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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
April 29, 2018
Audio not available.
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards 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.
About a year ago I found myself standing in the back alley behind our house and holding my heart in my hands. Our back alley is this long, straight runway of flat concrete, the kind of place that invisibly feeds two dozen suburban garages, or, a perfect place, if you are a six-year-old boy, to learn to ride a bike. When we lived in Virginia we lived near the end of this gravel road slowly climbing its way into the mountains — and so in almost every way it was precisely the wrong sort of road on which to learn how to ride a bike. I had not properly realized how little flat concrete was available in the Virginia countryside until we bought Charlie his bike for his fifth birthday and then promptly realized just how few spaces were available for practice. The basketball court by the elementary school. The gravel walking trail where the railroad tracks used to be. Both of them a car ride away, and neither of them ideal. Suffice to say that when we left Virginia, the training wheels were still on, and the bike was altogether a bit underused. But that changed quickly.
All of which is to describe how I found myself standing in our back alley, about six weeks after our move, with my heart in my hands, with my son straddling this bike, training wheels removed, helmet strapped. He’s trying his best to balance but it’s hard to balance on a bike when you’re not moving, and I’m the one holding on. I’m holding him up, of course; I’m standing next to him, one hand on each handlebar; I’m keeping him upright. And at any moment we’re going to start down the runway, him, pedaling as fast as he can, me, running to keep up, and if all goes well, at some magical moment, I will fall away, like some booster rocket whose time has come and gone, I will fall away and he will blast down the alley and all of a sudden he will know how to ride a bike. And I have to tell you that I’m not entirely sure how I feel about this possibility. I mean, I’m always proud to watch him learn new things and discover new parts of himself. But it is also not lost on me that, probably, my son on a bike is faster than me in an open sprint, which means that if he can ride the bike, I literally can’t catch him. He could go down the alley. He could turn the corner. He could go out of sight. At which point, he could do anything, which is the point, and also completely terrifying.
And of course as I am standing there I can tell you that probably it won’t go like that. Probably what will happen when we start running and biking down the alley and then get up to speed and then I let go is that my son will wobble and fall to the pavement and if we’re all very lucky his helmet will stay on and his leg won’t end up wrapped around the chain. I mean, learning to ride a bike isn’t obvious. You’re supposed to fall a few times, I have told him, earnestly and repeatedly, almost like I’m talking to myself. And I remember. Not the very first time I rode a bike but not far from it, riding down the road in the front of our house in Rochester, New York, my father running alongside me with his hands on the handlebars, and then he let go, and then I hit the deck, and I was out for a little while. So being the perfect accumulation of fatherly wisdom that I am, I am pretty sure that the first thing that happens once we let go is that this whole thing falls apart and our metric for success is that nobody has to call an ambulance and apparently that’s the gamble I’m willing to take on this particular afternoon. Run alongside him for as long as you can. Let go when you have to. Hope for the best.
I wonder if Philip can see all the same outcomes, all the possibilities, in today’s reading from the book of Acts, as he pours the baptismal water over this Ethiopian eunuch and prepares for this surprising new relationship. The apostles have being sent out from Jerusalem to spread the word about Jesus’s death and resurrection and about the coming of the Holy Spirit and Philip gets sent south and along the way he meets an official of the Ethiopian court who is returning home. The Ethiopian is already part of a Jewish community, since he has been in Jerusalem for worship and is in his chariot reading from the prophet Isaiah. But just as Peter and the other apostles have been working to convert the Jews of Jerusalem, so too now the Holy Spirit sends Philip into conversation with this eunuch; he runs up to the man’s chariot, and begins to unpack the words of the prophet in light of what he has just witnessed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And you may already be uncomfortable: I mean, why couldn’t Philip just leave this man alone; why does he have to come in and mansplain the scriptures; why couldn’t we practice a little religious sensitivity? but the Spirit in the Book of Acts is unrelenting and it will have its way with this story. The Spirit sends him and he goes.
And so along they ride and they come to some water. And the eunuch is convinced. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And the answer, in this story, apparently, it nothing, and so Philip stops to perform this sacrament, and I wonder, as Philip pours the water over his head, I wonder if he can see all the possibilities. The places they will go together. They adventures they will have. The good news they will deliver. Throughout scripture, baptism is the start of a relationship; it starts the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit; it starts the relationship between the apostles and their new followers at the beginning of Acts. Scripture does not record Philip’s baptism but from the Gospels we can reasonably be sure he was baptized by one of the other disciples and then they followed Jesus together and now with Philip and this Ethiopian Eunuch that process begins again, this eunuch riding without the training wheels, Philip holding onto the handlebars, running alongside him for as long as he can, hoping for the best.
Except. “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; and the eunuch saw him no more.” It’s not even fair to say that Philip lets go. The Spirit makes Philip let go, the best Biblical example of teleportation that I can think of. Philip just disappears and wakes up halfway across the region, and, as far as we know, he and this Eunuch will never see each other again. And I don’t know if this possibility ever occurred to. The possibility that he would have to let go. The possibility that this Eunuch would do something with this baptism without Philip there to guide him, without Philip there to mentor him, without Philip there to keep explaining to him what this church is really supposed to look like. There was always the chance that the Eunuch could ride off on his own and turn the corner out sight. There always was the chance that he could fall flat on his head. But with Philip snatched away, there’s no way to know, there’s no way to see, there’s no way to guess the outcome. I could tell you about the Ethiopian church which thrives to this day but we don’t know for sure that it was born in this moment. The whole point of the story is that we don’t know the outcome. The Spirit snatches Philip away, and the eunuch goes off rejoicing in the good news of the gospel. Run alongside him as long as you can. Let go when you have to. Hope for the best.
It is worth observing that this baptism is a far cry from the baptism that we perform this Sunday and as a regular part of our Christian life. The eunuch asks “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” and as a Presbyterian pastor in 2018, I would step in and answer: “Well, a lot of things, actually. We haven’t really had a formal conversation about what baptism means for you and the session hasn’t approved it and I don’t have a sponsoring elder lined up.” And more than that, we’re supposed to do this sacrament in a service of worship precisely so that you can make vows in front of the congregation and the congregation can make vows in front of you that you all will enter into this relationship together. When we baptize at UPC like we did today, we make vows to welcome this child and teach the Christian faith to this child and love this child no matter what; we make vows to hold on. We make vows to hold on to this child no matter what happens, no matter the storms, no matter the valleys, no matter the wilderness, we make vows to hold on to this child with the love of God. But at some time, the Spirit makes you let go. At some point you have to. At some point you can’t keep up. At some point the Spirit snatches you away. At some point the future will have its way. At some point the unrelenting Spirit will have her way. At some point you let go.
And at some point the church becomes something that we can’t entirely control. Back in Jerusalem, Peter and Paul are still arguing about what their church is supposed to look like and who is supposed be invited and who is supposed to be in charge but here on this wilderness road the Spirit is entirely sure who’s in charge, and it’s her, jumping continents and jumping cultures and reminding all of them that none of this is theirs to shape. Likewise the children we baptize at UPC in this generation of the life of the church will inherit a church quite unlike the one that we grew up with. The story of change in the mainline denominations is well-rehearsed and you all know the chorus by now. You know already that the church is going somewhere that we can’t yet quite imagine, somewhere down around the corner, somewhere just out of sight. It’s a humbling feeling, to know what you think this thing is supposed to look like even when you know it almost certainly won’t look like that. It’s a humbling feeling, to try and give this gift and all of a sudden it’s not ours anymore to have. After all, that church will be our children’s church. They are the ones who will discover it. They are the ones who will nurture it. They are the ones who will be fed by it. It will not belong to us. It never really belonged to us. All we can do, in this in-between time, all we can do is run alongside them as fast as we can. All we can do is hold on until all we can do is let go. All we can do is trust the Spirit that snatches us away and bears the church into the next generation.
That’s all this story is, in the end: a story about the Spirit. The Spirit who pushes Philip into that moment; the Spirit who yanks him away. The Spirit who is going to build her church just exactly how she wants and I told you in the Book of Acts the Holy Spirit gets her way. It may not be our way. It may not be my way or your way. But it is the only way that God’s church has ever gone from generation to generation, from parent to child, from one time to another, through the power the Holy Spirit that alone sees the future that we’ve never been able to imagine on our own. It is only because of that unrelenting Holy Spirit that we got here in the first place and only because of that unrelenting Holy Spirit that we have anywhere else left to go and the Gospel for today is to hold on the Spirit while the Spirit holds on to us and to let go of everything else you can. Because that’s how it goes. That’s how it always goes. That we are setting out for the journey, unsure of our balance, unknowing of how far down the road we can get. But that the Spirit walks alongside us. That the Spirit runs alongside us. That the Spirit moves alongside us faster than we can ever imagine, and the Spirit never lets us go. Even to the end. Amen.