The scriptural references for this sermon are:
Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21
A link to the audio recording of the sermon is here.
Thin places are those places where you just know that the presence of God is upon you. They are the places where you can feel the Holy Spirit at work in marvelous and mysterious ways. Thin places are those places that you long for and crave when you are feeling spiritually empty because they are the places where heaven seems just above the tips of your fingers when you reach toward the sky. Thin places are the places God presents to you as holy, sanctified and purifying to your soul because you know that God created those places for the very purpose of reconnecting with Christ as the Spirit dances in and around you. These are the places where you know without a doubt, deep in your gut, and every fiber of your being rejoices because these thin places are the places where God lives in us and love is absolutely perfected in us.
A follower of Celtic Spirituality defines thin places accordingly: “A thin place,” she said, “is a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is especially thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily.”[i] Our scriptures are full of references to thin places, starting in the Garden of Eden, including Mt. Sinai, the Tent of Meeting, the Tabernacle, the Temple in Jerusalem, deserted places where Christ would withdraw to pray, etc. Some would even say that the very pew where you sit today is a thin place for them. God’s presence is more real and tangible in a thin place, often allowing us to experience spiritual intimacy, renewing us for life in the world where sometimes God doesn’t seem near enough.
One of my thin places is tucked away in the mountains of North Carolina where God’s allowed me to meet some incredible saints who have shaped my life and ministry, and where when I’m feeling depleted, God shows up in the wind that blows across the porch and the sun that shines on the waterfall by Lake Susan. It was in Montreat that I had the pleasure of hearing this Acts text preached by a woman who became to me like Philip was to the Ethiopian Eunuch. I had met Aimee Wallis Buchanan four years before I heard her preach this text, but when I met her I had no idea the impact she would have on me. Aimee was (and still is!) one of those persons who would be a living and breathing thin place because when you were around Aimee you were in the presence of God. When I heard Aimee share this message at the College Conference at Montreat, I was running late to the worship service with my students, and I did not, if I’m being honest, did not want to sit through a worship service at all. I much preferred the idea of socializing with friends and colleagues to sitting in a pew and listening to a sermon, even one from a friend. And then God spoke to me. I don’t remember anything else from her sermon other than the refraining “how can I, unless someone guides me” from Acts 8:31. That stuck with me and Aimee became God’s vessel to meet me in Montreat, in a thin place, and touch my heart that night.
When we arrive at this text in Acts, a lot has been going on in the new worshipping community. The church has gathered, experienced Pentecost, been persecuted to the point of Stephen’s death and is at this point beginning to spread beyond Jerusalem into Judea, Samaria and into the world. The community is following the leadership of God through the Holy Spirit and fulfilling the Gospel narrative of Christ by proclaiming the gospel far and wide, across barriers and in spite of persecutions. The book of Acts is a book of hope for the church through the disciples closest and nearest to Jesus Christ.
God sends Philip, a not-very-well-known apostle, on the road. Luke’s scriptures like to send people on roads, and I think they are journeys that represent early church versions of thin places. Philip goes down a wilderness road and meets a man who recognizes him as one who can answer his questions of faith. The very unique thing about this meeting is that this man is a eunuch, which according to Deuteronomy 23:1 means that his physical state as a castrated male means that he’s not allowed to worship in the assembly of believers. When a person is not admitted into the assembly of believers it is because he/she is considered “unclean” or “unworthy” and often “less than.” Philip doesn’t see the Ethiopian this way, however. Philip sees a man who is reading the scriptures and asking questions about God – a man who desires to know and understand. What’s more, Philip doesn’t just see a man wanting to learn scripture and about his faith, Philip sees a MAN. Philip sees someone who has been treated by society as an outcast, someone who isn’t allowed to worship with believers, and someone who isn’t even considered a man anymore because of his physical state. Philip, on this thin place journey, meets a man and exhibits God’s love to this man. Philip personifies 1 John 4:11, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.”
The unique thing about the whole story of Acts is that it’s intentionally an open-ended story because the story continues today in our churches. In his commentary on Acts, Professor Will Willimon says, “It’s a story worth retelling because it deals with issues which are always in season in the church: questions about the relationships between Christians and Jews, Christians and pagans; issues related to the Christian’s stance within the modern state; problems with prayer; the purpose of preaching and teaching in the church; and a host of other dilemmas which press upon the contemporary church with more relevance than the headlines of this morning’s newspaper.”[ii]
We’ve seen and heard a lot in the morning newspapers and evening newscasts these past two weeks, haven’t we? It’s almost too much to bear and it’s heartbreaking to sit back and watch. And, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’re grateful that none of it is happening right here in our town, aren’t we. I spent a little time flipping through BBCAmerica and NBCNews “This Week in Pictures” articles online and here’s a bit of what I saw:
- School-aged children walking through piles of debris in Nepal to try and find personal family belongings. The road is not visible.
- Teenage demonstrators jumping atop police cars in Baltimore, Maryland. They have smiles on their faces.
- Police carry injured members of their force to safety following riots. They are gravely concerned and appear terrified. They are the law enforcement and they are terrified.
- Citizens using personal brooms to clean streets after rioting. They appear to be full of both shame and pride for their neighborhoods.
- An empty baseball stadium. The game continues, but the fans didn’t show.
- A four-month-old baby hoisted high by Nepalese army rescue workers after 20 hours of searching. Elation!
- Rescuers using a makeshift stretcher to carry injured persons from a flattened basecamp on Mount Everest following an avalanche. Fear and concern.
- Men shoveling inches of ash from atop their roof in the aftermath of the eruption of the 43-year dormant Calbuco volcano in Chile.
- Police spray tear gas following riots in Burundi over the unconstitutional third-term seeking of the sitting president.
- A field of almond trees lies flattened, dead in California from severe drought.
Rev. Aimee Wallis Buchanan shared the message of Stephen’s martyrdom for the faith, Philip’s courage on the Wilderness Road and the story of the man who wasn’t considered a man at all. When Philip encountered him reading the scriptures and asked him if he understood what he was reading, the response was, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Philip then explained that the scrolls were alluding to Jesus Christ and he shared the gospel message. Then, the amazing happened: the Eunuch asked to be baptized and Philip baptized him! A man who wasn’t really a man in the eyes of the world claimed his title: Child of God. Philip was God to this man.
5God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
I remember one of the last times I saw and was privileged to spend time with my friend Aimee before her passing: I was overwhelmed with a toddler who didn’t nap, a large five month’s pregnant with his sister, and struggling to get everyone peacefully fed while their dad was preparing for our evening worship. Aimee saw me, walked over to my table and asked to join me. I warned her of my ornery child and she joined me anyway. As it turned out, Aimee was battling a migraine during her time with us at the table and my child was less than sensitive to her medical situation, but regardless she took him and entertained him so that I could take a few bites in peace. Then, she proceeded to spend several hours later that evening, still with a migraine I’d assume, encouraging me about being in the ministry, being a mom, being a writer and just life in general. Aimee, in those moments, was God to me. She loved me in the only way I could have received love at that moment. Philip was God to the Ethiopian court official; he loved him in the only way that man could receive love at that moment – and in a permanent, beautiful love – by offering him a new life through the waters of baptism.
Our headlines recently are discouraging and heartbreaking. As I studied these texts and remembered the life of my friend and the way she loved everyone with whom she came in contact, and lived through the reality of life in our world today through headlines locally and internationally, I kept hearing her standing in the pulpit at Montreat saying, “but HOW CAN I, unless someone guides me?” Friends, how can we love the way 1 John demands us to love? How can we? How can we be God? How can we open ourselves up to the thin places where God meets us and transforms us? How?
We can because we know God.
We can because we love God.
We can because God love us.
In our denomination, when we baptize, we ask the following to the congregation: “Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ, promise to guide and nurture N. and N. by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging them to know and follow Christ …” We then offer a profession of faith where we ask and answer: “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love? I will, with God’s help.”[iii] I imagine Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian man was much less pomp-and-circumstance, but just as meaningful. I imagine they found a pond or brook or maybe even a puddle for the life-changing event. I see Philip standing over the man, potentially very nervous, and cupping the water to pour on his head. I also imagine a smile on the man’s face as the water runs over his head and face and he realizes that he is loved, he is wanted, he is claimed and he is a part of something so much greater than himself, his job at the court and his status in the empire. I imagine a simple, beautiful, meaningful moment between two men of faith who meet God in a thin place. And in that moment, I imagine these two men realize that God has guided them and that’s precisely how they will go about their days from that point forward. How can they? God will guide them.
A lot has happened lately, here in our piece of the world and everywhere. It’s not been pretty and it’s made us question the state of humanity some, too. It makes us wonder, “God, how can I possibly love someone who would do that?” or think, “God, I don’t want to love someone who behaves that way.” or say, “God, I’m so done with that person!” How in the world can we be like you? How can we see persecution or execution and still offer love? How can we worry about people around the world recovering from devastation when we’re already so worried about ourselves here and now? Why do we want to even try?
19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
God’s guiding us. God’s commanding us.
To God be the glory, honor, praise and gratitude. Now and forever. Amen!
[i] Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts blog post: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/thin-places/
[ii] Willimon, William H. Interpretation: Acts (Louisville: John Knox, 1988) 1.
[iii] Book of Order, Book of Common Worship, pg. 404.