Back in the late spring, as the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee prepared to emerge from our suspension of public in-person worship, I began to reflect anew on the next part of our life as a diocese. Given the undetermined length and uncertain course of the pandemic, and the multiplicity and complexity of the challenges to public health, the economy, and national life that lay before us, a scriptural “frame” for the diocese would need to be a robust one, capable of standing up to sudden change. The Holy Scriptures would need to speak powerfully to us and shape our mission and ministry in the months and years ahead.
Providentially, the Spirit had a word for me, in the shape of the eucharistic lectionary and the Eastertide readings from Acts. Studied practitioners of the various lectionaries in use in the Episcopal Church will know that Acts takes the place of the Old Testament in Eastertide. In addition, each year the lectionary for the Daily Office of the Episcopal Church directs another course reading of Acts during the summer. Anyone who says the Daily Office regularly, and who has the opportunity to worship at the Eucharist in Eastertide, will quickly get soaked through (or even drenched) in the Book of Acts.
Matthew may be the “Church’s gospel,” but the Church hears more consistently and regularly every year from the gospel writer St. Luke, in this regular engagement with the Acts of the Apostles. Acts forms a sort of sequel to what the writer referred to, not as a “gospel,” but as a “narration” (Luke 1:1) or “orderly account” (1:3) of the things that God had done among Jesus’ followers. Only later did the sequel receive the title of “Acts” (praxeis), an account of those things done by the early Christians.
As I continued to pray and reflect in the midst of the pandemic, Acts commended itself to me on account of one of its pivotal events: the earliest persecution of the Church, a story that begins in chapter eight. Following the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the Church was disrupted from its close and intense community life in Jerusalem, as its members were scattered. Prior to this, the members of the Church “were all together in one place” (2:1); they “were together and had all things in common” (2:44); “they spent much time together in the temple” (2:46); they were “of one heart and soul” (4:32).
All of this was upended as the Church was dispersed. Though the scattering of the Church in Acts was the result of persecution, it was also the providential work of the Holy Spirit. What happened next in the Church’s life proceeded under the heading of Jesus’ own words to the apostles at his ascension: the commission to witness, first in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, and finally to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The progression was outward. Everything else that happens in Acts, including the mission and ministry of St. Paul that looms so large in the narration, hinges on the persecution in chapter eight.
In those weeks of April and May, I felt within myself a similar disruption, and experienced (as we all did) the same sudden scattering of community life. Yet God seemed to be inviting me, through our lectionary texts in Eastertide and in the summer, to a re-narration of this experience, through St. Luke’s primary account of the Church’s mission. It seemed to me that I was being invited to think again about the ministry we were called to in the strange time of the coronavirus.
The eighth chapter became pivotal for my own reflection on what was taking place. Here Philip the deacon is one of the refugees who leaves Jerusalem and goes as an evangelist to nearby Samaria, proclaiming the gospel, driving out demons, and baptizing. The work of an evangelist is different from his work as a deacon in Jerusalem. An angel then summons him to the road leading from Jerusalem and Gaza. The text points out, in what appears to be an aside, that this is “a wilderness road” (8:26).
While on the way, he encounters an official of the Candace, the ruler of Ethiopia; a eunuch, as courtiers sometimes were, who had been in Jerusalem to worship. The ties between Israel and Ethiopia are evident in the Holy Scriptures, both in its historical narratives and in its prophetic and liturgical texts. In the account in Acts, the official is sitting by the side of the road studying the prophet Isaiah, in particular the text, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth” (Acts 8:32-33; cf. Isa. 53:7-8).
What happens next is a catechetical back and forth between Philip and the eunuch, about the identity of the one who was led to slaughter, and the implications for the eunuch. Philip proclaims the gospel to the man, the good news about Jesus, in this isolated and individual setting. The upshot is that the court official requests baptism, there on the wilderness road, before he returns home.
From this story emerged “The Wilderness Road: Acts 8,” a scriptural frame for the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee’s next chapter of life. In this time, we are on a wilderness road, the same challenging path on which the Church’s mission and ministry is always carried out. A wilderness road is desolate and isolated; unlike the “royal roads” created for kings to travel, it is not the most direct route between one point and another. In the familiar Advent text, when the prophet Isaiah foretold the return of the exiles from Babylon, the way was bulldozed and leveled (Isa. 40:3-4); but a wilderness road is not like that. On this path, there are washed out places; many switchbacks; a steep grade for those who travel. There are lots of stops and starts, as we allow ourselves to be led forward through a timeline we cannot control.
Perspective is a key part of a wilderness road. When you turn a corner, the destination may appear near; but when you turn the next one, it becomes clear that there is still a way to go. Deserts are also famous for the optical illusions they create. On a wilderness road, it’s not clear to the travelers exactly where they are, or what their true situation is. When we think about the distortions created by the uneven economic situation and the political divisions that are rife, it’s clear that different realities and different narratives are present. Where are we, exactly, on this wilderness road?
The “wilderness road” of Acts 8 is a well-worn trope of preachers and others, but that does not diminish its usefulness in reflecting on the Church’s call in this time of pandemic. The foundation of our life is the christological lens of the story: that is, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, and following his path. Our calling remains one of proclamation and catechesis, practicing the question and answer format of the story that seeks the echo of faithful response in the hearts of our interlocutors, and in our own hearts as well. This path requires conversion and baptism.
In short, answering the call from God will require a deeper immersion in the Holy Scriptures. “The Wilderness Road: Acts 8,” invites us to find ourselves in the story. In the midst of our relative scattering and isolation, we find encouragement and hope, as the Holy Spirit directs us to the Scriptures and through the Scriptures. Raniero Cardinal Cantalamessa, OFM, once remarked that in the absence of any other spiritual director, the Holy Scriptures themselves become the means of our direction (The Mystery of God’s Word, The Liturgical Press: Collegeville, 1994). This is an insight made for our times.
My conviction is that we are once again on a “wilderness road” as a church. I think we’ll be traveling this path for a while, no matter when the pandemic ends, and regardless of what lies ahead. There are challenges now but also opportunities. In these days, may the Holy Spirit speak to us through the Scriptures, as he did to Philip and the court official, with convicting power and effect.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.