.…..and the beautiful baptism
On Sunday 22nd April, we had the pleasure of baptising our friend Gail Stewart into the church family. Here is what was shared before the baptism
Readings: Genesis 25:7-11; Acts 8:26-40
So it’s been 3 weeks since I last led worship here on a Sunday morning. Back on April Fool’s Day we laughed and joked, prayed and praised God for the good news of Easter as we also completed our Lenten pilgrimage alongside Abraham and his family. You might remember that during a wintry few weeks, we followed Abraham as he was called by God on an epic journey – as he blessed strangers, made mistakes, received promises, extended his family, wrestled with his faith and came to realize that God doesn’t demand blood sacrifice but instead lavishes us with blessings. We left Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, in Genesis chapter 22 at Mount Moriah where Abraham had some serious reflecting to do…but of course, his story didn’t end there. Instead, tradition has it, it ended here.
This is the so-called Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron – the place where Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah are all said to be buried. Today, it is a place where all three of the Abrahamic faiths come to pay their respects or worship…which also tragically means it’s a place of great tension and division. It was here that a fundamentalist Jew gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers in 1994. It was here that on our visit just two weeks ago, we witnessed division of our group by gender, religion and ethnicity…and it was by no means the only time that we witnessed the brokenness of humanity and the shadow-side of religion on our pilgrimage.
Of course, such division of people into ‘us’ and ‘them’ isn’t restricted to ‘them over there’. After two weeks of limited exposure to the news, I caught up this week and soon read stories of anti-Semitism and xenophobia; of the Windrush debacle and a pro-Brexit campaigner’s praise of techniques used by the Nazis; of the latest round of workplace sexism and a priest losing his appeal having been fired solely on the basis of his sexuality. And whilst this last issue is the one over which the Church currently has its ecumenical knickers in a twist, it’s just one in a long line of divisions the body of Christ has dealt out, as Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber notes;
“The argument my denomination was having about including “The Gays”,” Nadia suggests, “Mirrored the argument 40 years earlier around the ordination of women which mirrored the argument in the early church around inclusion of Gentiles. Which means that disagreements over “inclusion” happened approximately 20 minutes after Christianity started.”
A damning indictment if ever there was one. ‘Wow’, you might be thinking by now, ‘Phil’s come back from the pilgrimage on a bit of a religious downer’! Well, it’s true that we witnessed much of the very worst of religion out in Palestine and Israel but we also saw its very best. We heard stories of grace, love and blessing. We met people who were giving their all to make peace, turn the other cheek, forgive persecutors and seek justice. We sang beside an empty tomb within whose silence we heard the song of resurrection hope. And you don’t need to get on a plane to encounter such good news. It can be glimpsed all around us, not least of all in this morning’s story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.
To the religious community of his day, the eunuch symbolized the very epitome of the other – the ultimate outsider. He was from a different nation, spoke in a foreign tongue, looked outside the norm and yet he dared to travel to Jerusalem – the holy city – to worship. But even if the religious leaders could have looked past this non-Jew’s otherness in terms of ethnicity and nationhood, they most certainly couldn’t look past his transgression of gender and sexual norms and they had scripture to support such a stance;
“Absolutely no one,” it says in Deuteronomy 23:1, “whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Now there’s a verse from the Bible you don’t hear too often! If you ever need a memory verse…
In short then, at a time when the early church were already arguing about how far God’s grace extended – who was in and who was out – along comes this eunuch, this socially and religiously considered aberration in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and nationhood, coming to stir things up. And what does the Holy Spirit say to the often slow to understand disciple named Philip? “Get up and go – go down that road; go over to the chariot; go to that person.”
So Philip does as he’s told…we’re a very obedient bunch…and when he goes near the chariot, he hears the eunuch reading from the Old Testament, from the prophet Isaiah. What next ensues is reminiscent of a game they used to play on the TV show ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway’ where you have to answer a question with another question…
“Do you understand what you’re reading?” Philip opens.
“How can I,” responds the eunuch, “unless someone guides me?” Some explanation goes on before the eunuch, an expert in the ‘Questions Only’ game keeps going – “Who is this prophet speaking about?” followed by the clincher – “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip could have prevaricated here. He could have referred the matter back to church councils, required the eunuch to go through some pre-baptism classes or at least deferred the baptism to a more suitable time and place but – thank God – he did none of this. Instead, Philip accompanied the disciple from Ethiopia into the pool and baptized him then and there – seeing the person before him not in terms of nationality or gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation but rather as a wonderfully made and extravagantly loved child of God.
What helped him to see the Ethiopian as such? Perhaps Philip thought back to his friend, Jesus, and how he had always welcomed those who others excluded; or the way in which he announced his public ministry by controversially reminding his fellow Jews that God’s blessing extends well beyond one religion. Perhaps Philip listened intently to God’s Spirit who revealed, in that moment, just how Philip should embrace the eunuch. Or perhaps Philip and the eunuch read on in the Book of Isaiah and got to chapter 56 and its declaration that eunuchs and people of all nations will be welcomed into God’s house of prayer. But whether it was revealed to him by the Spirit, reclaimed in the words of scripture or rediscovered in the ministry of Jesus, in that moment, Philip knew that God’s love knows no bounds. I pray we do too.
Amid the increasing division of our world, of our Church even, I wonder whom the mischievous Spirit is calling us to get up and go to today. If we listen above the clatter of fear and prejudice, if we listen to God’s tale of risky love and reckless grace, who are we prodded to go talk to, learn more about, learn more from and love today? And when we go to the chariots of the excluded in our society, will we, like Philip, start the conversation by listening – by asking questions rather than assuming we have all the answers? For, as Philip soon learnt, maybe, just maybe, the one excluded by man…and it normally is man…might teach us about God’s inclusion of all. We too might be asked, ‘what’s to stop me from being baptised?’; ‘what’s to stop me from being welcomed, included, embraced?’…to which we must reply, “Nothing. You are a beloved child of God. Come join the family where all are welcome – where our diversity is something to be celebrated, not feared; where our differences might reveal greater truths about the God who made each of us a unique creation.”
Today, of course, it’s our absolute joy to say all this to Gail. For our story tells us that such radical love is felt in the spray of baptism; heard in the words of strangers; seen on a rough wooden cross and in a beautiful empty tomb. But it’s even wider than this for God’s love isn’t something that we own or have to protect – it’s not just for those of us in this particular religious club – rather it’s ever flowing, ever growing, and given freely to the cosmos. It was lavished upon Abraham and Sarah, on Isaac and Ishmael and all their subsequent descendants. It’s given to the Welsh, the Ethiopian and the English; the gentile, the Jew and the gender fluid. It breathed the universe into being, sustains us in our daily living and will surround us long after we take our final breath. So let’s rejoice in such love and seek to share it with all whom we encounter for even when we try to keep it to ourselves; even when we try to reserve it for the in-crowd, it has a wonderful habit of hopping over boundaries, breaking down walls and drawing us to the very people we try to keep at arm’s length. Such is the wonder of God’s love. Amen.
The service finished with this blessing from St Teresa of Avila:
May today there be peace within.
May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be.
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith.
May you use those gifts that you have received and pass on the love that has been given to you.
May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
It is there for each and every one of us. Amen.