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Those who organize the preaching schedule for this program suggest that most speakers focus on the Gospel lesson for the day, but that the preacher doesn't need to be limited by that. Good thing for me. Today's Gospel lesson is from John. It's about vines and vine growers, about pruning and bearing fruit. Preaching coaches will suggest that unless a preacher knows a good deal about a subject, like horticulture, it's good to steer clear of it or else get a great deal of advice from someone who does know about vines and vine growers. Of course, you may ask me how much I know about Ethiopian eunuchs and chariots and early Christians being snatched away by the Spirit. Not a great deal, I'll admit, but the story of the early church from the Acts of the Apostles is a very intriguing one. While the terrain and the practices of the time may be foreign to our experience, the crux of the story, the very heart and center of it, is exactly where we need to be.
And we're not so sure of that in the beginning. Philip, an early Christian, is simply told by an angel to get up and go toward the south. He is to travel a wilderness road. Not too many of us hear angels. Not too many of us would get up and go some place if we thought we did, unless, that is, we get up and go get a reality check. But we do know what it's like to be on a wilderness road--to find ourselves in new and uncharted places, to feel insecure and unsure of the direction we are to go, to wonder what's in store for us next.
Philip, while responding to the angel's bidding, comes upon an Ethiopian eunuch who was evidently a person of faith. The Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship, and he's returning home, spending his travel time reading the prophet Isaiah. Now being Spirit-led, Philip catches up to him and asks him if he understands what he is reading, and the Ethiopian responds by asking the first of three questions:
"How can I understand unless someone guides me?"
The early church and the contemporary one know that we do not come to faith alone. We learn from others and we pass on what we know to the next generation. Education has always been an important component of the Christian faith, and the best education does not happen in isolation, but that can be hard for us to accept, for we are a people who value our independence and our individualism. Our whole lives long, we want to do it ourselves. When we are children, we pull away from our parents and let them know in no uncertain terms, "I can do it!" When we are older, we somehow confuse driving ourselves and our dignity. We think that to give up the first--driving--is to lose the second--dignity. Between childhood and maturity and for all the ages in between, we want to be able to do it all, and we want to be able to do it all on our own.
But faith is a team sport. We are much better at it when we pull together, when we learn from one another, when we interact with each other, when we reach out to others and experience their reaching out to us. In fact, most Christians will tell you, you can't be a Christian alone. It is simply impossible, for relationships are the basis of Christianity, our relationship to God and God's relationship to us, our relationships with one another.
Conversation always results in relationships of one kind or another, so the Ethiopian engages Philip in a conversation. The Ethiopian asks Philip another question. It is the second of three, the middle question, the middle of the text. I had an Old Testament prof who always taught us to pay very careful attention to what we found in the middle of the Scripture, in the center, in the vertex of two lines drawn through a text, in its intersection.
Now the word vertex comes from the same word as vortex, or whirlpool. What is the center when everything is whirling around us? That same word means top of the head, and it also means deep within the heart. What is at the center of this story? What pulls our head and heart together? Is the prophet talking about himself or another? Luke, the author of Acts, says that Philip began to speak, and starting with this Scripture, he shared with the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. Ahhhh, Jesus is at the center. We do not point to ourselves or to our churches or denominations, or even to great books or good programs like this one. Rather, we are always pointing to Jesus who is at the center of our faith.
A friend and I were once critiquing sermon titles and came up with this one: "Give me that old-time spirituality." My friend said, "Sounds like a cross between the old-time religion and new-age thinking. My sense is that we in the mainline, the old-line, sometimes called the sidelined denominations, think that we're caught between two extremes. On the one end, there are traditionalists who seem so sure; and on the other end, there are the new-agers who seem so intriguing. Many with whom I come into contact are either longing for the good old days, that old-time religion where everything was clear, or they are engaged in word plays--now it's OK to be spiritual but not to be religious. Part of our questioning is that we know there's something beyond ourselves, but we don't want to be dependent on any external authority to find out what it is--if it is out there. Or we believe there is something deep within ourselves, but we don't want to be self-critical enough to feel it--if it is in here. We are caught between the old-time religions out there and the new-age spirituality in here.
Recently, I've had a number of people tell me that they don't have any trouble with God. They believe in God. They can talk about God. They can even pray to God. They can debate God and wrestle with the concept of a divine power. But Jesus? That's just it. We don't have to make anything of Jesus. He stands on his own. In fact, he stands among us before we even know he is here.
On first hearing of Jesus, Helen Keller--that marvelous person originally cut off from all hearing and seeing--who like the Ethiopian had no way to understand unless someone showed her--Helen Keller, on first hearing of Jesus said, "I knew there had to be somebody like that." Jesus stands on his own at the crossroad of life. We don't have to make anything of him. He is there all along for us.
But we do have to welcome him. We have to welcome him to the center of our own being. That shouldn't be hard, because, in truth, he's the best we have in human form to tell us what God is like. I remember standing in my seminary's bookstore--it's a great place to be, but you had to be very careful about what you said. You never knew who might be on the other side of the stacks. One day I was browsing and I heard one of the students who was looking for a commentary for someone else, and the clerk said, "We don't have that one--all we have is Jesus." I love that quote: "All we have is Jesus." Indeed, that is all we need, but we do need him at the center, the crux, the vortex, the vertex, when life is swirling and when we are trying to keep our head and heart together. We need to know who is at the center, and, therefore, who can center us.
And what was the Ethiopian's third question? His third question is,
"What is to prevent my being baptized?"
You see, this story of the Ethiopian is the center story of three baptisms, and all of the baptisms are about other people being invited to understand Jesus at the center. The Ethiopian exclaims, "Look, here is water!" And then asks, "What is to keep me from being baptized, from becoming a part of this movement called Christianity?" Well, nothing, nothing at all. In fact, we all need more ritual, more sacrament, more ordinary made holy in our lives. We need more opportunities to act on our beliefs, to say that we have come to a crucial crossroad and we know the way to go. What is to keep us from being baptized? What is to keep us from living the new life in Christ Jesus? What is to keep him from centering us? Well, nothing, nothing at all. And that's good news to share. Thanks be to God.
I invite you to pray with me.
Gracious God, we give you thanks for those who ask important questions and for those who travel alongside as we seek life-giving answers. Center us when everything around us is swirling. Focus us when we find life difficult. Connect us when we feel cut off. Renew us when old categories no longer hold. Baptize us with your Spirit, that we may be fresh and free. In the name of the One who is our center, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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