3/13/2013 sermon: Wilderness ventures

Location: Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, VA (Region 4 Lenten series service)
Text: Acts 8:26-39
James Theodore Holly

Wilderness ventures

In our New Testament lesson tonight, when the Ethiopian man asked Philip what was to prevent him from being baptized, by my count there were at least three very big reasons why Philip should have said NO:

  • First, the man was a gentile:
  • Second, the man was an African:
  • Third, the man was a eunuch.
    Now this man hadn’t castrated himself; but the Israelites blamed the victim. They barred eunuchs from worshiping in the Temple. Simply not kosher.

So the Ethiopian man took a huge risk in asking to be baptized. I imagine that this man expected Philip to say, “NO! I won’t baptize you. I can’t baptize you. If I baptized you, people won’t come to the church that I and some other disciples are in the process of creating.

Philip didn’t take this approach, though, did he? Philip baptized the man. The question is “Why?” Why did Philip, against all odds, against all custom, all prejudice, why did Philip take the plunge?

Scripture tells us the answer. Scripture says that this story, this deed, was and was directed by the Holy Spirit.

Our lesson begins, “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go… [to a hard place].” Acts say that this was a path into the wilderness. This wasn’t a desert—there was water nearby. But Philip wasn’t going someplace easy. A lot of this wilderness might just have been inside Philip.

What happened when Philip went to this wilderness? God sent him a truly fabulous seeker, the kind of seeker that every church—at first glance—would love to welcome: rich, godly, powerful, hungry for salvation, humble. But (at second glance) a eunuch.

However, the Holy Spirit was at work here, instructing Philip, inspiring Philip, infusing Philip with love and transforming whatever interior wilderness Philip might have had. And to remind us of this interior work that was going on, our lesson tells us that when Philip did what he had been called to do in this wilderness place, the Holy Spirit “snatched” Philip away to his next wilderness venture.

As the twenty-somethings would say: One baptism: Ethiopian church planted. Boom!

I wonder about OUR internal wilderness places. Who do WE leave out in the desert, studying scripture all by themselves?

There was a time when our church excluded people of color. Tonight we remember James Theodore Holly, our church’s first bishop of African American heritage, who—guided by the Holy Spirit—established the Church in Haiti. One bishop: Haitian Church planted. Boom!

I confess that I sometimes look at the neighbors who surround us and judge that they wouldn’t be at all interested in the Episcopal Church. So I don’t tell them about Jesus. I judge them from afar as too poor, too ethnic, to “unliturgical” to be inside this temple. However, the Holy Spirit instructs us otherwise:

“Get up, leave these church walls, go to YOUR wilderness place, and tell everyone you meet there about Jesus.”

The boom awaits us.

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