Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
May 3, 2015—Senior Farewell Sunday
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8
Acts 8:26–40 • An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, “At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a desert road.) So he did. Meanwhile, an Ethiopian man was on his way home from Jerusalem, where he had come to worship. He was a eunuch and an official responsible for the entire treasury of Candace. (Candace is the title given to the Ethiopian queen.) He was reading the prophet Isaiah while sitting in his carriage. The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.”
Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him. This was the passage of scripture he was reading:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent so he didn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was taken away from him. Who can tell the story of his descendants because his life was taken from the earth? The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Starting with that passage, Philip proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him. As they went down the road, they came to some water.
The eunuch said, “Look! Water! What would keep me from being baptized?” He ordered that the carriage halt. Both Philip and the eunuch went down to the water, where Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing. Philip found himself in Azotus. He traveled through that area, preaching the good news in all the cities until he reached Caesarea.
John 15:1–8 • “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.”
Some years ago, I was doing an independent study with a young woman who wanted a course in Biblical interpretation. It was a pretty in-depth course in which we worked our way through the major sections of scripture and we talked about them in term of their thematic content and theology. We explored theories of text criticism and deconstructing the text, exploring the way the scriptures were put together and to what effect. It was a lot of fun, made all the more so by the fact that she was voracious in reading the scriptures in advance of our meetings.
At one point, we were going through an important passage and we were looking at the historical context, analyzing the patterns of the passage, and exploring the language. After we were done, she sat back, sighed, and said, “How does anyone think that they can just pick up a Bible and understand it all by themselves?”
As excited as she was by what she was studying, the more she did the more she realized that she could not do so alone. And the more that she realized that, the more she was amazed at people who thought that they didn’t need anyone to understand the scriptures.
II. THE TEXT
That’s the same lesson that the Ethiopian official had learned in tonight’s lesson from the Book of Acts. Now there are a couple of extraordinary things that happen in this course of this story and I want to go on record and say that the most extraordinary thing is not that the Holy Spirit teleports Philip from Gaza to Azotus (Ashdod). Don’t get me wrong: that’s pretty impressive and extraordinary. No, I want to say that the most extraordinary thing is that someone actually admits that they need help reading the Bible.
The Ethiopian official is a high ranking official in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court. We are told he is the Candace’s treasurer, clearly a man of great responsibility and power. And this man, this high official, admits that he cannot understand the scriptures without help. When Philip asks him, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” he answers, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?”
There is a humility there that is really, really refreshing. I would love it if some of our more vocal Christians evidenced even a tenth of the Ethiopian’s humility when it came to Biblical interpretation.
And so, Philip explains to him all the messianic messages found in the Book of Isaiah and how they point toward Jesus. As it happens, there is water nearby and the Ethiopian official suggests he be baptized there. After he is baptized, Philip is whisked away by the Holy Spirit to Ashdod.
III. FAITH IS HARD
This passage says is about so much more than simply the conversion of a high official in the Candace’s court. It is even about more than the remarkable fact that as a eunuch, a sexual minority, he is still welcomed into Christian fellowship without question. I think for us, the real import of this story is what it says about Christian faith: it cannot be done alone.
That’s not to say that some people haven’t tried. One could argue that there are a significant number of people who are attempting to do that. There are a great many Christians for whom Christianity is primarily an individual enterprise; it’s about me getting my salvation and that’s it. Or it’s about an individual’s beliefs and they should be allowed to believe what they want but their beliefs should have no public dimension.
And this follows in a long line of individuals who sought to develop their Christian faith on their own, from anchoritic monks to staunch Christian individualists. It should not surprise you by now that John Wesley had something to say about this. When confronted with the question of whether it was possible to live Christian faith in isolation, as a “holy solitary,” Wesley said:
Directly opposite to this is the gospel of Christ. Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.
Wesley’s point is clear: Christian faith cannot be done alone. The church is a community. The Triune God—the God we understand as a Trinity of Persons—is understood as unity in the community of the Trinity. Community is at the heart of our faith. For us, solitary Christianity is a logical impossibility. If someone were to ask us if we were planning on being Christian by ourselves, the only reasonable answer is to say, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?”
IV. SOMEONE TO GUIDE ME
You know, sometimes these sermons are full of novel insight, revealing things that people had never before considered, and sometimes these sermons are just “preaching to the converted.” This is definitely one of the latter sermons.
Because I don’t need to tell you that Christian faith is community; you all are living proof of that. And living proof of the fact that we do not get here in Christian faith on our own.
Now, I am fond of saying in the sermons that bookend the year that there is no one who knows more than a college freshman. If you doubt that just ask one. And there is no one who knows less than a college senior. Again, if you doubt that, just ask one. And that conclusion is certainly one that is borne by the evidence. Freshmen often come in convinced that they know everything and then begin the long process of learning that the world is not quite so straightforward as they once thought. For example, they might learn that cheddar cheese isn’t really orange, it’s dyed that color to make it look “cheesier.” Learning things like that, for example, can set a freshman on a path toward greater enlightenment.
Because we can only truly learn when we realize that we have something to learn. Socrates’ statement that the wise man is the one who realizes he knows nothing, is a truism that becomes more and more apparent to college students as they continue through their careers.
And that is certainly the case when it comes to faith. See, all of us come into college with a limited understanding of our own faith. It can’t be helped, really. We only know what we’ve seen in our home churches and were taught in our Sunday Schools. Those of us who grew up in a church anyway. The rest of us picked up Christianity from various pop culture references and the generalized understanding of who this Jesus was as a figure in our shared cultural background.
And when we come to college, to a community like this, our notions of what faith is begin to change. We discover that Christian faith isn’t all about strict moralizing but may have something to do with the decisions we make when we purchase, say, chocolate. Or it may have something to say about the wage that the people who clean our dorm rooms are paid. Or it may have something to say about how we address issues of racial and economic injustice. And that our faith may be a bigger source of wonder to us than we’d ever realized.
We may learn things about the scriptures we never knew before, like the fact that the world is created twice in the Book of Genesis. Or that the different Gospels present Jesus as having been crucified on different dates. And suddenly, our faith is a lot harder to get a handle on than we might have thought. And were someone to ask us if we were going to keep up with our faith while in college, we might say, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?”
But fortunately, you do have someone to guide you. That’s what this community is: a community of guides and the guided, who themselves will one day guide.
V. A COMMUNITY OF GUIDES AND THE GUIDED
Some years ago, I was talking with a student about one of our alums, Miriam Wood. Miriam was a kind of force majeure who left her imprint on this community for a long time. The student I was talking with mentioned that when she was a freshman, Miriam represented for her something she’d never had before: a model of a young adult Christian leader, committed to justice and to building community. Now, I tell this story because the student who told me that was Elise Alexander, who was, no doubt, for our seniors here, precisely the same kind of role model when they were freshman, as Miriam had been for her when she had been a freshman.
And that’s how it goes.
Those of you who are freshmen now, probably look at our graduating seniors and wonder how the community will survive without them. How your faith will be guided after they leave. It may shock you to realize that they thought the same thing their freshman year, and that three years from now, the freshmen sitting in these pews will think the same thing about all of you.
This is a community that in a constant state of growth and guidance. Everyone who comes in here opens themselves up to an experience of faith never before contemplated. And takes comfort in the guidance of those who are here and will guide them through it. But as time goes on, the guided become the guides. And a chain of transmission is forged that connects you to people you have never met.
And that is why though our graduates will shortly depart this place, they will never leave us. For they remain in the shape that this community has taken, in the culture and the values that are expressed and celebrated here. Every single one of our alums has shaped this place and passed on lessons that they received from yet others and which will be passed on to yet others whom they will never know.
For example, back in the Twentieth Century, when Chris Slatt and Brad Cheney came up with the name “Fellowship of Sound” for our choir and instrumental music group (and almost immediately afterward abbreviated it to “FoSound”), did they think that fifteen years later student would still be calling it by both names. Students who have no idea where the name came from? And yet, every time Caitie announces that she’s the director of the Fellowship of Sound, our alums are still with us.
When Daniel Potts first signed an e-mail with the acronym POTUMSA for “President of the United Methodist Student Association” did he imagine that it would still be used half a decade and four presidents later? And yet, every time it shows up in an e-mail, our alums are still with us.
When Alissa Tombaugh first hosted Practical Christianity almost a decade ago, which then became shepherded by Jenny Kinne for years, could either of them have imagined that it’d be going strong all these years later? And yet, every time that Elle leads a conversation on the practical implications of our faith, our alums are still with us.
When Laura Peck, the now Rev. Laura Peck Arico, first held interest meetings to discuss the possibility of establishing a social justice ministry, could she have imagined where that ministry, shepherded over the years by the (now) Rev. Lindsey Kerr, the (now) Rev. Rachel Birkhahn-Rommelfanger, Kristen Walling, Casey McNeill, Kurt Karandy, the soon-to-be-married Elise Alexander and Ethan Goss, Caroline Marsh, Andreas Wiede would go and the hallmark it would be for our community? And yet every time that Lindsay convenes a meeting or helps to program a social justice event, our alums are still with us.
When Lara Hogan e-mailed me in the fall of 2003 to complain that she had not had a very welcoming experience at church the Sunday before, could she have expected that I would ask her to become our first ever hospitality chair? And that hospitality would become, alongside social justice, one of the hallmarks of the community’s self-identity? Could she have imagined that it was the stepping stone to the UMSA presidency for her, and also for Katie Kraft, Kathleen Kimball, and Sarah Ryan? And yet, every time DJ plans an event or outing or welcomes people in the narthex before services, our alums are still with us.
Honestly, this is as close to Apostolic Succession as we’re likely to get.
So much of the tradition, the culture, and the very ethic of our community—an open and inclusive love for all people—is due to all of those who came before, all of those who guided the new students into understanding this important and powerful expression of Christian faith found in this community. And so much of that will be passed on to new students, including the ones who arrive this fall, because of those who are graduating this year.
In the Gospel lesson for tonight, Jesus reminds his disciples:
Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.
The fruit our graduates have borne is the community itself.
When our graduates first came here, they were like the Ethiopian official, possessing the elements of the faith but needing guidance. To them, too, the Holy Spirit directed their own “Philips”: an Elise, or a Kathleen, or an Ethan… And then in turn, they were sent by the Holy Spirit to stand alongside the chariots of those who would come after them, to guide as they were once guided.
In so doing, they became both the students and the instructors, passing on the most important lesson of all: that the love and grace of God are known in community. That we do not go through this alone, but that we have each other. Indeed, there is no other way: without someone to guide us, how could we?
And so as we prepare to say farewell, we are reminded that the same Spirit that drove them to guide those who came after them drives our graduates out into the wider world, in which they will continue to seek guidance and guide, in which they will continue to learn about God’s grace and continue to testify to it. But wherever they will go, they will always remain here with us, in this community that they have helped to build. A community that will continue to be a source of love, support, and especially guidance for all who will come and for all who would seek to grow in faith, but who will ask, “Without someone to guide me, how could I?”