glory of god

glory of god

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Baptism, Inclusion, and Manifesting the In-Breaking Power of God: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

If you are a regular church attendee, you may have noticed a subtle shift in our readings over the past couple weeks. Although we are still in the Easter season, which has 50 days (today is the 29th, in case you’ve lost count), we are no longer hearing about mysterious appearances of the resurrected Jesus—walking through walls, eating broiled fish on a beach for breakfast, or appearing and disappearing out of and into thin air. That is likely because there aren’t actually 50 days worth of resurrection appearances to report on. In fact, most of the gospels only have one or two resurrection appearances, and for the most part they happen on Easter day itself, or maybe that evening. In John, we do also get a couple that take place a week or so later—such as the story of Thomas coming to believe after he sees Jesus for himself. But really that’s it.

What’s interesting, at least to me, is that some of the gospels even conceive of the resurrection and the ascension as a single event, or at least closely related events—in which Jesus rises not so much to walk around and make appearances on earth, but rather into God’s heart. And it is from there—from the heart and being of God—that he comes back down to make appearances to the disciples, to assure them that he is not dead, that evil and death have not won, and that God has triumphed with new life. Personally, I find that approach to understanding the resurrection easier to wrap my head around—and it seems to be the one that the earliest Christians believed as well.

But, it’s hard to know, because none of the gospels were written by first-hand witnesses, so they are all trying to describe what they had heard about but hadn’t seen. That’s why we have so many varied descriptions of what is still the central story and belief in our Christian faith—that on Easter, God triumphed over evil and death, brought Jesus to new life and unleashed a power into the world that will ultimately liberate us all, and is doing so even now. My favorite seminary professor, Lloyd Patterson, once wrote: “The principal claim of the early church was to be a manifestation of the in-breaking power of God in the midst of the powers governing the life of the world.” Easter, the resurrection, is the beginning of that in-breaking power of God, which continues to be manifest among us, even now.

Because there aren’t so many resurrection stories, our readings now are more focused on the church, and in particular, on how the community of disciples is called to live and minister in a post-resurrection world and how they (and we) are to manifest that in-breaking power. What comes next? What will their values be?  Who—or what—will hold them together? You’ll remember, of course, how Jesus’ disciples bickered with each other back when he was with them every day—who was the greatest, who was qualified to be a disciple, and even who was qualified to be ministered to. So after the resurrection, after Jesus wasn’t with them all the time, at least not physically, you can figure that it was just as bad, and, maybe, probably even worse.  Without Jesus’ physical presence, what would be the glue that would hold them together?  And as others were drawn into the community of disciples, people who maybe didn’t know Jesus first hand, it became even more complicated.

Our first reading this morning from the Acts of the Apostles places us in the context of one of the biggest arguments and decisions that the early Christians faced: who was in and who was out. The church still hasn’t figured that one out very well. Back then, 2,000 years ago, the question was really about Judaism, or more accurately, it was about non-Judaism. Should members of the church have to be Jewish before they can join? Or can anyone be baptized and become a member? How exclusive or inclusive would their community in Christ be? 

The very earliest Christians, the ones who knew Jesus first hand and were led by Simon Peter, seem to have been of the opinion that this new emerging Christianity was really a Jewish movement. After all, Jesus was Jewish. His mother Mary was Jewish. The disciples were Jewish. The scriptures they held sacred were Jewish. They didn’t have any other Bible yet, just the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. And these very earliest disciples—the 12 apostles and the other followers—believed that Christianity should really be treated like a school or movement within Judaism, branch on the Jewish family tree. So, it made sense to them that its adherents should be Jewish, too. They should follow the Jewish dietary laws, not eat foods sacrificed to idols, males should be circumcised, all of that. 

On the other hand, there was an increasing number who felt that Christianity really was a new thing—it was born in Judaism, but it was increasingly distinct, centered in the life and teaching of Jesus, who they remembered as being inclusive in his relationships, in his healings, in his teachings. Most of all, he was uninterested in setting up boundaries that would separate people into one group or another—for Jesus, all are one, regardless of their previous background. So these early Christians didn’t see any point in requiring someone to convert to Judaism first, before joining the church. People should be welcomed from any and every background, in the same way that Jesus broke down barriers and welcomed strangers and sinners. That was the view, in particular, of the apostle Paul. Remember, it was Paul who said: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It's weird to think of Paul as a leading liberal, but he was in his day. He was on the forefront of creating something new.

So, the early Christians found themselves creating factions, they bickered, they argued. They even set up a court to study the matter. Ultimately, they decided to err on the side of inclusiveness. They came to the realization that if the Christian movement were to grow and thrive, it had to be as open and inclusive as possible—they couldn’t be closing or even locking doors all over the place. 

Today’s reading from Acts reflects Peter’s eventual conversion to that inclusive point of view. It ultimately had to do with weather it was acceptable to baptize Gentiles into the Christian faith, without first having them convert to Judaism. In his weird vision that we heard about, Peter was encouraged by God to kill and eat animals that were unclean— a horrific thought for an observant Jewish man like Peter. But it seems, that’s what God wanted of him. The vision was God’s way of getting Peter to change his whole way of thinking. What had been wrong, was suddenly right. And what had been right, well, maybe it was wrong, or at least, it wasn’t completely right, at least not for everyone. That kind of conversion is not easy. It requires us to look at the world in a different way, to look at God in a different way, and maybe even to look at ourselves in different ways.   

I imagine that it is this very same kind of struggle that many Christians have had with recently with regard to gay, lesbian, and transgender people—in terms of marriage equality and church leadership, certainly, but even just in terms of welcome. What for 2000 years, or even longer, had been considered wrong among people of faith is now increasingly being upheld as holy, of God. Even if we are on the liberal or inclusive side, and I suspect most of here this morning are, we shouldn’t forget how hard it can be to change deeply held beliefs.

But, the story of the early church tells us that our call, our vocation, as a community in and of Christ, is to be ever more inclusive, ever more welcoming, ever more reflective of the life and love of God. Some day, in the future, there will be other issues that people of faith struggle with, just as in the past Christians struggled over race (many churches were officially segregated well into the 1960s, and less officially beyond that); gender (not only regarding ordination, but even over whether women could teach or even speak in church—Paul was not so liberal on that issue, unfortunately); and different philosophical understandings of what happens in Holy Communion. They even burned each other at the stake over that—whether you believed Christ was physically present in the bread and wine, or spiritually present, or not present in the elements at all. Can you imagine? So, a little humility is called for. But, most especially, we are called to always have open arms and open hearts, so that we can be reflective of the love of God—so that we manifest the in-breaking power of God.

And it is into that exact life and calling that we baptize Charlotte today. She doesn’t yet realize it, of course. But her baptism this morning is only the latest manifestation of the in-breaking power of God. It is the promise of God’s love and our love—for her, and for the world. Because every time another member is baptized into the life of Christ, our body, our community, becomes infinitely more able and empowered to love and care for the world. Barriers and divisions crumble and in their place is new and abundant life, resurrection life—this is the life that Charlotte is joining, and it is the life that she will share with others.

In today’s gospel from John we hear: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” When he said this, I don’t think Jesus meant that we should limit our love to those who think like us, look like us, live like us, or even pray like us. Rather, he meant that we should love each other—whoever the other is—just as he loved his disciples and just as he loves us still.  Sometimes, as it did for Peter so long ago, such love requires that we set aside prejudices, worldviews, and long-held beliefs. But the result is inevitably that we will draw closer together. We will be knit together as the Body of Christ. And we will reflect and manifest God’s love and power for the world.   

Now, of course, the baptized life, the Christian life, isn’t always easy or comfortable. At the center of our faith is the cross—the ultimate symbol and reminder that our faith isn’t easy. But, we also know, because we live on this side of Easter, that the cross doesn’t have the last word. The resurrection does. And it promises us, again and again, that new life is always possible, in fact, that new life, that abundant resurrection life, is taking root, growing, and even flourishing among us right here and right now, making all things new. Thanks be to God.

To whom be the glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

© The Rev. Matthew P. Cadwell, PhD