How can we know God? After all no one has ever seen God.
How are we to understand the Scripture? The words are from another time and a culture that is far different from ours.
How do we live lives of meaning and purpose? Value is so often measured by what we produce, how much we make, our status and position.
And how in the world do we know where we belong? There are so many groups, causes and organizations vying for our time and commitment. No family or group of friends or institution is without conflict, hypocrisy and the many ways we can be wounded or wound others.
These are just some of the questions you may have asked yourself at one time or another. I think it’s fair to say that questions like these have been on the minds of those participating in the Spiritual Pilgrimage here over the past two months. They are questions of faith, identity, purpose and belonging. When you’re wrestling with these, you’re wrestling with what really matters and with who you are called to be.
We hear the Ethiopian eunuch asking the same questions in the account of the Acts of the Apostles. He wants to know God. He has a longing for God. He makes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he hopes to encounter God. As a foreigner and a person whose sexual identity makes him unclean and suspect in Jewish society, he wonders where he belongs. He doesn’t fit in. As a successful and rich official of the Ethiopian court, he has the money, resources and learning to be riding in a fine chariot and possessing a rare handwritten manuscript of the book of the prophet Isaiah from the Hebrew Scripture. He can read it but he isn’t sure of the meaning.
And yet, something in these words touches a deep place of pain and hope in the core of his being. His experience resonates deeply with the one described by Isaiah. He too was like a lamb before its shearer. His life and manhood were cut off. Justice was denied him. A future was denied him. He could not prolong his life through children and at death his life would be taken away from this earth. It seemed as though the prophet was writing about him, but that could not be! Who is this one who is wounded as he has been, who shares a destiny with him, who understands him in a way that no one else can?
The Spirit of God hears the longing and sorrow of the eunuch. The Spirit sees beyond his wealth, success and high standing to the pain and deep desire for affirmation and belonging in the heart of this court official. So the Spirit sends him Philip. Philip, who always seems to be the one to greet those on the margins on behalf of Jesus and the disciples. Philip, who certainly didn’t travel in chariots, dress in fine clothes, possess a copy of the Scripture or probably even read. What Philip lacked in success, standing and influence was absolutely unimportant to God or to this desperate man. What he did possess was direct experience with the living Christ, the Jesus who himself was rejected and despised, the man of sorrows, well acquainted by grief. The Messiah who produced no heirs and possessed no earthly kingdom. The suffering servant who was struck down, afflicted and cut off as a result of the sins and failures of humanity.
Philip was able to be the true companion of the Ethiopian, across every cultural, ethnic and sexual barrier. He could travel with this man because he knew the love of God which crosses every boundary by the power of the Holy Spirit. When Philip spoke, he spoke of his own experience of the love of God, which came to him in Jesus when he least expected it. He could tell the stories of how God’s love in Jesus was offered to all, without exceptions.
He shared how Jesus made a community of love and belonging out of a completely diverse and ragtag bunch of disciples regardless of wealth, age, religious identity, righteousness or religious standing. Jesus welcomed the political zealot, the woman trapped in prostitution, the ill in body, mind and spirit and ordinary fishermen.
When the eunuch heard this amazing, good news he took charge. Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He grasped the good news of God’s love and full acceptance. He trusted completely in the One who had experienced everything that he had and was able to promise new life, full acceptance and a new identity. Wouldn’t you have loved to be a witness at that baptism? The tall, African man in his expensive robes steps out of his fine carriage accompanied by a poor, young Greek Jew in travel stained clothing. They come to a small stream or wadi and Philip pours water over him in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Ethiopian is born anew into a living hope, knowing himself as a beloved child of God and part of the inheritance of all the saints. His life can never be taken from him. He now lives in Christ and lives eternally.
We weren’t there, but… We get to be present at baptism here in this community and in other places where Christians gather. Many of us got to be present yesterday at St. Mark’s Cathedral when Nora, Keller, Suzi, Matt, Spiro and eighty other people were confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church. It was grand. The music was top notch. There was plenty of pomp and circumstance including the bishop in all his finery. We heard an amazing sermon about the grace and love of God which comes to each of us as gift and blessing and is not conditioned by whether or not we are worthy enough, valuable enough, holy enough or have it all together. Thank you Kate Davis for preaching the good news!
It was a glorious two hours but at a certain point, I started losing it. All 85 of those to be received or confirmed formed an enormous circle around the altar. Our five were backed by friends, family and their pilgrimage companions along with other members of St. Luke’s. We were a pretty large bunch. As the bishop came by to place his hands on each of our beloved ones I felt the Spirit descend in a rush of affirmation and power. Each of us had our hands on the shoulders of the candidates or on the shoulders of the ones in front of us and we were all connected. When the bishop was blessing Suzi, who was the first candidate, and then said “amen,” we joined in with a very enthusiastic and loud amen.
The Bishop said something like St. Luke’s Ballard is in the house and we all laughed with joy and gratitude and the rush of the Spirit. My heart was full to overflowing.
The author of First John is clear. We know and see God when we love one another. When we love another we enter into the flow of love that comes from God, through Jesus in the power of the Spirit. We don’t have to have perfect faith, complete understanding, or right behavior. We don’t even have to be religious by any institutional definition. “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Or, as the poet, Mary Oliver (a good Episcopalian) writes, “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You have only to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” (From Wild Geese)
We see God as we grow in love for one another, for all God’s creatures and for the whole earth. We understand the message of God’s love in Scripture as we gather with others in this pilgrimage of faith and wrestle with the questions and concerns we share. We come to belong to a vast community of faith, hope and love as we abide in Christ. Jesus, our vine, nourishes us and connects us to a living faith, a life-giving community and the love of God that surpasses all understanding.
As grand as yesterday’s liturgy was, it is the same form that we celebrate here in our humble little church every week. We gather with the signs of the table of Christ’s welcome and the font of new life. We hear the Scripture and puzzle it out together. We participate in the ancient and ecumenical creed that holds us in community. We pray for one another and the needs of the church, the world and the vulnerable. We share God’s peace and a common meal. And we are sent forth, like Philip, in the power of the Spirit to be Christ’s witnesses in the world.
We won’t all be together in this place forever. Some will move away. Some will drift away or get mad and leave. Others will grow sick or die. Our lives will change. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch never saw one another again. And yet. And yet, they and we are bound together in love forever. We have been made part of the Body of Christ and sealed with the Holy Spirit. We have been invited into the school of love in the community where we don’t all have to like each other or be alike but we get to learn how to love one another. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Amen.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21