Easter 5 May 10, 2009

Acts 8:26-40                                                                        

John 15:1-8                                                                         


(Members of the youth group presented a dramatization of the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. The congregation renewed their baptismal vows, sprinkled with water from the Font by the children.)


Our lives are shaped by little coincidences that aren’t coincidents at all, but the workings of God’s Holy Spirit. We can plan our lives, our children’s lives, so carefully. We can work so hard at fulfilling dreams. But in the end, the power of the Spirit working largely unseen trumps whatever we try to do. Would I be here this morning, would I be an Episcopalian, let alone a priest, if a college friend had not invited me to come with him early one Sunday morning to the S.S.J.E monastery in Cambridge? I doubt it. The working of the Spirit.


So this drama we’ve just witnessed, about the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, is about the working of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the whole of the Book of Acts is the story of the Spirit: how the Spirit transformed and empowered a tiny group of disspirited followers of Jesus after his death (probably about the same number of people as we have in the membership of Holy Cross Church). How the Spirit sent them out to change the world.


We heard in the drama how unlikely it was—unlikely in terms of human plans—that this Ethiopian eunuch would have found himself invited to become part of the family of God. He was not a Jew, but a foreigner—exotic, strange, from the edge of the known world. He would not have been allowed to become a Jew, one of God’s chosen people, because his physical mutilation rendered him impure, less than whole.


Nevertheless he was intrigued by the teachings of the Hebrew Bible. He was like a child outside a candy store, nose pressed to the window, longing to come inside. But the door to this wonderland was closed to him. Then along comes Philip and tells him about a key that will unlock the door: Jesus Christ. This is terribly important. You see, the Good News preached by Jesus was that all the restrictions that religious authorities had set up to keep unworthy, imperfect people out of the candy store of God’s kingdom, were nothing—things set up by the authorities to keep control for themselves, not things set up by God. God, said Jesus, wants everyone to come in.


That was the great difference between the old religion of Jesus’s time, the religion of the Pharisees and the temple authorities, and the new religion preached by Jesus and his followers—by people like Philip. It was the great break that the movement which became Christianity made from Judaism, the break that gave it the energy to spread and grow in the generations after Jesus’s death. All the little rules, the little niceties—they were set aside. You just had to want to come in, be ready to receive and follow the way set forth in Jesus Christ, and want to follow in his way.


All this was two thousand years ago. But it is also right now, today. All religions set up their rules and niceties, Christianity as well as Judaism. Usually the rules start out with the best intentions. Wash your hands before you eat: well that makes sense. Don’t allow priests to marry, because they will pass their property and their jobs to their children: sensible again for the world of a thousand years ago when that rule was made. But even the best rules, if you never examine them and update them, become obstacles, often ways that people in power use to stay in power.


Bishop Walmsley recently passed on to me a little book called The Great Emergence, by a religion writer named Phyllis Tickle. The thesis of the book is that every 500 years or so, Christianity has undergone what Ms. Tickle calls a huge rummage sale: getting rid of all the old junk in its attic and clearing

the way for the Holy Spirit to move forward into a new age. That’s what’s going on today, she says. Old rules and niceties are being examined, being found in many cases to have outlived their original purpose and become obstacles to the Spirit of Christ, and are being thrown out.


One of these old rules, interestingly enough, may be the requirement that people be baptized before they come to the Table and join the Christian family in Communion. Now you know I’ve not seen the virtue in this. (I tend to hold onto old rules longer than I should!) Jesus invited everybody in, the argument goes. Only after experiencing his hospitality, after coming to his Table, did they really know what he was about. Only after “belonging,” as we like to say, are they really in a position to make the commitment that baptism represents. Baptism, this argument goes, is a commitment to mission; it grows out of our acceptance in Jesus, rather than coming before. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch rather supports that argument, doesn’t it?


I’m not ready to rush to reverse the order of Baptism first, Communion next. My mother used to tell the story of my being given a tricycle for my second birthday. Rather than get on it and ride off, as another little kid might have done, I turned it upside down and experimented for a long time on how the peddles turned the wheel. Only after I had really tested everything out, did I get on the seat and try to ride. But I’m listening. I’m listening. And I ask you all to listen too. Our whole reflection, currently underway, on our worship is an examination of when the established ways we do things get in the way of the working of God’s Spirit, rather than being an aid—particularly for younger people.


Ponder these things. We’ll be talking about them more. And as you do, reflect on the Ethiopian eunuch. He went on his way rejoicing, the Bible says. Joy of that sort, the joy that comes of being accepted, of being set free, is one of the marks of the Spirit. It is what church should be about. Is it true of our worship?


Are there things we need to change to make it be? The Spirit is always moving, always working, you know. Our job is to move with her, not to block her way.




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