When I was rector of a church in Pennsylvania, a couple asked to meet with me during the week. They came to my office, sat down and got right to the point: “Would you be willing to welcome our family into your church?”
I was taken aback by the question, so I said, “Come again.”
They repeated, “Would you be willing to welcome us into your church?”
“Of course,” I said. “Why would you even think otherwise?”
“Well,” they said, “we have a mentally disabled autistic son. We’ve gone to several churches, and in each one we have been asked to leave because the church could not handle our son in the Sunday school. Too challenging, too disruptive and too hard for the teachers. We’ve been given all sorts of reasons why we need to find somewhere else to worship.”
My heart went out to them. Most couples would have given up on the church long ago, but not them. They really believed in Jesus and they wanted a church that would act like Jesus. So I said to them, “I have a daughter with Down syndrome. I know it’s not easy for us parents with special needs children. Doors get slammed in our faces all the time, but the one place where we have a right to expect an open door is in the church. Here’s my promise to you: I’ll everything within my power to see that you and your son are fully welcomed into this church.”
I am happy to report that their son was welcomed into the church. So were several other special needs children and adults who became part of the church family. In fact, the parish made hospitality to special needs children one of its primary ministries.
When the new education wing was built, we invited the S. June Smith Center for special needs pre-school children to use our facilities during the week-at no cost except to cover expenses. Forty to 50 special needs children came to the church campus each day for programs in the morning and afternoon.
Gradually, word in the community spread that the parish was a safe and welcoming place for people with disabilities. The parish began receiving donations for special projects, such as a state-of-the-art playground. Members had a renewed sense of purpose, a pride in being a center of ministry. Eventually, the parish would host a second school-Veritas Academy-a Christian elementary school that specialized in the classical method of education. We had special needs children in one wing of the campus and children learning Latin and studying Aristotle in another.
What a wonderfully diverse parish family it was, a place of grace for all people where everyone was welcomed with open arms.
In Acts 8:26-40, we meet a man who is not part of the family. He just doesn’t fit in. He is a man excluded by the rules of religion. He is a gentile, a foreigner, black and perhaps worst of all, a eunuch. This man has been to Jerusalem, attempting to worship, hanging around the temple and trying to fit in. Yet the bible makes it clear that eunuchs are not allowed in the temple. The obvious question is “Why?” Why is he wasting his time with an institution that doesn’t want him?
The answer comes later in the story, when we find him reading the bible. With great courage and curiosity, he has followed the hunger of his heart. We find him pondering a passage from Isaiah: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter… In his humiliation justice was denied him. For his life was taken away from the earth.” Here is someone else who has been denied a full life, cut off from God and people, condemned to have no one remember him. The man is curious: who is being described? What has he done? What is going to happen to him? Of course, what he really wants to know is what is going to happen to him.
Now, it “just so happens” that Philip, one who has been commissioned to spread the Good News of Jesus, is nearby when the eunuch has his revelation. But as is often the case when events in our lives “just happen,” we know that it is the Spirit of God that has brought these two together. The eunuch insists that Philip explain to him the meaning of the scripture. Philip, responsive to the urgency of the moment, teaches the man everything he knows. Yes, he explains that the suffering servant as described by Isaiah has been embodied in the ministry of Jesus whose death and resurrection has led to new life for all people.
We can almost see the eunuch’s ears perk up. All people? Does Philip really mean that-new life for all people? The eunuch impulsively jumps up and with great excitement, proclaims, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized? What is to prevent me from becoming part of this living, welcoming Body of Christ?”
What indeed – except the law says no foreigners, no gentiles, no black men, no eunuchs are to be included within God’s exclusive people. What should Philip do? Well, he ends up doing what Jesus would do: He baptizes the eunuch.
One of my favorite hymns is “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” The word “mercy” in the Old Testament comes from the Hebrew word hesed, which is often translated as “loving kindness.” Mercy also has the same root as the word “womb.” Mercy, then, is like God’s womb. It is a place where the promise of full life is protected and can grow in a soft and rich environment of loving kindness. Yes, mercy is a womb where even a eunuch can be cherished and reborn. But if God’s mercy is wide, as the hymn promises, the question still remains: How wide is wide?
I once got into a discussion with my friend Bishop John Chane about the limits to the word inclusion. What are the parameters that we need to set on who is and is not eligible to be a recipient of the church’s ministry? Some Anglicans seem to think that “inclusion” is too broad a word and that we need to put down markers, or at least answer the question, “How wide is wide?”
Jesus gives us the answer to that question through his relationships with people. How wide is wide? As wide as the shepherd’s heart that risks the life of the 99 to find one lost sheep.
How wide is wide? As wide as a vineyard owner who pays the one-hour workers-the disabled and the homeless and the losers-as much as he pays the eight-hour workers-the vigorous and successful ones.
How wide is wide? As wide as those enigmatic teachings which beseech us to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us.
How wide is wide? As wide as the compassion that leads Jesus to eat with Zaccheus-the despised tax collector and dwarf-and to share bread with outcasts instead of with the power brokers of the community.
How wide is wide? Far wider than our own hearts have ever stretched.
And what about today? How wide is wide? The Anglican Church of Canada, and indeed the entire Anglican Communion, are struggling with that question. Is God expansive and loving enough to embrace all people everywhere, or does God draw a line at certain kinds of people simply because they may be different from us?
Should we bless or curse people who are not like us? Should we commend or condemn those who are different from us on some point of doctrine or church practice? Should we offer eucharistic hospitality to those who do not quite believe as we do? Should we be willing to baptize children whose parents don’t attend church as often as we would like? And what about same-sex couples? Should we respond to them? Should we count people in or kick people out?
Whatever we do will reflect the kind of God we believe in…a God who embraces or a God who excludes. One thing is certain. The same spirit that led Philip to the eunuch is leading the church today. The same spirit that allowed Philip to baptize a man who had been rejected by Judaism is leading the church to become a more open and inclusive community. I think that the Spirit of God is moving in the church, leading us to witness “the largeness of God’s love” which refuses to restrict that love to people who think like us or look like us or believe like us. I believe the spirit is beckoning the church to reach out and embrace everyone everywhere with the same love and acceptance that our great God has for us.
So how wide is wide? As wide as the love of Jesus.
One of the more inspiring films in recent years is Hotel Rwanda. The film is a depiction of genocide and of how one man, Paul Rusesabagina, sheltered and helped rescue more than 1,000 people. At the conclusion of the film, Paul and his family are taken by the U.N. officials from the hotel to a refugee camp. They make their way through the camp looking for their nieces who they hope are still alive. When they can’t find the girls, they make their way to buses that will transport hundreds of people to Tanzania.
A Red Cross worker who has worked with Paul to rescue orphans is in the camp and realizes that the hotel workers are passing through. She runs to catch the bus carrying Paul and his family, climbs aboard and tells Paul that his nieces are alive.The convoy stops so that they can go back to the camp and find the young girls.
In the film’s final scene, Paul, his family, the nieces and the group of orphans that Paul has promised to find a home for are all walking back to the bus. The Red Cross worker says to Paul, “They say there may not be enough room.” Paul quietly answers, “There is always room.”
That’s the good news Philip shares with the eunuch-in the church of Jesus Christ there is always room. Philip responds not because the eunuch is different, but because differences don’t matter. Setting aside the narrow confines of purity, Philip throws open the wide doors of God’s mercy. How wide is wide? As wide as the love of Jesus.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is rector of St. James Westminster in London, Ont.
Text: Acts 8:26-40