May 2, 2021
As many of you know, we have set Sunday June 6 as the tentative date for our return to public worship. We’ve got a lot to do before then much of it having to do with communicating to all of you about what our worship will be like, what to expect. Our return to public worship whether it comes a month from now or at some other point will be both a joyful celebration of return, and an apprehensive, strange experience because of the months we’ve been apart from each other, all that we have experienced over that time, and the accommodations will have to continue to make because of the pandemic.
So much has changed. I’ve talked with you before about the eerie sense one gets being downtown—the empty sidewalks, the empty storefronts—the massive construction projects in the middle of the emptiness. And for us, perhaps the biggest change is the empty space in the basement of our west wing—the shelter having left on March 30 of last year. None of us has been around Grace enough to really process what the shelter’s departure means for our mission and identity.
In conversations over the last few weeks, I’ve talked with people about the future of the downtown, and Grace’s role in that future. You may have seen Dean Mosiman’s fine article in the State Journal about all that has changed downtown over the last fourteen months, and downtown leaders’ hopes for the future. There was no mention of the role churches might play in that future but I was surprised while reading an article on a secular site about rebuilding urban community after the pandemic, that the author specifically mentioned the importance of congregations in creating a new, more equitable, more humane urban communities.
Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most powerful stories in that book, perhaps in all of scripture. Full of drama and unexpected details, the questions in the text raise more questions for us twenty-first century Christians as we think about the road the Spirit is leading us on as we move from the exile of virtual worship and digital community toward the new realities of gathering for worship and walking into the future.
Acts is the second volume of Luke’s two-volume work that begins with the Gospel. The two works are linked thematically and organizationally. One of those overarching themes is geography. Luke constructs his gospel as a movement of Jesus toward Jerusalem, where he is crucified and raised from the dead, and ascends to heaven. Acts begins with the disciples still in Jerusalem, gathering in the same upper room where the Last Supper had taken place, where they had encountered the Risen Christ, and where they would receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Immediately before his ascension, Jesus had told them that “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Just before this episode, we read that as persecution forced the disciples to scatter from Jerusalem, Philipp had gone to Samaria where he preached and converted many. Now, the Spirit drives him further away, to the road to Gaza where he sees the Ethopian eunuch riding in a chariot. The spirit keeps moving Philipp further, telling him to run after the chariot. Willie James Jennings, in his brilliant commentary on Acts, says, “The Holy Spirit was chasing the Ethiopian eunuch.”
Then the remarkable story unfolds further. A series of questions follows. First, Philip asks if the eunuch understands what he is reading. In response comes another question, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And a relationship is born, between disciple and reader, centered on the text of scripture. He reads from Isaiah 53 and asks for clarification. Philip preaches to him, a sermon for one, telling him the story of Jesus. At the end, the eunuch asks the final question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
We don’t get how strange this all is. The eunuch is completely other. African, Black, not a Jew, though he likely was what Acts calls “god-fearers” people who were attracted to the monotheism and high ethical standards of Judaism. He was also a eunuch—barred by Mosaic law from serving at the altar. He was a gentile. This is the first time in Acts that the disciples had to confront what would become one of the central questions for that book and for early Christianity—what would be the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in this new community created by Christ?
Philip didn’t have to think twice. In this story full of miracles and surprises, as they travel down a desert road, they come upon some water, the eunuch asks his question and Philip quickly baptizes him. Just as quickly, the Spirit snatches up Philip, the eunuch saw him no more, and he went on his way rejoicing.
This is a story about evangelism. It is also a story about transformative conversations taking place in difficult spaces and across great difference. It is a story about the spirit leading and the spirit snatching away, a story about faith, and reading, and baptism.
The book of Acts is about the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, and about the creative chaos of the Holy Spirit. For us in this time, this story and the story of book of Acts may seem particularly strange, perhaps even irrelevant. Who of us have been making journeys to distant places? I’ve joked that the furthest I’ve traveled since March of 2020 was to Watertown, where Corrie got her vaccines. We’ve been largely confined to our homes, limited in travel and in encounters with strangers.
And as members of a church that has been in the same location for over 160, and whose stone walls are the very symbol of stability and permanence, the idea that the Spirit might be snatching us up and out into new encounters seems a bit far-fetched. But as I’ve been saying, and as the articles I referred to at the beginning of this sermon make clear, when we return to in-person worship next month, we will be worshiping in a very different place than where we worshiped a couple of years ago. The landscape has changed dramatically; our own identity and mission has changed with the departure of the shelter.
Where is the Spirit chasing us? Who will we meet along the way? These are burning questions for us as we seek to follow Jesus along the wilderness road. Can we make relationships across difference; can we gather around scripture to read it together and discern God’s call to us? Will we have the courage to step out into the unknown to meet with people, like Philip, even run after them as they make their way, to invite them into relationship with God? Can we imagine the strange new places and people toward which the Spirit is leading us, and the strange new people we might become through those encounters and relationships? And finally, can we envision the joy that we might feel, the rejoicing we might do, at the end?
The Spirit is leading us down a new road into the future. May it be a road along which we encounter the Holy Spirit, a road on which we invite those we meet to join us in this great adventure of faith.