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Why Church Matters, Right Now – Lisa Kimball

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Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 20
John 14:15-21

Lisa Kimball, Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary

The Spirit spoke, Philip ran, the Eunuch asked, teaching began, water appeared, the chariot halted, baptism happened, lives were changed.

In my experience, conversion and discipleship are rarely this efficient but the elements, the rhythm, the signs are familiar. I recognize the irreducible miracle of spiritual mentoring and good teaching because I have received it. Faithful women and men have come alongside my messy, ordinary life at just the right moment. When God shows up between a mentor and a seeker, the sum is infinitely greater than the parts and everyone is changed forever. Who was your Philip? Who is your Philip today? 

Is it any wonder that the account of the Ethiopian Eunuch is a template for the ancient Christian discipleship process, what the church calls “the catechumenate?” The word “catechumen” is from Biblical Greek, meaning “one who sounds out something.” The catechumenate is a supportive and encouraging environment in which an inquirer makes a series of informed decisions to journey through to Christian initiation. We see here, in this passage from Acts, the dynamic interaction between community, scripture, and sacrament that produces a living ecosystem in which transformation and growth occur. 

When the people of God are listening, paying disciplined attention to the Lectionary, bringing their deepest longings into Liturgy and looking out for signs of Life, then the Holy Spirit calls seekers to appear, teachers to emerge, Christians are formed, and vocations are discerned. For seekers to turn and bring their longings toward the Church, the Church must be intentionally showing and sharing the Gospel with the world. If the church is to be a sign of Life — a magnet for the God-given longing in all people to reconcile with God and with one another — then the Church must speak its abundant life in the terms of the times.  As Anglicans, we are at our best when we engage the signs of our times with the signs of eternal life. 

Every religious tradition has to balance the signs of its times with the signs of life; we must root the timeless in the timely, as at the first Pentecost when all those gathered heard the good news of Jesus in their own languages. Indeed, my understanding of tradition is what brings life at any time and what defines life at any time. Yet, the work of that discernment and balance is hard, so hard that some cling to one poll or the other of a tradition. Those who want only to offer a fixed and timeless sign of life can fall into religious legalism, finding confidence behind the façade of calcified doctrine. Others zealously embrace or obey only the signs of our times, promoting the fake freedom of practices cut off from their roots or in service of self alone, fiercely guarding against any claims to universal truth or vulnerability exposed in community. 

Recognizing the difference between authentic signs of eternal life and imposter or false-promise signs of our times is hard. This is why the eunuch asked Philip for help. We can assume that the adult eunuch had a life full of experiences of exclusion but perhaps also of joy. He was looking for what was real in his life and in the world. Like any seeker I have met in my teaching and research, I bet he was wondering what in his life was true, beautiful, meaningful and connected to someone or something beyond himself. Like all people, he was seeking forms of community, shelter, food, water and light for himself. But the seekers I meet are also looking for what their longings can teach them about others. We want our individual lives to be meaningful and yet, we want to be a part of something beyond our particular lives – to somehow be more than who we are, or to have a way of becoming more than we are right now. There has been much research in the last decade on what sociologists and psychologists call the Loneliness Epidemic. This epidemic is something we all see across the generations of our friends, colleagues and even within ourselves. In a society that allows us to post and pose more than ever, we find that the ability to self-make does not satisfy our longings to be fearfully and wonderfully made by and for love and relationship. We want – I want – a life with more beauty and purpose and love than I can make for myself.  

The incarnation itself is an example of the eternal God entering into one particular body and showing us the destiny of humanity. The incarnate God is the timeless entering time, the abundant Triune life entering a single human being. Jesus is the perfect vision of balancing and blending eternal life in a singular time and body … his particular height, skin color, hair, and toenails.  “True God from true God.” God on earth as God is in heaven is a miracle when God does it — no wonder it is so hard when we try! Too often we think of the Christian life as more of a game of Simon-Says: where Jesus does something and we try to do it ourselves. Meanwhile our sacramental vision is, instead, that Christ in us is our hope of glory – that “it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us.” In our particular lives, just as in particular and common pieces of bread or chalices of wine, the eternal mingles by miracle and we are one, as Christ and the Father are one. Christian discipleship is not acting like Christ, it is acting in Christ, in whom we live and move and have our being.

We are, in 2019, living in times much more like the pre-Christian empire around Philip than any time in the 1500 years between Constantine and the secular state, when in one form or another, Christians were the Empire. We here in North America are in the midst of a distinctively post-Christian realm. The empire and its levers of political or purchasing power is against the ethic and example of sacrificial love and social justice. Just read the news and see the signs of barbaric empire – babies in ‘tender age’ prisons or armed ICE raids promoted not to protect the society from criminals but to instill terror in entire ethnic groups — all these events echo the cruel Coliseum culture of dictatorship, hierarchical authority imposing ethnic supremacy, nationalism, enslavement through incarceration and environmental degradation. There is an urgent need among those suffering beneath the dissolution and false promises of the signs of our times for hope, for spiritual mentors and teachers who point toward the signs of true life. The world longs for the peace of Christ, a peace the world cannot give.

And we know what the signs of life are. Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments … I will not leave you orphaned, I am coming to you.” I started out by saying that the pace of the eunuch’s curiosity leading to conversion is swift, but it does not surprise me. When we consider the depth of loneliness or even terror in so many hearts around us, would it be so odd for a person to leap toward a source of abundant life? I would leap. Indeed, I have leapt many times. Most recently I leapt behind this ambo. Augustine was right: God has made us for himself, and we are restless until we rest in God. The eunuch leapt into the rest he had longed for all his life. And so have I. And my gratefulness to have found abundant life and seen it teeming through me has caused me to go from a seeking eunuch to a teaching Philip. Where are you in that development of curiosity and vocation?

Jesus comes to us and is present each time we participate in the great sacraments of baptism and eucharist. We need to revive faith that perceives and receives the sacraments as the actual incarnations of God that they are. We are the bread and the wine, fruit of the earth made for communion with our creator. The sacramental elements, just a few feet and a few minutes from us now, are signs of God’s reign arriving on earth as it is in heaven. When we hear the water being poured into the font, or witness the new fire at the Easter vigil, or experience solidarity and shelter among the assembly, or taste the bread of life … we are reoriented in that moment in time toward God’s eternity. We become one with the saints who have gone before us and those who will come. Time stands still, God moves, and we are changed.

As the bishop of Connecticut, Ian Douglass, says, “The Episcopal Church is the catholic tradition in the vernacular.” It is our season to take up the mantle of Phillip, to run toward the searching inquirer, the oppressed, the forgotten, with open ears and rooted faith and a Gospel in the vernacular. We must live as if we actually believe we are loved and forgiven in Jesus Christ. We must risk everything to run alongside moving chariots, climb on board, listen deeply, and tell The Story from creation to eternity. In an empire of scarcity, the temple of our bodies has been baptized in and as fonts of abundant life. We do not make the signs of life. If we remain in Christ, Christ remains in us, and apart from him we can do nothing. The world will know we are his followers by his love in us for one another. 

The Spirit is speaking, People are running. Empires are failing. Eunuchs are asking. Who is teaching? 

The chariots are halting. Baptism is waiting. Lives are at stake. 

Where is the living water? We, the church, are called to interpret the Signs of Life to those trapped in the signs of our times. We are called into the world as witnesses to God’s promise of eternal life. And, we’d better mean it. The Spirit is already moving and preparing the way. How will we respond when a stranger asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” 

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