All are Welcome, because All Belong

I speak to you in the name of one God, Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. Amen +

“All are welcome, because all belong…All are welcome, because all belong”

For decades, the Episcopal Church has used the slogan “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” You can find this slogan on almost every Episcopal church street sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of the closest Episcopal church building. And while this slogan is lovely, many in the church have felt that it doesn’t say enough—that it’s too simple. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” …who is represented when we say “you”? Why are we so welcoming? For these reasons, I was delighted to hear a new take on an old slogan, “All are welcome, because all belong.” This is now the slogan Ascension and Holy Trinity, an Episcopal church in southern Ohio, has adopted. They made the change during their ongoing work on becoming an anti-racist community…work that forced them to name what they claim to believe and what in our Christian tradition informed such beliefs. “All are welcome, because all belong,” is a bold statement, but this morning on the 5th Sunday of Easter, I want to talk about why this statement is not only true for the Church today, but that it has been true from the very beginning of Christianity.

During the season of Easter, instead of our first Sunday lesson coming from the Old Testament, we hear readings from the Book of Acts. These readings are stories that tell of the church’s beginning works and shape the early beliefs of what would become the Christian Church. And this morning, we had the pleasure of hearing about the Ethiopian eunuch being welcomed by Phillip and Holy Spirit into a new community of believers. But this isn’t just simply a nice story about one person’s conversion…it is a theological statement that marks a hope-filled change for anyone who has ever felt that they don’t belong.

The story goes like this. After preaching the good news in Samaria, Philip was told by an angel of the Lord to travel South toward Gaza on a wilderness road. There, he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch who was returning home from visiting Jerusalem. The eunuch is reading from the prophet Isaiah and Philip asks, “do you understand what you are reading” and the eunuch replies, “how can I, unless someone guides me?” and at this point the eunuch invites Philip to sit. After reading the passage from Isaiah together, 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.

Why was the eunuch rejoicing? Why is this story so important? What makes this story more about belonging than just conversion? The key is knowing the cultural context of the eunuch. First of all, a eunuch is someone who has been castrated by those in power. They will never marry or have children. Instead, they led a life of servitude. They were othered and excluded from most aspects of communal life. According to Deut., “no one who has been castrated shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Eunuchs were not permitted in worship spaces and certainly not allowed in the Temple. But what is interesting, is that we hear in Acts that eunuch was returning home from Jerusalem, but the main reason he went in the first place was to worship there…why would you travel such a far way to worship in a place you know you won’t be welcome? Since the eunuch had access to the scroll of Isaiah, some theologians have speculated that eunuch may have read other portions of Isaiah, and one, in particular, could have sparked some hope for this spiritual seeker…in Isaiah 56, the portion of the book that talks about expanding the covenant to all who obey, Isaiah says, “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just 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 covenants, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.” This eunuch is a person of deep faith who is desperate for belonging. They traveled all the way from Ethiopia to worship the God that has given them hope, and it is almost certain that this eunuch was not allowed into the Temple at Jerusalem. Almost certainly, they came to the entrance with hopes of worshipping a God that sees value and purpose and love for them, and they were stopped entry because the religious authorities were following the rules. This is actually the person Philip met on the wilderness…a person rejected because of something than cannot change, and person confused because what he learned from Isaiah wasn’t actually true. At the eunuch’s moment of deepest despair comes someone who is willing to listen. They sit, they talk, they pray, they tell their backgrounds, they tell each other how they experience God, how Philip had seen Jesus’ acts of radical love and welcome, and together, they discerned that nothing, no old Deuteronomistic laws, no cultural norms, no oppressive society was going to stop Philip from fully incorporating the eunuch into the loving community of believers that know the truth. No matter your difference, whether you are able-bodied, maimed, deformed, blind, deaf, or castrated, nothing is to prevent you from knowing the all-loving power of belonging and welcome.

It is because of Jesus’ earthly ministry, the witnessing of his good, yet counter-cultural acts that sparked the hope that life could be different for those who feel they don’t belong, and it is this story that officially marks a religious, as well as faithful truth—all are welcome, because all belong.

Easter is a time to remember that the rules have changed. Death no longer has the last word. Resurrection is possible. God, with this Easter action made all things new. Life, all aspects of life should now be different, and the old rules of who was welcome have changed. And yet, although we know all these things to be true, our current reality does not reflect this truth.

Still to this day, far too many people of difference are denied entry and access to worship a God they have experienced to be true. And even if they are allowed in, who they are as God made them—who they are that cannot be changed is not accepted. Far too many times have I heard from people at their lowest point say, “I don’t feel like I belong anywhere…my family has disowned me, society has deemed me not worthy of rights, and the church has deemed me unsavable.” It is in those moments that I am most thankful to be part of a church that proudly continues the story of Philip and the eunuch. “What is stopping you from being fully embraced by a community of love? What is stopping you from belonging? Nothing!”

I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but our church is not merely tolerant…we are affirming. We see you. We love you. And you are welcome.

The Church represents the tenets of the early Christian church…the church that said even though you’ve been excluded in the past—even though you’ve always been told you don’t belong—you are welcome here. You are welcome because you belong. All are welcome, because all belong. Amen.