One of Unclean Lips – Lectionary 05/30/2021

Isaiah 6:1-8

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Sermon Text

Last week we explored the importance of maintaining Vision in our life. The Spirit works within us and pushes us to find the means by which God will set the world right. The vacant stare of our cloudy eyes is made whole when God reaches down and sets a future in our heart to hope for. Beyond the darkness of the unknown, there is the faint light of God’s truest intentions for us. We see at a distance, as though through clouded glass, what life could be. Heaven is just a little ways off, but we can draw it closer if we are only willing to accept that God too wishes to draw us near.

The problem that can come to us, regardless of any other barrier erected, is that we are flawed and limited human beings. We tend to twist even the purest intentions of our hearts in one way or another. Our good works which we are meant to do in secret are turned into publicity stunts. The missions we go out to do become trips of tourism. Our works of mercy are made to scold rather than to embrace and love. The many acts of the Church throughout time have been marred, not by God’s part in them, but our own.

We do not have to live in this diminished state. The Spirit that works among us is also the Spirit that purifies us. The Justification we receive through God’s work in Christ and that is sealed in the Spirit prepares us to be sanctified to take the long road to perfect our intentions and in that perfection of will, find our actions likewise transformed. Though they may never be wholly sanctified, they are made nearly faultless, as faultless as any person could ever be.

We can only begin to see ourselves reach this purified state if we are honest about our own need to be made pure. The sick person who refuses testing will never know what the proper treatment is. If we cannot do the difficult work of introspection, then we will not truly root out the evil desires that have made themselves at home in the midst of our goodly ones. Like weeds among flowers, we must be discerning in how we cut and prune – always maintaining an honest conception of self.

We typically think of this revelation of our fallenness as something that happens at the outset of our faith. While it is true that God’s goodness and our own depravity inspires the first pivotal moment where we realize our need for salvation, that is not the only time we come to this realization. Periodically, we will feel the Spirit reminding us of some part of ourself God is still not welcome within. These deep bits of ourself are the growing edges that must be made smooth. Through Christ they can be made into something new, redeemed and reclaimed for God.

Today our scripture captures one such moment when a person of faith (a prophet no less!) realizes their need to be made right before God. Though this is usually seen as the start of Isaiah’s ministry, it is important to make note of two aspects of Isaiah’s life. Firstly, being a prophet in the Ancient World was a profession, and Isaiah had likely been called to this work long before he received this vision from God. Secondly, five chapters of introductory prophecy come before this event. This could be a simple mixing of chronologies, but it seems to tell a story. We receive many calls from God throughout our life and our present call does not deny the arrival of another.

Isaiah, standing in the temple, is greeted by the sight of burning angelic visitors. The Seraphim, literally “Burning Ones,” are angels that attend to God’s throne room throughout scripture. The exact nature of their form and function is unknown, but their appearance is always a serious matter. The angels surround and worship God. God is seen seated upon a throne that fills the temple near to bursting. The Glory of God, defined by God’s presence, cannot be contained by anything or anyone. Yet, through a wonderful act of mercy, God appears to us in a way we can discern and conceive of. God fills the Temple, who could otherwise not be held by the entirety of creation.

Isaiah is immediately overtaken by this glorious sight, crying out that his unclean state will be the death of him. The prophet who spoke God’s word was still far from perfect. There was still much left unsaid and what had been said was not yet wholly intelligible. The truth can remain true when it is not fully formed. The identification of a flower as a flower is not a falsehood, even if it is more properly called a daffodil. There is much more to be said, and Isaiah knows he is not in the proper place to proclaim it just yet. His realization is in itself a request to be made whole.

As soon as this plea leave his lips, an angel flies down and purifies Isaiah. The burning coal of incense represents many things, but perhaps most obviously it represents prayer. The words of our heart are given form and are carried by God’s Spirit. We are able to begin healing and recovery only in the moment when our acknowledgement of that need is offered up to God. We are carried out of darkness, set up to act in righteousness, and prepared to engage with God in a new way. We find our ears opened and hear God calling out to us, asking us to go out and prophesy to the world. We hear the call, what will be our answer to it?

If we say yes or as Isaiah puts it, “Here I am!” Then we will find ourselves taking part in God’s plan to renew creation. The vision we cast of what could be, will be transformed from potential to reality. Each of us, equipped with a purity of heart, intention, and focus, can truly bring about change in this world. This is all accomplished through God, the source and sustenance of all our life. We who have been set right will not fail, and even when we fall short, we will find God is good and revive our efforts.

The presence of God should be enough to inspires us to honestly assess our walk in this life, but we must be willing to do that work. Unless we can admit our faults, they will not be healed. Unless we see where sin has regained its hold on us, we cannot recommit these things to Christ. The power of the resurrection equips us to pursue God without ceasing. Let us therefore be prepared to run our race without additional weight set on our back.

Our return to God, our ministry on earth, all matters under the sun, are tied up into how we live our life. We ought to be holy as God is holy and run from evil wherever it presents itself. If we do the hard work of growing in faith, we will not be disappointed. For in the hands of God are peace and abundance and that peace transcends all else in this life. Let us see this peace inspire us to fearlessly repent. May that repentance reinvigorate our ministry to all the world. – Amen

The Spirit of Life – Pentecost 2021 – Lectionary 05/23/2021

Ezekiel 37:1-14

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

Acts 2: 1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Sermon Text

            Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The Spirit which enlivens us and supports us. With their gift it was possible for the 120 members of the Church to quickly expand the Church to include hundreds and hundreds of believers. Each one in turn would receive the Spirit, each one going out into the world to spread the Good News of Christ’s resurrection. Death had been conquered and nothing could be done to restore it to its former reign over human life. We who once were freed, could only return to captivity by choice.

The Spirit is a member of the Trinity that is seldom offered their due regard. Though we praise all members of the Trinity through praise of one, we often call on the Father or the Son and only on occasion invoke the Spirit. Yet, the Spirit is someone we cannot live without. It is the Spirit that lifts the mere matter we are made of and gives it life. It is the Spirit that marks our true baptism into God’s Kingdom. The Spirit sustains us, provides for us, connects and unites us. The Trinity is a unity of three persons and without any part of it creation would not exist.

The Spirit takes the spotlight at least once a year on the Pentecost. Here their contribution to God’s economy of grace cannot be denied. The Church grows because the Spirit gives us words to speak, power to do, directions to go in. It teaches us all the ways of Christ and discloses the nature of our Father in Heaven. They are the presence of God in all the earth, without which we would be left adrift in the void of a lifelessness, and existence devoid of substance. They are the blessing which we simply cannot persist without.

The question can still sit with us. If the Spirit is truly within us, if we have become a Temple to the risen Christ, then why do we lack the signs of the Church we see in Acts? Glossolalia has not opened up our mouths and made any of us bilingual. The Church is not, as we have discussed before, growing at any discernable rate.

It seems we have fallen away from a fully enlivened existence. If the Spirit is within us, then they seem to have met a substantial obstacle. God cannot be bested, that is true, but neither does God coerce us into action. The Spirit is only as capable at acting upon us as the flesh is willing to give up control. For though the Spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

The state that we often find ourselves in is not the overwhelming glory of the Pentecost, but the tired and scattered existence testified to in Ezekiel 37. The impossible height of mountainous fear locks us into a valley of Death. The horizons close in around us, we begin to lack dreams of anything but what already is. At best we hope to be sustained, at worst we long for our end to come quickly and as painlessly as possible.

The prophet Ezekiel wrote to a people in exile. At that time, there was a division among the people over what their expulsion from Judah meant. Some believed that God had justly punished them, others that God had grown tired of them and abandoned them, still others feared that God had been destroyed alongside the Temple. Ezekiel answers many of these concerns throughout his oracles. Most striking, however, is Ezekiel’s commitment to making clear that God is alive and active, willing to include the people in the renewal of creation. There was a promise of a new Temple, a new city, even – provocative beyond all else – of a new life.

In our scripture, God gives Ezekiel a vision. A valley filled with bones. This reflected very real scenes in the years after the Babylonian conquest of Judah. In the carrion field, Ezekiel is commanded to call the bones to take form. The Spirit is promised to them and the mere words of the prophets is enough to inspire the bones to find their peers. Bodies reformed as flesh and blood returned to them. The resulting forms are mere homunculi, images of humanity that lack any life-force of their own. They are the mere matter of creation that awaits the divine spark of life.

God calls upon Ezekiel to do what may seem impossible to us. God asks Ezekiel to prophesy to the Spirit itself. The breath of God, the wind that births all other winds, hears the words of the prophet and is moved to act. The command of God – enacted through the prophet – is manifested in a movement of the Spirit. A mystery is made plain to us, how prayer can bring about results, and we see life enter into the vacant bodies of the valley. Life has returned where once there was no life, a new start for all people.

This is revealed to be an image of God’s people. In the way that these bodies were reconstituted, so too would the scattered people of God be gathered and set right once again. Where stagnation had reigned, there would now be growth and the growth would shape all things into the blessed vision which God has given us from long ago. When we see this vision of a Valley of Dry Bones, we should see in it our present state. We are people in need of redemption, of rebirth, of a renewed infusion of God’s Spirit that will establish our ministry in all the world.

If we wish to see ourselves live into the legacy of Acts, we must know the revivification of Ezekiel. Our lifeless matter, drained of vitality by normalcy and doubts, is renewed by the intervention of God within our life. The key to achieving this is found in believing God is capable of it. This belief is accomplished by the testimony of prophets. A prophet is not someone who tells the future, but who casts an alternate vision of the world. Prophetic speech, to borrow a phrase from a popular musical, “make[s] you see how the world could be in spite of the way it is.”[1] The vision of the prophets is of a world where God is given proper placement within the throne room of our hearts.

To begin to grow the Church, we must first decide what it wants to be. Is it a place of learning? Of fellowship? Does it fulfill God’s command to feed the hungry and care for those in need? Without a vision there is only flailing, a floundering attempt to find land with no concept of what land even looks like. The Vision has its origin in God, and we can only find it by listening closely to God’s words towards us. Until the Spirit is given our ear, they will not give us the words we must speak, if we do not hear their words then we cannot breathe that same Spirit into the world.

Today we celebrate the birth of the Church. We also look forward to the day that God will re-invigorate our modern Church. This will not be like any rebirth before it. Revivals in tents and old-time expressions have had their time. God is doing something new in the world, if only we would be willing to hear the proclamation of its coming. Let us seek God’s vision for our life and for this church. Let us together join and seek the re-invigoration of God’s breath in our life. – Amen.

[1] Anaïs Mitchell, “Road to Hell (Reprise),”  Track 39 on Hadestown (OBCR,) Sing it Again, 2019, Digital.

Irreplaceable Witness – Lectionary 05/16/2021

Acts 1:15-26

          In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the book of Psalms,

‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; And ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”

So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Sermon Text

            Today we begin with a simple truth. You, yes you, are significant. Let us say it again. Every person gathered here as individuals, is significant. The call upon your life, given by God, belongs to you alone. The breath of Life in you is meant to animate you particularly. Your existence is not accidental nor are the circumstances which have nurtured you to be where you are today. God has given you life for a purpose.

            There is a great injustice in our modern age that this sort of message has been co-opted by feel good, self-help personalities and prosperity Gospel preachers. Yet, there is an essential truth in our life that we are magnificently beloved. The claim of scripture from Eden to the New Jerusalem is that God loves creation and seeks to make it more lovely. The garden planted for primordial humanity was full of all good food and required no plowing or planting to be tended. It was an ideal place where God was together with not only humanity- but all living things.

            The fracture of sin meant that we were torn from our God. The ultimate giver of love in all existence was now unable to be with their beloved. The gap which seemed insurmountable had to be bridged not only for the sake of human beings, but of God. God desired to be present with us, no matter how far afield we seem to be. No matter how lost we may be and how twisted our conduct may become, this remains the case.

There are those who believe God created the universe to be glorified through a sheer show of power, might, and will. I believe it is just as likely that God created to glory in the relationship God made between humanity and the Divine. As God so loved Godself – the Father loving the Son loving the Spirit in infinite cycles – so too could God now love us and we love God.

The Divine call rang out across all of creation, “Come Home!” The desire of our God to know us could not be quenched. Though we tried by murder and theft, crime of all persuasions, the flood waters of our iniquity were not enough to halt the redemptive powers of God. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses, our scripture recalls God’s continual attempts to redeem a world that tried its best to remain wicked and apart from its source. Sinai smoked and burned, wonders were worked to show the assembled people they had found their way to bliss. Still, there was an impulse within us to stay, to build idols in the Shadow of our God.

The prophets attested to God’s love, of a world beyond our own broken one where God would make right the hurt we had inflicted on one another. Though we stopped up our ears, the love of God reached outward until God finally enacted a drastic plan to set things right. Rather than sending envoys to tell us, God would put on flesh and live among us. The Trinity volunteered the architect of creation, the Divine Word of God, to take on a human life full of joy and grief, celebration and pain.

This same Divine Word who lived among us taught us of the great love of God. Love that could overpower sin, that could expel all excess and cruelty and render us holy and beloved in the presence of our God. Though this love shown bright, we did our best again to reject it. We snuffed out the bright light that set the stars to burn. The world grew dark, our victory over our God – who longed only to embrace us – seemed complete.

The victory was false on our part, because as we know nothing can stop God. Our rejected savior tore down the Gates of Death and broke the pivots to ensure they could never be erected again. The Love that had pursued us this far would not be stopped by something as trivial as death. Soon, at last, we began to accept – as a few had done in every generation – the love of our God. The disparate people scattered throughout all the world, now they could claim a common heritage. We of one source, now loved through the death and resurrection of the same. This long, twisting love story is what the past seven weeks have celebrated. The season of Easter comes to a close this week. With this ending we begin to turn outward in a new way – enlivened by the Spirit to serve God as we never have before.

Yet today we can choose to glory in the love of God. Our unique story of love between us and God defines the story of our lives. We all have a testimony of faith, some of us were born into the Church, others found their way here over time. Some have a long and convoluted past and others have lived quiet and simple lives. All stories find legitimacy under the banner of God’s love, all people find a home. There is a wideness in God’s mercy and in that mercy, we find ourselves at home with a family that stretches back eternally and of a God who never stops seeking to know us more.

Our call is restorative it depends on us repenting and chasing away evil from our hearts. God calls us not so that we can have a surface level faith or a half-hearted devotion. God desires us all and asks us to cast off the sin that had so long kept us apart. The reality of our need to reform should be plain. God did not die to free us only so that we could willingly give ourselves back over to our old ways. We were not saved simply from Hell but from the oppression of Sin and Death, freed for joyful obedience to our God.

The balance of our life is between the freedom we are given by God and the responsibilities that freedom has given to us. Yet, it seems that we can over emphasize either one – toward legalism or antinomianism – a pendulum from one error to another. Thankfully, despite our attentiveness and the necessity of our devotion, the focus of our life is not upon our striving but upon our status as, “Beloved of God.” Through endless ages, the truth of creation is summed up in God’s loving care for us, God’s loving redemption of us, God’s glory in raising us from the depravity of our loveless life enraptured with ourselves into the incredible love of our God.

Our scripture today is a story of the apostles trying to replace Judas, but the wonder of the Gospel means that this action is impossible. Judas was given a share of ministry all his own. Though he rejected it, it would always be his. Judas, the great betrayer, was beloved of God, a friend of Christ. Even on such as this was capable of redemption, if only he had heard the call and returned home. If only the fear of disaster had not overcome the reality of God’s love.

If God had a place for Judas, can we ever doubt God’s place for us? We are all of us members of Christ’s body, the Church, redeemed by his blood. While we must never cease to chase the holy life Christ would have us live, we do not have to chase God’s love for us. We have run long enough, have wallowed in guilt and doubt for long enough. The shackles upon our lives are of our own construction, we are free in Christ. We are loved in Christ. As a people we are loved. As a person you are loved. The everlasting love of God is what we witness to with our life. No one can witness in your place – because God has called you to proclaim that love in your own way, in your own time.

Praise God, who of all people, saved us. Praise God who longs to see the same for all people. Praise our Risen Lord who wants you as you are and will walk beside you all the way home to Glory. Praise all Eastertide long, for next week is the Pentecost, and we go forward to share this love with all the world. – Amen.

Endless, Scandalous Grace – Lectionary 05/09/2021

Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

Sermon Text

             This week we continue a focus on Baptism. Last week we saw Philip offer the gift of Baptism to an Ethiopian convert. We do not know exactly who this convert was, what their beliefs had been until they met Philip or if they were a Jew or Gentile – although the latter is more likely. Yet, with Philip’s act we know that the Gospel had grown, not just by a single believer, but by the opening up of God’s kingdom to those outside of Judea. The radical nature of God’s love had been revealed. It was for all people, and not just a single nation or people.

            We take for granted that God is a God for all people. We here in twenty-first century America are very far removed from those who were once believed to be exclusively God’s people. With some exception, we are not descendants of Israel at all, but would rather be considered “ethne,” or Gentiles. Because we are so removed, we do not think about people joining the church as anything too radical. However, in Biblical Judea, the idea that any other group could really join God’s covenant family was radical. Judaism and Christianity both struggled with the idea of including Gentiles in community in the first century. Scripture provides a few examples of this. Jesus frequently spoke to Greek and Roman “God fearers,” who were gentiles that believed in the God of Israel. The outer court of the temple even allowed them to worship there.

            Yet, it seemed that the Gentiles were still excluded from fellowship. The practice of eating separately from Gentiles is frequently referenced in the New Testament. Synagogues in Judea seemed to exclude Greek speaking Jews who had their own separate synagogues, and it is unclear if Gentiles were regularly included in either. Only in Acts, outside of Judea are we explicitly told of Gentile participation in synagogue life, suggesting that outside of Judea prejudices were not as defined.

            Despite this openness in extra-Judean synagogues, there was still a clear separation between Gentile and Jew. They were not considered equal before God. The seriousness of this separation cannot be downplayed. It permeated every aspect of life in Jewish communities. A Gentile could fall in love with the God of Israel, learn all the scriptures by heart, and would still only be considered a “good Gentile,” at best a good example of an otherwise anathema caste of people.

            This separation between Jew and non-Jew did not just appear from nowhere. Throughout the Old Testament there are laws and stories that make clear that marriages between Israelites and non-Israelites was forbidden. This was not purely a matter of race, as the concept of race as we know it had not yet been invented. No, it was a complex issue to do with land and religion and war and all manner of convoluted calculations. Beyond this separation of Israelite and non was also the various clans and tribes of Israel who had specific regulations regarding marriage. Relatives married one another to ensure land stayed in the family and religious obligations were met.

            However, by the time of the Babylonian Exile, this system no longer stood. No one owned land and as such none had to stay in the family. The exiles doubled down on religious obedience, so they were less likely to stray. The biggest influence behind breaking these barriers was God. In Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29, the exiles are told to settle in Babylon and to live among the Babylonians. They are to take wives and husbands in Babylon and work to make Babel succeed. They are to break down the barriers between Jew and Babylonian and allow themselves to become one people blessed by God.

            This unity was short-lived, as the return to Judah led to a reactionary purging of non-Jewish people from Jerusalem. The reign of Nehemiah and the tenure of Ezra over the returning exile community caused several problems for Judah. The descendants of those who remained in Judah during the exile – mainly poor farmers – were suddenly made servants to the returning nobility. Though they were native to the land and had never left, they were treated as foreigners. Those who returned were not exempt from their administration and found that they were to be punished for obeying Jeremiah. Ezra and Nehemiah, using God to excuse their actions, banished all non-Jews along with those who refused to divorce them. This “purification,” was justified as removing idolatry from the people, but in fact was a covert act of rebellion against the Persian rulers of the day.

            The return to a strictly separate conception of Jews and Gentiles remained at least until the first century. Yet, something began to change. God’s spirit was moving among the people. The ability to convert to Judaism began to enter into Jewish practice. Baptism was the act which allowed for this transformation – sometimes in addition to or supplanting circumcision. This belief grew up along Christianity, but it seems Christianity began to fully include Gentile converts a bit sooner. Here we see the most obvious start point for this inclusion.

            Peter, having received a vision from God, begins to seek out its meaning. After hearing a Gentile has been looking for him, he sets out and hears how God had spoken to Cornelius – the one who called for him. Peter begins his sermon, iterating the Gospel to Cornelius and his household with a bold statement – “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” The Jew and the Gentile could live and worship together, being united by their faith in Christ. There was nothing that could prevent God’s love from reaching out and encompassing all.

            The love of God is a radical thing – it takes hold of all the world and brings life where once no life could be. It cannot be held back by anything or anyone. The arc of human existence, from Eden to Calvary has been a journey of God tearing open heaven and earth to come closer to the beloved creation. God’s work cannot be held back – not by anyone. Peter here sees the partition between Jew and Gentile melt away and now understands the Grace of God is radical in scope. More than that it overtakes our own standards and expectations – it is a scandal to all who see it. Yet, if we are willing, we will not stumble over God’s goodness, but rejoice alongside those who believe.

            As those washed in the water, we are given a choice. We can rejoice at the wide net God has cast to bring people together or close the doors and resist this movement of God. We can be like Jeremiah or Ezra, like Peter or the Judaizers. If we truly believe our God is good enough to love and include sinful gentiles like us, then we must accept others with equal fervor. This means not shutting God’s grace off to anyone for any reason. We cannot bar the gates of the church or stop up the font of Baptism.

            In all things we must let God’s grace lead us to accept others as they are. To expand our definition of God’s kingdom. To welcome rather than chase away or chastise. The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let no one prevent it from filling all the earth. – Amen.

What is to Prevent me from Being Baptized? – Lectionary 05/02/2021

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Sermon Text

 Baptism is a first step toward a lifetime of faith. The one time washing of our body reflects God’s continual absolution of our souls. The water that is thrown upon us or into which we are plunged takes with it our bodily impurity, but the spiritual funk that defines our life before, and honestly during, our walk with Christ can only be carried away by the Spirit working within our lives.

We take for granted that a person receives baptism as part of their journey in faith. Yet, for those in the time of Jesus the ritual was not a given. Ritual baths were practiced but they were repeated periodically. John the Baptist and Jesus were the first to institute a single washing as an initiatory act. Caught up in it there is more than just a symbol of God’s actions or our own. There is a real move of the Spirit that cannot be put aside as simply memorial.

Our scripture today invites us to see the Spirit at work in our life. In this passage, Philip, a servant of God, is told by an Angel to take a walk from Jerusalem toward Gaza. The journey was not along any of the main Roman highways, but on one of the twisting networks of backroads that crisscrossed the mountains and rift valleys. No specific route is named because the author assumes we would know which they mean., However, it is likely the road went along one of the flatter parts of the region, somewhere that allowed a carriage to be utilized as a means of transit.

Along the way, a chariot is seen, and God’s Spirit tells Philip to come near it. Philip would have been joining a large retinue of retainers that would have surrounded an official’s vehicle. This vocal command of God is enviable. As I have said before in worship, God seldom blesses me with something as overt as this, but whether verbal or not I hope we all can relate in some way to Philip’s call to come near to that cart. These sudden impulses to speak to someone or take a chance are things that only God can give to us. Seldom vocal, sometimes obvious, but always discovered upon reflection.

The chariot carried in it a eunuch, a castrated man in service to royalty. In this case, the eunuch turned out to serve an Ethiopian queen named Candace. Ethiopia has a long-standing relationship with both Christianity and Judaism. The ancient kingdom of Sheba, from whence came a queen to visit Solomon, is in what we now call Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also considered by many today to be the oldest existing Christian community there is. The Ethiopian Coptic Church, oft forgotten though it is, predates Rome and Byzantium as centers of Christianity by hundreds of years. The only community that might be as old as this is the Thomistic Orthodox of India.

The eunuch is heard reading from a version of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, and Philip asks if the Eunuch fully understood the words of the prophet he was reading. The passage in question, Isaiah 53, is certainly a difficult one to parse. While we usually read it as explicitly referencing Jesus, that cannot be all it meant to Isaiah or his audience. So, people question, even to today, just as the Eunuch did, “Of whom is the prophet speaking?” Was the suffering servant Isaiah? The King? Israel itself?

Philip explained, although his exact words, or rationale is lost to us, every way that the scriptures led to the reality of Christ and of his death and resurrection. This sort of extemporaneous explanation is difficult, and though we can only speculate about what exactly Philip said, I have to imagine the rush that this moment gave. Outside of cold, sterile explanations of scripture, there is the spirited explanations in which God intervenes somehow to impact the words we say. The Spirit, in these moments, does not control our words. Many people, filled with the Spirit, will still take use it as an opportunity to get what they want rather than what God wants. In fact, the early Church speaks directly of how to respond to people lying while speaking, “in the Spirit.”[1] Yet, the Spirit lends strength and confidence where there was none.

As some of you may know, I am a horribly shy person. Outside of Sunday mornings, I try to be a quiet passerby in this world. While I open up in familiar spaces, I am fundamentally a private person – and nothing will change that. Yet, I stand here and preach or sit in front of a camera and record services, putting myself out there for all to see. To some degree it is the fact that I used to do theatre that lets me do this, to another just going for it and allowing myself to expend some energy on being social in this way. However, it is not skill or ability to compartmentalize my anxieties that allows me to do this well, but the gift of God which allows me to work in this way.

The Spirit of God is not always revelatory, it is also supportive. My experience in itself would be enough to perform a weekly service, but not for me to authentically lead worship. Yet, the Spirit props up our strengths and even uses our weaknesses to proclaim the good news of Jesus. We do not know what Philip said in that chariot – whether he spoke perfectly or stumbled over words, whether he was confident or worried, well versed in his argument or so-so in presenting the Gospel. All we know is that the Spirit was at work and the Spirit brought results.

As they talked in the Chariot, the Eunuch was overjoyed to hear the Gospel. We do know Philip’s speech must have talked about baptism, because the Eunuch felt the desire to be baptized well up into his heart. His cry to Philip is direct. When they see water by the side of the road, a literal translation of his words would just say, “Look! Water!” and immediately he follows this sighting with a request to be cleansed in that water.

We do not know how much water was there, but it was enough to stand in. The eunuch was washed, perhaps by dunking or affusion, and found their faith given definite form. Life began anew, the Spirit of God settling within them, their excitement saw them jumping in the chariot and riding away, rejoicing all the while.

In Baptism we join the Church, and through faith we receive the Holy Spirit. It is our duty to follow it as Philip did – to places and people we do not know or expect. However, we do not do this unprepared, as the Spirit strengthens us even in our weaknesses that we might complete the work which is set before us. The key thing we must not lose in the midst of all this is our love and devotion of God and our praise for the gift of our baptism. We go now to a time of prayer, but as we prepare for communion, we shall also prepare to remember our baptism.

May the Lord bless our walk with the Spirit and may the Spirit we received in Baptism be a source of perpetual joy to us. – Amen.

[1] Didache 11. Available at: