Game of Zones, Part 1
April 29, 2018
Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, Dale City, VA
The Acts of the Apostles
Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch
Following the Lectionary, we continue to dwell in the stories from Acts. As we know, Jesus commissioned the apostles in the beginning of Acts, as he told them (1:8):
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The good news of Jesus cannot be contained within borders; rather it pushes the boundaries and expands its domain; from Jerusalem, to in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. As Jesus said in Matthew, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” the heart of God’s love is to reach out everyone and all people — both Jews and Gentiles. And this becomes the mission of the church, a community filled with the Holy Spirit: to outspread the gospel like a wildfire. And such mission is carried out through the outstretched arms of the church, as its people go out and go beyond.
The Three Zones
Recently, I was introduced to The Learning Zone Model. According to this model developed by the German adventure pedagogue Tom Senninger, learning is always correlated with exploring and venturing out into the unknown. And I’m sure you have heard this before… ‘You have step to outside of your comfort zone to learn and grow.’
The Comfort Zone is our immediate surrounding. There is nothing much we can learn there, because we already know everything within. It is where we find peace. It is where we feel confidence. It is our safe haven. So, for us to learn something new, we must leave this space.
If we go too far out of our Comfort Zone, there is this Panic Zone, wherein learning becomes impossible. The element of the unknown is too much and too unbearable that it generates a sense of fear and other negative emotions. Our ability to learn gets shut down by our anxiety. There is no longer a desire for exploration, but only the desire to run away and retreat to our Comfort Zone.
Now, there is this in-between space called the Stretch Zone (or the Learning Zone). According to Senninger, this space is the most ideal place of learning. Only in this space can we learn and grow— through living out our curiosities and making new discoveries. This is where things are challenging yet rewarding. This is where we experience and familiarize ourselves with new information, so that we may further expand and push our comfort zone’s boundaries.
What The Learning Zone Model suggests is something we already know and we already practice. No one simply just jumps from Algebra 1 to AP Calculus. There are classes in-between that gradually take you to the highest and toughest level.
Moreover, this model applies not just merely in education, but in all aspects of life — including our social lives. In order for us to meet new people, we have to leave our immediate surroundings. But it requires gradual, small steps. Going too far out of our comfort zone may only cause traumas, where the unknown only makes us feel fearful and anxious.
In the Book of Acts, what we can see is the widening of the circle of Christian mission from Jerusalem — from within to outside — to Judea and Samaria, and then finally to the ends of the earth.
We see Philip following this very movement — from within to outside. He was first serving the community of Jerusalem as one of the seven deacons (6:1–6). And with the persecution against the church in Jerusalem, these deacons had to scatter throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria (8:1). Philip was forced to flee to Samara, and there he preached the good news of Jesus. Despite the historic tension between Jews and Samaritans, the scripture tells us that through Philip the city had accepted the word of God with joy (8:14).
Then, in today’s text, an angel of the Lord calls Philip to go to the road that crosses the border of Jerusalem and leads to Gaza. Again, Philip is pushed by the Spirit to go beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem towards Judea; to the intersection between the known and the unknown.
On that wilderness road, Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, a man who looks drastically different from Philip. The difference is not only marked by their ethnicity and race. The Ethiopian eunuch is a court official in charge of the queen’s entire treasury. This implies that he is a very powerful man — making him something like today’s Sectary of the Treasury. Also, him riding a chariot and owning a copy of a scroll of Isaiah implies his wealth as well as literacy. His sympathy for Judaism even suggests he’s perhaps a proselyte.
Despite his impressive status, his identity suggests that he is also to be considered as the “ultimate slave” — implied in his description as a eunuch, a man who has been castrated.
Perhaps, the reason why he is so close to royalty is simply out of convenience — of him not being a threat to the queen and of him being “safe”. Not having a sexual organ, however, does not mean not having sexual passion. For such reasons, history tells us that eunuchs are vulnerable targets of sexual exploitation by those with true power — further suggesting that his identity as a eunuch is tied to being the ultimate slave; simply a body in use, a perfect tool, a subhuman.
Further, the description suggests he is sexually ambiguous and impure. The eunuch is neither male nor female — unable to procreate and unable to be circumcised. While he visits Jerusalem to worship and reads the prophet Isaiah, we don’t know how the religious groups actually treated him. Deuteronomy 23:1 and Leviticus 21:20 exclude eunuchs like him from being admitted to the assembly of God. Through the lenses of religion, he is an abomination whose identity is in violation of Jewish law.
So, here is this Ethiopian eunuch. And, just like how an angel of the Lord told Philip to go to the wilderness road, the Spirit says to Philip: “Go over to the chariot and join it.” Again, Philip is pushed by the Spirit to go beyond the boundaries of the comfort zone of his religion.
Now, we have Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch sitting together in a chariot.
Philip asks, “Do you know what you are reading?”
The eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
And then, the two begins what we would call a bible study in a chariot on the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza; on the very space that is neither near nor distant, neither known nor unknown, neither familiar nor unfamiliar.
And there, Philip does not proclaim what is normal and what is deviant according to the comfort zone of his religion. Philip does not shove down the eunuch’s throat what is his religious preference and practice. Rather, Philip, “starting with this scripture,” proclaims to the eunuch the good news about Jesus. What can possibly be the good news about Jesus to this eunuch, other than Jesus himself being the good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and inclusion to the marginalized? The good news about Jesus is that Christ himself is the good news of God’s love to all people, bringing salvation to everyone who is waiting for him.
As suggested by Willie James Jennings, while explaining Isaiah 53 per the eunuch’s request, perhaps Philip was also performing Isaiah 56, where it is written (vv. 3–5):
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 covenant, 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.
So, in this in-between space on the wilderness road, the two strangers are now joined together by the Spirit; being surrounded by the divine presence that ultimately points to Jesus Christ. The Ethiopian eunuch is no longer cut off.
Upon discovering some water by the road, the eunuch asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” A person whose identity is subject to exclusion by the law, asks whether he may officially be included and be accepted.
The eunuch now knows the truth, that nothing can separate us from God’s love for us that is Christ Jesus our Lord (cf. Romans 8:31–39). The Ethiopian eunuch knows that he is not an abomination as others suggest, that he deserves to be part of God’s love just as much as everyone else, that he deserves to be a member of the body of Christ just as much as everyone else. The only requirement left for his baptism is his own confession: “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” (v. 37).
Again, Philip is pushed by the Spirit to go beyond the boundaries of his religion’s norm as he baptizes none other than an Ethiopian eunuch. And when they come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatches Philip away — putting him in a different region called Azotus.
The eunuch no longer sees Philip, but he is now filled with joy, a kind of joy that comes from emancipation. By the power of the Spirit in baptism, the eunuch now belongs to the Father through the Son. He is still an Ethiopian eunuch, but he is now free. Though Philip will no longer be there to tell him who to be and how to be, God will surely guide him and mold him into the disciple God calls him to be. In the end, the making of a disciple has always been up to God, not us.
Beyond the Comfort Zone
The widening of the circle of Christian mission correlates with the widening of one’s Comfort Zone. It follows the same pattern of movement that pushes boundaries. This movement requires a stride that crosses borders into the unknown, allowing mystery to be revealed in each step.
All of us have our own Comfort Zone. As a church, we have our collective Comfort Zone. As an individual, we have our personal Comfort Zone. And, we all know how hard it is to leave our Comfort Zone. We all know how we need that special push for us to step outside of our Comfort Zone. We all need that special push so that we may explore what is new and what is unknown in our life.
So does Philip. Nothing in today’s text describes where Philip does things actively. Rather, everything is described in the passive voice: Philip is led. Philip is directed. Philip is told. Philip’s mouth is opened, and he’s given words to speak. That special push for Philip is the Holy Spirit, who also guides each of our step into the unknown.
As The Learning Zone Model suggests, it is that liminal space between the known and the unknown where learning becomes the most effective. The same applies for Philip, being placed in the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza, where the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch happened. It is in that in-between space where the divine love is witnessed in the most revealing way. It is that in-between space where we are most susceptible to the miraculous grace of God.
This in-between space is fascinating to me. It is neither near nor distant. It is neither known or unknown. It is neither home nor away. It is neither family nor enemy. It is where our neighbors reside, those whom Jesus calls us to love.
The pattern of the Spirit’s movement is ever so significant. The Spirit stretches out towards the ends of the earth. The circle of its influence widens and expands. Just like a small child slowly venturing out into the world through leaving one’s Comfort Zone, the church is also to follow the Spirit’s movement through stepping outside of its Comfort Zone. We are to leave our immediate surroundings and to go love our neighbors. In this light, what Jesus said in Luke 14:26 almost makes sense:
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”
Our discipleship begins from our immediate surroundings, but it cannot just remain there and only cater to those who carry our name. See, family is our Comfort Zone for many of us. And our discipleship leads us to step out of our Comfort Zone as we obey the Spirit’s movement pushing us across our boundaries. That’s what it means to carry the cross and follow Jesus Christ.
Today’s church loves the idea of reaching to the ends of the earth, but it refuses to step outside of its Comfort Zone and its building. Today’s church loves the idea of reaching out to new people, but it refuses to sit in “their chariot” and to dwell in their unknown, unfamiliar life. Today’s church loves the idea of expanding its influence, but it refuses to be pushed around by the Holy Spirit.
Good Shepherd UMC
But this church got it right.
This church has learned how to step out of its Comfort Zone. This church has found its Stretch Zone — that in-between space — in the community of Dale City. This church has continued to open its space for those who look different; offering them a place of learning and fellowship. This church has built a trusting relationship with its local elementary schools, continually visiting and sitting at their chariots. This church has continued to go out and feed the poor and the hungry. This church has continued to rent out the nearby park, making it the perfect in-between space where the “love your neighbor” can happen.
As we witnessed in our community block party last week, our relationship with the community is growing. In fact, that’s what I have been witnessing in last two, three years. The seeds that had been planted awhile ago is now growing its vine branches. There has been noticeable growth in our outreach mission. We are welcoming more people. We are developing more relationships. We are receiving more feedback and interests. We are gaining traction and we now have a reputation in the community. Our students are wired to think for the community and for its people. Our church has been invited two years in a row from the District to celebrate the increase in professions of faith and/or average worship attendance.
I’ve been seeing a clear, noticeable growth. And I want to continue to see and witness what kind of fruit this church will bear; so that maybe I can take a partial credit for its success.😉
But I’m being snatched away by the Spirit, to a different region into the unknown — which again reminds us that this is God’s doing, and not ours. Whatever is happening here at Good Shepherd is God’s doing through the church’s obedience to the Spirit’s movement; surrendering ourselves to the outstretching movement of the Holy Spirit. And I pray that more of you would join in this effort and continue this movement. I pray that all of us — both collectively and individually — would continue this discipleship of ditching our comfort zone to carry the cross, following Christ into the in-between space and crossing boundaries to love our neighbors.
O Spirit, push us around with your grace.
In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[1, 3–5] Willie James Jennings, Acts: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 81–87.
 William Loader, “First Thoughts on Year B First Reading Acts Passages from the Lectionary,” Bill Loader’s Home Page.
 Jason Micheli, “Getting in the Way of Jesus,” Tamed Cynic, 24 Apr 2018.