Mortality

Mortality was this year’s final Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] This post will discuss the Scriptures and sermon for the theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was the familiar Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8 (New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added):

  • “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
  • a time to be born, and a time to die;
    a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
    a time to kill, and a time to heal;
    a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
    a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
    a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    a time to seek, and a time to lose;
    a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
    a time to tear, and a time to sew;
    a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    a time to love, and a time to hate;
    a time for war, and a time for peace.”

The New Testament text was from Chapter 15 of Paul’s first letter to the believers in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 15: 15-20, 35-38, 42-44, 50-55 (New Revised Standard Version:

  • “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
  • But someone will ask, ‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’ Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body.
  • So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.
  • What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’”

 The Sermon

Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen’s sermon reminded us, “We began our walk down the pathways of Lent weeks ago on Ash Wednesday. We marked ourselves with a smudge of mortality and stepped into the season. Now, as we near the cross and the crucifixion, the way inevitably brings us back to where we began. Death is never too distant.”

Yet, a “veil impenetrable by earth-bound vision shrouds . . . [death]. The event itself can be so covered over by the machinery of modern medicine and the whispered denial of our culture that sometimes it takes the power of a poem to carry us down to what the old Celtic folk called ‘the river hard to see.’”

[The poet of Ecclesiastes said it simply and powerfully: ‘For everything there is a season, And a time for every matter under heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die….’]

“If we can acknowledge that death happens, that it will come to our loved ones, that it will come to each one of us, then we can see it not as mistake or failure or defeat, but, rather, as part of the rhythm into which we were born, the end of life as we know it.”

“Part of our job as people of faith is to demystify death, to help our world deal with it, to help others not be overwhelmed by it. In so doing, we help ourselves.”

“That sums up the proper approach of people of faith to death. We do not deny it. We do not look the other way. We recognize the pain it brings to those left behind. We name the sorrow of our grief. But we do not give it power over us. We are not afraid of the dark.”

“Our culture, on the other hand, is afraid of the darkness of death.”

“We are not afraid of the dark. We may not fully understand death, but we will not let it have the last word.”

“From Paul’s point of view we give up the physical body at death when, ‘in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be changed’ into what Paul calls a spiritual body that dwells with God in the life to come.”

“That may be all we can say about death. It may be enough: as a seed must die and fall to the ground in order to find new life, our lives must end in order to inherit what Paul calls the ‘mystery’ of eternity.”

Reflections

Ecclesiastes makes death explicit: there is a “time to die.” The rest of the passage also tells us that during our earthly lives there is “a time” for many other experiences, including mourning, and that each of these other experiences will not last. That is both a challenge and a comfort. It challenges us to embrace every moment of the pleasurable ones and comforts us during mourning and other unpleasant experiences.

The passages from First Corinthians help with the “mystery” of the promise of eternal life. The perishable physical body ends with death. At death we will be changed into imperishable spiritual bodies. For me, I do not need to worry about what happens after death.

In a prior post, I described my intimations of mortality from attending memorial services for former law partners and friends, from writing obituaries for deceased Grinnell College classmates and from preparing personal financial statements.

Those reminders of my own mortality continue along with others.

My wife and I have taken steps in recognition of our advancing years, the risks of deteriorating health and the certainty of death. Last year we downsized and moved into a one-level condo that provides many shopping, dining and entertainment options within walking distance. We also have consulted with an attorney to update our wills, trust documents, and health care directives. We have decided for cremation of our remains, instead of embalming. We have shared information about these documents, decisions and our financial situation with our two sons. We want to minimize the trauma they will experience when we die.

I reflect on visiting my parents in 1967 and receiving a desperate telephone call from my father, age 67, to come rescue him at his business. I did so and managed to carry him to a car and drive him to the hospital where on arrival he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. I still lament that the prior day he and I had an argument that was still unresolved when he died.

In 1992 I was with my mother, age 86, as she was dying of congestive heart failure at her nursing home. I was astounded that the moment of death was not instantaneously apparent. A few seconds had passed when I realized she was no longer breathing. It was a blessing to be with her in those final moments.

Recently I visited a college classmate in hospice care. Her eyes were closed, and she was non-communicative. But I said goodbye and conveyed the prayers and concerns of our classmates before she died the next day. There is a ministry of presence.

As is common with many people as they age, I regularly read the obituaries in our local newspaper (StarTribune) to see if anyone I know has died and take note of news of the deaths of famous people. They are constant reminders that fame, wealth and power do not make anyone immune from death.

As I read these obituaries, I notice that some of the deceased are older than I, and I quickly calculate how many more years I have if I live as long as they did. Surprise, that arithmetic exercise keeps producing smaller remainders! For example, if I live to age 85, which now sounds like a very old age, I only have about 10 more years. Yet I know several people in their 90’s who are mentally alert and active.

I have been doing genealogical and historical research and most of the individuals about whom I research and write have DOB (date of birth) and DOD (date of death) data. At some point a DOD statistic will be added to my name.

This research and writing have brought some of my ancestors, who lived long before I was born, closer to me.

This sentiment recently was expressed much more beautifully by Roger Cohen in a New York Times column entitled “From Death Into Life” about the amazing life of his Uncle Bert Cohen, who died last month at the age of 95. The columnist said he has “found my life consumed by his” and “[n]ow he lives in me. The living are the custodians of the souls of the dead, those stealthy migrants. Love bequeaths this responsibility.”

Roger Cohen finishes the column with a story about his uncle’s serving in Italy as a South African soldier in World War II. While his uncle was in Florence, a small bird settled on his shoulder for five days. This “caused Florentines to prostrate themselves, name Bert ‘Captain Uccellino’ (or ‘Little Bird’) and proclaim him a saint. He was far from that but he had about him something magical.”

Roger Cohen then concludes his column with these words: “Of that [his uncle’s magical quality] the days since his death have left no doubt. He is now that bird on my shoulder, reminding me to take care with my spelling and be aware that love alone redeems human affairs.”

I believe that every human being is made in the image of God, including the potential capacity to be a parent with children.  The only way this will work is to limit the physical lives of the human beings. Otherwise, the planet would be overrun with people. Yes, there is “a time to die.”

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[1] Prior posts have discussed this year’s other Lenten themes of mindfulness, humility, mercy and repentance.

 

 

Repentance

The fourth Lenten theme at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is repentance.[1] This post will review the Scriptures and sermon for that theme and conclude with personal reflections.

The Scriptures

The Old Testament text was Jeremiah 31:15-21 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations):

  • “Thus says the Lord:
  • A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.
    Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
  • Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears;
    for there is a reward for your work, they shall come back from the land of the enemy; there is hope for your future, your children shall come back to their own country.
  • Indeed I heard Ephraim pleading:
  • ‘You disciplined me, and I took the discipline; I was like a calf untrained. Bring me back, let me come back, for you are the Lord my God. For after I had turned away, I repented; and after I was discovered, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was dismayed because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
  • Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he the child I delight in?
    As often as I speak against him, I still remember him.
    Therefore I am deeply moved for him; I will surely have mercy on him.
  • Set up road markers for yourself// make yourself signposts;
    consider well the highway, the road by which you went.
    Return, O virgin Israel, return to these your cities.”

The New Testament text was Acts 28:23-28 (New Revised Standard Version, with emendations and emphasis added):

  • “After [the Jewish leaders in Rome] had set a day to meet with [Paul], they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers.
  • From morning until evening [Paul] explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.
  • Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement:
  •  ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah, ‘Go to this people and say, You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them.’
  • Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.”

The Sermon

In the sermon Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen said that “changing direction is sometimes necessary. Making mid-course adjustments in life because we’ve gotten off track. Turning around. Finding a new way. . . .”

“Repentance is a common biblical term, found throughout Scripture. Whether in the Hebrew – the word is shuv – or in the Greek – metanoia – the Bible links repentance with a change of direction, a turning in life.”

The Acts’ passage about Paul’s meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome talks about the need for them to “[u]nderstand with their heart and turn. Repentance begins when the heart understands that it’s time to turn.”

That’s precisely what the prophet Jeremiah has in mind when he speaks to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. From the “prophet’s perspective the people had lost their way. He tells them their hope lies in turning and finding the path back not only to the land of Israel, but finding their way back to God. That’s the core issue here; is it the same for us? They had forgotten their covenant with God; that’s what landed them in Babylon in the first place.”

“Exile can be a powerful way for us to understand our own circumstances. Some of us are in a Babylon of our own right now, maybe of our own making. Some of us feel far from home.”

“The next time we feel ourselves in exile or isolated or cut off, let’s look for the way markers, the guideposts that point toward home, and then find within us the courage to follow them.”

“‘Consider well the highway,’ Jeremiah says to them. Remember how you got here in the first place. Make an honest assessment. Consider ‘the road by which you went.’

It helps to know how we ended up where we are; it’s important to have some sense of what went wrong.”

“That’s repentance-talk. The prophet is exhorting them to find a different path, to change directions, to turn back toward God. That’s the work of every person of faith, eventually. All of us. Over and over again.”

Theologian “Gustavo Gutierrez . . . calls sin, ‘a breach of friendship with God and others.’”

“Maybe that can help us remember better what went wrong and why we need to repent, why we need to change direction: we’ve broken the bonds of friendship with God and others. In so doing, we have let ourselves down, as well. We have diminished our own humanity by breaching our relationships. That’s the story of the people of God throughout scripture; and it’s our story, too. The people turn away from God; God calls them back; God waits; the people stumble along and, if their eyes are open and their ears unstopped, they – we – finally turn back toward God.”

“It’s the repairing of brokenhearted love”.

“If the question this Lent is What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? The response points toward a change of heart. It invites us to turn around. To go back. To find our way home.”

“Much of what passes as Christian faith today is little more than glorified self-help, a way to improve our lives. Christianity is not a self-help religion; in fact, it’s not centered on the self at all. Quite the opposite: our faith is other-centered. It begins with and is sustained by the desire for right relationship; first with God, and then with others.”

“At its best, the Church is that road sign for each of us – and for the world around us. Our witness in the world ought to help people find their way home, and lead us in that direction, too.”

“But to do so, to be that witness, to find our way, we will have to rediscover the gentle power of repentance, a turning of the heart that puts us on the path back to God.”

Reflections

In the Jeremiah passage, Ephraim confessed to God about his turning away from God and the disgrace of his youth. But Ephraim repented and asked God to let him come back. In response God says He is deeply moved for Ephraim and “will surely have mercy for him.”

This reminds me of Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 10-32), where the younger of two brothers after leading a sinful life in another country “came to himself” and repented. He then returned to his home, and his father ran to embrace and forgive him and to celebrate the return of his son.

This Parable for me is one of the most powerful passages in all of Scripture and one of the foundations for my Christian faith. It reminds me of my repentance and returning to God in 1981 by joining Westminster after 24 years of religious and spiritual nothingness. Since then its worship services and adult education offerings have been signposts and road markers that help me maintain that faith.

Apostle Paul in the Acts passage obviously is annoyed with the Jewish leaders in Rome who would not change from their beliefs and ways to accept Jesus. Paul quotes Isaiah to condemn them and tops it off with a taunt that the Gentiles will listen and accept Jesus.

Paul, in my opinion, is too hasty and uncharitable in this response. Any kind of significant change by an individual is difficult, including a Jew’s changing from a traditional Jewish faith to one that puts Jesus at the center of that faith.

It takes courage to make such a change. This is recognized by Alcoholics Anonymous’ use of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr: “God, grant me the courage to change the things that I can.”[2]

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[1] Prior posts discussed the following three themes: mindfulness, humility and mercy.

[2] A subsequent post will discuss several Jewish individuals who had the courage to change from Judaism to Christianity and those who did so out of fear of persecution.

 

 

What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? Mercy

The third theme of Lent at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church is mercy. We will review the Scripture passages and the sermon on this theme and then conclude with some personal reflections.

 Scripture Passages

The Old Testament scripture for mercy was the Prayer of David in Psalm 86: 1-15 (New Revised Standard Version):

  • ‘Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and needy.
    Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you; save your servant who trusts in you.
    You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord, for to you do I cry all day long.
    Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
    For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
  • Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my cry of supplication.
    In the day of my trouble I call on you, for you will answer me.
  • There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours. All the nations you have made shall come and bow down before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.
  • For you are great and do wondrous things; you alone are God.
    Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.
  • I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify your name forever. For great is your steadfast love toward me; you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
  • O God, the insolent rise up against me; a band of ruffians seeks my life, and they do not set you before them. But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The New Testament scripture was Matthew 18: 21-35 (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
  • For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.
  • But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.
  • Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’
  • And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The Sermon

The sermon by Rev. Dr. Timothy Hart-Andersen emphasized that “at the heart of Christianity is the discipline of forgiveness.”

“From birth to death,” the sermon continued, “the life of Jesus is framed in forgiveness. Remember John the Baptizer preaching forgiveness to prepare for the coming Messiah? Remember the prayer Jesus taught [us]: ‘Forgive us, as we forgive them.’ Remember how Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery and challenged others to do the same? Remember the words of Jesus on the cross: ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do?’”

“Ours is a religion born in that astounding cry from the cross for mercy for those who had hung him there. If the question this Lent is what does the way of the cross ask of us, the response surely includes forgiveness.”

“If anyone ever asks you what Christian faith is all about, a good place to start would be forgiveness. If someone ever asks you what you think God is like, quote Psalm 86: ‘The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.’”

In Matthew 18, “‘Peter asks how many times he should forgive someone who wrongs him – and we sense this is not a hypothetical question – and then Peter wonders aloud, ‘Seven times?’ No doubt he thinks he’s really stretching it to go that far.”

In response, Jesus says, “’Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,’ indicating that forgiveness should not be reckoned a scarce commodity. God’s mercy is abundant; ours can be, as well.”

“This is hard work, like climbing a mountain that seems to get taller and taller the higher you get. Temptations abound along the way. It would be easier to give up. The culture teaches us to want revenge, not mercy. It’s much more satisfying on the face of it to refuse forgiveness to someone who has wronged you, and instead get back at them. If forgiveness feels like an impossibility for us, then we’re thinking about it in precisely the right way; it should feel like that. It’s not easy.”

Rev. Hart-Andersen added, “Every one of us has had a ‘Peter moment’ in a relationship with a friend or life partner or co-worker, a time when we knew we should forgive, but we wondered how hard to try. Seven times? Jesus will have none of it. Genuine forgiveness is much more extravagant; it takes us beyond anything we might consider reasonable. The truly merciful give up any desire for vengeance; let go of any need to come out on top; release any longing to satisfy old grudges; and, relinquish any secret hope for the thrill of nursing anger.”

“We tend to think of forgiveness as something we offer others in order to free them from the guilt of what they’ve done. That’s the short-sighted view of mercy. In the long run, it’s not done for the one who wronged us; it’s for our own sake. Our future is held hostage until we forgive. In offering mercy we free ourselves of the millstone hung around our neck by anger or desire for vengeance or the need to win.”

“Forgiveness in the eyes of Jesus is not about counting up the wrongs or keeping track of damage down and being properly compensated; on the contrary, it’s a matter of setting ourselves free of the need to do that. At stake is the possibility of recovering our own life by letting go of the anger or hurt that has a hammerlock on us.”

“Nothing is more corrosive to a relationship, and to our hearts, than unwillingness to forgive, and nothing brings more grace into a relationship, and into our hearts, than when people freely show mercy to one another.”

“It’s the way of the cross, the path we follow this Lenten season, and it leads, in the end, to life.”

Conclusion

Peter’s comments in Matthew 18: 21 could be read narrowly as saying if one person (another member of the church) commits one sin against Peter, then how often should Peter forgive that one person for that one sin.

Peter’s own answer to that question (seven times) may have been seen by him as overly generous and unnecessary since at that time rabbis commonly said that forgiving someone three times was an acceptable maximum.[1]

Jesus’ response in Matthew 18: 22, in my opinion, was not just upping the ante in a numbers game. Rather Jesus was saying that counting the number of acts of forgiveness is the wrong approach. In so doing, I believe, Jesus revealed a profound understanding of human psychology. Peter’s saying there is only one sin against him by another person is probably wrong, and in fact Peter probably believes there are other sins as well. Moreover, because we are all weak, the sense of anger Peter must feel over a wrong done to him may erupt again and again, often when he least expects it. Therefore, forgiveness of the other is always unfinished business, and repeated acts of forgiveness may be necessary.

The parable of the king and his slave starts out with the slave’s debt of 10,000 talents, which at the time could be seen as the largest amount imaginable. Indeed, it exceeded the annual taxes for all of Syria, Phonecia, Judea and Samaria. It would be impossible for any individual to repay. The amount of debt owed to the slave, on the other hand, represented 100 days of the wages of an ordinary laborer, still an impossible debt for the other slave to repay.[2]

Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, according to one source, ended with verse 33 and was intended by Jesus to be about a Gentile tyrant, not about God. Verses 33 and 34, says this source, were added by Matthew to have the parable be about God.[3] But I find it impossible to accept the message of Matthew 18: 34 that God would send anyone to be tortured until he paid the debt.

This passage from Matthew about forgiveness of debts prompts the following comments and questions:

  • As a retired lawyer the “debt” language makes me think of normal commercial transactions where one party incurs an obligation or indebtedness to another person, and absent coercion or unfair advantage or subsequent bankruptcy, this is an obligation that should be honored. It should not be forgiven.
  • I vaguely recall some economists saying that U.S. bankruptcy law more liberally allowed for state-enforced forgiveness of debts than many other countries and thereby promoted U.S. economic growth by allowing people to start over economically. Do I recall this correctly? Is it a valid comment?
  • The notion of forgiving debts brings to mind the Jewish practice of the Jubilee Year, which I believe called for forgiveness of debts over land, slaves and indentured servants every 49 or 50 years. Is this a fair simplification of the practice? Is it still a practice today? Is it related to the Matthew passage in some way?
  • I struggle with the Presbyterian Church’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which says “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” The alternative language for the Lord’s Prayer that many others use— “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”—seems more appropriate to me because “trespass” is a wrong under the law and hence closer to the concept of sin. What am I missing?

Psalms 86: 1-15 for me is irrelevant to forgiveness or mercy other than the assertion in verse 5 that God is “good and forgiving.” Instead it is David’s prayer for protection and assistance when he was being pursued by his enemies (verses 7 and 14). The central verse, according to one commentary, is verse 11, where David asks God to teach him God’s way and to give him an “undivided” heart. The latter I see as an implicit confession that David’s heart is divided between God and something else.

I invite readers to help me answer these questions.

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[1] W. F. Albright & C. S. Mann, The Anchor Bible—Matthew at 223 (Garden City, NY; Doubleday & Co. 1871).

[2] VIII New Interpreter’s Bible at 380-83 (Nashville, TN; Abingdon Press 1995).

[3] Id.

God’s Humility

Humility is the second of five themes for Lent this year at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The New Testament Scripture for humility was the following passage from Acts (8: 26-40) (New Revised Standard Version):

  • “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 [the eunuch] reading the prophet Isaiah. [Philip] asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ [The eunuch] . . . 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.”

The complete passage from Isaiah (53: 1-9) (New Revised Standard Version) that the eunuch was reading was the following:

  • “Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and        like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
    and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
  • Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
  • But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
  • He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
  • Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

When I first read these passages, I was puzzled as to how Philip or the eunuch exemplified humility for us today.

The March 16th sermon, “What Does the Way of the Cross Ask of Us? Humility,” by Rev. Timothy Hart-Andersen eliminated my puzzlement.

He emphasized the passage of Isaiah as prophesizing the humility of God in coming in the human form of Jesus, who was “despised and rejected,” who experienced “suffering and infirmity,” who was “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” and who was “oppressed and afflicted.”

Christian faith, the sermon said, “is founded on the paradox of an all-powerful God submitting to suffering and the shame of an ignominious death. Pride hangs on the cross and dies, forever linking Christianity to a humble God. We cannot genuinely follow Jesus and keep our pride and ourselves at the center.”

The sermon also noted that the Isaiah passage and hence the Christian message were especially powerful for the Ethiopian man in a time when some young boys were captured, enslaved and castrated to render them unthreatening to the family they would be enslaved to serve. The Ethiopian man was a “slave, robbed of his capacity for family” and “not seen as a full human being by others.”

Hart-Anderson also said the message of humility was directed at “the powerful, not to the weak. They are a warning to those who lord it over others, not to those on the underside of history, where God is to be found.”

As I thought about this passage from Acts, I was struck by the fact that the man from Ethiopia does not have a name. He is identified only as the “eunuch.” I do not like this.

Too often today in the press and elsewhere we refer to someone as a “felon” or as “an illegal or undocumented alien” or as a “drug addict.” Yes, this is a convenient shorthand way to talk about someone in the context of a particular discussion. But the practice can easily cause us to believe, at least subconsciously, that this label completely describes a human being and to advocate or adopt public policies that are unfair.

For example, I am opposed to laws in most U.S. jurisdictions that forbid voting to “felons” or “ex-felons.” In my opinion, all U.S. citizens should be able to vote, including those who have been convicted of a felony, whether in or out prison. This was brought home to me in the Fall of 2012 when I was door-knocking for the re-election of President Obama in north Minneapolis, which has a high percentage of African-Americans. I met several people who told me that they could not vote, which I interpreted as an implicit admission that they had been convicted of felonies.