Chased by the Holy Spirit: A Sermon for Easter 5B, 2021

            
5 Easter 

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.

Where might the Spirit snatch us up and take us? A Sermon for 5 Easter, 2015

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. Continue reading

How can I [understand] unless someone guides me? Reflections on the Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

This week’s readings are here.

The Acts reading (Acts 8:26-40), the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, is one of the great stories in scripture. Philip is one of the men who was selected as a deacon to serve the hellenistic community (his name is of Greek origin). He had gone to Samaria, where his preaching met with great success (Acts 8: 4-8), but now an angel of the Lord takes him away into the wilderness. Here he comes upon an Ethiopian official who has been in Jerusalem to worship. As a Gentile, he was an outsider, but as a eunuch he could not participate in temple worship. He is reading from Isaiah, but can’t understand it. Philip helps him, and suddenly, miraculously, they come upon some water in the wilderness, and the eunuch asks, “What prevents me from being baptized?”

This is one of a series of conversion stories in Acts (Paul, Cornelius the centurion follow this one) in which the Holy Spirit works to transform individuals and also to transform the community of those who follow Jesus Christ. The group of disciples, Galileean followers of Jesus, is expanding to include members from other religious and ethnic groups and in so doing, the commandment to spread the gospel to all the nations is already being fulfilled.

But there’s more. What prevented the eunuch from being baptized? Well, all of the Jewish laws of purity did. As a eunuch, he was by definition outside the holy community; he could not approach the altar or even enter the temple (Deuteronomy 23:1). But nothing prevented him from being baptized, and so Philip did.

There are at least two important issues raised by this text. The first, of course, is that of inclusion. We see hear the expansion of the Gospel, and of the Christian community far beyond its original Jewish and Jerusalem setting. Philip, a Greek or at least Hellenist, preaches first in Samaria, then converts an Ethiopian eunuch–it’s difficult to imagine a figure more exotic, more other, more non-Jewish than that.

But there’s another theme that I find equally compelling. The eunuch is reading scripture and can make no sense of it. He needs help, and Philip provides or explains it to him. We often assume that the sense of scripture is clear, indisputable, and available to anyone who can read, or can hear it being read. But it’s not. Reading and interpreting scripture requires the help of others, of a tradition, of a community in which that scripture is a living organism, and in which the community wrestles with its meaning in a particular historical and cultural context. Philip helped the eunuch understand, and by understanding, the eunuch came to request baptism.