Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Just bring 'em to the font...

We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen.(Acts 10:39-40, NIV)
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues[a] and praising God.

Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
(Acts 10:44-48a, NIV)

Sunday's lectionary reading from the book of Acts describes a flat impossibility. Couldn't have happened. Outside the realm of possibility.

You see, for centuries "the circumcised" - the Jews - understood themselves to be *the* people of God. And that understanding came by right of birth, from father to son. There was no way God's Spirit could move in those who were not "of the people of God."

Except, of course, that it happened.

Peter is preaching after Jesus' resurrection, and is in the midst of telling the crowd that "we are witnessses of everything [Jesus] did..." He's not even finished talking when the Holy Spirit decides to show up in power. And the ones who end up speaking in tongues are the ones who theoretically are "outside the pale" - those unclean non-Jews, the Gentiles. But it sure looks like God's power is on them...

Peter's not going to put up a fight. He says, "Hey, go ahead - anybody who can think of a good reason why these outsiders should be baptised, speak now!" Then he orders them baptized, even though they are not part of the historic "people of God." The Spirit is moving in them, and for Peter, that's enough.

Fourteen years ago, a pastor in Prairie Village, Kansas took the same chance with me. Outwardly, there wasn't much to work with: I hadn't been to church in 17 years, and I'd never been part of the Lutheran tradition. I was newly divorced and very angry, recently sober and not entirely stable, and given to frequent and impressive bouts of vulgarity, I was (as one friend put it later) "quite a piece of work." But that pastor saw something happening behind the exterior roughness, and trusted that it was the Holy Spirit. Some might look back, even now, and wonder at his choice...but despite everything, I think he was right.

Now, I have to admit: I understand why some churches today take seekers and put them through extensive training and classes before baptism. They see the decision to be baptised as a momentous decision, not to be taken lightly. They also see these classes as ensuring that people who join the Church are in full agreement with the statements of faith.

But I wonder if sometimes we take this "decision time" too seriously. I wonder if the question we have to ask, just as Peter did, is simply: is the Spirit moving in a person? Are there fruits of the Spirit present, or hiding just under a rough surface? If so, then maybe we don't need to wait for six months of classes. Maybe we simply need to ask, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?"

Lord God, help us to see when your Spirit is moving in those around us. Help us to see where you are moving, and welcome those persons into the family of God. Amen.


Mind the Bear said...

It's not about what we do, but what God does, has done, and keeps on doing. "You did not choose me. I chose you."

Cheers, Joe.

Michael said...

I also understand why churches and other religious groups want potential members to understand what they are considering joining. But I often wondered (in my own community when I was working in "recruiting new members") if the process didn't look a lot more like it was a design for keeping people out rather than bringing them in. Baptism (and its equivalents) is a rite of initiation, a beginning, NOT a graduation ceremony.

TK said...

Maybe I err too far to the other extreme but questions like, "Do you love Jesus and want to follow him? Do you believe the things he said and did? do you want his forgiveness?

Those are the questions of Baptism. Baptism is about turning around facing God and asking him to wash the mess that separates us from him.

Serious absolutely. Needing a six month class to answer? Nope

Poor Mad Peter said...

I have some discomfort with the descriptions of Jews being exclusivist people of God, as echoed here, and therefore looking upon Gentiles as "unclean". Even accepting that this isn't the main thrust of your piece, here, Steve man, I am uneasy, having heard it and similar versions hundreds of times from mainline church pulpits over the years.

In fact, the Jews were under tremendous pressure as a people not only to survive, but to remain faithful to God as they understood that. This was one of many times, when, faced with these pressures, the folks and their leadership put a conservative spin on the matter of being faithful, and on identity.

Later, this conservative spin would lead to a rupture within the faith, and the splitting off of the followers of Yeshua ben Joseph, the people who now call themselves Christians. I can't blame anybody for feeling, as many undoubtedly did when faced with this moment in Peter's life, that he and his followers were giving away the farm and following the slippery slope toward assimilation (and therefore apostasy). I feel this even though I can also see it as a magnificent sharing of the Jewish faith with the wider, Gentile world.

This is not the first time that Jews had been faced with such a crossroads and as a people, reacted very humanly. The book of Ezra, for example, is a description of the hideous ultra-conservative purging of non-Jewish elements from Jewish society in the wake of the Babylonian captivity, a brutal reassertion of identity.

But no story--and especially that of the episode involving Peter and the Romans--is a "pure" story: the book of Ruth, which came to be around the same time, sits as a counterbalance to Ezra's horrors--it's the story of the faithfulness of a foreign widow to her mother's faith, and the ultimate marriage of a Jewish man to a Gentile woman, who coincidentally becomes the ancestor not only of David, but of Jesus of Nazareth.