By Ric Hudgens
Easter 5, April 29, 2018
North Suburban Mennonite, Libertyville, Illinois
“But Philip found himself at Azotus.” (Acts 8:40a)
Philip was on the edge of the edge. What I mean is he was a Greek-speaking Jew in an Aramaic-speaking community that (because of their devotion to Jesus) was on the edge of a Jewish culture that existed as a despised, oppressed minority on the periphery of the Roman Empire. It might be more accurate to say that Philip was on the edge of the edge of the edge – of the edge.
Then the Spirit sent Philip into the wilderness. Far out. Over the edge.
In the wilderness he met a man from Ethiopia (on the edge) who was also a eunuch (off the binary charts). The Ethiopian was returning from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship. But according the religious law because he was a eunuch he was not allowed in the Temple. In others words this Ethiopian was also over the edge.
And in the wilderness one over-the-edge met another over-the-edge brought together by the one described by the prophet as pushed over the edge like a sheep that is slaughtered. “You don’t belong here” was the empire’s message.
Consequently, the Ethiopian participated in a ritual of community initiation and one edge dweller joined another edge dweller in the name of an edge dweller into a community of edge dwellers. “You belong here!” was the gospel message.
Then Philip was “snatched away” and suddenly “found himself in Azotus” and that is where this sermon begins.
I’m using “Azotus” metaphorically as a place we sometimes wind up when we follow Spirit through the wilderness and find ourselves over the edge of much that has been familiar, certain, and stable.
It’s a confusing place and if Spirit hadn’t compelled us we might never have chosen to be there.
But then what?
In many ways the entire book of Acts is an answer to that question. The early Jesus community gathers, cares for, invents, and improvises their way forward towards an alternative future for God’s freedom dreams. I would in fact center Acts more than for example Romans as a revelation of how open-ended the church initially was and (to my mind) should remain.
But my purpose here this morning is to speak a pastoral word to all of us in our over-the-edge/wilderness/marginal spaces – spaces where our own story takes an unexpected turn and we aren’t sure of the way forward. Spaces where we may feel alone, afraid, or anxious.
I see Philip’s interaction with the Ethiopian demonstrating at least three things I want to remember and remind you of when you “find yourself in Azotas”:
First, Philip didn’t assume that because he was in the wilderness God was absent or far away. When we are off the beaten path our anxiety can push out any sense of Spirit attending to us. Old traditions, predictable stories, and fixed boundaries are hard to dispense with because they bring us so much comfort. Suddenly, Philip is not where the action is (i.e. Jerusalem). But instead of trying to get back to the inner circle as quickly as possible he looks for God where he is. On the margins. Over-the-edge.
We must all cultivate such a deep, unshakable conviction of Spirit’s abiding with us that we never feel without an abode in God. Even in over-the-edge/wilderness/marginal spaces. Spirit is real. God is present. Don’t be too quick to seek out the security of the familiar. God is in the margins too.
Second, Philip had an eye for others in their wilderness spaces. Clearly, this Ethiopian (perhaps the ancestor of centuries of Ethiopian Christian faith) was travelling through the wilderness in search of more than just a way home. Their reading in the book of Isaiah and the intimate conversation with Philip reveals a deeper search. How poignant to have travelled all the way to the geographic center of one’s faith and not be allowed inside! To be left standing at the doors of the church because “you don’t belong here”! How poignant, agonizing, and painfully still real even in our contemporary gatherings.
But where others saw difference Philip saw kindred, fellow travelers, over-the-edge sojourners. He didn’t wait for the Ethiopian to come to him but he ran to them.
Let us keep our heads up and our eyes searching even and especially in our wilderness spaces. Sometimes in Scripture wilderness is an unavoidable pathway, but wilderness is never God’s final word. The prophet Isaiah wrote that even in the wilderness we may find a highway for our God. Lift up your hearts. Lift them up to the Lord.
Third, when (not if) you find other over-the-edge/wilderness/marginalized people make community with them. I am astounded by how unhesitatingly Philip baptized this Ethiopian and welcomed them into the new Jesus-centered family. In those days so soon after the death and resurrection of Jesus and the first formations of Christian community, Philip doesn’t seem to have any concerns about welcoming this transgender Ethiopian into the movement. He doesn’t hesitate or need to consult with anyone else. It’s spontaneous, audacious, loving, and completely consistent with both the Jesus-template, the Spirit DNA, and the (later) declaration of Paul that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free. It’s beautiful – and beauty trangresses bylaws!
I long for us to be an audacious community of Spirit where the gospel message to those in over-the-edge/wilderness/marginal spaces is “you’re welcome here!” As a denomination, a congregation, and as individuals we are facing into several wilderness spaces. It is hard to be an inventive, improvising, intent on the Spirit community of insight and inspiration. It seems easy to lose our faith and lose our way.
But the example of Philip to us is clear. We must cultivate a deep, abiding sense of Spirit’s presence and activity with and among us even when we feel far from “the center of things” (whatever that is). We must search in over-the-edge/wilderness/marginal spaces for other kindred yet unrecognized (whoever they are). We must be audacious in our love and welcome and hospitality confident in the expanding embrace of a Jesus-like God who makes a way out of no way – especially in the wilderness. Whenever and wherever we find ourselves there.
May it be so.