See the StrangerFr. Barnabas Powell
“How people treat other people is a direct reflection of how they feel about themselves.” I read this quote, as I was preparing this devotional, and it took me a minute to process the implications of this wisdom. I confess it made me a bit uncomfortable.
And I think the reason is that I really do struggle to know myself well enough to avoid the pitfalls of image over reality.
And yet, the scriptures enshrine the notion that how we treat strangers is a reflection of how we have actually embraced loving God! I know how it feels to be a “stranger” and so does God because “He came unto His own and His own knew Him not! (John 1:11-12) How I treat strangers reflects a deep truth about myself!
Look at our lesson today in the Acts of the Apostles 8:26-39:
In those days, an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert road. And he rose and went. And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of all her treasure, had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go up and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: “As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth.” And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus. And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught up Philip; and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
The Christian Faith is in its infancy here, and St. Philip is traveling to share the Faith with others when he comes across a man from Ethiopia reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Philip asks the right question “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the Ethiopian servant of Queen Candace of Ethiopia answers as the humble and teachable man he is “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
What I love about this story is the powerful image of humility and obedience. Philip obeys the direction of the Holy Spirit to approach this stranger, and the stranger is obedient to the wisdom St. Philip offers him.
Of course, this spreads the Gospel of Jesus all across Ethiopia and Ethiopia becomes one of the first kingdoms to be Christianized!
What a powerful witness to the reality of humility and love of the stranger!
Our superficial fear of strangers or “outsiders” is rarely helpful to us in the long run. I’ve watched as people have even approached Holy Orthodoxy and been treated as unwelcomed strangers by people in parishes and heard their complaints when all they wanted was to embrace the Faith. I’ve grieved with them as they have poured out their hearts that they were always treated as “unwelcomed” because they weren’t of the right ethnic background to be at this or that parish. And I’ve watched as they have left looking at Orthodoxy as a place where their family could find a home.
How tragic that this foolish fear of the stranger creates the very spiritual illness that will mean the disappearance of parishes all across the country as the congregation ages and then passes away. How we treat the stranger among us will determine if we are followers of Christ or not!
Today, how do you treat “outsiders?” Do you realize this behavior tells you about yourself more than anything else? How does your parish treat outsiders? Do you realize this behavior reveals whether that parish community will survive or disappear? Is that what you want? If we are going to be Orthodox on Purpose, we are going to have to welcome the stranger into our communities!
P.S. Dear Lord, You know what it is like to be treated like a Stranger. Your own “ethnic” community rejected You. Your command that we love the outsider is meant to transform us to be like You. Give us the grace to so love You that no one is ever truly a stranger among us. Amen