We're All Fruit - Diversity and Fruitful Faith
A sermon on Acts 8:26-40, and John 15:1-8
One of my all-time favorite movies is My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It tells the story of a Greek-American woman (Toula Portokalos) and her love interest (Ian Miller), who is most definitely NOT Greek. This is an issue for Toula’s family, especially her father, Gus.
Gus is obsessively proud of his Greek heritage. He owns a Greek restaurant, decorates his home with Greek statues, columns, and the Greek flag painted on the garage, and he makes a practice of challenging people to: “give me a word, any word, and I will show you how the root of that word is Greek.” Toula finds this highly embarrassing.
The movie chronicles the challenges, missteps, and joy of the couple’s love story, culminating in a wedding that Toula fears may break her father’s heart.
At the reception, Gus makes a speech, in which he pulls out his standard trick of finding the Greek root of any word. Portokalos – his family name means “orange” – as in the fruit, not the color. And, by some ingenious and creative leaps, Gus argues that the last name of Miller comes from the Greek word for “apple.”
In other words, the two families are “apples and oranges.” They are different.
BUT – then Gus says six beautiful words: “In the end, we’re all fruit.”
“We’re all fruit.” A simple phrase that applies not only to the melding of two culturally different families, but also to the nature of the church. Ideally, in the church “we’re all fruit” too! We are all connected to the same vine, and draw our life from that source, but we may also be very different.
Of course, embracing difference has been a challenge for the Christian church since its very inception. The first time that we meet Philip the Evangelist - the disciple in today’s reading from Acts – is two chapters earlier, where Luke describes a dispute over the distribution of food to the needy. Apparently, the ethnically Jewish widows were benefitting from favoritism over the ethnically Greek widows, and so the apostles commissioned seven believers “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” to moderate the conflict and ensure fair treatment for everyone, regardless of differences. Philip was one of these seven.
This tells us two things.
First – even the earliest followers of Jesus had a hard time really living like we are one in Christ. Human beings are hard-wired for tribalism, and that’s a really hard pattern to break.
Second – Philip’s leadership in the church was focused on overcoming these kinds of barriers, and that ministry was empowered by God’s Spirit, and by wisdom.
And THIS is the evangelist that God commissions to reach out to a person who represented some stunning differences with the nascent church community.
His racial heritage was probably the least challenging aspects of his identity.
He was African, and so he was an outsider to a primarily Jewish sect, but no more so than the Greek widows that Philip had previously been charged to care for. In 1st Century Judaism, there was Jew, and there was Gentile. That was the distinction that mattered.
But Philip has already been commissioned by God to reject that distinction.
Maybe that was why God called Philip to be the one who reached out to this Ethiopian, who had travelled all the way to Jerusalem from sub-Saharan Africa in search of God, only be relegated to the margins.
And marginalized he would have been in Jerusalem’s Temple cult – not even allowed to enter the most external Gentile Court… because of his sexuality.
Scholars disagree about precisely what the descriptor of “eunuch” means in this context, but at the very least we can be sure that he was not BOTH straight and cis-gendered. In some way his sexual- or gender-identity fell outside the norm, and because of that he would have been excluded from the practices of the Temple, and thus from full inclusion in the Jewish community. Even if he had converted.
The third way in which he was different from Philip, and from most of the early converts to Christianity, was a little different. He was wealthy. And Powerful. A court official of the Candace - which was the title of the ruling Queen of Ethiopia – he was in charge of her treasury no less.
This man was of a class wholly other than the itinerant apostle who came jogging up to his well-appointed chariot to ask if he understood what he was reading.
Here it’s Philip who is on the outside – not only physically, but also in terms of status – but the Ethiopian Eunuch invites him in. To sit in the chariot. And to teach him how to understand God’s witness in scripture.
It’s hard to think of a more difference-bridging, boundary-transgressing story in the whole Bible, and the climax of the story is to pose a question about whether ANY of those differences matter:
The Eunuch exclaims: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36)
Clearly not the fact that they were travelling through an arid wilderness, where one would not expect to find water. One commentator describes the occurrence of this baptismal location as “an unobtrusive miracle.” God made sure it wouldn’t be logistics that would get in the way.
And, in fact, NOTHING can prevent him from being baptized.
It doesn’t matter that he comes from a different country.
It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t conform to sexual or gender norms.
It doesn’t matter that he is wealthy and powerful, or that he has humbled himself to learn from someone who it not.
He asks: “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” And there is nothing to prevent him.
One note about that for any of you who are “following along at home”: there’s a missing verse here. Verse 37 - which puts one gate-keeping restriction about believing in Jesus into Philip’s mouth – but is missing from all the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, and scholars agree that it is not part of the original story. As I said before, the early church had just as hard of a time with an open and inclusive gospel of grace as we sometimes do. They tried to put some limits on the openness in this story.
But the TRUTH of the gospel is that there is nothing to keep the Ethiopian Eunuch from being baptized, when he asks. Our differences should never be barriers to inclusion in the body of Christ. Our differences ENRICH the body of Christ.
This understanding is reflected in our Synod’s core value of DIVERSITY. The description of that value goes like this:
All of God’s children together express the wonder and majesty of creation. Life in community, fully and richly inclusive and marked by unfailing hospitality is a sign of God’s kingdom.
We may be apples and oranges, but we’re all fruit! The fullness of God’s kingdom, the wonder and majesty of creation, requires that our diversity as God’s children be met with inclusion and hospitality. And when we are joined together in God’s kingdom… when we are grafted together into the same vine… then we produce beautiful fruit. Fruit that not only reveals our connection to Jesus, but that also nourishes the faith of others.
There’s one other thing to note about the Ethiopian Eunuch.
After his baptism, after God spirits Philip away… the Eunuch went on his way rejoicing, back to Ethiopia. By all the evidence, this man was the first Christian to reach that country, and thus the only man of his faith in his homeland. But it didn’t stay that way. He produced fruit.
By the year 330, Ethiopia became one of the first two nations in the world to declare Christianity its state religion, And the Ethiopian Coptic church has remained anchored to the vine of our savior Jesus Christ down to this day.
Diversity is a gift to the church. It expresses the wonder and majesty of creation. It is a sign of God’s Kingdom. And it produces fruit. Apples AND Oranges, and plenty of other varieties too.
Thanks be to God.
J.R. Daniel Kirk, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3633