian faith is centred in JESUS.We look to him for life. For forgiveness. For healing and reconciliation (remember last week?). Even the buildings are meant to help people find Jesus! And yes we have a mission statement that says we are to “build loving communities that help people find and follow Jesus”. The focal point is Jesus! The building we meet in here is just a tool!
Go to some churches – and horror of horrors they are like that Jewish Temple! They have altars and altar rails – and while I enjoyed receiving communion at them when I was a temporary Anglican – they are expressions of bounded sets again.
The first Christians BROKE DOWN BARRIERS of all sorts. Listen to Galatians 3:28 – probably one of the most significant verses in the New Testament: Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. One IN CHRIST JESUS!
And so when we come to the GOSPEL reading today – it seems to make more sense! 5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. Remain – abide – live in relationship with, connected to Jesus the vine – the true vine – through whom life pumps into us! Apart from me you can do nothing!
Being connected to Jesus – together – is the only way to do this! And our job is to get people moving in the right direction towards that centre! And it’s not necessarily organised! A vine is not very systematic or tidy. But the branches are plugged into the vine! The branches are centred in Jesus! And outside of that it’s pretty dead!
WHAT EXCITING MISSION OPPORTUNITIES EXIST FOR US TODAY
Like Philip – if you are led by the Holy Spirit – you might bump into someone with whom you can have the conversation that changes lives! Once they are connected – the life flows. It points to a relationship with Jesus as key!
A final comment: An Australian said this (amazing wisdom!) – There are two main methods for keeping cattle on the ranch. One is to build a fence around the perimeter. The other is to dig a well in the centre of the property.
To quote John Ortberg (Is the question for Christians “Out or In?” or “Farther or Closer?”) – If we focus on Jesus as the centre, then the key question becomes whether someone is oriented toward him or away from him. We realize that God is in a much better position than we are to know who’s in and who’s out. We also realize that everyone has something to learn, that everyone has a next step to take, and we don’t have to make ourselves seem more different than we really are. We embrace our common humanity.
We need to get people moving towards Jesus!
Phillip did that with a man from Ethiopia whose name we don’t even know! But the results were first class! A great outcome! A man connected to Jesus! Plugged into the vine!