I Peter 3:8-18
The Gospel passage we’ve read this morning is part of the “farewell discourse” of Jesus in the Gospel of John. In John’s account, Jesus speaks these words to his disciples just after the Last Supper, before he is betrayed and arrested, brought to trial, and put to death. It’s a lengthy discourse, spread over four chapters, offering further teaching, reassurance, and prayers. The farewell discourse is packed full of theology, and it can be challenging for readers to understand all that Jesus is saying. Some readers may feel like they’re pushing through a lengthy theological lecture, interesting at points, but definitely heavy-going. There’s a lot here.
Tucked into these chapters of theological discourse is a short phrase that catches my attention. Jesus says to his disciples, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
What prompted him to say that?
If we view this Final Discourse as a lengthy theological lecture, we’ll miss the significance of this phrase and of this entire section. We shouldn’t imagine Jesus standing like a teacher at a lectern, explaining to his sleepy disciples complex theological concepts that he thought they ought to know. Rather, we should picture him surrounded by his closest friends, speaking to them with great compassion, care, and concern. This is a very intimate conversation, not a theological discourse.
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.
In the life of Moses, in Hebrew folklore, there is a remarkable passage. (1) Moses finds a shepherd in the desert. Moses spends the day with the shepherd and helps him milk his ewes. At the end of the day Moses sees that the shepherd puts the best milk he has in a wooden bowl, which he places on a flat stone, some distance away. So Moses asks him what it is for, and the shepherd replies, “This is God’s milk.” Moses is puzzled, and asks the shepherd what he means. The shepherd says, “I always take the best milk I possess, and I bring it as an offering to God.” Moses, who is far more sophisticated than the shepherd with his naïve faith, asks, “And does God drink it?” “Yes,” replies the shepherd, “God does.”