May 2, 2021
Do you know the name Michael Collins? We lost him this week at the age of 90. Michael Collins was one of the three astronauts on the Apollo 11 mission. You know that one. Neil Armstrong on the moon. One small step for man; one giant leap for mankind. Armstrong (along with Buzz Aldrin) got to take the lunar module down the moon for those historic steps. Collins had to stay in the command module and keep orbiting until it was time for Armstrong and Aldrin to return. When Collins was on the far side of the moon, he was out of radio contact, so he didn’t even hear Armstrong’s now-famous words when they happened. Collins joked that it was kind of nice to have that 40 minutes of silence without being able to hear the folks in Houston chattering in his ear.[i] When Collins could once again talk to Ground Control, they joked that he was possibly the only one without tv coverage of the event. He said, “That’s all right. I don’t mind.”
I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about Michael Collins until this week, but I loved listening to him reflect on being a part of this historic event. He did so with humor and humility. He said that sure, it would have been nice to walk on the moon, but he was thrilled to have had the place that he had.
We can’t all be part of historic space missions, but learning more about Michael Collins made me wonder about the things that sometimes get in the way of being ourselves most fully in the world. Sometimes we might resent to some degree a role that we have in our family or at work or in school or on a team or in another group – sometimes even at church. Maybe we’d like to have a different role, one that receives more attention or recognition or support. Sometimes we’d like less responsibility, less stress. Fewer people depending on us. Sometimes we’re worried that people will judge us or reject us if we let ourselves be truly authentic.
Our story in today’s first reading about the Ethiopian eunuch is fascinating to me for many reasons, especially as a story of two people showing up as themselves and experiencing a profound moment together.
Remember the books of Acts takes place after Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. It gives us a picture of the early church as the followers of Jesus do what he told them to do – go to all the corners of the world and bear witness in his name.
I love that Philip doesn’t hesitate when an angel tells him to head out on a wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. He just goes.
The eunuch is traveling along that same road. He is an intriguing figure. On the one hand, he holds a great deal of power. He is entrusted with the entire treasury of the Ethiopian queen. His castration made him more trustworthy in the eyes of the queen’s court. He was not a physical threat to the queen or to others. He would not ever have to worry about a family, and his status depended on the queen. So his complete loyalty was assured. But we can imagine it was a lonely kind of life. His identity as a eunuch would have excluded him from many communities.
Many scholars speculate that the eunuch might also have been Jewish.[ii] When the Jerusalem temple was destroyed the first time in 586 BCE, many Jews fled to parts of Africa. There was a temple there, and to this day there are a group of Jews in Ethiopia that go back all those centuries to this biblical time. The eunuch is at the very least interested in the holy scriptures of Judaism. He is reading the prophet Isaiah, which is hardly light reading for a road trip. In particular, he’s reading one of a set of passages in Isaiah that Christians interpret as talking about the suffering and death of Jesus.
You heard how the story goes from there. The Spirit sends Philip over to the chariot to ask the eunuch if he understands what he is reading. The two end up sitting beside each other, talking about that text and about the good news of Jesus. When they come to some water, the eunuch asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And so he is. Philip baptizes the eunuch right there beside the wilderness road in some water that probably surprised them both by appearing in the middle of the desert.
What is to prevent me?
That’s the question that always reverberates for me in this story. Because most of us, when we consider possibilities that are put before us, can pretty quickly make a list of the things that would prevent us from following that path. Fear about what might happen. Our own self-doubt. Something we don’t quite understand about the situation.
I wonder if we might try the eunuch’s question.
- What is to prevent me from spending time with someone who might need some company?
- What is to prevent me from using a gift or ability I have to help someone else?
- What is to prevent me from sharing why my faith matters to me or how I have experienced God?
- What is to prevent me from learning from someone else’s story of life and faith and struggle and survival?
- What is to prevent me from fully embracing the stage of life at which I find myself?
- What is to prevent me from living unapologetically as who God has made me to be?
Sometimes we hold back because we’re just afraid. Afraid of what might happen. Afraid of the cost. Afraid of failure.
Writer Kathleen Norris reflected recently on her own willingness to struggle and to fail, something she’s learned to do much more easily as she’s gotten older.[iii] She said this:
When I was four years old, I sang “Jesus Loves Me” on a Washington, DC, radio station: “I am weak, but he is strong.” I guess it’s time for me to take those words to heart. For over 40 years as a freelance writer I had to rely on my wits, my willpower, my strengths. Now I’ve come face to face with a stark existential reality: God is inexhaustible, and I am not.
God is inexhaustible, and we are not. And in those waters of baptism we are given all that we need, having been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus. So what’s holding us back? If death will not ultimately win, then what is to prevent us from taking those leaps of faith?
Most of us are not going to be Neil Armstrong, making history while the whole world watches. Only a few people will get to be Michael Collins, steering the ship in crucial moments.
You know who we can be? Completely ourselves. Created in God’s image. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Filled with the Holy Spirit.
Notice that after his own roadside baptism, the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. May we do the same this week.
After all, what is to prevent us? Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii] See, for example, the conversation for Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast episode #782 for the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2021.