Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
April 28, 2018
Today’s reading from the book of Acts is one of the most remarkable moments in the New Testament. It’s a moment in which you have some almost preternatural activity as Philip is told by an angel and then driven by the spirit to go to a place between Jerusalem and Gaza, which is a wilderness place. It’s a wilderness place even to this day, for those of you who have visited it. And he finds an Ethiopian eunuch who is sitting in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah. And he goes up and he asks the Ethiopian a question and the Ethiopian responds and asks him if he could help him with this passage of scripture.
Then suddenly there is this incredible moment of teaching, and the Ethiopian takes the faith that he has been told about as his own and says, “Look, here’s water! Why don’t we get myself baptized?” And, of course, the Ethiopian eunuch, we forget that was probably the most powerful person to have ever heard the gospel, the treasurer for Queen Candace. He was probably wealthier than Pilate. He was the most wealthy, powerful person to hear the gospel, and he chose to be baptized.
Philip baptized him and immediately the spirit takes him away, and the Ethiopian goes home rejoicing. It’s like a miracle scene that we read about in the gospels where people are blind but then they see. When they are deaf but then they hear. When they are lame but then they walk. It’s an amazing moment of healing and transformation. He goes home rejoicing.
As I reflected on this incredible passage of scripture, I became aware of all the people in my life of ministry who were adults who chose to be baptized, who felt called by God to become Christians as adults. I have been so blessed by what they have taught me. In the midst of me sharing my Christian faith with them, they have given me so much. I have had my own faith not only confirmed but deepened and indeed transformed by these encounters.
One happened when I was a graduate student at Yale, and I was asked by the rector to help with this other graduate student who was in Russian studies. Her name was Sarah and Sarah wanted to be baptized, and the rector said, “Why don’t you do this?” I was working for him and I didn’t have an office, so we met outside. It was this beautiful fall day in which there was this blanket of yellow and red leaves all around us.
We sat on this bench and I had my little book of common prayers and said, “Why do you want to be baptized?” She said, “Last year, I was in Moscow doing some research, and I received word that my fiancée had died suddenly in a car crash. I was devastated and alone and it was cold and it was dark. I was weeping in my bedroom and I was thinking about the love that we shared. I was imagining what would be the conditions under which that love that we shared was still real, because it felt real to me at that time. I wondered about whether or not that love between us which was so real, what would need to be in place to hold that love together forever? To say that that love was everlasting. That that love would not end. That that love was real not only for me and for him but real somehow for everybody. And I suddenly found myself believing in the god who holds this love in being. I suddenly realized that God is love and so that’s why I want to be baptized. I want to be part of that love forever.”
And she said to me, “What else do I need to know?” I said, “Nothing. You don’t need to know – there’s nothing you need to know. Just take this prayer book and we’ll talk about the creed and practice your faith.” And she was baptized and became a new person. She discovered that the core of Christianity is that the love of God can mend a wounded heart, which of course is the truth for us as well.
Sarah taught me in a powerful way what it means to be a Christian. And one part of the promise we come across today in our collect for today, that beginning prayer that we do where we ask God that we would know Jesus to be the way, the truth, and the life. Sarah taught me that the way of Jesus is the way of love. When we talk about Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life, this is a phrase that comes from the 14th Chapter of John in which another Philip, Philip the Apostle, not Philip the Evangelist, that we meet today in Acts. When another Philip asks Jesus the request, just show us the father, Jesus, and we will be satisfied. And Jesus says to him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
And when Jesus says that, we have to think differently about what it means to be way, and what does it mean for him to be the truth, and what it means for him to be the life. Because for Jesus to be the way doesn’t mean simply walking in the footsteps of Jesus. IT doesn’t mean simply traveling the same routes that he traveled. To see Jesus as the way is to enter His way of being, to enter into His love.
Jesus speaks about these words, he gives these words to Philip, as he’s on his way to the cross, and says that He is the Way. And Sarah, by tracing the shape, and direction, and trail of her desire found her way to Jesus who is the Way. She realizes as we read in 1 John that her own love for her beloved was an echo of God’s love for her that Jesus had loved her first. That God had loved them first, and their love would last forever because it was an echo in a participation in the love of God. And you and I when we love truly, when we love fully, we enter into the way of Jesus. We learn how Jesus is the Way.
There have been two other baptisms that I’ve done. Two other moments, in which my own faith has been deepened immeasurably by people who have walked into my life. And they have taught me a little bit about what it means for Jesus to be the Truth, and for Jesus to be the Life.
I learned more deeply about Jesus as the Truth when in my office in New York City, a young man came in, and he asked to see a priest. I was on duty, he walked into my office, and he told me this story. He said that he had been an art student at Rhode Island School of Design, a great art school. And he came out of the closet to his parents, he was from North Carolina, and they disowned him. And he was there at RISD, at Rhode Island School of Design with an incredible financial aid package. But his parents refused to pay that small price for him to stay in school. And he couldn’t go back home because of the decision he made to come out of the closet, and he became homeless in New York.
And it wasn’t until a gallery owner, who owned a gallery in SoHo, saw a painting of his, and decided to somehow make a career out of him. It wasn’t until that moment that he got off the street, and finally had a home, and an opportunity. And he was in the midst of breaking through into the art world of New York. And the question he had for me is how can he hold all of that together? He said, “I would have been okay if I simply had to live
with rejection. And I would be okay, of course, if it had been goodness all the way. But my life has been one of incredible rejection and isolation, and disappointment, and sadness, and joy, and I don’t know how to hold all of that together with the success that I’m now getting.”
So I talked a little bit to him about what it meant to have Jesus as not only a Savior that has come into our lives to save us from our sins, but also a suffering Lord, who knows what it means to be alone, to be rejected, to be abandoned, to be isolated. And that Jesus was with him when he was being rejected. And that Jesus was with him as he was being lifted up.
That there was nothing that could separate him from that Jesus because of who Jesus is, and what He did.
And so he chose to be baptized. And at the gallery opening for his show, he painted this picture. It was not for sale. It had a little red dot next to it. Everything else sold, but it was not for sale. And it was simply an untitled, it was a picture of Jesus. And when he was baptized, he gave the painting to me. It’s now in my office, and it’s probably the most expensive piece of art I own.
He’s being carried by Ethan Cohen Gallery in New York. Jeff Hargrave, remarkable artist, he taught me what it meant to see Jesus as the truth. Because Jesus is not simply the truth in terms of knowing the different between truth and falsehood. Not merely truth in terms of knowing the difference between right and wrong. Not merely even knowing the difference between what holds water, and what doesn’t hold water. Jesus is the Truth in the sense that Jesus’ own life tells a truthful story, and gives a sense of cohesion to our stories.
In the Gospel of John, Pilate asks a philosophical question of Jesus. He says, “What is truth?” And Jesus’ answer is that He is Truth. Truth is a person. Truth is Jesus.
And finally, in my life, I have come to know one person who was an adult baptism, his name was Ira. And again this happened in New York City. And Ira came into my office, he was wearing this incredible power suit back when men wore suits that fit them, rather than three sizes too small. It was this incredible pinstriped suit, and he sat down, and he buried his face in his hand, and he just swore again, and again. He dropped the f-bomb again, and again. And initially, it was really awkward to hear him do that. And then after a few minutes, it got a little bit funny. And then I became a little more curious, as he kept on swearing. And then I was filled with compassion. And I said, “What’s wrong? Did you get fired? He says, “No, my career’s great. I can make money. I’ve just destroyed everything else, and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get it back.”
And he talked about the relationships that had been broken in his life, that he had a hand in breaking. And he talked about addiction, and the issues that he struggled with addiction. He talked about all the ways he wanted to put his life back together. And I said something I never expected myself to say as an Episcopal priest. I said to him, “There’s only one option for you. Repent and be baptized.” And he thought for a moment, and he said, “Okay. Let’s do this.”
So Ira came to a class that I was teaching. And for reasons I cannot quite explain, we had 12 people who were adults, who were getting baptized that year. The rector assigned me to
do it when there was only one person, and then there were 12, and so he let me continue. And I didn’t know quite what to do. I was a pretty inexperienced priest, and so I said, the first class I said, “Well, what is sin?” And someone said, “Sex!” And so I turned onto the board, and I wrote down “sex,” and then someone said, “Drugs!” And I wrote down “drugs” on the board. This was in Greenwich Village, this church, and people were coming needing strong medicine. They were really. And then finally someone got a little playful, and someone said, “Rock and roll!” And I put down “rock and roll.”
And then Ira who was incredibly serious about the class, raised his hand, he said, “None of those things are sin. None of those things are sin, there’s nothing wrong with any one of those things. Those things become sin when they become a god. And those things have been a god to me, and I am tired of being an idol worshipper. I want a living God.”
It was at that moment that Ira taught me about life. How Jesus is the Life. Jesus’ life-giving nature is not the persistence of physical life, but is the victory in liberation of the life that defeats death. It’s the life that wins. The capacity to grow, it is the life of resurrection.
Is Jesus your Way? Is Jesus your Truth? Is Jesus your Life? The thing about baptisms is that they’re a reminder to us that at its core, Christianity is an either/or religion. At baptism, you turn away from the forces of evil, of sin, and death, and the devil, and you turn towards Jesus as your Lord, and as your life giver, and as your Savior. And every time you and I step into that challenge to see Jesus as our Lord, and our life giver, and as our Savior, we are invited to grow. We are invited to be transformed. We are invited to investigate one way or another how Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life for us.
And this is to bring up, finally, our Gospel. Because the metaphor of the vine and the branches is an invitation to live in Jesus, and to let Jesus live in us, and to invite the pruning that comes, so that we can continue to grow into the fullness of Christ. And yes, it hurts to grow, but grow we must. For God has called us to greater things. God has given His love, which is infinite. God has given us His truth, which is everlasting. And God has given us His life, which is eternal. What will our response be?