The Spirit’s Sway

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Acts 8:26-39
Psalm 23
Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43

Fifty years ago finds me on one side or another of my ninth birthday, I am sitting shotgun in my Aunt’s 1960 Buick Le Sabre, a tank of a car, white exterior, red interior, huge fins in the rear, floating above six round taillights. The Buick is a year plus old, but it probably doesn’t have 5,000 miles on it because we don’t go anywhere. Our family owns and operates a small motel in a small town, which requires around the clock attention all year long.

My aunt and I are leading a family from New York to a tourist home for the night’s lodging. This family drives an expensive car, is very well dressed and very well spoken. They are also very African-American, and this happens in Kentucky, where the Jim Crow laws of segregation rule the day. Like every other business in that town, we, reserved the “right” to refuse service to, well, you-know-who. Reaching the black section of town, my aunt found the tourist home, knocks on the door, speaks to Mrs. Johnson, the proprietor, and holds the door as the family carries their luggage inside.

Without saying a word, my aunt taught me that we were on a journey of injustice. I could read it in her worried and sad face. We were Christians for goodness sake, But she, along with my uncle and many others, felt powerless to change things all by themselves. Which is to say, while my family contained no civil-rights heroes, there few, if any, villains, either.

I serve as pastor of the Anchorage Presbyterian Church, established in 1799 on the outskirts of Louisville, Kentucky. From its beginning, that congregation faced some major challenges to the prevailing wisdom, and passed through some excruciating changes. One of the earliest of these, according to our records, was the introduction of a Melodeon into worship. A Melodeon is a household-quality pump organ. Foot pedals work bellows which push air through metal reeds, giving the Melodeon pitch and volume. The musical tradition for most Presbyterians at that time was voices singing Psalms, not hymns, unaccompanied by any instrument. That practice went back to the 16th century, to John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin.

Thus a scandal was created with this instrument which some unnamed soul or souls brought to church one weekday. When the faithful gathered on Sunday, there it was.

The Session, the church’s governing body, was infuriated at this breach of both authority and tradition. It ordered that the Melodeon be removed forthwith. And lo and behold, the Session was ignored. The Melodeon remained in place. The Elders grumbled. but they apparently got used to it, and accompanied music, complete with harmonies, a choir, hymns, anthems, contemporary music and even a few praise songs have been the tradition ever since.

We laugh and wonder how it could ever have been controversial to have instrumental music in worship, and most of us — if not all of us — are perfectly pleased with this turn of events. But in those days, many people considered such a new way of doing music to be worldly and sacrilegious, and they would not put up with it, and it split congregation after congregation in those years in that part of the world.

But still the risk taken to bring in that Melodeon was nothing compared to the risk Philip took when he and the Spirit climbed into that chariot and treated that Ethiopian Eunuch as if he were a child of God.

In the Ancient Near East, it was not all that uncommon to have castrated males serve in special roles, especially in service to a Queen, especially when it involved money. The idea was that sexually neutralized men would be less aggressive and more trustworthy. This man might have been neutered by an accident, or, when he was young, could have been neutered on purpose and sold into indentured servitude. In either case, it was not a life that one would choose.

Be that as it may, we read that he was on the return trip to the Ethiopian region, having worshipped in Jerusalem. In biblical times, the place-name “Ethiopia” referred to all places is Africa outside of Egypt. It is possible that the man was Jewish, but not likely. It’s more reasonable to assume that he was a Gentile. Maybe he was in process of conversion to Judaism, or maybe he was a “God-Fearer” who worshipped the God of Israel and undertook many of the practices of Judaism, but, for whatever reason, became only what we might call a “friend of Judaism. So he’s an insider in own culture. But he’s an outsider in the culture of Judaism. It’s hard to say where he fits.

This is all pretty amazing. He’s rich enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read the Greek of the Septuagint, devoted enough to travel all the way to Jerusalem for worship, and humble enough to admit that he did not understand what he was reading. He is also a man of gracious hospitality, When Philip asks if he can hitch a ride, the Eunuch invites him to hop aboard. The welcoming inclusion in this story works both ways.

The church I serve sits next door to the Bellewood Presbyterian Home for Children. It’s one of the oldest church-sponsored children’s homes in the country, beginning with the years after the Civil War, when orphans of veterans north and south filled its beds. In the mid 1960’s, the board of the Children’s home voted to integrate. You would have thought that the whole world was going to end right then and there. Dissenting board members resigned, and good Christian members of the church were in an uproar.

It all seems so silly today that we fought over such things, but it was a serious business in those days. In this culture, angry words were spoken, families were torn apart, violence, bombings, and murder occurred much too frequently.

As a near-eastern native, Philip himself had dark, olive-toned features. The Ethiopian he approached had even darker skin, since his genetic origins placed him closer to the equator. But the skin color was probably not as bothersome to Philip as was the fact that it marked the Ethiopian as a Gentile, as a foreigner, as “the other.” And his being a eunuch marked him as being twice cursed. As a castrated male, the Bible (Deuteronomy 23:1; cf. Lev. 21:17-21). forbids him to enter the temple. He can never be part of the inside circle of the faith he admires so much. And perhaps it is the Eunuch’s personal situation that draws him to Isaiah’s passage about the suffering and outcast servant, which in turn draws him to Jesus. When the Eunuch’s story of humiliation is seen through the lens of the cross — and the resulting death and resurrection of Jesus, — it becomes, under the sway of the Spirit, a story of redemption and hope.

In fact, nothing happens in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch that is not under the pervasive influence of the Holy Spirit. Philip doesn’t choose to walk the wilderness road to Gaza; the Eunuch chose neither the accident of his birth nor his castration nor Philip to come along as his interpreter. And the words of Isaiah lie flat and inert on the page until Philip, by that same Holy Spirit, is enabled to interpret the words of Isaiah.

Words, by themselves, are just words. Even biblical words are confusing and unintelligible without the Spirit to give them loft and meaning and energy. Spirit-infused, they just leap and dance and fly off the page into the rarefied air of new life and fresh purpose, and connection to
all that is real and loving and true. As the Good Book says, The letter killeth; the Spirit giveth life (II Cor. 3:6).

In the late sixties and early seventies, it was hard for the church I serve to accept women as equal partners in the business of being the people of God in a particular place and time. People tended, in those days, to emphasize biblical texts that excluded women from leadership, such as I Timothy 2:8ff and Ephesians 5:21ff. They also tended to underplay biblical passages that included the ministry of women, such as Galatians 3:23ff, and Luke 10:38-42.

I am told by an eyewitness that when our first female ruling elder served communion for the first time in our sanctuary, there were several people who walked out. They excluded themselves from the table fellowship of Jesus Christ because they were more threatened by the gender of the server than they were attracted to the promise of communion with God. Now, in the life of that church, women serve communion all the time and nobody gives it a second thought.

In all these cases, certain readings of Scripture can be used to justify positions and practices firmly held by well-meaning Christians in the past. In all these cases, other readings of Scripture point to more open, inviting attitudes. Sometimes we move toward the Ethiopian Eunuch, so to speak. Sometimes we move in the opposite direction. But no matter how we move, the movement of God’s living Word flows toward acceptance for all because for all Christ lived, died, and was resurrected into eternal life.

In many ways, the human story is one of tragedy and sin. Part of that sad story stems from our tendency to divide ourselves up in opposing camps based on race or gender or economic status or educational achievement or religious affiliation or native tongue or sexual orientation or personality type or physical ability or country of origin or what-have-you. Such separation diminishes the whole as much if not more than it diminishes the parts. And it tells an ugly lie about our faith in the one sovereign and universal Lord of light and love. We are one, not because we look alike, talk alike and act alike, we are very different. But we are nonetheless one because of one blood we were created by the grace of God. Just as importantly, we were redeemed into one human family through the faith of Jesus Christ.

That’s why, every now and then, our human story takes a turn toward the holy and the just. A few short weeks ago, the people of Anchorage Presbyterian Church baptized a little baby whose skin was as soft as velvet and as black as coal. I mean complete, unmitigated black. His father was one of the lost boys of Sudan, and his mother was not a lost girl, exactly, but still a Sudanese refugee from oppressive violence. In biblical times they would probably just be called Ethiopians. It was the most amazing sight to behold. It would have sent some of our former church members spinning in their graves if they had not been reborn into eternal life and eternal loves themselves.

I’m here to tell you this morning, that as that beautiful black baby was baptized and brought into the community of God’s faithful people, we were caught firmly yet tenderly in the spirit’s sway. We stood on ground we had not occupied previously. It was the kind of ground that makes you want to take your shoes off. If just for one glorious moment, we breathed the air of grace, we saw with the eyes of the broken yet healed heart, and we were convinced that we were following smack dab in the middle of the way, the truth, and the life of Jesus Christ. There was water in the font, and nothing in heaven or on earth could have prevented us from baptizing that boy that day.

Here, with you, in this neighborhood where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. studied and in this sanctuary where he worshipped the Lord his God, I am privileged to make this humble proclamation of hope:

May such moments flourish in all of our communities of Christ-followers, in all places where God’s people gather, and whenever the Spirit of God soars on eagles wings,the wings of love, love pure and sweet.

Amen.

Now to the One who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all we can ask or imagine, to God be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. (Eph. 3:20,21)

Amen.

~The Reverend Dee H. Wade, Pastor of Anchorage Presbyterian Church, Anchorage, KY; Part of the 2011 Summer Preaching Series, “Evangelism in the Liberal Tradition”

For information about our summer preaching series, please contact us at chapel@bu.edu.

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