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.
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.