St. Philip Lutheran Church
2 May 2021 + Fifth Sunday of Easter
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Before we get to the wilderness road between Jerusalem and Gaza, there’s another road between Jerusalem and Emmaus.
Two disciples are walking along together, in shared grief over the death of Jesus, when they are joined by an unknown traveler, who walks alongside them, who asks them what they’re talking about. The mystery traveler doesn’t try to monopolize the conversation, or point out their flaws, or criticize their grief, but instead gently begins explaining the scriptures to them.
This is not a conversion story. It’s an accompaniment story. A story of walking together, talking together, and sharing a meal together, at which the disciples suddenly recognize who their traveling companion is, when he blesses and breaks the bread in their presence - an ordinary ritual act of table grace, almost mundane, but a profound experience of resurrection and companionship with each other.
A line from a recent hymn text based on this story puts it this way:
In the broken bread we recognize:
your presence in the stranger’s guise.
+ + +
From the Emmaus road to the wilderness road, we encounter another story of this kind of companionship, of recognizing the presence of Christ in a stranger’s guise.
Many of us might know this story as the “conversion” of the Ethiopian eunuch - and that’s not wrong. There is conversion here - but it goes both ways.
The eunuch is baptized - immersed in water - and initiated into Christian community. But Philip, too, experiences a kind of conversion. It’s not as obvious because it happens precisely in what is not said - in the stunning silence after the eunuch’s question: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Not only does Philip not have an answer, but it’s the eunuch who commands the chariot to stop, taking bold initiative in their mutual conversion.
For Philip’s part, I’d like to imagine his answer was precisely in that silence, in his act of baptizing a foreigner, an outsider, someone he least expected to encounter, recognizing Christ in the presence of a stranger.
This story is as much about the conversion of Philip as the conversion of the eunuch - the explosive, Spirit-filled expansion of Philip’s worldview about who is included in the community of the church.
As the hymn refrain continues:
As companions on the way,
let us live the words we pray.
With the ones the world has turned away,
caminemos con Jesús.
(Let us walk with Jesus.)
This is another Emmaus story - a story of accompaniment and companionship that doesn’t monopolize the conversation or criticize the “other” or tell them why they’re “wrong” - but enters into the chariot, sits alongside them, and speaks in a conversation marked more by questions and curiosity than answers.
Accompaniment and companionship take a genuine interest in the life of the other, walking alongside them, walking the way of Jesus, the way that expands to make space for the ones the world has turned away.
+ + +
What is to prevent me from being baptized? What is to prevent me from being loved by God? What is to prevent me from experiencing the fullness of Christian community?
It’s true that there is a lot that gets in the way, and the answers to those questions are numerous: I don’t have enough faith or believe the right things. I don’t pray the right words. I’m not good enough, not worthy enough. I have doubts, worries, fears.
All of these things and more flood our minds in the silence immediately after the question.
But when those thoughts are stilled and those questions left unanswered, the silence itself speaks volumes, as one theologian (Debie Thomas) writes:
The silence is thundering, and gorgeous, and seismic, and right. Because the answer to the question is silence. The answer - the only answer - is “nothing.” In the post-resurrection world, in the world where the Spirit of God moves where and how she will, drawing all of creation to herself, in the world where the Word lives to defeat death, alienation, isolation, and fear, there is nothing to prevent a beloved image-bearer of God from entering into the fullness of Christ’s salvation. Nothing whatsoever.
Indeed, there is nothing to prevent the eunuch from being baptized, from being loved unconditionally by God, from experiencing the fullness of Christian community. Not his ethnicity. Not his gender or sexual identity. Not his doubts or lack of understanding. Nothing. And there is nothing to prevent Philip from doing the baptizing, from welcoming an outsider in, from letting the Spirit do what the Spirit does best.
The Spirit clears away everything that gets in the way and topples barriers for the eunuch and for Philip. A mutual conversion. Not for their own individual sake, but for the sake of being drawn together as companions on the way, of being drawn deeper and deeper into community.
Beloved of God, know this: There is nothing that can prevent you from being loved unconditionally by God. And there is nothing that can prevent you from experiencing the fullness of the kind of resurrection community God calls us into.
The good news of Easter and the good news of the resurrection means that none of the things that get in the way will ever get the last word.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!