Hope for a House Divided (Acts 1-11)

In June of 1858, the United States of America was not very united at all because of the issue of slavery.  There were 17 free states and 15 slave states, and there was a lot of animosity between those two groups. 

            It was at that time that Abraham Lincoln was campaigning for a US Senate seat in the state of Illinois.  As he gave his speech, he began by quoting Jesus.  Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.  I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.”

            And he was right.  Three years later, for the first time in this country, American soldiers took to the battlefield against one another.  It was a house divided against itself.

            And now, in the 21st century, we have come to a point where Americans are once again in a war against one another.  This battle is not being fought on battlefields, at least not yet.  Mostly, this battle is being fought on cable news shows and college campuses, on Twitter feeds and Facebook posts, and anywhere else that Americans disagree about things we’re passionate about.  The opposing colors of this war aren’t blue and grey.  Rather, they are red and blue.

            We’ve developed a mindset where it’s us against them.  “Us” is everybody who agrees with me, and “them” is everybody who disagrees with me.  And whatever “us” does, “us” is always right.  And whatever “them” does, “them” is always wrong.  We have truly become a house divided against itself.

            But that’s not what God wants, and God has put the church here to help make things right.  In John 17, Jesus prayed for us all to be “one”.  No matter what divisions may exist in this world, whether racial divisions or political divisions or class divisions, there should be no divisions among those of us who put our faith in Jesus Christ.  Our us vs. them mentality must be discarded, and within the church, we should be able to find a safe haven from all the hatred and animosity that is out there.

            The truth is, our world is not all that different from the first century when the church was established.  There were a lot of different groups of people in the Roman Empire, and many of them felt animosity toward the other groups.  This was especially true of the Jews who regarded themselves as the favored people of God.  Obviously, everything they did was right and anybody who disagreed with them or did anything different was wrong.

            And so, the Jews had an “us vs. them” mentality toward the Romans.  And the Greeks.  And the Samaritans.  And all the other Gentiles.  And when the church was established in Acts chapter 2, this was a problem.  Because every single member of that first church in Jerusalem was a Jew.  Now, God made it clear that he wanted that to change, he wanted them to invite everyone from every nation to be a part of this church.  But the early Jewish Christians, they weren’t so keen on that idea.

            Their attitude was, “You can’t go bringing Gentiles into the church.  They’re not part of ‘us’, they’re part of ‘them’.  And that includes the Romans, the Greeks, the Samaritans and everybody else out there.  We’re happy with just us.  We don’t need them.  And if they want to worship God, they need to find somewhere else to do it.”

            But God made it clear, “That’s not my plan.  There is no ‘us vs. them’ when it comes to the church.  Everyone is invited to be a part of the body of Christ.  And I want everyone in my church to be fully united through the Holy Spirit.”

            Let’s take a look at this overview of the first half of the book of Acts, and then I’ll be back to talk about how God was able to turn a house divided into a house united.

            Watch VIDEO (Acts 1-11)

            One of the minor characters in the book of Acts is a disciple by the name of Philip.  He plays a small role, but don’t let that fool you because God does some huge things with Philip’s life.

            In Acts chapter 8, Philip travels north from Jerusalem to preach in Samaria.   This was a place that he (like most Jews of that day) probably grew up hating.  It was us vs. them and the Samaritans were definitely them.  They didn’t do anything right.  They worshiped at a different place.  They emphasized different parts of the Old Testament.  They had different traditions. 

            And, as a result, the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t have much of anything to do with each other.  The Jews would go miles out of their way to keep from traveling through Samaria.  And yet, here in Acts chapter 8, we find Philip preaching to the Samaritans.  

            And we read that, “when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12).  And for the first time, you have some people in the church who are not Jewish. 

            Now, if it’s us vs. them, then you’ve got to have two different churches, you’ve got to have the Jewish church over here and the Samaritan church over there and they can’t have anything to do with each other.  But if they are truly united in Jesus Christ, if baptism brings us into a deeper fellowship, then for the first time, there is hope for a divided world.

            Later in that same chapter, Acts chapter 8, God sends Philip to talk with someone on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere.  Verse 27 tells us, “There was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure.” (Acts 8:27).  There are several things here that I want you to notice.

            First of all, this man was a high-ranking government official.  He was the equivalent of our Secretary of the Treasury. 

            Second, we read that this man was a eunuch.  In those days, it was a common practice that if a man was going to be a high-ranking government official under a woman such as a queen, he had to become a eunuch.   And you thought you had to give up a lot for your job!

            It was a lot to sacrifice, but it appears that it was worth it.  Now he’s driving a chariot, which was the equivalent of a private jet in the ancient world.  He’s rich enough to know how to read in a world that was mostly illiterate, and he even owns a portion of the scroll of Isaiah.

            Thirdly, our text tells us that he was an Ethiopian.  He was a black man from the region south of Egypt.  It was about a thousand miles from his home to the city of Jerusalem, but he made this journey because he wanted to worship God.  It’s possible he went during Passover, when so many others made the trip to Jerusalem.  He may have even purchased the Isaiah scroll he was reading while he was in Jerusalem, to take home with him for personal study.

            This Ethiopian eunuch had obviously fallen in love with the God of Israel.  But how had he even heard of Israel’s God, way out there on the edge of the ancient world?   Well, this is probably going to blow your minds, but here goes.  We all know there was a temple in Jerusalem.  What you probably didn’t know is that there were two other Jewish temples, both of them in Egypt.  They were fully-functioning temples, with priests and offerings and everything.  They had been established by Jewish communities who had moved to Egypt after they returned from the Babylonian exile.

            And so, this Ethiopian eunuch would have had two long-established Jewish communities not very far from him.  Which is just one way that God had been preparing the world for the good news of salvation that would come through Jesus.  God was no stranger to this Ethiopian eunuch.  More importantly, this eunuch was no stranger to the God of Israel. 

            He was obviously a man who loved to worship God because of the great distance he traveled to get to Jerusalem.  But once he got there, he had to face what Deuteronomy 23 said.  In verse 1 of that chapter, God said, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.”  And then, the next seven verses prohibit foreigners from entering the assembly of the Lord.

            So, Deuteronomy 23 absolutely excludes eunuchs and foreigners from entering the temple. The Ethiopian eunuch obviously fit both of those categories.  And, as a result, he would not have been allowed into the temple.

            So, here is this foreigner who has committed himself to the God of Israel.  He traveled a thousand miles all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem just to worship God in the official temple. If they gave out awards for, “Who traveled the farthest distance to come to worship this year?”, this man would have won hands-down.

            The Ethiopian eunuch was wealthy and powerful. The people of Jerusalem would have welcomed him as an exotic dignitary from a far-off land.  Jews and Greeks didn’t discriminate against Africans for being black.  And while they may have swooned over this rich and powerful nobleman, there were very strict limits placed on his access to the temple.  He could be at the temple in Jerusalem.  But he couldn’t go in the temple.

            There may have been an official gatekeeper who said something like this, “I’m sorry, sir—you’ll have to stay outside, in the Court of the Gentiles.  Deuteronomy 23 very clearly says no eunuchs and no foreigners allowed in the temple.  Rules are rules.”

            And I wonder how the Ethiopian eunuch would have responded to that.  Did he hang his head in embarrassment, totally humiliated?  Or did he say, “It’s OK, I understand completely.”  Trying to keep his chin up, fighting to choke back the tears and the anger.  The thought of being rejected by God’s own people.

            Now, of course, I’m relying completely on my imagination to reconstruct this scenario. But, let’s be honest, it’s not too hard to imagine.  Because it’s possible that some of us have seen or experienced something similar in a church setting. Where there’s an attitude of us vs. them, and we’ve got to do everything we can to keep “them” on the outside. 

            And I have to wonder how many people through the centuries have experienced the embarrassment and the humiliation that the Ethiopian eunuch experienced, as he was rejected by God’s people.

            But we pick up in our story with the eunuch riding in his chariot, on the way home.  He’s reading from the book of Isaiah.  But what is really significant is the passage the eunuch is reading.  It’s about the Suffering Servant.  But it’s also a passage about hope, about God setting things right.

            He may have started his reading with Isaiah chapter 56, verse 3, which had to be one of his favorite passages.  Isaiah said,

“Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
    ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and let not the eunuch say,
    ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord: ‘To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose the things that please me
    and hold fast my covenant,
I will give in my house and within my walls
    a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.’”
(Isaiah 56:3-5)

            Doesn’t that sound a whole lot better than Deuteronomy 23?  And then God said, “I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”  (Isaiah 56:5b).   Don’t miss the double meaning of what God is saying here.  There was a part of them that had been cut off.  But God said, “I will give them a name that nobody will be able to cut off.”

            It makes sense that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from Isaiah.  Because when you get to the edge of the assembly and you’re turned away, it’s only natural that you would want to read from a book that’s filled with hope talking about a better day, especially for the foreigners and the eunuchs. 

            And as the Ethiopian continued reading in Isaiah, he read about someone who suffered in our place.

“The passage of Scripture he had been reading was this:

‘He was led like a sheep to the slaughter.
    And as a lamb is silent before the shearers,
    he did not open his mouth.
He was humiliated and received no justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”
(Acts 8:32-33, NLT)

            “He was humiliated and received no justice.” Don’t you suppose the Ethiopian eunuch could relate to that?  Since he had just felt the humiliation of not being allowed into the temple to worship?  Since he had just felt the sting of injustice, since he couldn’t help being a foreigner and a eunuch?

            That’s where he was when Philip found him, and that’s where Philip began telling him the good news about Jesus.  Using Isaiah chapter 53.  Perhaps their conversation went something like this:

            Maybe Philip said, “See where it says: “He was despised and rejected by people. He was a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. He was despised like one from whom people turn their faces, and we didn’t consider him to be worth anything.” (Isaiah 53:3, GN).  Mr. Eunuch, has anything like that ever happen to you?”

            And maybe the eunuch said: “As a matter of fact, it has.  In fact, just recently at Passover, I was turned away from the temple because I’m a eunuch from another country.  People looked down on me, and treated me like I wasn’t worth anything.”

            And then Philip might have said something like,  “Well, the same thing happened to this other guy I know.  Last Passover, in Jerusalem.  The high priests rejected him.  All his friends turned their backs on him.  The high priests and Romans had my friend killed.  Crucified—lynched, really.  People treated him like he wasn’t worth anything.”

            And maybe the Ethiopian eunuch said something like, “I’m sorry to hear that.  That’s very bad news.

            But then Philip could tell him,  “Not at all!  Actually, it’s very good news.  Notice what Isaiah says here:  “He endured the suffering that should have been ours, the pain that we should have borne…He was punished so that we could have peace, and we received healing from his wounds.”  (Isaiah 53.4-5).   

            You see, Mr. Eunuch, Jesus took the sting of rejection that you’re feeling.  All of that shame and humiliation that you feel, he took it on himself.  And he allowed himself to be excluded so that you could be included!

            And by then, the eunuch just has to know: “Who is this man?  Tell me about your friend who fulfilled this prophecy!”

            “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.”  (Acts 8:35).  Mr. Eunuch, his name is Jesus. And the good news is that you can part of his family. Even though you’re a foreigner, he can make you one of God’s own people. And even though you’re a eunuch, he can give you a big family!

            And after hearing what Philip had to say about Jesus, the eunuch said, in verse 36, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”  Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “Why can’t I be baptized?”  The way he words his question, it’s almost as if he’s anticipating being rejected, expecting to be told that he can’t be baptized.  Which isn’t surprising for a man who’s recently been told the all reasons why he’s not allowed to be around God’s people.

            But Philip says, “Nobody’s going to stop you.  Nobody’s going to tell you that you can’t be baptized.  Let’s make it happen.”   “And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.  And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.” (Acts 8:38-39). 

            It makes sense that he was rejoicing.  Because the words of Isaiah were true.  Before his baptism, he’d just been a eunuch who had come up from Ethiopia, somebody without any family, somebody who was excluded, somebody who was told that he didn’t belong.  But now he was a brother in Christ.  The waters of baptism and the blood of Jesus Christ had brought him into the family of God.  And once again, we see that there is hope for a divided world.

            But I want you to see how significant this was not only for the eunuch, but for Philip as well.  Keep in mind that Philip grew up being taught that somebody like this doesn’t belong with the people of God.  If he wants to worship God, he can’t do it here.  And Philip knows that if he baptizes this guy, he’s going against everything he was raised to believe.  But he also knows that God has led him to this man for a reason.

            This was a big struggle for the early Christians.  They wrestled with decision after decision about what it meant to transition from an us vs. them mentality to welcoming everyone into the family of God.

            And then we come to Acts chapter 10, where we really start to cross the line, because now we’ve gone from the Samaritans, who were at least half-Jew, to a full-blooded Gentile.  The story begins with Peter chilling out on a friend’s flat roof patio, and he has a dream.  It was a strange vision from God about all these animals that were considered unclean to the Jewish people.  But then God tells Peter to kill one of the animals and eat it.  After all, it’s lunch time.

            And Peter says no to God, which is always a bad idea.  But the reason he gives is interesting.  He says, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” (Acts 10:14).  In other words, “I’ve always kept the rules that you gave us.”

            But God’s response is to say, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15).  In essence, God says, “Look, I’m the one who gets to decide what’s allowed and what’s not.”

            But, of course, Peter’s dream is not really about food.  God wants Peter to start thinking about who gets to decide what gets included and what gets excluded.  But Peter never gets around to eating.  Instead, he gets picked up by a couple of visitors who’ve been sent to carry him to see a Gentile, a Roman commander by the name of Cornelius. 

            And the first thing Peter says when he gets there is this, “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation.” (Acts 10:28).  Which probably isn’t the best way to introduce oneself.  But it was true.  We aren’t supposed to have anything to do with you guys.  It’s us vs. them, and you’re one of them.

            But Peter now understands what God wants him to understand.  In verse 34, he says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35).

            Peter says that God is no respecter of persons.  We hear that and we think, “Well, of course.  Everybody knows that.”  But up to this point, that’s what all of the Jews thought that God was – a respecter of persons.  He likes some people more than he likes others.

            But it finally clicked for Peter and he has this profound realization that God is no respecter of persons.  And so, Peter says to his companions, “These Gentiles obviously have a right to be baptized, to be a part of our church family.”

            This was an important conversion, and I’m not just talking about Cornelius.  Think about Peter.  When he first met Jesus, one of the things he wanted most was to destroy Rome.  When Jesus was arrested in the garden, Peter pulled his sword out on the Roman soldiers.

            Now, Peter is making friends with the enemy that he had once hated.  Peter’s world is being turned upside down.   And that’s one of the main themes for those early Christians.  God is changing the whole world, yes, but he’s also changing his people.  To be more accepting, to be more welcoming, to be more loving.

            Meanwhile back at Jerusalem, when the church leaders heard what Peter did and how he baptized Cornelius and let him into the church, the scriptures tell us they “criticized him”(Acts 11:2).   How dare you welcome one of “them” into our church family.  But once Peter said, “This is what God told me to do”, they stop complaining.  And, in the end, there was hope for a divided world.

            Paul wrote in Galatians 3:  “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)

            So many of the divisions that exist in this world are blood divisions, feuds between different families, different tribes, different races.  But we don’t have those divisions in the church, because we all have the same blood.  Through baptism and the blood of Jesus Christ, all those old divisions have been broken down. 

            And the church is a place where you can be accepted regardless of what your background is.  Regardless of whether you’re a Jew or a Greek, regardless of whether you’re American or Ethiopian or Puerto Rican, regardless of whether you’re Caucasian, African-American, Asian or Hispanic, regardless of whether you’re single, married, divorced or widowed, regardless of whether you’re Republican or Democrat.  None of those things matter. 

            Baptism is the point at which the church gathers round and says, “Welcome to the family.”

And in this family, there is something greater than just chromosomes drawing us together.  There is something greater than the color of your skin that connects you with other people.   There is the blood of Jesus Christ.  The tie that binds us together is founded on the truth that we all acknowledge the lordship of Jesus Christ, and we have been baptized together into his death.

            And, as a result, we are no longer a house divided, but a house united through the Holy Spirit of God.

            And our job, church, is to continue what God and Jesus and Philip and Peter began.  To take up the cause of all those who have been excluded, and bring them the good news of Jesus Christ.  To let them know that whatever humiliation they may have experienced in the past, they are welcomed into the family of God.

            Perhaps what I’ve described this morning sounds inviting to you.  You like the thought of being part of the family of God.  Just like the Samaritans, just like the Ethiopian eunuch, just like Cornelius and the Gentiles.  The waters of baptism can bring you into contact with the blood of Jesus Christ, and bring you into a family relationship that is stronger than anything you’ve ever experienced.  And no matter who you are, you are invited.   

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