Easter 6B: "Even on the Gentiles"--Chariots, Wilderness Roads, and Mud Puddles
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Easter 6B—Acts 10: 44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 5: 1-6; John 15: 9-17
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
In these weeks after Easter, we’ve been thinking together about what it might mean to be a people who live from the bracing freedom of the resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles, as we have seen, is really a training manual in this regard. The story of the early church—with all its squabbles and epiphanies—is our story. They, like us in this place are learning what it means to be love, to live from love and help others to recognize and celebrate their own belovedness.
Last week we celebrated the Feast of St. Mark, our patron saint here at the Cathedral and used to lections appointed for that feast to celebrate the Lion’s Roar of being a beloved child of God and its world-changing consequences. But we missed a really important story from Acts that I want to remind you of—the story of the deacon Philip and the Eunuch. The story takes on the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza and Philip is told by the Spirit to jump in a chariot with an Ethiopian eunuch who was reading a passage from Isaiah. Philip interprets the passage in light of the good news of Jesus, and the Eunuch is overjoyed. As they bump along, they pass some water, and the Eunuch exclaims, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip baptizes the Eunuch in the roadside puddle and then is whisked away by the Spirit of the Lord and finds himself in Azotus.
I retell this story because it’s another embodied instance of the all-inclusive sweep of the wildfire of God’s inclusive for all God’s children we see played out in Acts. The Eunuch is a from a foreign land. He is one of those in-between folks—neither male nor female—who get shoved to margins because of their sexual difference. I think the Ethiopian Eunuch is a symbol for us for all that strange, alien, different, unknown, and therefore potentially threatening. But notice that the Spirit of the Lord, tells Philip to jump in the chariot. Apparently, God didn’t get the memo about not accepting rides from strangers! In the middle of the wilderness, where Philip’s sense of order, control, and predictability have been stripped away and he is left in a state of open receptivity to something other than business as usual, he’s told to go towards the very kind of person he’d rather ignore or who had been previously invisible to him. I like to embellish a little and think that Philip was afraid of horses and prone to getting chariot-sick as well. God sends Philip, already disoriented in the middle of nowhere, into the very place where strangeness, discomfort, and fear of the other reign supreme, and the Spirit declares Jesus’ love for all, without exception, right there—in a roadside puddle in the wilderness wastes, to a marginalized outsider.
Our reading from Acts for this morning continues this same basic trend. Today we find Peter speaking right on the heels of his encounter with Cornelius the Centurion. Peter, who has been keeping kosher like a good, observant Jew, has a rooftop smorgasbord picnic blanket vision of all kinds of different food descending from the heavens and hears a voice—“What God has made… you must not call profane.” Suddenly, Peter gets it. God’s not just talking about food after all, he’s talking about people, too. He goes to Cornelius’ house and enters in—he breaks the rules against Jews associating with Gentiles—and starts to see with the eye that seeks and serves Christ in all people—centurions and gentiles, blacks and whites, young and old, republicans and democrats, straights and gays, males and females. Peter declares, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
Right on the heels of this declaration we hear that 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.” The Greek word for “fell” is ἐπιπίπτω—and it can mean something like “falling into another person’s arms, or to be embraced by.” So these outsiders, the ones we’re trained and conditioned to avoid at all costs, are revealed to have been embraced by God—they fall into God’s arms and sense themselves as loved through and through. Their basic dignity and humanity, their high calling to fullness of life, joy, and the full stature of Christ, is affirmed.
Just like the Eunuch who asks, “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Peter and the early church are realizing, in the process of following the Risen Christ, that they have no right to draw lines and erect boundaries between different classes of people. That whole process of insider and outsider, clean and unclean, has been revealed as contrary to God’s purposes. When we prevent and withhold the love of God from any of God’s children we are declaring “profane” that which God has created. We are setting our fears, our preferences, our own comforts in the place of the living God who calls to love one another as God in Christ has loved us, known us, chosen us as his beloved children from before the foundation of the world. Notice that word “astounded”—“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.” God is in the astounding business. The living God is the astounding and confounding God who frees us from the self-erected prisons of our own making that set us one against the other and declares that each of us, without exception is invited to the table.
That’s why our collect for today speaks of “loving you in all things and above all things.” We are called not to love our fears, our recoiling from what is strange and alien, our addiction to predictability and control, but to love God—the living God, the God of wild inclusion. We love the one who is all-inclusive love and in the process find ourselves learning to love a little more like God does. His life slowly becomes ours. We find ourselves going towards strangers on wilderness roads and jumping into their bumpy chariots even though they make us motion-sick and we’d rather curl up with a good book. We find ourselves seeking and serving Jesus in people we’d previously discounted or never even really noticed. We find our old ways confounded and begin to experience the astounding reality of the blessedness, the belovedness, the sacrality, of everything God has made—people, porcupines, and pogo sticks. We begin to see with those eyes of wonder and awe that recognize the entire universe wrapped, enfolded, embraced in God—a sacramental tapestry in which no thing can be declared unclean and everything participates in the bursting forth of God’s glory like, “shining from shook foil,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins says in his poem, “God’s Grandeur.”
Our Gospel for today is from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse in John. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his imminent departure—it’s a kind of crash course in what it means to be his disciples and what the community should look like and how it should behave. We begin with the fact of being chosen—“You did not choose me but I chose you.” God chose us, all of us, to be partakers of divine nature, unexpected insiders in the life of God. This love is not something we can really do anything about. God loves us because that’s who God is. Whether we chose to live from that love and remind others that they are loved is up to us, but God’s love for us is not a matter of personal choice.
Next we have the fact that we are no longer servants left in the dark waiting for a capricious command to scurry about and do the master’s bidding. We are friends of God in Christ who know what God looks like—it looks like a King who takes off his robes and ties a towel around his waist and washes the feet of his subjects. It looks like a King who will lay down his life for us, who doesn’t count the cost, who will stop at nothing to help us realize the grand destiny for which we are created—the enjoyment of God, the simple enjoyment of the truth, fullness and abundance of life, fruitfulness, and completeness.
We tend to think that completeness, fullness, consummation, and abundance come from storing up—getting what’s ours and holding fast to it regardless of the circumstances. But the pattern of Jesus’ life and the pattern of the early church shows us something different. It is in giving ourselves away, pouring ourselves out, laying down our lives and going out to others in love that the fullness and abundance that is our birthright becomes the ground from which we live. We tend to think in our hyper-individualistic culture that meaning, fulfillment, and happiness reside in accumulating things—possessions, power, affection and esteem, comfort. But those are the treasures that rust and moths destroy. Our possessions break or get repossessed by the bank. Power wanes when some more adept operator outsmarts us. Affection and esteem are more fickle than the weather in a Salt Lake City spring. No sooner do we settle down in our comfortable little nest than something comes along (like the pestering Holy Spirit) to nudge us out into world, into life, to lend our unique voice to the new song God is singing in Jesus.
My prayer for us this week is that we—like Philip on the wilderness road, and Peter in the household of a gentile centurion—might learn to live from the overflowing love of God for all people. May we pray for the grace to see no thing God has created as profane and unclean. May we cherish one another as friends of a loving God who wants our joy to be complete. May we jump into life’s chariots, and enter those centurions’ houses to help those who have been declared unclean, or find themselves on a dusty road in the middle of nowhere, know themselves to be beloved. May we learn, always as if for the first time, that it is in the open hand, not the balled fist, in giving away and not storing up, that the happiness for which our hearts ache and yearn, is to be found.