The Very Rev. Andrew B. Jones
May 13th, 2012
Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Madison, Wisconsin
This sermon is based on the readings for the 6th Sunday of Easter in year B of the Revised Common Lectionary. You can find those readings here.
Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning is only a few short lines. So as we read through it we may be tempted to rush ahead to our Gospel text of the day. Baptizing Gentiles doesn’t seem like such a big deal to us in this day and age so let’s just jump straight to what Jesus has to say about love! But if we take another look at the reading from Acts and read it in its context, read it thinking about the themes of the book of Acts, we begin to recognize that this is a passage fraught with conflict: fraught with potential and hope. It is a passage that demands our attention today.
It says in this passage that the Holy Spirit descended upon a group of people and Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) Apparently, someone has been saying that the Gentiles should not be baptized. We get another clues as to what has been happening when we go back a few more lines and read that “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…” (Acts 10:45) people who they thought were on the “outside.” The leaders of “The Way, this new faith, this new idea about how to be in relationship with God were in conflict with one another. Should converts to the faith be required to be circumcised according to the Jewish tradition and Mosaic Law in order to participate in this community?
There was a lot at stake here for Peter and the leaders of the early church. They are members of a new and growing movement trying to understand how to live out their new faith and their new understanding and to integrate that with their Jewish identity. At the same time this new movement is under the scrutiny and suspicion of Rome who is very concerned about this movement’s ability to claim people’s allegiance and to subvert their fealty to the Emperor. This new way of being is also being regarded with great suspicion and hostility by the temple authorities, the Scribes and the Pharisees who, even as we approach the day of the destruction of the Temple and the end of Temple Judaism, are concerned and angered by claims that Jesus is the Messiah. They are anxious about the competing claims of this new group in their midst. They are also angry about the ministry and preaching of that radical, liberal malcontent who is claiming that God’s love and grace is open to everyone… even to the Gentiles. You know… that radical, liberal malcontent Paul!
Paul, whose ministry and teaching is in conflict with the Temple authorities, is also in conflict with Peter and the leaders of the early church. Paul is saying that people who are converted to the faith from outside of Judaism should not be required to undergo circumcision in order to become members, and Peter and the leaders of the church have been fighting him. But here, in this moment, Peter meets a group of Gentiles and he learns that he must in fact offer them the sacrament that forms us as the church, and that he must offer that sacrament without asking them to become circumcised.
What evidence do Peter and his group of “circumcised believers” find that causes them to change their minds? After all, in the seventeenth chapter of Genesis God makes a covenant with Abraham and in that covenant makes a lot of promises to Abraham and to the people of Israel through him:
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. 7I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:6-8).
These promises are so deeply imbedded within the people of Israel that even as they come to this new faith they are clinging to them, to the reality and to the understanding that this is not something new, this is not something drastically different. This is a fulfillment of the faith and the promises that were established in their forefathers, the faith that they have understood and held all of their lives.
In that seventeenth chapter of Genesis God goes on and tells Abraham that his part in this covenant is to circumcise every male among his people.
“You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Genesis 17:11).
And a few short lines later God says:
“Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant” (17:14).
So as Peter and the leaders of the church, in this new and evolving culture and context, with hostility from the synagogue and from Rome confronting them on every side, trying to understand how to be faithful and to live out the teachings of Jesus, are confronted by people who have not been circumcised and yet want to be baptized… they are deeply troubled.
What could make them change their minds? All along they have been saying “no” to requests like this one. Something must have shifted their position! What, short of the very teachings of Jesus himself, could have led them to affect this radical shift in their understanding?
But if you go back and read through the Gospels, through Jesus’ teachings, Jesus doesn’t say anything about circumcision! We know that he himself was circumcised. We have that story in our sacred texts. And we know that Jesus says through his words and actions, over and over again, that the Kingdom of God is for all people. But Jesus himself does not address the specific issue of circumcision. He doesn’t ever say whether or not circumcision is a requirement for being a member of his Body, the Church. So by what evidence do Peter and his colleagues abandon this requirement that is as old as the book of Genesis?
Go back to our passage from the book of Acts and we will see that it was the presence of the Holy Spirit in those who sought the sacrament of Baptism that convinced Peter that he must in fact offer them this blessing. The people there began to speak in tongues and to extoll God. Peter and his friends saw this as evidence of the Holy Spirit in these people. God was already there. God was already present in these people. How could they possibly refuse to baptize them?
Now that may seem like a radical thing to do: to overturn all those years of tradition and that sense of scripture based on what seems to be their subjective observation of an event in their lives there in that moment. But there is scriptural warrant for this kind of interpretation and this kind of change.
In the 14th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says:
‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-31).
Two chapters later in the Gospel of John Jesus says:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16.12-13).
Jesus himself says that revelation will be on going, that the holy Spirit will come and will guide us into change, that the Holy Spirit will move us forward, and that God is not done speaking yet.
So when Peter and his colleagues encounter these Gentiles who begin to speak in tongues and to extoll God, and they perceive this to be a manifestation of the fruits of the spirit, they baptize them.
We are reading this morning from the 10th chapter of Acts and really, this is the beginning of the end of this conflict. The conflict between Paul, with his radical liberal views, and Peter and the circumcised believers has been building for the first ten chapters of the book of Acts, in chapter 15 it comes to a head. In chapter 15 Paul and Barnabas are talking to other church leaders in Antioch and we read:
“And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church…” (Acts 15:2-3).
No small dissension and debate! They were sent on their way to meet with Peter and the elders of the church. Seems to me they were going to General Convention. In the end Paul and Barnabas prevailed. After a long and serious conversation Peter stood up and said to the rest of the church:
“My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15:7-9).
So just to make sure we understand what we are talking about here… We have the early church struggling to find its way forward, struggling to define its mission and vocation to the rest of the world. It is doing that in a context that is shifting dramatically and there is opposition from the culture around them, and from those in authority over the nation of Israel. There is dissension within the church itself. And then they are confronted with something that seems to go against the scriptures that they hold sacred and which challenges the very core of their beliefs. These uncircumcised Gentiles have come seeking the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament that binds us one to another and makes us the church. And in the face of that challenge, the church changes and offers that sacrament because of its faith and trust in the manifestation of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
Just to make sure that we understand what we are talking about… we are talking about the sacrament of baptism. But all week long, as I wrestled with these passages, I was confronted by the reality that we could just as well be talking about the sacrament of marriage.
On Tuesday night this week we gathered with a group of people here in Madison at Saint Luke’s, to talk about the materials that have been presented to General Convention by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. We looked at the thirty-eight year history of legislation in General Convention around the blessing of same gender unions. We read through the theological points being offered for consideration by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. We looked at the materials they have developed to prepare people in same gender unions to have their union blessed. We looked at the extensive study guide that they have prepared to help congregations and dioceses discern whether or not they are called to participate in the three-year trial use of the liturgy that they have developed. And we sat together in that space and we read through the liturgy.
Before we began that reading there were people in the room who were uncomfortable with what we were doing. They were uncomfortable with the idea that we were considering this at all. There were other people who felt that this is not enough. “It’s a blessing not a marriage and why can’t we have the same sacrament that everyone else has?” By the time we finished reading that liturgy everyone in the room was in a very different place…
A very powerful experience, a liturgy that recognizes the covenantal nature of relationships and makes room for the church to offer it’s blessing on two people who have made life long monogamous commitments to one another in the kind of love and joy that is manifested by God’s relationship to us and by God’s relationship to the church.
It was particularly difficult to come home from that meeting on Tuesday night and to learn that the state of North Carolina had passed an amendment to its constitution banning same gender unions, and civil unions, and partnerships: stripping away hospital visitation rights and all sorts of things that married people take for granted. It was a difficult and strange juxtaposition.
It was even stranger then the next night when I came home from an all day retreat with the Diocesan Executive Council and the Diocesan Strategic Planning Task Force, and heard my son exclaim from his room down the hall that he had just read on Face Book that President Obama had affirmed same sex marriages in a televised interview with a reporter from ABC. It has been a difficult and tumultuous week.
This issue is not going away. Our nation is grappling with it. Our government is grappling with it. And my brothers and sisters, denominations all across this country are wrestling with this issue right now.
We, and I say that because I believe this is true for most if not all of us,… I can say without doubt that I know and love many people who love people of the same gender. And I have perceived holiness of life and the movement of the Holy Spirit in many of those people. I know many people who are in monogamous, lifelong committed partnerships with people of the same gender and I have seen the fruits of the Spirit and the ends and purposes of marriage served and made manifest in those relationships. And I believe that we are confronted and convicted by that truth and that the manifestation of the Holy Spirit leading us and teaching us to a new thing.
This summer I am serving as a deputy to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Indianapolis. Last April I went to a workshop in Atlanta sponsored by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music as it developed the materials and resources that are now available to all of us in “The Blue Book” so that we can prepare for this conversation at General Convention. I am proud to have been a part of that work. And I will be voting to allow the three year trial use of this liturgy when we gather at General Convention this summer.
In the time between now and then, and while we are there, I will also be praying. I will be praying that we in this church and that we in this diocese will be allowed to recognize, and to honor, and to bless the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that we experience in the same gender couples who are members of this parish, who are members of this community, who are members of the Body of Christ, and who are beloved children of God. I will be praying because I believe, that faced with the evidence of the Spirit’s work among us, we must, must, bless what God is doing in our midst.