I was walking back to my car after a meeting with someone at UW one afternoon last week. It was a beautiful day, and I was enjoying the sun and watching students as they sat and talked and went about their activities. The sidewalks were full; greenspaces were full. My route took me past several campus ministry centers. Each of them had posted, in slightly different language, the slogan “All are welcome,” outside their doors. I started thinking about that slogan. You see it at the entrances of many churches, including Episcopal; or on websites, or in marketing materials. I didn’t go back to look, but I’m sure you can find it in our literature at Grace, as well.
Something about it got me thinking. It might have been only because I saw it on a procession of doors as I walked across campus and the contrast between those signs and the life that was happening in the public spaces around me was especially sharp. You can see similar contrasts downtown most days of the week. Grace Church with its closed doors, foreboding, and forbidding entrance, while people walk around the square, get their lunches at a food cart. The contrast is especially dramatic during the Farmer’s Market or on weekends like Art Fair on the Square or Taste of Madison. It’s a powerful metaphor for the role of the church in the 21st century, an institution built for the nineteenth or twentieth century, while in the 21st century, new forms of community and new forms of communication have created new ways to find meaning, pursue justice, and seek connection. What does a sign that proclaims “all are welcome” say to a kid who won’t see it because he’s looking at his iphone while walking past?
Some of you may be wondering where I’m going with this line of thought—after all, we’re preparing to begin renovations here at Grace and among our goals are to make our facilities more accessible, more welcoming, and more available to our community. Am I suggesting we shouldn’t spend the money? Not at all! I’m going to come back to this later in the sermon, but now I want us to think about this wonderful story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
Each year in the three-year lectionary cycle we read stories from the Book of Acts. This year’s readings are somewhat disjointed. It’s hard to draw connections or see the larger narrative arc from that we provided on the seven Sundays of Eastertide. To remind you, Acts is the second half of a single narrative that begins with the Gospel of Luke. They share a common author and audience, and an overarching structure. There are different ways of understanding this structure. One is geographical. Luke wants to tell the story of the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. This is so important to him that unlike Mark and Matthew, in which the angels at the tomb tell the women that the disciples should go to Galilee where they will encounter the risen Christ, in Luke, those encounters take place in Jerusalem. The gospel of Luke ends in Jerusalem; Acts begins in Jerusalem and we’re told how the gospel spreads from Jerusalem to Samaria, to Asia Minor and Greece, all the way to Rome. Philip’s encounter with the eunuch is part of that story.
There’s another important thematic gesture in Luke and Acts—the Holy Spirit. It comes down on Jesus at his baptism. His last words from the cross are “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” The Holy Spirit comes down again, at Pentecost, on all of the disciples, and it spreads throughout the world, acting violently, randomly, as it does in this story.
I hope you can see how this story fits into both of those larger themes—the Ethiopian eunuch is an example of the spread of the gospel into the wider world from Jerusalem and the spirit snatches Philip up. The spirit is propelling the activity.
But there’s more to this story. For it’s not just about the gospel’s spread. It’s about the expansion of the notion of God’s people and the inclusion in the body of Christ of people outside the covenant law. The Ethiopian eunuch has come to Jerusalem to worship. That is in itself something of a surprise. We know from earlier in Acts, and indeed from non-biblical sources that Jewish monotheism was attractive to certain groups within (and perhaps in this case outside) the Roman empire. Acts and other New Testament texts call these people “God-fearers.” They hadn’t converted to Judaism, but they were attracted to its monotheism and its high ethical standards. It’s likely that the eunuch could be counted among this group.
That is, except for one problem. He was a eunuch and as a eunuch he couldn’t participate in the rituals of the temple. He couldn’t enter the holiest precincts; he couldn’t offer sacrifices; in fact, he couldn’t become a Jew. We don’t know what he was thinking as he was returning home from his visit to Jerusalem. Was he disappointed? Had he been able to do what he wanted to do? That he was reading from Hebrew scriptures, from Isaiah, suggests that he was hoping to learn more, to go deeper in his quest for God. But he was stuck. He was reading, he understood the words, but he couldn’t get the meaning of them.
By chance, by the leading of the Spirit, Philip came upon him and helped him to make sense of what he was reading. He opened up scripture for him; he proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ to him, and in response, the eunuch asked him, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Well, the correct answer was, “Everything.” He was Ethiopian, a non-Jew; he was a eunuch. But neither of those was a barrier for Philip or for the Holy Spirit. Miraculously, in this dry country, they came upon some water and Philip baptized him. We can assume he went on his way, back to Ethiopia, and spread the good news there.
The Book of Acts is filled with stories of the movement of the Holy Spirit. It moves the disciples out into the world. It moves them to places they couldn’t have imagined going on their own. It moves them to do things they couldn’t have imagined doing. It moves them to encounter and embrace people who they thought were outside of God’s grace. It inspires in them a new, expanded and expanding vision of God and of the people of God.
The Spirit is still moving. It’s even moving here, within the walls of Grace Church, and as look ahead into the future, it’s moving us beyond these walls. It’s even moving us to break down some of these walls. But I wonder whether we are able to break down the barriers within ourselves, barriers that prevent us from imagining new possibilities, new ways the Spirit might be wanting to move.
In a contemporary world where people seeking spiritual connection might be inclined to look first in places other than church, how can we as a congregation, as individuals, help to connect them with God? In such a world, in our world, it takes a lot more than an “All are welcome” sign. Are we able and willing, like Philip, to respond to the questions of friends, co-workers, passers-by? Can we answer their questions, help them explore the riches of scripture, invite them into encounter with the Risen Christ? Are there ways in which our newly-renovated spaces can make such encounters possible?
I’m confident we can do all of those things. Some of us already are, and there are ways in which our facilities already make such encounters possible. But at the same time, to be open to the movement of the Spirit means being open to the possibility that we will encounter and be asked to embrace people very much unlike ourselves. It’s likely that being open to the movement of the Spirit means that we are also open to new ways of doing things, new ways of being church, new experiences, new modes of communication, and new forms of community. The Spirit may be about to snatch us up, and where she will put us down again, we cannot know.