I going to have to disappoint him. I'm better than the person he thinks I am.  These were the words that Omar Khadr spoke when responding to government efforts to keep him imprisoned.  The “him” is particular to the Prime Minister. I going to have to disappoint him. I'm better than the person he thinks I am.  When I heard those words on Thursday evening, they lodged deeply in me and they have haunted me, in a good way, since Omar uttered them.

It reminds us about a person.  Wars are never about persons.  The Christian gospel is about persons.

They also help me understand a key dynamic established by the emerging Christian community in the wake of the life and death of Jesus.  We read about this dynamic in our Biblical story this week, a story found in chapter eight of the Acts of the Apostles

 

A main character is this story is Phillip.  Phillip was a person, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, and was identified as belonging to that group known as the “twelve disciples”.  In the Biblical narrative, we are we are immediately introduced to Phillip’s gift to befriend.   When Jesus, when the Holy One, called Phillip to “follow him”, Phillip immediately went to find his friend Nathaniel to ask him to come along as well.  Nathaniel was the one who noted that Jesus was from Nazareth, and wondered aloud if anything good can come from Nazareth?  Can anything good come from some labeled a terrorist in Afghanistan?

That was a question Phillip didn’t ask.  His natural instinct, his gift, was to befriend to reach beyond the barriers others set up.  

We all have natural gifts, woven into the unique person that we are.  The spiritual task in life is to bring the gifts that are ours to blossom, to flower, to bear fruit in the course of our lives, and all too often disappoint because we are better than others thing we are.  This is what happens to Phillip for he disappoints his religious tradition as he follows Jesus.

You see, Phillip is one of those quieter, less flashy disciples, yet after Jesus death and resurrection, Phillip became one of the earliest spokesperson for the Jesus movement.  Phillip broke down barriers when he spoke about Jesus’ healing and ongoing justice movement in Samaritan villages.  Phillip befriended those he had been taught to look down upon, those who disappoint.   Samaritans had the prejudicial label of “half-breeds” as a result of inter-cultural marriage.  But Phillip’s natural instinct, his gift, was to reach beyond derogatory labels and untrue designations, to see the real person, a giftedness reinforced by Jesus who had reached out to an outcast Samaritan woman at a well and who told the story about the Good Samaritan in order to teach us that everyone in the human family is our neighbour.  

Phillip had become comfortable in wider circles and in the story we now read, the circle becomes even wider.  It is a surprising story, but a story that doesn’t seem to take Phillip by surprise.  The story goes like this…

The angel of the Lord spoke to Phillip saying, “Be ready to set out at noon along the road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza, the desert road.  So Phillip set off on his journey. 

The road from Jerusalem to Gaza was not some Palestinian interstate, but a little old wilderness back road.  It was not a comfort zone journey, and this is where Phillip was called.   

Sometimes, we all find ourselves called to similar roads.  Sometimes in life, the sacred calls us to journey, journeys that take us places we never imagined.  Omar Khadr’s lawyer, Dennis Edney, reflected on that journey that I decided to do a long time ago, when I walked out of Guantanamo for the first time and I knew I would like to restore Omar back to whole  a journey Edney has spent millions on, but a journey undergirded by the conviction that I think he's worth every effort. I met him in a cold, empty cell. And I saw a broken bird, chained to a floor. So, we journeyed together. We have, in some ways, both grown up together. I'm proud of who he is. He's gone through hell.  Edney felt a sacred call, and this is a sacred call that comes to all of us at times when happenstance and circumstance put us into situations that demand us to go on a journey.

Let’s see what happened on the road Phillip journeyed…

Now it happened that an Ethiopian had been on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  He was a eunuch and an officer at the court of the queen of Ethiopia.  He was in fact her chief treasurer.  

On this road, Phillip meets a person, a someone, and that someone is no mere Samaritan. We are now into mega difference.   Phillip is encountering a “foreigner” from a far away land, from the suspect South, one of completely different race and background and religion.

Not only that, but this stranger is a eunuch, is a person who has had his testicles removed.  Phillip, as a boy, would have been taught that a eunuch was damaged goods and not allowed into the temple because eunuchs are not acceptable to God.  The laws clearly stated, “don’t let the Eunuch in” Phillip was taught, by other people, that God didn’t want the eunuch around.  

But Phillip disappoints, Phillip has a gift, has been figuring out faith and life for himself, and so the story unfolds differently.

This Ethiopian was now on his way home, and as he sat in his chariot he was reading the prophet Isaiah.  The Spirit said to Phillip, “go up and meet that chariot”.  

I just love Phillip in this story, because of his natural way of being.  

First, there is a chariot before him, the ancient version of limousines, and therefore intended to create barrier between wealth and poverty.  But Phillip does something different.  

Listen…When Phillip ran up, he heard the eunuch reading Isaiah the prophet and Philip asked the eunuch, “do you understand what you are reading?”.  The eunuch replied, “how can I unless I have someone to guide me?” So he invited Philip to get in and sit by his side.

Not only did Phillip not listen to the chariot-like screams telling him "don’t go there".  But Phillip, casually responds to the invitation of this foreign eunuch to sit down and chat about the prophet Isaiah.  No angst, no theological debate, no checking it out with his religious superiors, Phillip gets in.   It is the gift of receiving life and receiving people as they are.  It is the gift of befriending.

But the writer of the story is crafting a marvelous narrative.  The Eunuch is reading the prophet Isaiah.  One cannot help but notice the giftedness in this eunuch, his giftedness of curiosity.  This eunuch has been fortunate enough to be educated, to have the intellect nurtured, and has risen to a high level job in the Ethiopian beaurcracy.  Now international travel has brought this Eunuch into Judea.  While there, our friend from Ethiopia reads the Hebrew prophets.  One has a sense of a spiritual longing, a sacred quest, a searching that bubbles up within the heart of this Eunuch.  

The Eunuch is being introduced to the prophet, but Phillip has grown up reading the prophet.  The gifts of befriending and curiosity collide.

Yet in this story it is not simply a matter of explaining the story in order to “educate” a foreign eunuch, the writer is really explaining the meaning of the Christian community.  You see it is not about changing the eunuch, it is about transforming the Christian community.  In the early Jesus movement were being born and mothered, realizations about the meaning of the prophet Isaiah, realizations that had been there all along, but which had been silenced.  

In the second section of Isaiah where there were the first articulation of religious universalism where Isaiah begins to break down the barrier of “us” and “them”.  This disintegration was illustrated in songs called the Servant Songs.  It was one of these songs that the Ethiopian eunuch was reading.  

But for the early readers of this narrative, there is even more.  The prophet Isaiah was so radical, that in the beginning of chapter 56, we read these words…

Thus says the Lord…have a care for justice, act with integrity, for soon my salvation will come and my integrity be made known…and let no foreigner who has attached themselves to the Lord say, “the lord will exclude me from the people.”  Let no Eunuch say, “I am a dried up tree” for the Lord say this…”to the eunuch who observe my Sabbaths and resolve to do what please me and clings to my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than daughters and sons.  I will give them an everlasting name that shall never be effaced…and foreigners who have attached themselves to the lord…these I will bring to my holy mountain…for my house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.  

The Christian assembly is to exclude no one, the Christian community is servant of all.  In the Bible there are two voices, one that excluded and one that included.  The Jesus movement clearly identified the sacred voice as the voice of inclusion.  The character of the eunuch symbolically carries the message of the prophet Isaiah.

There is lots more that could be said, but time limits us from further exploration.  The story continues…

Further along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look there is some water here, is there anything to stop me from being baptized?”  The Eunuch ordered the chariot be stopped, then Philip and the eunuch both went down into the water and Philip baptized him.  But after Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch had come up out of the water, Phillip was taken away by the Spirit of the Lord, and the eunuch never saw Phillip again.  However, the eunuch went on his way rejoicing.

The Christian community is a place where those who have been excluded can find a reason to rejoice. Baptism within our Christian tradition is the sign of belonging and in this story there is a revolutionary understanding of who is part of the family.  One can’t play politics with who belongs to God’s family.  I going to have to disappoint him. I'm better than the person he thinks I am.  

As I watched with fascination the interview with Omar Khadr, I was mesmorized not only by his smile but by his groundedness.  He was not regurgitating speaking points, he was responding to questions in a simple and authentic manner.  He was a person.  If you haven’t seen the interview, go watch it.

The origins of the Jesus movement, the origins of the Christian community was a clear and simple yes to a radical inclusion of all persons.  We tell this story, not because we are perfect or more holy or more learned, but simply because we have experienced the grace of welcome, and so many are looking for that grace.

Can we share the gift of befriending, can we “disappoint” a judgemental world be being better persons than people think we are by disappointing prejudice and war?