Last week I was on retreat with a clergy-women’s group. We are hosted by the Benedictine sisters outside of Indianapolis and have the blessing of praying the hours with them morning, noon, and evening. One of the readings at Morning Praise was from the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich. It began: “God wants us to allow ourselves to see God continually.” Repeat.
The longer I live, the more I allow myself to, the more I am able to see God continually in my life and the wider world. It means being present to the presence of God. God who is present, always, “bidden or unbidden”. God, whose name is not “I was” nor “I will be,” but “I am”.
Being truly present is hard for me, perhaps for some of you, too. One thing that helps me be present is a mantra I’ve adopted and adapted: Show up. Pay attention. Play your part. Trust God with the outcome.
Being present is worth it, because as the singer Carrie Newcomer said, “Now is where the miracles happen.” Repeat.
The Acts of the Apostles is full of those Now-miracle stories. They show how the first generation of Jesus’ followers spread the faith by being present to God’s presence and to God’s will for them in the moment. God does miracles through them because they show up, pay attention, and play their part. Then they move on—entrusting the outcome to God.
That’s exactly what Philip did in today’s lesson from Acts. You recall that Philip had been chosen by the disciples, along with Stephen, to be a deacon—to minister to the needy members in Jerusalem. Although his “job” wasn’t evangelism, when the angel of the Lord called, he obeyed.
I first encountered the story of the Baptism of the Eunuch in a painting by the 17th century Dutch master Albert Cuyp, in the Menil Collection, Houston. On the wilderness road down from Jerusalem, Philip meets an Ethiopian court official, seated in his chariot. Cuyp depicted the Ethiopian eunuch and his entourage as beautiful, dark black men, richly clothed. The fine chariot is also draped in lavish material, and has a large, ornate parasol to shield the official from the heat of the sun as they travel.
Notwithstanding his trappings of wealth and power, the man is an outlier—a eunuch—neither truly male nor female. Like others who were reared to serve royalty, he had been emasculated in childhood, cruelly removing the threat his mature manhood might pose to the queen and ladies at court.
It’s clear that he is a seeker. He has been to Jerusalem and he is reading Isaiah. One commentator described him as lingering “on the edges of Judaism. That’s because he was a eunuch: Jewish law explicitly barred him from the “assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1).
Unwelcome in the Temple, the eunuch had no one with whom to study, no one to whom he could take his questions, no one with whom to share his blossoming faith.
Prompted by the angel, Philip shows up. Although the disciple is not his equal socially, the grand court official welcomes Philip with humility. Philip is also unfazed by the myriad differences between them. Gladly he accepts the invitation to join the eunuch in the carriage.
Having shown up, Philip is present. He pays attention to the man’s longing to understand the scripture. As they travel on together, Philip interprets the passage from Isaiah in light of Jesus’ story. The eunuch recognizes that this faith could be good news for him as well.
Try to imagine what it meant to be this creature of the Ethiopian court, honored at home, but shamed abroad and shut out of the community he sought to join because of something over which he had had no choice. His life of power and privilege had come at such a steep price.
Suddenly a stranger appears and opens the door to a community where God’s loving embrace dissolves all barriers of ethnicity, social class, and sexuality. Philip gives the eunuch the possibility of acceptance and belonging to a community of faith having a home in the wider world, probably for the first time in his life.
It’s not surprising that the eunuch seizes the moment. He asks to be baptized. In that holy action, the first known African to be baptized became one with all of the faithful. And at 11 o’clock today two girls, Aya and Rye Nelson, will be united in baptism with him and the countless billions of Christians worldwide over the centuries.
Joyfully the eunuch went on, carrying the good news with him back home. We’ll never know what role he played there. Perhaps he was the evangelist to the Queen and with other members of court? However it happened, the Ethiopian church became one of the first and most vital Christian communities in history.
The early church grew in just this way, one person sharing the good news that had transformed their life with another, who shared it in turn.
Then, beginning in the fourth century, Christians began to have more or less imposing buildings for worship, where—in principle—we welcome seekers. But these days, when so many people are either fearful or skeptical or ignorant about religion, the buildings themselves can be intimidating.
We all know that there’s good news in the Episcopal church, and particularly in this parish St. John’s. That’s why every one of us is here (particularly on the first gorgeous weekend of spring!) There’s loving community, inspiring worship, faithful service, and the sincere welcome to all of God’s children. There’s the chance to learn “to allow ourselves to see God continually,” to bear witness to the miracles that are happening Now.
How many people do you know who are seekers, who don’t know where to begin? They may be neighbors, friends, family, co-workers. They certainly include the people who have taken the bold step of coming here as visitors. With the eunuch, they might wonder, “How can I come, how can I begin unless someone guides me?” Each and every one of us is called to watch and to listen for that longing in others and respond with a deep welcome from the heart. Opening the door to God’s transforming love and presence lies in our hands. Sharing God’s love is our work.
When the angel of the Lord dispatched Philip to that road, Philip didn’t say: “Now I’m not on the Greet and Connect Committee, my ministry is outreach.” Instead, he showed up, paid attention, played his part by sharing the faith in the moment. Then he went off, trusting God with the outcome.
Let it be so with us.