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The Holy Spirit in a hostile environment

Acts 10: 26-end

The Holy Spirit enters into a hostile environment and transforms it, making it an environment in which we can spread the good news of Jesus Christ and grow the church in unexpected ways.

In our reading from Acts, we heard how an angel sent Philip to a road through the wilderness.  And in this unlikely place, he saw an unlikely sight; a gentile, an Ethiopian, who was also a eunuch, sitting in a chariot reading from Scripture. 

And the Holy Spirit told Philip to go up to the chariot.  And so Philip was able to explain that the Scripture the man was reading pointed towards Jesus Christ.

And they journeyed together.  And then this man asked Philip the question, ‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’

And, of course, the answer is nothing.  As Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans, ‘Nothing in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.

And so he was baptised.  And then the Holy Spirit snatched Philip away.  And the Ethiopian went on his way rejoicing and giving thanks to God.  The Holy Spirit entered into the hostile environment of the wilderness road and transformed it, so the good news of Jesus Christ was shared and the church grew in unexpected ways.

All this happened on the wilderness road.  This was the same wilderness, the same hostile environment that the people of Israel spent 40 years wandering around in before they were ready to be led into the promised land.  But now the angel led Philip back out into the wilderness to meet a man returning to his home beyond the wilderness.  It was a decisive historical switch.  Before God brought his chosen people through the hostile environment to the promised land.  Now he was leading his chosen people back into the hostile environment so that new people might be chosen.

But sometimes we make our own hostile environment.

The baptism register in our vestry goes back to 1924.  About 8 babies are recorded on each page.  On the first page there is a record of a child who was baptised and no father’s name is recorded.  And the same on the second page and on the next few pages.  And then it stops.  After the first few pages all the children have a father whose name is recorded. 

I thought about why that was.  And then I noticed that the first few pages were all from the time when George Henry Cooper was the vicar here.  When he left, the babies with no recorded fathers seem to have stopped coming for baptism also.  And I also noticed that some of these children without recorded fathers did not live in our parish.  And so of course now I wonder whether the Rev’d Cooper was known to be willing to baptise children whose fathers’ names were not recorded when other local vicars would not.  Maybe you can think of other possible explanations.

The question of the Ethiopian eunuch was ‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ I think the George Cooper’s answer was, ‘Nothing in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’. I wonder what happened here after he left.  I wonder what was happening in neighbouring parishes while he was still here.

So now we can reflect on our own lives and the situations we are in.

  1. When do we find ourselves operating in a hostile environment?  In which case, are we ready for the Holy Spirit to transform the environment so that God may be glorified through us?
  2. When do we find ourselves creating new hostile environments?  Are we culpable in the erection of new barriers that seek to hem the Holy Spirit in and keep people cut off from God?

We are gradually seeing the full impact of our government’s policy of creating a hostile environment for illegal migrants by demanding enormous amounts of documentation from immigrants.  People who have lived and worked here for years, had national insurance numbers and paid tax, have been asked for 4 additional pieces of written documentation for each year they claim to have lived in the UK.  When they have been unable to do this they have lost their jobs, been denied healthcare and housing and some have even been imprisoned and deported, separated from loved ones.

Everybody seems to agree now that this was wrong.  We are asked to believe that it was never intended.  That it somehow happened without being anybody’s fault.

 We just somehow blundered into a situation in which we created a hostile environment with catastrophic results for people who live among us.

We have to take care as a church that we don’t blunder into creating a hostile environment.  We have to remain trusting and welcoming to people who the Holy Spirit leads us towards, not erecting barriers and bureaucratic burdens.

We are being led by the Spirit to parents who want to baptise their children, couples who want to get married in our church, people who are grieving for their loved ones, people who want to say a prayer.  People who would like to be confirmed.  People who are saying in various ways, ‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ 

All these interactions generate some need for documentation.  This must remain unobtrusive.  The documentation must serve the Holy Spirit.  We must not build a hostile environment.

It is striking in this story how Philip seems almost incapable of directing his own actions.  He is led to the place of encounter by an angel, told what to do by the Holy Spirit and then snatched away by the same Holy Spirit because there is more for Philip to do.

This story is, of course, a very important story for the Coptic church of Ethiopia.  This church proudly traces its roots back to this baptism by Philip and claims, therefore, to be the oldest of the churches of the Gentiles, created through the intervention of the Holy Spirit.

And centuries later the story of the Ethiopian church and the ancient and independent culture in which it operated became inspirational for Christians in Jamaica looking for an authentic African route to God that by-passed the European cultures that had enslaved their ancestors. 

And among other things, this inspired the Rastafari movement, made famous throughout the world through the songs of Bob Marley, songs that became part of the soundtrack of my youth growing up in Leeds, songs that took images from Scripture and brought them to life in the world beyond the church.

Bob Marley sang about Exodus, a movement of the people.  He sang no woman no cry which to me will always be a Good Friday song.  He sang redemption songs, the only songs we have.  The Holy Spirit sped down the Gaza road all the way to Ethiopia.  It leapt across the Atlantic and moved in the hearts of those folks in Jamaica, some of whom came to Leeds, bringing their music and the Holy Spirit with them so that I could sense its presence in the city I grew up in.

What an unexpected and astonishing chain of events.  Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit’.

Fortunately the question of the Ethiopian eunuch is preserved for us.  We hear his voice.  ‘What is to prevent me from being baptised / confirmed’? 

The Holy Spirit will direct us and give us an answer.  The Holy Spirit is astonishing.  And it is transforming.  It transforms hostile environments and makes them places where God’s church can grow in unexpected ways.

Amen.


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Page last updated: 12th Jul 2018 12:21 PM