Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, May 3, 2015
Acts 8:26-40; I John 4:7, 16b-21
“My name is Philip. I was one of Jesus’ original disciples and accompanied him throughout his three years of incredible ministry. When our Rabbi was crucified, I was one of the disciples who hid in fear. I was devastated and at a complete loss as to what to do next. Some of the disciples saw the risen Christ, but I wasn’t sure. Perhaps they were just in denial about Jesus’ death. But then others saw him and told us their stories. Slowly, we all began to believe that death did not contain Jesus. We began to gather together again, to pray and break bread. The Holy Spirit gave us courage to leave our hidden rooms and tell others about the teachings of Jesus. People began to come to us, seeking healing, and we found the power of the Spirit moving through us as we blessed them. The healing miracles of Jesus continued to flow through us. As our numbers grew, so did our bravery. We began to travel to various towns and tell them about Jesus. Some were angry and began to threaten us, but this time, we did not run in fear. Men and women were dragged from their homes. Some were imprisoned, some flogged. Stephen was stoned to death. But we were experiencing the power of the risen Christ flowing through us. We could not deny him anymore.
“I was particularly drawn to the Gentiles. The Holy Spirit was tugging at me to tell them about Jesus. One day, I felt a strong call to travel south from Jerusalem. As I was walking, a chariot passed me, carrying some important official. His dark skin colour told me that he had travelled far from the south. I later found out that he was from Nubia, the outermost part of the Ethiopian world, and was the chief treasurer of their Queen. They had a strange habit of making eunuchs out of those who were in positions of considerable power, and this court official was a eunuch, something that would be an anathema to us. Although I knew that people in my culture would avoid such heathens with their unclean practices, I was curious about why someone so strange to us would be travelling in our land. And so, I went a little closer and was amazed by what I heard. This eunuch was reading from the scroll of Isaiah. Even more, he was reading from a passage that we believe prophesies the crucifixion of Jesus. He then looked up and saw me with my mouth ajar in amazement and asked me if I knew what this passage meant. When I nodded, he actually invited me to sit with him in his chariot so that I could explain it to him. Imagine! I cast aside my fear of being seen and made unclean by conversing with this foreigner and jumped up into his chariot. We had the most amazing conversation. It made sense to him—he wished he could have met Jesus, but in some ways, maybe he did. He believed what I told him, and when we came to a small pool of water, he asked if he might be baptized.”
The early disciples of Jesus risked their lives to travel around their known world to tell people about the healing powers of Jesus. The people they told were often merchants and occasionally court officials, such as the Ethiopian eunuch, who in turn became missionaries as they told others about Jesus. Word quickly spread far in the first century, establishing Coptic Christianity in what is now Egypt and Sudan.
From the beginning, the Christian message has been one of inclusive love. No matter the skin colour, the culture, the language, the physical ability, Jesus’ reconciling love embraces everyone. Not everyone agreed with this. Some of the first major fights within the Christian church were over this controversial message of inclusion. Could non-Jews be Christians? Could people who didn’t follow traditional, religious practices be accepted into the church? Some of the early church leaders, such as Philip, Peter and Paul, argued that Jesus’ message of unconditional love was for everyone. Two millennia later, Henri Nouwen wrote, “Knowing the heart of Jesus and loving him are the same thing…The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.”
We learn in I John that the opposite of love is not hate—it is fear. “There is no fear in love,” writes John, “but perfect love casts our fear.”
Fears have many effects on us. One is paralysis. When we fear for our safety; when we fear that we may do the wrong thing, we can freeze. This is a natural instinct we have inherited from the animal kingdom: fear causes fight, flight or freeze. Sometimes freezing is a good thing. But more often, in our day, it prevents us from wise, compassionate action.
A friend was on a bus sometime ago and she saw a woman in a hijab come on board. Later, three young men came on the bus. When they saw the woman, they began to taunt her and move toward her. My friend froze, not wanting to draw any attention to herself and yet deeply afraid for the woman. The bus driver happened to pass by a police station and made an unscheduled stop. He then told the young men that could either sit back down and shut up or that he would bring a couple of police officers on board. They sat back down and then got off a few stops later. My friend was haunted by this incident, replaying it over and over, wondering what she could have done. Finally, she decided that she could have moved to sit beside the woman. She realized that compassion means having the courage to move beyond fears to literally stand in solidarity beside someone.
Another effect that fear may have is to turn that which we fear into the enemy that is to be contained or eliminated. Xenophobia is a fear of difference—a fear we all have. When we walk down the street at night and we see someone coming towards us whose skin colour is different than ours, our natural reaction is to tense up. We have learned to be afraid of difference—we have learned to be xenophobic. We have a choice either to give in to xenophobia or to have the courage to confront it.
Christianity is a message that takes courage to embrace. The root of the word courage is cor, Latin for heart. To take courage is to take heart, to draw on the strength of compassion to face our fears, acknowledge them, and ask the powerful, healing love of Christ to live through our fears. We may find that these fears of xenophobia are more effectively befriended than fought.
There is an old story about St. Francis and the people of the small village of Gubbio. One night, a shadow comes out of the woods and prowls the streets. In the morning, they find a gnawed body. The next night, the shadow returns and another body is found. This continues for some time. Finally, an old woman catches a clear view of the shadow and tells the villagers that it is a wolf. They decide to send a delegation to a holy man who is said to able to talk with the animals. The delegation goes to St. Francis and asks him to preach to the wolf and demand three things. First, he must obey the commandment that says, “Thou shalt not kill.” Secondly, he must follow Christ’s commandment to love God and neighbour. Finally, he must leave their town and go to another.
St. Francis agrees to find whom he calls Brother Wolf and eventually returns to the village with a message. “My good people of Gubbio,” he says, “the answer to your problem is very simple. You must feed your wolf.” The people are furious with both the message and the implication that the wolf is theirs, but they comply. The wolf is then fed and their people are no longer killed.
The healing love of Christ Jesus gives us the courage to look into the eyes of fear with compassion.