Our religious tradition has a God on the move: transient; in flight; of no fixed abode.
Sure at times the ‘EC’ [ecclesiastical controllers] have wanted to plonk God in a temple [fortress?], and put a purity wall around it, and say: ‘God’s here, not over there, so there!’ They’ve want to fix God to a spot; to a cage. It’s a way to both control God, and control the religious thinking of the populace.
But God, of the Exodus, the prophets, of Jesus, doesn’t like walls and fences that divide people off and restrict possibilities. After a while the caged God breaks free – and you’ll find God out and about, with the destitute and the different, the dreamers and the despised.
So it’s not surprising that the Holy Spirit – that spirit of creativity in Genesis, that spirit of freedom in Exodus, that spirit of wisdom in Proverbs, that spirit of disruption in the Prophets, that spirit of Jesus that the grave can’t contain, that spirit of radical inclusion in our story today of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch – is most often symbolized by a bird.
Did you know there are at least three types of Holy Spirit birds in our church: A dove, a wild goose, and a seagull. There’s also an eagle – but I don’t think she is representing the spirit [usually St John].
I think it’s high time we here in Aotearoa NZ started depicting the Holy Spirit as a local bird. My first pick would be the graceful kotuku, the white heron. Though in the prayers this morning I wonder whether the personable and playful piwakawaka [fantail] might be a contender, or even the cheeky and pestiferous kea?
The Holy Spirit calls to us. It says, firstly that we are loved and accepted – just as we are. Here it. Believe it.
Secondly its call says we can be who we truly are – it calls us home to our best self.
Thirdly, and to find who we truly are, we are to go on a journey. To quote Bilbo Baggins: “It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road,… there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.” And the Spirit will be there on that journey with us.
And lastly, the Spirit has a dream, God’s dream/vision if you like, that the obstacles, walls, and fences of prejudice, poverty, violence and despair will be overcome and together we will live into a way of being as individuals and society where kindness, compassion, and human flourishing is the air we breathe, we fly in, and the reality we experience.
So, as the next song says, let’s go on a journey to discover, dream and grow.
The Spirit, that wild wind that infected the dispirited gang of Jesus’ disciples, a resurrecting wind, is recorded by Luke in his second century work, the Book of Acts, as spreading out across the world – jumping the borders and barriers of ethnicity, religious identity, and sexual boundaries.
Luke is looking back to the beginning of the post-Easter Jesus movement and putting his theology into imaginative history. Luke tells stories about the Good News spreading out from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth.[i] [Remember he, like everyone else, thought the earth was flat and therefore had ends].
Ethiopia – the ancient land of Cush, south of Sudan and Egypt – was considered to be the ends of the earth. This episode is celebrated as the gospel coming to Africa.
Some scholars, however, argue that ‘Ethiopian’ was a common term used for black Africans, and that the Queen Candace served by this official actually ruled in nearby Nubia (modern Sudan). The word "Candace" may also refer to the position of "queen" rather than to a specific person.
The Eunuch in the story is returning from worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem, and therefore in all probability was Jewish. Judaism was practiced in Ethiopia long before Christianity arrived and the Ethiopian Orthodox Bible contains numerous Jewish Aramaic words.
The Ethiopian official was a wealthy man, with political power and influence, and therefore very different from the usual 1st century esus follower. His inclusion in the emergent Jesus movement signals the Spirit moving across the barrier of class, as well as geography.
More controversial though than the borders of ethnicity and class, was the border of his sexual identity. Often eunuchs were mutilated when quite young, affecting their hormones and development. In Judaism there were prohibitions about their full inclusion in the community. [Though note the ancient Hebrews did not practice castration]. The significance of Philip baptising the Eunuch is that it is signalling that he has now been fully included in the Jesus movement.
In these current times when the diversity around gender and orientation is now openly talked about, this text challenges us to welcome, include, and celebrate in our midst those who are different from us – even, maybe especially, when we don’t fully understand those differences. The Spirit of Jesus has no borders, no prejudices.
Luke has the Spirit in this story picking up Philip and plonking down here, there, and everywhere. The wind of inclusion has no fences; and if there were the Spirit would just jump over them. The challenge to us is to replica this movement of the Spirit in our lives and actions, and in the policies and structures of our society and world.
I’m reminded of the vignette in Elizabeth Knox’s novel, The Vintner’s Luck, where Sobran’s [the vintner] brother, Leon, commits suicide. As pertaining to church law, the one committing suicide had committed a ‘sin’, a ‘sin’ that disqualified him from being buried in the church graveyard. That graveyard, the only graveyard in the village, was bounded by a stone wall.
This custom of religiously excluding those who commit suicide was once common in this country too.
In Elizabeth Knox’s story Leon’s plot is dug outside the wall of the churchyard. Then in the night, led by Sobran, the male villagers come to the cemetery and, to the dismay of the local priest, tear down part of the existing wall and expand the wall to include Leon’s plot.
The Spirit of love, of justice, tears down our walls of exclusion, and expands the perimeter of our thinking to include all who are marginalized – whether due to ethnicity, class, sexual/gender difference, or so-called ‘sin’. The Spirit of Jesus is always the ‘friend of sinners’, and thus the destabilizer of our worldviews.
There is a quote by Robert Fulghum: “The grass is not, in fact, greener on the other side of the fence. No, not at all. Fences having nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you may be.”
Fulghum is reminding us that the pulling down of walls to include others is not only our responsibility, but involves work – and that work is not only deconstruction, but reconstruction [think of Germany after the wall came down!]. To have a community and society of inclusion we need to ‘water’ it. Each of us needs to be a watering can – supporting and nurturing shoots of joy, hope, love, justice, and kindness wherever they might arise.
So as we journey on, breaking out of cages, jumping fences, guided by the hovering Spirit, we need to take with us a watering can. For there is work to do.
The Robert Fulghum metaphor of ‘watering’ hope and love resonates with the Christian understanding that each of us has a vocation to encourage and build a better society. How are we doing that? And what is working against us?
In small groups make a list of the various groups or people you support in this vocation to encourage and build a better, more Christ-like, society.
[i] Acts 1:8