This is one of the weeks of the Eucharistic lectionary when I have had to struggle extensively as I prepared this sermon. My struggle wasn’t with the dearth of material—over the years I’ve preached on both today’s gospel reading and the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. And as you know, I have a particular fondness for the Gospel of John, for vineyards, and for that good old word “abiding, so I began working on the gospel reading, and was thinking about including a hefty dose of material from the epistle reading as well.” But I was struggling because I was trying to discern which direction to go, what the Spirit is saying to our church, Grace Church today. In fact, as I prepared for the Wednesday eucharist at Capital Lakes, I decided to focus on the gospel and epistle reading. A member who attended that service, joked that he enjoys seeing how my thoughts develop from Wednesday to Sunday. Well, he’s I for a surprise today.
We’ve been talking about inclusion and racism, and racial inequities in our congregation for the last several years. A group of us have become very involved in advocacy and ministry around these issues, especially around criminal justice reform. All this occurs against the backdrop of increasing awareness of all the ways American Christianity, not just evangelicals, but the mainline as well, is deeply implicated in racist attitudes and policies traditionally and down to the present. I’ve mentioned the book The End of White Christian Americain sermons and blog posts, that analyzes statistics and the history of American Christianity and the changing demographics in our country. Yesterday saw the death of James Cone, the great African-American theologian who for nearly 50 years challenged American theology and ecclesial institutions to take seriously all of the ways that racism is embedded in our thought and practice. His book, The Cross and the Lynching Treeis a powerful examination of the implications of the practice of lynching for thinking about the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion.
This story from Acts has played a role in American Christian notions of racism and liberation. It’s no accident that most Episcopal Churches named St. Philip’s are or were, primarily African-American congregations.
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 wa
nting 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? Can we lay aside our prejudices, overcome our discomfort with people unlike ourselves—whether their difference from is based on their skin color, their socio-economic status, their gender or sexuality?
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.