Eunuch and Catholicity

I had forgotten that I was up for sermons two Sundays in a row (I know, I know, ‘big whoop’ say my unimpressed weekly-preacher clergy colleagues, but I’m supposed to be doing other writing-type things at the same time). The week passed by, and I worked on a thesis, and a book review, and a short essay, and Sunday lay in wait without revealing itself to me till about Saturday morning — at which point, it leaped out of hiding, with teeth bared, and a ferocious roar. I was not even armed with a sermon from years past (how can that be, after all these lectionary cycles? because they surreptitiously changed the lectionary, to thwart the energy-saving impulse to recycle sermons). Yet with the partial, somewhat dented armour of kind-of-righteousness, I managed to subdue the prowling lion and assemble a sermon that didn’t fall to bits in the pulpit.
 
The morning was exquisitely sunny, almost warm, a refreshing walk from home, and the service went well, and now I’m securely ensconced at the Palais Partickhill. I’ll return to the thesis this afternoon, and tomorrow I’ll take up the editor’s version of my James commentary, which he’d like back before we visit the States for Pippa’s graduation. It all feels good, though — lots to do, without too much intervening between me and my obligations (productivity!). Maybe I’ll write some more about exegesis this week, if I wrap up the thesis. Oh, and the sermon is in the ‘read more’ section below.
 

5 Easter B
6 May 2012
+
St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
Acts 8:26-40 / Psalm 22:24-30 / 1 John 4:7-21 / John 15:1-8
 
 
‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’

 

 
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 
   Oh, how little did the Ethiopian eunuch understand about the complexities and vagaries of the Episcopal church! ‘What is to prevent me being baptised?’ Well, d’you mean apart from instruction in the Christian life and faith, availability of a duly ordained minister, recording in the church register, and the proper seasonal feast day? Philip had only been made a deacon two chapters ago, he had been whisked by the the Holy Spirit from Samaria to Gaza without obtaining a bishop’s permission to officiate in his new diocese, and now he baptises the Ethiopian after only the most cursory of catechesis — Philip and the anonymous Ethiopian seem to represent the precise opposite of institutional Christianity. They’re poster models for charismatic spontaneity and the liberty of the Spirit.
 
   All the cool kids know, after all, that the institutional church is the root of all ecclesiastical evil. Really exciting, hip, lively Christians take it as self-evident that institutions are dead, oppressive, antiquated — the very reverse of the gospel of new life in Christ Jesus our Lord. The institutional church is like the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship from the satirical programme The Thick of It, struggling to justify its existence, devising task forces and initiatives and holding a great many meetings, fussing over receipts and budgets, whereas exciting, hip, lively Christians do their own innovative thing with subversively mischievous disregard for the structures and rubrics and canons of an ossified, institutional church.
 
   This past week, I heard a lot of colleagues deriding the institutional church for being so predictably… institutional, instead of being as exciting, hip, and lively as they are. That rhetoric chafes at me, even though I too really dislike meetings, even though constitutions and canons make my eyes go all blurry, even though intrusive managerialism makes me feel like the Incredible Hulk, only not green and not, alas, muscular — on all those counts, I recognise the accusations against the institutional church, but still I chafe.
 
   Philip, of course, didn’t have any rules to follow. He wasn’t defying a burdensome administrative overload by baptising the travelling Ethiopian; he didn’t rebelling against anyone’s institutional authority with that spontaneous gesture. The early-days church hadn’t thought up any rules yet, and the Torah is silent on the propriety of baptising long-distance commuters in the name of Jesus. Philip’s ‘baptise first, ask questions later’ ecclesiology suited the circumstances of his ministry, and St Luke assures us that Philip acted at the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
 
   If anything, the Holy Spirit seems to have been instrumental in guiding the apostles and their heirs toward the sort of shared life that requires some degree of institutionalisation. From the earliest glimmerings of the gospel, from the roots of what we recognise now as sound Christian teaching in the tradition of the prophets of Judah and Israel, the church has moved in the direction of the catholicity of the gospel — the fundamental faith that this good news applies to everyone, in all the world. Part of the reason St Luke tells us the story of this Ethiopian (let’s give him a name, let’s call him Indich, as one tradition had it, or Abdimalkah, ‘servant of the queen’, as a colleague of mine proposes), Luke tells us about Indich Abdimalkah specifically to illustrate the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. What is to prevent the foreigner Indich Abdimalkah to be baptised? Nothing at all — and Philip follows the Holy Spirit’s lead in extending the gospel to Africa at the very start of the church’s outreach.
 
   Catholicity also entails our committing to some degree of cooperation. While some of us might like to suppose that we could do the church’s work on our own, without regard to what others are up to, that’s not the way that we undertake any other important venture. In the operating theatre; in bringing up children; in military manoeuvres; in orchestral music; even sometimes in government, the great things we attempt involve our working with others and attending to what they’re getting up to. Catholicity doesn’t require that we make ourselves identical to one another, but it entails our understanding that we share discipleship with sisters and brothers from Orkney to Gretna Green, and indeed to Penzance, Provence, Puerto Rico, Patagonia, and Perth (Australia). We are Philip, baptising; and we are Abdimalkah, receiving blessings from far away, and we and Abdimalkah and Philip and St Andrew and St Frumentius of Aksum (the apostle of Ethiopia), all share in the one Body of Christ.
 
   And as a catholic gospel is for all people, and as our catholic mission entails some degree of coordination, so also our catholic faith requires that we not simply assume that what we think and do should prevail over others — whether because we’re the most numerous (in the Scottish Episcopal Church, we are rarely the most numerous in any group of Christians) or the best educated or the best behaved, or even just because we’re Scottish (though that be reason enough). When we say, ‘We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church’, we say ‘It isn’t up to us to determine how this whole endeavour works out’. Whenever two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, they’re likely to disagree about any number of matters — and we must not try to coerce them to believe our way, nor they to coerce us to believe their way. The catholic Church, the all-encompassing Church, trusts in the Holy Spirit to guide and govern us — whether we always like the direction things are headed or not.
 
   In these ways, the catholic Church represents a sort of articulated mutuality, a sharing of different gifts from different quarters, differently expressed and differently received, but always held in the Holy Spirit’s dream of harmonious, unselfish, perfectly free sharing. As heirs of the Spirit’s dream for us, as followers in Philip’s and Indich-Abdimalkah’s footsteps, we sometimes act improvisationally, in a way that would please the anti-institutional sentiment of our innovative sisters and brothers — and sometimes we rely on the agreements and conventions that have helped us maximise the extent of our sharing faith with churches around the globe. Our structures and constitutions aren’t good for their own sake, but precisely insofar as they strengthen us, set us free for mission, amplify our fellowship, and raise up all the families of the nations, from all the ends of the earth, to remember and turn to the Lord.
 
   The critics of institutional religion rightly point out that bureaucracy all too often falls into fearful, perfunctory, box-ticking, paralysing formalities, whose most visible fruits are a sort of deadening conformism. The hierarchs of institutional religion risk trading in the spiritual authority of theological leadership for the unspiritual prerogative to boss people around. Such self-centred power-plays falsify the gospel of free, fearless, fruitful fellowship in collaboration with our sisters and brothers. In answer to bullies and bosses, we praise the spontaneous Spirit of Philip and Abdimalkah; and at the same time, we hold tenaciously to the structures of root and vine that hold us together with our sisters and brothers, not only when those structures support our interests, but from a shared catholic commitment to the whole Body.
 
   The epistle says, ‘No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us’; so as we all share our vocation as baptised members of the Body of Christ, we give a sense of who God is, of how Jesus Christ can be recognised at work among us, of what kind of Spirit animates us. By this we know that God abides in us — that we love one another without reservation or fear, that we cooperate patiently and without coercion, that we bear witness to the good news of God in Christ Jesus by producing the fruits of the Spirit in lives that glorify God. In a harmonious mutuality so fine, so vast, so complex, so magnificent, we join our voices to sing God’s praises in the great assembly, and we shall be known as the Lord’s forever.
 
   

Amen

 

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3 Responses to Eunuch and Catholicity

  1. Chris Athorne says:

    Dear AKMA,

    As usual I listened to your sermon this morning carefully and with my own variety of interest. I say my own variety because I’m interested in your particular articulation of theological issues, how it reflects on our place in the world and how it differs from my own.

    I have a main point I want to make but before I do I’d question one or two of your assertions.

    “Philip didn’t have any rules to follow ….”. Well, is that true? Don’t the letters of Paul suggest that the early churches were awash with rules and the discussion of rules, particularly between the jewish and gentile congregations? Wasn’t baptising the eunuch a statement in the context of early church politics? Isn’t this “nothing at all” actually quite a big deal? You might even read it as an assertion of an ideal of catholicity that flies in the face of the early institutions.

    Secondly you introduce this “dream of catholicity” but, maybe because of your earlier polemics, it becomes strongly tied to “institution” in a way that is not, I think, supported by history – even the history of the early church. The institution has always created an authority structure designed to defend, promote or impose catholicity. And in return the dream of catholicity has always been subversive of that authority.

    It isn’t the bureaucracy that we find burdensome but the consequences of the self-defensive authority of a church which is uncertain of its identity.

    Which brings me to “the spiritual authority of theological leadership” and my fundamental difficulty with the whole discussion of catholicity. For however inclusive and all-embracing catholicity is to be, it is still “us” and “them”. It is still concerned with the boundary of belonging. So you speak of a “commitment to the whole Body” and of being “known as the Lord’s forever.” Catholicity, and the concomitant theological leadership, is, in this sense very foreign to my way of thinking and being in the world.

    Isn’t this just the church’s daily conversation with itself in the shaving mirror.

    Chris.

  2. AKMA says:

    Chris, by this point I always think of you when constructing sermons — not always to the point of altering the direction of the sermon, but always benefiting from making sure I am saying what I want to more carefully than I otherwise would. Thanks for keeping me on my toes.
     
    With regard to Philip, the way the Book of Acts narrates the story, Philip will have baptised the Ethiopian before the conversion of Paul, and before the Jerusalem Council that okayed the participation of Gentiles conditionally. On that basis, I described Philip as pre-rubrical, as it were. Now, you very rightly catch me out on the idea that baptising a Gentile would have been a controversial point (if this took place before the Jerusalem Council, leaving aside for the time being the problem of whether any such thing actually happened) — but Acts seems to represent the Ethiopian as not strictly Gentile. In the theological-cultural topography of Acts, the Ethiopian (who has just been to Jerusalem, who is reading the scroll of Isaiah) seems not to be an out-and-out Gentile as Cornelius is, but someone who is liminally Jewish. Philip ministers first in Samaria (again, a non-Gentile territory) then baptises Indich-Abdimalkah in Gaza. That looks to me like a pair of anecdotes radiating outward from the Jerusalem-centred action up to that point.
     
    As to your second question, I readily concede that the actual exercise of ecclesiastical leadership consistently belies the dream. At that point I have to ponder whether I would advocate a sort of free-for-all ecclesiology (in which catholicity, if it were held as an ideal at all, would have to be even more attenuated than it is in the modern church) or instead, in the face of disheartening evidence, hold on to the vision of non-coercive catholicity despite all the good reasons that the church has given for abandoning that hope. Of these options, I willingly, if sad-heartedly, adhere firmly to the latter. I cherish such examples of free, generous, mutual catholicity where I encounter them, and wince for all the dysangelical, domineering, imperial instances of clerical (and lay) jobsworths arrogating personal power to themselves at the expense of truth and charity.
     
    I don’t think one can ever get away from some degree of ‘us’ and ‘them’, especially if one will respect some people’s active resistance to being included in a Christian’s fancy of absolute inclusion. At the same time, I don’t have much interest in policing boundaries; debating them, of course, piques my academic-theological disposition, but not so much as a matter of abjection and purification as of understanding ever more clearly what we’re each about.
     
    Now, as ever, I don’t presume to have laid to rest the questions you put to me — this is simply a quick response based on the general way I push onward in the direction I’ve been exploring and testing over the years. Though it satisfy you not, I have learned to attend much more closely to the matters that especially concern you; while I know I won’t satisfy everyone who listens, I will have at least diminished the likelihood that I vex you on a strictly offhand basis. Thank you for that, and for your patience in conversing with me.
     

  3. chris athorne says:

    Dear AKMA – you do not vex me. I am a vexatious character, to be sure, and there is plenty at St Blogs to vex me but not your sermons. Just wanted to say that. And that, rather than prolong the discussion here, I’m sure the issue of catholicity will be faced again from our two sides of the boundary. Chris.

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