Sermon: 'Not gatekeepers, but signposts' | Salisbury Cathedral

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Sermon: 'Not gatekeepers, but signposts'

A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor The Fifth Sunday of Easter  

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Sermon: 'Not gatekeepers, but signposts'

Posted By : Tom Clammer Sunday 29th April 2018
A sermon preached by Canon Dr Tom Clammer, Precentor
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
John 15:1-8


Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!


“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptised?”


There is an excited, almost childlike tone to the Ethiopian eunuch’s exclamation, his question, as he and Philip ride down the road in his chariot. One can almost imagine the scene, Philip explaining the reading from the prophet Isaiah, the eunuch listening, nodding along, his eyes perhaps drifting casually out of the window of the chariot, and spotting, who knows, a river, a pond, and suddenly being filled with excitement. Here is some water, why can’t I be part of this extraordinary thing that Philip has been explaining to me? Why can’t I be baptised right here and right now?


And Philip’s response, his ministry, would seem to suggest that the answer to that question is, “well, nothing!” And so another believer is added to the Lord’s number, another life picked up, transformed, reoriented and set on its way again by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the story of the extraordinary events of Easter.


And it’s an extraordinary enough story as it is, before we consider the fact that in terms of the religious laws of the time, there were many things to prevent the Ethiopian eunuch being baptised; not least of which were that he was an Ethiopian, and a eunuch! Both would set you outside the boundaries of the established religious traditions of the time.


And there is so much we don’t know about this story. Why was he reading Isaiah? Why was he reading the Scripture at all, rather than something else? I’ve been on a lot of road and rail journeys over the past fortnight and I have to admit to not instinctively reaching for the Bible as my reading matter. More often it is the newspaper or a good book, rather than the Good Book! So we don’t know why he was reading Isaiah, we don’t know whether he had munched his way all the way through the Hebrew Scriptures which precede that prophecy, or whether this was a case of grabbing a scroll off-the-shelf for the journey. Was he reading it for professional purposes? Had that particular passage been used at the festival? Who knows?


But he finds in the text something that he wants to know more about. But he needs help. He needs the text interpreting. He needs, one might say, formation.


We are now deep into the Easter season. Today is the 29th day of Easter, there are 21 still to come. And throughout this great festival season we begin our main Sunday worship at the font. We do that quite deliberately, partially as a weekly reminder of the power and potency of the symbol of water in the Christian faith. Look! Here is water. That is basically what that bit of liturgy at the beginning of the service, spoken by the president and another minister, often the voice of a child, though in more technical liturgical language, is trying to say. And then you get asperged, flicked with holy water from the font, to remind you, if you have been baptised, of this event. And perhaps to provoke you, if you haven’t been baptised, to ponder on why not. Water is wonderful as a symbol, it cleans, it refreshes and it gets everywhere! You can’t really control where water goes, as those of us who experience the seasonal flooding of this city know too well. Sluice gates can only do so much. Anyone who has had a burst pipe in their home will also know of the power and reach of water. It’s a mixed bag, water, isn’t it? We can’t live without it, but we are reminded frequently that neither can we fully control it. And so it is a very good symbol of the Holy Spirit. A very good symbol of God, of his grace.


We do well not to try to control God. Because like water, he will get us in the end!


And I’m often reminded when I hear this passage from the Acts, that too often the church has replied to the question “look, here is water! Is there anything to prevent me from being baptised” with the answer “yes.” You need to come to church on a Sunday for six months. You need to do an Alpha course. You need to prove that you’re serious about this.


The church is quite good at locking people out. Sometimes that is done in legislative ways: we set bounds around who can get married, who is entitled to a funeral in such and such a church, who can get baptised where and so on. And at its best of course, what the church, as the family of God does, is build a structure that helps members of the family know who and where they are. But at its worst it is a rulebook and a set of qualification criteria. Since I’ve become disabled I have become aware of the low-level discrimination in which the church participates as regards people with disabilities as well. And I know it’s complicated and difficult and historic buildings are really tricky, but I have to telephone the vicar the night before I go to church in an unfamiliar place to see if I can even get into the church. Most people don’t. And that’s discrimination.  And the danger of that is that people mistake the church for God, and when the church says no, that is read as rejection by God as well. You don’t belong here. This is not for you.


But it’s why it is great that this cathedral is open every day of the year, with a huge bucket of water right in the middle, into which you can stick your hand, or even your head, and interact with that running flowing water which gets everywhere, and doesn’t stop flowing, and works its way into your heart, and into your life as well, if you’re not careful, and your shoes, handbag, or camera!


So the readings this morning are saying something about the generous love of God. They are saying something about the way in which it seeks, the way in which the Holy Spirit seeks, to pour abundantly into the lives of those who encounter that love.


And our gospel reading reminds us that what the Holy Spirit is interested in is us getting to know him or her, God. Not the church primarily! And there is another fundamental mistake that we make. The church is not God, and God does not belong to the church. We are not, must not, be gatekeepers. We are called to be, we are meant to be, signposts. Just like John the Baptist, another person very keen indeed on baptism! Pointing, look, there is water, look there is God, look there is hope and opportunity and promise and potential. Come with me, let’s move together, let’s explore what this might mean for us.


There is something hugely evangelistic about that. And we need to reclaim that word evangelism. It is not a dirty word. Its route is in the word angel, Evangelist, messenger, storyteller. And if we are signposts rather than gatekeepers, then our evangelism, our telling of the story, is a joyful and joyous calling indeed.


I am the vine, you are the branches. Christ reminds his disciples both of those truths. We are not the vine, we are not the roots and the heart of this thing. Christ is. God is. But we are branches, we are connected, we are part of this living organism which is the family of Easter people, the family of people drawn again and again to the water of rebirth.


I have been away a lot over the past fortnight. Partly I was in York preaching at a funeral. Partly I was spending a couple of days in a theological college. Two things struck me. Firstly that towards the end of the funeral, as the congregation was singing those extraordinary words “where is death sting? Where, grave, thy victory, I triumph still if thou abide with me.”, the officiating priest sprinkled water on the coffin. At the moment of farewell, the symbolism is exactly the same as at the moment of beginning. Water from the font. It flows everywhere, and it flows out of this life and bears us on its tide into the world to come.


And then the college. There the word that is used is formation. That’s a good word. The work of the Christian, not just the trainee vicar or lay minister, is to allow God to form us. Not to form God, to control and pen him in, but to be formed, moulded, like pebbles in a stream, who are smoothed and beautified by the flowing water patiently, over time, into the Easter people.


Look, here is water! Is there anything to prevent me from being baptised?


Alleluia! Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed. Alleluia!