Abide in me as I in you.
Today Jesus asks you — all of you all at once — to abide in him. It’s tempting to think this talk of abiding means you to surrender who you are in order to be in Jesus. But, finishing the thought, Jesus asks you to abide in him as he abides in you, as if his life is also made known in your life, in your very own particular identity!
You have to admit, identity is important to us, something we want to hold onto and something headlines often suggest we’re in danger of losing. You hear a lot these days about securing your identity so that no one can hack into your life uninvited. Very often, in the hope of protecting your identity online, various accounts will ask security questions with answers ostensibly known only to you.
What was the model of your first car? What is your favorite city? What’s your dream job?
I answer Chevy, Paris, Priest.
But don’t tell anyone.
Long before I drove the old Chevrolet that belonged to my dad, I already had an ID card because he was in the Army. My military ID listed my full name, my gender and race, my height, weight, and date of birth, along with a picture to confirm it. Today I have other cards that identify me. Likely you do, too. I suppose I could hold all the cards that bear your name in one hand and imagine I know something about you. But I also suppose there would be so much more to know about you: a grace-filled mystery.
What I remember about my first ID card was how afraid I was to lose it. My parents often asked if I still had it. I also remember occasions when I needed it to prove who I was. I always felt a little worried when I had to show it. What if it failed me? What if I didn’t belong where I was heading?
I still feel nervous whenever I have to show proof of my identity, whether by passport or driver’s license or social security number. Even my Kroger card makes me wonder if I have the proper ID.
Today in the Acts of the Apostles, an angel of the Lord sends an evangelist named Philip out onto a wilderness road to share the good news of the Risen Lord. And on the same road we meet a man identified as an Ethiopian eunuch. The story has it he’s on his way home following a trip he’d taken to worship God in the Temple of Jerusalem. In his own land, he’s a court official, the keeper of a queen’s entire treasury travelling in his very own chariot.
Though nameless, there’s an awful lot of data about him offered up in the story. His identity ought to be easy to discern, and yet the truth is biblical scholars have argued for centuries about who he really is. Despite ready answers to securing his identity: Chariot, Ethiopia, Eunuch, scholars have never quite hacked this man’s identity.
We know he’s a foreigner travelling in a country not his own: an Ethiopian who follows the God of the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We know he’s reading from the scroll of Isaiah, drawn to the idea of a suffering servant, but cannot know for certain whether he’s a Gentile or a Jew or somewhere in between. Scholars note he reads and likely speaks several languages. His carriage, scroll, and job description suggest he’s successful, wealthy even, and most certainly educated. And yet many raise the question of his gender.
In the eyes of the ancient world, a eunuch is neither male nor female. He’s unable to sire and belong to a family like other men. He stands outside the traditional household. Some scholars argue this eunuch has no real claim on the appearance of his success because he was likely a slave to begin with. They suggest whatever power this educated man can lay claim to is tempered with a backstory of loss and suffering. Taken altogether, scholars today have begun to wonder if the author of Acts deliberately remembered this story to blur the lines of human identity, to confuse our efforts to name who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t.
The truth is Christian mission is always moving toward the mystery of human beings. And how we approach that mystery matters.
When an angel sends Philip onto a wilderness road, the eunuch is already there: sitting in the high perch of his carriage, out in the open where Philip can get a good look at him. He’s right there as if he’s been waiting for Philip to pull him down, preach the gospel, and convert him to Jesus on the spot. But that’s not the way of the Spirit in this story.
It’s always been the evangelical temptation. But it isn’t the calling. And fortunately it isn’t what happens here. Instead, the Spirit calls Philip to join the eunuch in his chariot, to meet and abide with him in his life. And the eunuch graciously invites Phillip to get in and sit beside him. Here I’m reminded of a little friar named Francis of Assisi. According to Francis, every person is a living prayerbook of holy worth. In that chariot, Philip meets the Word of God already there in the words of Isaiah and in the life of the eunuch.
Apparently, the grace of God is already at work in the life of this mysterious man. It’s the eunuch who issues the first invitation, the eunuch who also sets out to be an evangelist of God’s life in his life. And notably, once Philip shares the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s the eunuch who asks to be baptized at his initiative, as surely as it’s the eunuch who commands his chariot— who commands the course of his own life— to stop and draw near the waters of baptism.
What is to prevent me, he asks, from being baptized?
Is it a question or a dare? It’s evident he knows where the grace of God is leading him. Less evident is whether Philip knows as well.
For an answer, Philip says not a word because there is nothing to prevent anyone from the gift of abiding in Christ as he abides in you. In fact, the closest Philip comes to an answer is the action itself: together the two men come down from the chariot to descend into the waters of Christ together. And when they rise up, they rise up abiding in Christ, two very different people not heading in the same direction at all. Like the wisemen heading home by another way, each by their own way, Philip is snatched up by the Spirit while the eunuch heads home to Ethiopia, rejoicing in the fellowship of Christ.
This is a beautiful and mysterious story, full of affection and grace. By it, you’re to know you are not the maker of God’s Grace. God’s grace is God’s favor. Not yours. God’s grace is no one’s to create or control. You are instead the makers of your own response to God’s grace: a grace within you, and a grace also within those you meet on any and all wilderness road.
Today, and every day, the Holy Spirit calls you toward the grace of God already there in the mystery of other people.