Thursday in the Third Week of Easter, Christ Church Cathedral, Nashville

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza’ (this is a wilderness road)” (Acts 8:26).

Jesus was an itinerant preacher and teacher, which means he lived his life on the road. As Luke the Evangelist tells the story, in the Gospel that bears his name and in the Acts of the Apostles that is its sequel, Jesus’ disciples followed his example. In fact, after Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, his disciples were so identified with his life (it says in Acts) that they were known as followers “of the way” (Acts 9:2): that is, the road or path that Jesus himself had followed. Before they were called Christians, they were known as Jesus’ followers, living their life on the same road he traveled.

It’s interesting how St. Luke uses this metaphor of the journey or path. Significant action happens on the road in Luke. If we go back to the evening of the first Easter, we find the story of the road to Emmaus. Two of his disciples are traveling from Jerusalem to nearby Emmaus, and they are speaking about the rumored events of his resurrection. A stranger joins the disciples on the road, but they only recognize that it’s Jesus after he explains the scriptures to them and breaks the bread at the meal. As it says in Luke’s Gospel, and as we were reminded in our collect, Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:35).

Or again, in Acts, the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, on the Damascus road. He’s traveling there to arrest Jesus’ followers in that city, and suddenly a light from heaven flashes around him, and he hears a voice. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, he does not recognize that it’s Jesus, the risen Lord, who’s speaking to him. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). After his baptism, Saul became Paul, his life forever changed.

Our reading today tells another significant story of what happens on the road, this time to Philip the deacon, who’s been commanded by an angel to travel to Gaza on the wilderness road. “Wilderness,” because we’re not meant to imagine a lush countryside scene, but a bleaker setting altogether. On this road, Philip encounters a servant of the Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia; a high court official who is journeying back from Jerusalem by chariot to his home far to the south. He’s studying a text from the prophet Isaiah, and in a back and forth dialogue Philip explains that Jesus is the one foretold by the prophet. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:37), the Ethiopian eunuch asks. Legend has it that this eunuch was the founder of the church in Ethiopia, which endures to this day.

These accounts from St. Luke of what happens on the road are significant, pointing us to elements of the Christian life practiced today by you and me. The Damascus road story is one of conversion, the dramatic turning around of a life; the story of the road to Emmaus is set within the framework of the eucharist, or “the breaking of bread” as Luke calls it (Acts 2:46). Our account of what takes place on the wilderness road to Gaza, in turn, is a story of formation, evangelism, and baptism: starting with Philip’s catechizing of the eunuch, the back and forth dialogue or “echoing” that’s at the heart of formation, all the way to Philip’s proclamation of the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the invitation to baptism.

Today, in the time of the Coronavirus, the church is once again on the road with Jesus. This virus has not allowed us to stand still, because that means getting stuck. We’ve been challenged to do new things, and to rediscover old truths. The time away (for most of us) from public, in person, worship, has raised again our more fundamental commitments as disciples, as followers of “the way.”

As Anglicans, we put a high premium on the sacred liturgy and public worship, and that is wholly appropriate. Our Book of Common Prayer, however, is meant to be a guide to life and prayer, personally and in our homes, not simply a collection of services we do in church. The goal of the Christian life is not “churchgoing” but relationship with Christ and with each other in his name. Our practice of evangelism and formation in the name of Christ must be robust, leading to the font of baptism, and to the altar of Christ’s body and blood, the summit of the Christian life.

This time of the Coronavirus enables us to reach out to our neighbors in a new way, using all the means at our disposal. In the absence of “churchgoing,” where that has become impossible in any conventional sense, we have opportunities to re-conceive our ministries as Christians in more fundamental ways. It may be a desert road, like the one to Gaza, but it’s the road we’ve been given. Today, we’re on the road, in a time of global shakeup and reassessment, and it’s on this road that we will engage more fully the ministry that God is calling us to as a church.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee