Monday, May 07, 2012

May 6, Easter 5, "What's to Prevent Me From Being Baptized?"

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

My sermon series for the Easter season is on the questions which are asked within the scripture lessons. Today our question is what the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip. “Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?” That was not rhetorical. It was a real question.

If that were me in the chariot instead of Philip, I’d have to say, “Well, when’s the next time you plan to be back in Jerusalem? I can’t baptize you today. You have to meet with the Board of Elders first, I can’t just baptize you on my own. When I was installed in my church in 2002 I made a solemn promise to conduct my ministry according to the rules of the church, so my conscience would prevent me.

You know, I do get unchurched people calling me up to ask me to baptize their children, and I tell them that baptism is not just a private act or a family affair. It’s an act of the church. We don’t do it privately, we do it in the midst of the congregation. It’s about membership among God’s people, it means participating in a congregation. So I’d have to answer the eunuch’s question with my reasons to prevent it.

Philip would have his reasons too. First of all, the eunuch was a Gentile, and at this stage of the church, there were no Gentile Christians yet. Baptism was a Jewish act for Jewish people. John the Baptist began to baptize for the revival of Israel, and for the Jews of his day to identify with that revival. What did this pagan have to do with Israel, even the Israel which honored Jesus as its Lord? No Gentile had ever been baptized yet, and Philip could have said that such an innovation in baptism was not for him to make, since he was not an apostle, but only an evangelist and deacon.

Second, the eunuch was going back home and therefore leaving the company of the people of God. He would not be part of any congregation. Baptism is not a private act, it’s about membership among God’s people. With whom would this guy have communion? Philip could have said that it’s impossible to be a Christian on your own.

Third, there was Deuteronomy 23:1: “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the congregation of the Lord.” No eunuchs allowed. It’s very clear. Don’t bother saying, “That’s just the Old Testament.” The Old Testament was the only Bible Philip had. And it’s from the heart of the Bible, the Torah, and what did Jesus say against “removing one jot or tittle from the Torah.” I’m sure that this verse was especially what the eunuch had in mind when he asked his question. I’m sure that a man who had invested such time and money to make a pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Jerusalem will have known about this verse, and worried about it every day for all the weeks he traveled in his chariot.

I’m guessing he had set his hope on another verse, although a verse less central to the Bible, from Isaiah chapter 56: “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely divide me from his people,’ and let not the eunuch say, ‘Behold, I am a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and hold fast to my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off.”

But his arrival in Jerusalem will have been after the stoning of Stephen, and the beginning of the persecution of the disciples, and the temple police will have been at threat level orange. Not even Philip himself would have been allowed into the temple. The closest the eunuch could have gotten was the outer court, where the animals were bought and sold, and even then he’d have to slip some money to the police for them to look the other way.

So after this exclusion, on his way back home, he’s reading Isaiah again, just a couple handsbreadth over in the scroll, chapter 53, the words he read aloud with Philip. Those words cut very close to his experience. Not only being cut off from the temple to which he’d made his pilgrimage, but also his castration in his childhood. In the image of Isaiah, he’d been like a sheep under the knife and a lamb about to be cut. “In his humiliation justice was denied him.” Of course it’s this passage he’s reading. He felt like he was in it. He had been excluded from the temple and excluded by the Torah, but he found himself included in the prophecy.

It’s with a cultured objectivity that he asks Philip his first question, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” But behind his objectivity we can read his interest: “Can this also be about me? Am I included here?” So Philip answers this first question by teaching him the apostolic interpretation of Isaiah—that the prophet says these things about Jesus, in his suffering, in his rejection and exclusion, in his loneliness and death.

And the eunuch is the one who makes the leap of faith. Then Jesus is together with me here. If he’s identified with me, why should I not identify with him? What’s to prevent me then?

For Philip to overcome his reasons to prevent it, he has to believe that the water was there in the desert by providence, not coincidence, and that the eunuch’s question was there by providence. He knows the angel had put him on this road, and the Spirit had ordered him into the chariot, and how providential was it that the pagan was already reading scripture. He has to figure that if this little temporary congregation was good enough for God it was good enough for him. And if God is laying Isaiah 56 over Deuteronomy 23, what’s to prevent him from doing it as well?

The eunuch asks the question, and we never hear Philip’s final answer, we only see his action. We are not told what his baptismal formula was. We are not told that he did not use the baptismal liturgy of the Reformed Church in America. We are told how the eunuch felt, that he went on his way rejoicing, but we are not told what Philip felt, only that he must have felt dizzy and disoriented, having been snatched away by the Spirit. It doesn’t matter what Philip felt. What matters was his action.

The action of love is what we mean when we talk about Christian love, the love of Christ, the love of God. It’s not the love of feeling, it’s the love of action. You do the action, and the feeling may follow, you do the action of love enough to develop a general attitude of love and the feeling of love will follow, but you don’t wait for the feeling. The love that Philip enacted for the eunuch was not based on his feeling, nor was it even a favor. It’s not that Philip did him a favor. Philip owed the eunuch what he gave him, he owed him the action of his love.

A Christian congregation is a group of people who gather together to try to perfect their love in real and concrete ways. You come here every week to learn this love which comes from God, to attach to it like branches on a vine, and in many small ways to practice and perfect it. Today we celebrate that six more of you have decided to commit to this community of love.

I can imagine what might prevent you. Your previous experience of church  might have been very good, and then look at us—we are bound to disappoint you. Or it might have been bad, and then look at us—it’s deja vu all over again. Or it might have been okay, not great, not bad, and here you go again, everybody smiles and lots of nice talk but not much more. You can imagine yourself like Philip here, running through the reasons of what could prevent you.

But somebody put you on this road. And you found us reading scripture out loud, and in that scripture looking for ourselves. Look, here we are, what is to prevent you from loving us? From loving each other? I believe that’s how you have to understand what you are doing today. You’re not joining a church so much as committing to the perfection of love. To the perfection of the love which you have received in your own life from God. God bless you for committing to this love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

April 29, Easter 4, "By What Power Do You Do This?"

Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

The Easter season is eight Sundays long, from Easter Day to Pentecost. During this season my sermons are a series on the questions which are asked within the scripture lessons. Last week’s question was “Why do doubts arise within your hearts?” This week’s question is “By what power or by what name did you do this?” It was a hostile question from the interrogation of Peter and John. But it’s not an unfair question. It’s always fair to ask it of the church. Whatever it is we do as a church, by what power and by what name do we do it?

The easy part of the question is “by what name”. Not by the name of the Reformed Church in America, nor by the name of the universal God of all enlightened men, but by the name of this particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, who was raised from the dead by the God of Israel, elected by God to be the Messiah, and designated by God as the one in whom the world will find its salvation. Which means that whatever we do as a church to contribute to the salvation of the world, we do it under the name of this Lord Jesus.

But what is the meaning of salvation? Salvation means one thing for Buddhists and another thing for Hindus, and something else for Muslims and something else for Jews. What’s included in salvation under the name of Jesus? The salvation we Christians are supposed to look for, officially at least, according to the Nicene Creed, is “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” Last week I said we can look for this not only at the end of the world but in the now of the world, and we can see it in a homeless man getting a job and a uniform and a car. Salvation can mean a broken person restored to dignity and productivity.

That’s what it looked like two Sundays ago, in the story of the disabled panhandler at the gate of the temple, who was healed by Peter and John. That’s what Peter is being questioned about today. What Peter says in the original Greek is that a man who was “disabled” was “saved,” so that the man could stand there “sound and whole”. So the gift of soundness and wholeness is the meaning of salvation here, of his rising up into his full humanity, so that instead of his begging outside the temple he many now stand inside the temple for the praise of God, and then walk back out of the temple to his neighborhood and love his neighbors now and be productive in the city. Such is the salvation which came to him under Jesus’ name.

The harder part of the question is by what power do they do this. What is the power of the church? We ask it today in full awareness of the church’s weaknesses, and its record of corruption and division. Despite the scandal of the church there is a power for good which still gets through, and what is that power? By what power do we do what we do every week? By what power do we speak to Park Slope and the surrounding neighborhoods in which we live? Can it be as simple as the power of love, or what the gospel calls “the power to lay down our lives?”

Last Monday night we had our monthly elders’ meeting. The first part of the meeting was a pleasure. We interviewed the people who want full membership in the church and to commit to this congregation. They want to identify with this flock of sheep. We received them and blessed them, and after they left, we had to move on to business not so pleasurable. We addressed a potential conflict in the church. We had to sort through certain actions by specific persons, and the What and the Why of statements which they may or may not have made, and what did that require of us.

Who do we think we are we do this work when Jesus calls himself the one shepherd of the flock? We do not want to be hirelings. We do not run away when difficulty comes. In the Reformed Church we appoint the elders to be under-shepherds of the flock, in order to express his shepherding in real time with real people. Not that we feel so courageous in ourselves. We recognize our weaknesses. It’s “in fear and trembling that we work out our salvation.” We try to work the power of the love of God. We apply the power of God’s love directly to the realities of our common human life within the troubles and confusion of the world, even the small world of Old First.

The power the elders have is the “power to lay down our lives” for the sake of the flock. We do this in many small ways. We sacrifice the hours of our evenings, although we’d rather be at home. On the matters at hand we offer in turns our own personal judgments, and then we lay them down to the judgments of the other elders. Last Monday night there were three of us who judged one way, and one the opposite way, and two were in-between. By the end of our discussion the five of us had laid down our judgments before the challenge of the one. What that one elder called the rest of us to was a very deep kind of justice. And if justice can be understood as the right distribution of love, then what he called us to was a very advanced kind of love.

It was not a case of just giving in. It was not an example of inaction or disability. It was a case of that one elder challenging the rest of us, including me, and challenging us to hope against hope, and doing it in such a humble and loving way that we were lifted up. It was a little bit of salvation. You understand that I cannot tell you what the particular matter was, but you need to know the good news that this kind of healing can happen in a church. And you need to know that we do this among the elders for your sake, we do it for the soundness and wholeness of this body of Christ of which you are a part. We do it as a small community of six people in order to model what the community of Jesus can be for our congregation as a whole. We take care that the life we live together in this church may express and experience “the life of the world to come.”

We express it for the world and for the life of the world today. The metaphor of the shepherd was an ancient metaphor for kings. Today the shepherds of our lives would be the politicians we elect to power and authority. The great tragedy of this magnificent democracy of America is that our politicians are afraid to challenge our nation like our one elder did. In order to get elected they indulge our insecurities and pander to our prejudice. They will not lay down their possible reelection or continuing in power for the sake of justice or hope. They are hirelings whose power lacks the true authority of love.

It’s not in the power of the church to correct this in our nation. We are not given that. What’s in our power is rather to witness to the nature of God’s salvation of the world and to give credit to our witness by how we express it in our lives as God’s community. We commit to this expression. By our membership we stand for it. When we say that salvation is by no other name under heaven, we do not mean it as a judgment about non-Christians, for we don’t know God’s boundaries, we only know God’s center, and the center is that God has committed to that specific kind of salvation and that specific kind of power for good and that authority of love which in God expressed in real time in the person whose name was Jesus of Nazareth.

We are tempted to look for resurrection power in supernatural healings which are indisputably miraculous. No miracle is ever undisputed, as Peter and John found out. No act of love is indisputable, unless it’s seen through love. But I can call on you to work your miracles. In the small things you do in daily life, by how you give yourself to love and to its challenges, especially against the power of the doubting and the fearing of the world. Your acts of love seem insignificant. But they are part of that one great thing God is doing in the world, that great long plan of salvation.

If it seems slow, it is the patience of God’s love. If it seems weak, it is the vulnerability of God’s love. If it seems uncertain, then be encouraged by the signs of it, which you can see through love. And here’s the answer to our question: The power is love, and God could do it in no other way, because God’s name is Love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.