The Spirit of Radical Welcome – April 29, 2018

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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2018

May the life of the Creator surprise us with new things, the life of the Christ invite us towards a grander grace, and the life of the Spirit call us onward.  Amen.

A certain congregation was very stuck in its ways and refused to entertain any thought of change or to focus on anything beyond their own needs. They were resistant to any new ideas that might create an atmosphere of far-reaching hospitality. Naturally, they were not growing.

Their pastor was very frustrated about this so one Sunday he announced  that he would be serving  prune juice in place of Communion wine. When asked why he would dare entertain such a thought, he said, “If the Holy Spirit won’t move you…maybe the prune juice will!”

The Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit. The Spirit of the Lord. How familiar are we with Her—if not through personal experience at least in the many references to the spirit in Scripture. We hear things about the Spirit in the first and second reading this morning: “the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away…” “…we abide in God because God has given us of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel contains the last of the “I am” passages in the long farewell discourse Jesus gave his friends before his death which was, essentially, an instruction preparing them to receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

In the first reading we heard today we see how God’s Spirit can intrude on people’s lives in a way that presents marvelous opportunities and transforms lives. Let’s meet this Eunuch who is the chief character in the story. He is at once exotic, powerful, and pious. His skin is black. He comes from the southernmost edge of the known world.

He is the treasurer, Chancellor of the Exchequer of one of the most powerful states on the African continent. Yet he is not acceptable, not “fit company” for decent, proper folk. He’s just too different, too not-like-us. He was clearly an outsider—in the original Greek a ξέινος—a stranger or alien. Yes, he’s gentle and very intelligent but, you see, he’s black and, not only that, but he’s a eunuch, what society might label “a freak.” He can’t even enter the temple.

Yet he’s reading the Hebrew Scriptures hungry for a deeper knowledge and experience of God. He must have heard about Jesus and what he stood for and what he preached and how healed people and raised his friend Lazarus from the dead.

Philip, an apostle of the church, is moved by God’s Spirit to speak with him and becomes his mentor. They are strolling along in deep conversation when they come to some water. I love the Eunuch’s question here, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What has prevented anyone from an encounter with God’s love? Rules and regulations and discrimination have most often been the barriers. How would the Ethiopian have felt if Philip had told him “No, I’m sorry but you’re not the right kind for this.”

How do people feel today when a priest tells them they are not allowed to partake of Communion or refuses to baptize the baby of a couple who are not married? What do you think it was like for black Episcopalians in the Jim Crow era and into the 1950’s and 60’s? What damage has the church done to LGBT folks even in this century? How has the church been complicit in making folk feel excluded? And how many of those people have given up on the church deeply hurt by religion?

The teaching here is that the Good News of God’s unconditional love and acceptance must be offered to all—without exception. The Ethiopian’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” might be translated today as “What prevents me from approaching God’s Table to be fed with the Eucharist even if I have not been baptized?” The answer is—at least in this church: Not a thing. Absolutely nothing.

I believe that the Spirit of God is at work in the church when it is being very intentional about

inviting and welcoming everyone—no matter who they are or from where they’ve arrived—and for those of us who are here and awaiting their arrival—to be ready to assume the role of Philip and  offer ourselves as guides and mentors to walk this new journey with them.

John’s Epistle is a love letter about God’s essence and about the power of love. The key premise of the lesson is this: If we abide in love we abide in God and God abides in us. The Greek verb in this text refers to one’s “dwelling” or “remaining” in love. How do those who propagate a culture of excluding folk at any time throughout the history of Christianity reconcile that with these words of John?

There is one striking assertion in the Epistle that we won’t want to miss: “There is no fear in love” and “perfect love casts out fear.” That is very good news, especially in a time when we are confronted with fear on so many sides.

Life lived in God’s Spirit is a life built on hope—a life that recognizes the abundance of love that surrounds us. The church that abides in the Spirit is one that never preaches fear and always reinforces the truth of God’s unwavering, unconditional, love for all people. The Holy  Spirit must be very frustrated like that pastor when the church creates obstacles that keep people out or disparages them because of their differences. What opportunities we can miss if we don’t let our congregational life be energized by that Spirit.

What might this story about Philip and a Eunuch hold for each of us? It was actually very strange that Philip met this man on this road to Gaza. An official of the court lie this Eunuch would not take such a back road. And God’s Spirit moved Philip to be on that desert road. One of the great surprises of God and of life is how we may find ourselves in a place we never expected to be and met someone or were invited to some event—or even to church—and discovered in that instance an opportunity we never expected.

The next time we find ourselves on a road we didn’t expect to take or waiting for a delayed flight or sitting in  the doctor’s office or invited to a place we wouldn’t necessarily choose to go, we might wonder what God might be up to. Are we being asked to be “Philip” and introduce a stranger to an encounter with God through our outreach and compassion?

Or perhaps we are like the Ethiopian who comes upon water and realize that by dipping our toes in or even wading a bit we have discovered an opportunity for ourselves we never expected and that the obstacles we feared would prevent our moving forward have been eliminated.

The next time the unexpected pops up in your life, be on the alert. God may work in strange ways but they can be exciting and wonderful!

Oh, no worries, it will be wine in the chalice this morning.

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