Worship on a Wilderness Road

A Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; St. John 15:1-8


Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, who abides with us. Amen.

It’s not an ideal situation, that’s for sure. If I were to sit down and plot it out, for maximum impact, it’s not how I would draft it. (Probably why nobody’s asked me to add to the canon yet.) But here it is: the first conversion of a Gentile to the Christian faith recorded in Acts. To be certain, Christ’s ministry attracted Gentile attention (the Syrophoenician woman in Mark and Matthew, and in Luke the Gerasene demoniac and the Roman centurion). But today, we see the Church for the first time open its arms to someone born outside the heirs of Abraham.

That’s a controversial enough proposition – it raises quite a few arguments in chapter 10 and again in chapter 15. But add to that the setting – outside of Jerusalem, with just a few people, the Ethiopian eunuch, and Philip – and it becomes downright odd. Up to this point, the Church’s ministry has been dominated by stirring speeches to large crowds (like Peter on Pentecost or Stephen as he’s martyred). It’s just a normal day on a road in the wilderness.

Oh, and there’s that other matter. The Ethiopian is, as the text states, a eunuch. So while he was in Jerusalem worshipping and presumably had some faith in the God of Israel, he could not have been a proselyte, that is, a convert to the Jewish faith. Deuteronomy 23 explicitly forbids it.

But this person hears the good news of Jesus the Messiah, and he believes. He’s so eager to join the Church that they state, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

No church building. Not the Jordan. No fancy font. Just a few people on the side of the road in the wilderness.

Back in October, as Taylor and I set up for the first service out here, my mind flashed back in time – I’m not the first Pastor Lewis to lead services in such unique circumstances, to cobble together a makeshift outdoor chapel.

Many of you have met my father and know that he spent most of his career as serving as a Methodist chaplain in the US Army. Eighteen years ago, dad was part of the Third Infantry Division, one of the units that pushed up from Kuwait into Iraq and eventually to Baghdad. The unit deployed; the chaplains deployed with them.

That’s the mission of chaplains: to provide for the religious needs of people when they’re far from home, as if to say, “Look: there are people with spiritual needs; what is to keep them from worshipping?”

And as you might expect, makeshift chapels in the middle of a desert battlefield are even more ragtag than ours. There are pictures of dad leading services in the middle of a literal war zone using the back of his Humvee as makeshift altar, soldiers sitting on cots rather than pews and still wearing their Kevlar helmets in the middle of worship, the green camo of their MOPP gear standing out against the beige surroundings.

And yet, that small group of people gathered to worship the Triune God in Word and Sacrament: Look: there was bread and wine; what was to keep the Church from celebrating the Eucharist?

Chaplain Sieg – one of dad’s colleagues, but I knew him better as Erika and Andy’s dad – is captured in photograph after photograph performing baptisms – sometimes in his PT uniform, sometimes in his desert fatigues, always in a makeshift font cobbled together from boxes and a tarp, using the cup from his mess kit to pour water over the newly baptized, and always always always outside.

Look: there was water; what was to keep people from being baptized?

We are not the first Christians to find ourselves worshipping in such dire circumstances, and we will not be the last. The Church has found itself in prisons, on battle fields, in concentration camps, and in times of plague. This world is fallen, and we are all too often put into dangerous situations. Sometimes we have the comfort of a regular meeting place, sometimes we don’t.

Come what may, we have all that we need – the promise that we have been grafted into the True Vine of Jesus Christ. He abides in us, and we abide in him. That will suffice.

It’s been nearly fourteen months. It’s Easter again, but the Lent paraments are still up from last year. We’ve spent too long on this wilderness road. We’re all ready to get back to something that more closely resembles normal. We may get there soon. I hope so.

But hear me say this: the buildings behind me could sink into the earth, and yet the Church of Christ would endure. This congregation would continue to exist, continue to worship the Triune God and to serve our neighbors.

It’s not about the building. It’s not about the name or the constitution and bylaws. It’s not about the hymnal that we use or the vestments that I wear or the silver altarware.

It’s about the sure and certain promise that the Risen Christ abides with us and gives us the strength to love one another as he first loved us.

Here is bread and wine. What is to keep us from Holy Communion?

There is water in the building behind me. What is to keep us from baptizing new kindred?

Here, in chairs beside you, is the Body of Christ gathered. What is to keep us from worshipping?

Amen.

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