Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. – Acts 8:26-40
Oh for Pete’s sake, another week about rabbits? Well, I promise, this is the last week; next week it will be on to something different.
So as we start out this week, and just as they did in that children’s sermon in Toronto that I mentioned two weeks ago, let’s rewind, and remember where we are in this story. The rabbits in the novel Watership Down learned they couldn’t get along only as individuals; they had to learn to be a real community, working together and valuing all the members of the community in order for it to survive. And a big part of their being a community was the telling and retelling of their common stories; the morality-shaping stories of their hero-rabbit, “The Prince with a Thousand Enemies”, stories that explained how they should act and what made them a distinct community. Through those stories, they learned that they couldn’t keep silent and unengaged when someone was suffering or in trouble, or they became complicit in the wrong that was being done. They learned that doing this was a matter of justice, and extending hospitality to others, and that they were to do this even when it caused them personal risk. And that’s where we pick up our story today.
After wandering and roaming around, the rabbits finally found a suitable place to settle down and make a new home. When they did, they ended up encountering a wounded bird. At first, the rabbits didn’t want to welcome this outsider non-rabbit, but Hazel, the rabbits’ leader, said that based on all they’d learned along the way, the moral teachings in their communal stories had to be extended to more than just themselves – they applied to everyone. So the rabbits extended their welcome and hospitality to the wounded bird, and they worked together to nurse him back to health. They built a nest, and they even got over their own personal revulsion of the bird’s insect diet and they gathered up all the insects they could and fed the bird. The bird recovered and became as much a member of the warren as any of the rabbits, even providing aerial reconnaissance when the rabbits are attacked by the members of a neighboring rabbit warren. The rabbits had learned that their moral teachings, the wisdom of the hero-rabbit, was for all creatures, not just the rabbits like themselves.
This is a perfect parallel for the lesson the church had to learn, beginning in its very earliest days after the resurrection. Just like the rabbits, Jesus’ followers had to learn, step by step, that the good news of God’s grace, and love, and welcome was meant for all people, not just some specially chosen small group. Jesus himself taught them this in the incredibly diverse makeup of the apostles, the ones he chose to be part of his innermost circle. He picked both well-to-do and average working stiffs; members of the religious and political establishment and Simon the Zealot, who was what we’d call a terrorist today; people who were soft-spoken and people so loud and argumentative Jesus called them the “Sons of Thunder.” Cynics and doubters. There was a real broadness in Jesus’ inclusiveness and welcome – or what we’d often just call hospitality. And after the resurrection, it became clear that God wanted this inclusiveness and hospitality to extend even wider. In fact, this becomes a major theme of the Book of Acts; it shows up over and over and over again. We see it at Pentecost, when the welcome is extended to all the receptive Jews visiting Jerusalem at Pentecost. Then it’s extended even to the Jews who were among the Christians’ worst enemies, including Paul. Then it goes on to include Gentiles, who the scriptures said were unclean and had no place in God’s kingdom according to the scriptures. This 180-degree shift in understanding of God’s will is seen in all of Paul’s missionary work among the Gentiles, and Peter’s encounters with Gentiles in this book, also. And we see it in today’s Lectionary text from Acts, this extremely important story of God calling the apostle Philip to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, and to teach him, and to extend hospitality to him, to welcome him into the faith by baptizing him. Philip certainly knew, and so did the original readers of the Book of Acts, that eunuchs were specifically prohibited in the scriptures as being unworthy of being part of the people of God. There wasn’t anything he could do to repent and stop having been born an Ethiopian, a Gentile. There wasn’t anything he could do to stop being a eunuch. And yet, Philip accepts God’s new word, contrary to all he’d been taught previously, and he extends hospitality – God’s grace, and welcome, and acceptance to this eunuch.
This same desire of God’s continues in the church to this very day. Just like the rabbits of Watership Down, and just like Philip and the other apostles who sometimes struggled with the idea of stretching who could be considered part of God’s kingdom, we’ve had to learn this same truth – the truth of God’s calling of an ever-expanding circle of people into the fullness of the kingdom, too. Sometimes, we’ve learned this truth grudgingly and imperfectly, but time and again we’ve come to understand and accept this ever-increasing circle. This is the definition of hospitality in the kingdom of God. This is what God is trying to teach us, to accept those outside our own particular group, even when we might originally be viscerally opposed to them, just like the rabbits did with their insect-eating bird friend. This is the lesson that God has continually unfolding for us to live into as the church; in our past, our present, and into our future. This is the hospitality God has called us to adhere to, in recognition for the infinite grace and hospitality God has extended toward us.
In the final chapter of Watership Down, we read that the rabbits’ new warren succeeded and thrived, and it did so because they learned these important lessons we’ve talked about. But our own final chapter, as God’s people, hasn’t been written yet. God is continuing to call us to expand the circle that defines our community, and continues to call us to stand up and work for the good and safety and justice of all those within it. Will our story end up being a success or a failure? We’re the ones writing this chapter, so the answer to that question is up to us – but whatever the ending, it’s going to depend on whether we learned our lessons as well as the rabbits did.
Thanks be to God.