Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of  St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on May 2, 2021 (Easter 5, Year B)

Between the two passages from John this morning — his first letter and then his gospel — we heard the word “love” 27 times and the word “abide” 13 times. I know. Because I spent what felt like an inordinate amount of time counting. That is a whole lot of loving and a whole lot of abiding. There’s a reason our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, “If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” And the corollary to this might be, “If it’s not about abiding, it’s not about John.”

But I want you to hold on to the abiding love of these two readings as we delve into the Acts of the Apostles. This book plays a prominent role in the Easter season as we hear all sorts of stories about the early church. About how Jesus’ message of God’s abiding love spread beyond a small group of disciples to communities all over the known world. About the mind-blowing and in many ways controversial and boundary-crossing power of God’s abiding love being shared with all sorts of people in all sorts of situations in all sorts of ways. 

This story of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza — from Bible study to baptism — is one that expands our notion of God’s abiding love, even as it did the very same for the two characters involved here. 

It’s difficult to place this Ethiopian court official into a box. His identity is shrouded in mystery and ambiguity and we project our own perspectives on him at our peril. Yet to the Greco-Roman context out of which Acts was written, we can understand him as being an outsider, a foreigner from an exotic land, perhaps with darker skin, a person who came from “somewhere else.” 

And as a eunuch, his gender identity didn’t fit neatly into an either/or category. Was castration a sign of respect in his culture, fitting his standing as a royal court official? Or was he meant to be pitied? In the Roman world, a eunuch would have been scorned as less than a real and virile man.

Yet he was also a person of privilege. Well-dressed and educated, wealthy, intellectually and spiritually curious. Again, it’s impossible to put the Ethiopian eunuch into neatly defined categories, which is certainly our preference. When it comes to others, we like to know what and whom we’re dealing with. We crave clarity over ambiguity. We like answers rather than questions. We prefer black and white to shades of gray. The unnamed Ethiopian doesn’t fit our human desire for clarity in identity.

And yet God’s abiding love lives and moves and has its being among and in ambiguity. We worship a God who died, yet rose. We are all sinners, yet redeemed. The reality is that discomfort with ambiguity comes from our humanity, not from God. God doesn’t require tidiness or clarity to love us. God’s abiding love exists right in the very thick of our own messy and unsettled lives. God doesn’t love us because we have it all figured out. God loves us precisely because we don’t.

But sometimes people get angry when God’s love is extended to those they deem unlovable or different. We see this in the well-known story of the Good Samaritan, when Jesus holds up a reviled Samaritan as the hero, the one who demonstrated God’s abiding love in word and action. We see this in the controversies between Peter and Paul in Acts, as they debated whether or not even Gentiles were included in Christ’s redeeming love. And we see it in our own day as people of faith proclaim God’s love for some — usually those who look and think and act like themselves — but not all

But who are we to control the abiding love of God? Who are we to pose limits on the abiding love of God? Who are we to stifle the abiding love of God? And yet that’s often our first impulse when God’s love is extended beyond what our human minds can fathom; when it’s extended to those we think are beyond the scope of what’s good and moral and decent and acceptable. It’s amazing how we seek to limit God’s love or put bumpers on it, to use a bowling analogy. But we do. All the time, in ways so subtle we may not even notice it in ourselves or in others.

And that’s why this story is so critical to helping us see and understand the nature of God. For in it, we see this ever-expanding circle of love made manifest. And it culminates in baptism. “Look, here is water,” the eunuch says to Philip. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And from a human perspective, there are all sorts of things to prevent this baptism. He just learned about Jesus, he’s on his way back to Ethiopia, in the early church the norm was a long preparation process before someone was admitted to the fellowship of the faith. But through Philip, God clears away all the rules and regulations, God clears away fears and hesitations, and the water of baptism becomes an open and welcoming and immediate entrance into relationship with Jesus Christ. This Ethiopian eunuch is baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. And in that moment, God’s abiding love is proclaimed. 

As I was reflecting on this boundary-busting baptism, I started thinking about my own godchild. It’s funny, you’d think that as a priest I might have multiple godchildren. But I have only one. Bryna and I were lucky enough to be asked to be godparents to the child of a seminary classmate of mine. And it was a powerful thing to be on the other side of the baptismal font, answering all those questions, and promising to help this child “grow into the full stature of Christ.” It was a privilege and a great responsibility to stand up and make those vows nearly 20 years ago. 

Last year, our godchild came out as transgender. And while I didn’t see this coming, surprise quickly gave way to love. The love that we will always have for our godchild. The love that God will always extend to our godchild. The abiding love of God is not limited by our preconceived notions or societal norms. If we proclaim that the gospel is indeed good news for all people, we have to recognize that no one is outside the scope of God’s abiding love. That’s the fullness of the good news of Jesus Christ; that’s the fullness of God’s abiding love.

You know, there’s a reason I like to toss water around after a baptism. It’s been awhile, but you’ve probably seen me do this. Partly it’s just fun. I can’t deny that. But the broader point and the reason I do this, is that God’s abiding love cannot be confined or contained. When God’s abiding love is unleashed, it splashes all over the place. God’s love lands on people we think are deserving of God’s love and those we can’t imagine being loved by God. And guess what? God loves them all. And so should we.

That’s the power of the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. God’s abiding love is not limited by our notions of what is right and proper. And this allows us to live our lives with the reckless abandon of total immersion in God’s abiding love. For us and for the world.


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