Saturday, January 12, 2013

You Are My Son... Now Go Act Like It!

It's been a while since I posted my sermons, and for that I apologize. With the new year, I'll pick it back up, and (hopefully) post them sometime before midnight local time each night. This, of course, remains to be seen... but eight pm on Saturday night seems a good way to start, doesn't it?

There are so many wonderful directions to take the Scripture passages this Sunday. What is the "unquenchable fire?" Is it Hell, as so many people believe, or is it a cleansing, Holy Spirit fire, burning off that chaff within us that is not good seed? That's just one of the directions I wanted to go... but did not. Perhaps next year, eh?

The story of the Princeton Professor comes from Lindy Black of Lindy's Nuggets, by the way. It's one of my go-to locations for insight and often-awesome one-liners.

Please feel free to offer insights and constructive criticisms.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Acts 8:14-17
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our reading from the Book of Acts takes place very early on in the life of the Church. This passage follows the stoning of Stephen, when there is great persecution against the group of believers in Jerusalem.

Up until this point, amazing things had been happening, and the Church had been growing by leaps and bounds, but it had been confined to that one city. Even within the conflicts that church leaders had with the Jewish authorities, there was a common knowledge and experience. With this new outbreak of persecution, though, most Christians leave the city, and in fleeing the persecution spread the message of new life in Jesus Christ all across the region.

Even in, of all places, Samaria.

The person who first preached the Good News to Samaria had to either be the bravest person in Judea, or someone with such a poor sense of direction that they had no idea where they were when they evangelized.

After all, no self-respecting Jewish person would so much as speak to a Samaritan; much less spend enough time in their corner of the province to preach a message! They were… different, after all. Ethnically, Jewish people considered the Samaritans to be mutts: though the Samaritans claimed to be purely descendents of the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Levi, Jewish tradition held that they were a mixture of the bottom-of-the-heap Jews and the foreigners that the Assyrian king, Sargon II, brought in to repopulate the area. This was after the more gifted and powerful had been taken when the Assyrians defeated the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC.

And make no mistake; the Samaritans despised their Jewish counterparts just as much. Quite aside from the open xenophobia, where the very idea of a Jewish person’s foot touching the dirt of a Samaritan town made them unclean, there was the very real (and often violent) dispute over what books of Scripture were truly holy, and where the center of worship should be. For the Jews, of course, this was Jerusalem, on the mount known either as Moriah or Zion, depending on the Biblical scholar. But for the Samaritans, the place where God had chosen to establish God’s name was Mount Gerizim. Further, the Samaritans recognized only the Torah, or the first five books of our Old Testament, as being authoritative and holy.

So as much as we might think that the Jews and Samaritans were related by blood and tradition, and called upon the name of the same God, the revulsion each group felt for the other was an insurmountable obstacle.

Until the apostle Philip walked in to that one Samaritan village and told whoever would listen that God, in Jesus Christ, loved them… and the people who heard the Good News believed. By the way, Philip has no problem with his sense of direction. We meet him very soon after this passage, preaching the Gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch. Perhaps unique among the Apostles at that point in history, Philip truly sees no limitations on the love of God. When Jesus told him to go into to all the world and preach the Gospel, Philip took him literally.

I really wish that the writer of the Book of Acts had given us a little more detail about the moment when the Apostles heard about how the Samaritans had come to believe in Jesus. All we are told is that when they heard it they sent Peter and John to them, and that’s what counts, of course. But given the history of animosity between Jews and Samaritans, could it have been that simple?

Well, yes, given the fact that the apostles were so sensitive to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it certainly could have been. But I like to imagine a scene where Philip walks in to the Apostle’s room – in my head it’s the Main Office, and the apostles are sitting at a big first-century conference table doing apostle-y things. Philip is sweaty and out of breath from his hurried journey, covered in dust from the road. Everyone is happy to see him of course, until he blurts out: “Guys! Guys! The Samaritans believe!”

Ten mouths hang open in shock, everyone staring at Philip. The stunned silence goes on forever. Of course, in my imagination, the first person to speak is Thomas, and you know he has to say, “I doubt that,” right?

But it was true, and from that point on the Gospel spread like wildfire, from the Samaritans to that eunuch I mentioned, to the Gentiles, and on and on and on. No one was off limits. No one was unreachable.

And, in this regard, let me be clear: nothing has changed: today, right now, no one is off limits to the love of God. No one is unreachable to the grace and forgiveness found in Jesus Christ.

This is the day in the liturgical calendar when the Church commemorates the baptism of Jesus. It is a familiar account to most of us: when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The story is told of a New Testament professor from Princeton Seminary who visited a high school youth group one evening. After the professor finished speaking about the significance of Christ's baptism as a revelation of God's presence in Jesus, one high schooler said, without looking up, "That ain't what it means."

Now, as someone who did youth work for a long time, I can tell you that it’s a good sign when a student disagrees. It means they’re listening. Luckily, this professor understood that. So the professor asked, "What do you think it means?"

The young man still didn’t look up. "The story says that the heavens were opened, right?" "Right." "The heavens were opened and the Spirit of God came down, right?" "That's right."

The boy finally looked up and leaned forward, saying, "It means that God is on the loose in the world. And it is dangerous."

The professor was, of course, not wrong. At the baptism of Jesus, God’s imprint upon and intentions for his Son were made clear. Christ the King was anointed, but in a way unlike any other king before or since.

The idea of anointing someone or something is to set that person or thing apart, make him or her or it – or certainly, recognize him or her or it – as unique, special, honored. It’s usually done with pomp and circumstance, though not always, and it is almost invariably an act performed with oil.

And yes, that happened with the baptism of Jesus. But Jesus was not anointed king with oil. Hear the Word of God from our Gospel reading: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized…” You see? Jesus was first anointed not with oil but with water – and in a manner no way unique. He was baptized just like everyone else.

The Holy Spirit which descended upon Jesus as he was praying is also, since the day of Pentecost, available to all who believe… even, as we see in our reading from the Book of Acts, a people so hated, so removed, so unlovable as the Samaritans.

Bishop Desmond Tutu tells of a time when he was a parish priest, and was giving a Bible exam to some young people. One of the questions on the exam was “What did the voice from Heaven say to Jesus when he was baptized?” Most of the kids got the answer right, but one of the “wrong” answers stood out in Bishop Tutu’s memory: “You’re my son. Now go act like it.”

Whether we were sprinkled or dunked, whether we were infants or adults, we share the same baptism with water as Jesus. Through our faith in Christ, we share the same Holy Spirit that descended upon Jesus that day.

And like the student said to the Princeton professor, God’s spirit is loose, and God’s spirit is dangerous. No one can predict or control who God will love, who God will bring in as a fellow citizen of the Kingdom of God next.

Scripture affirms that we are a royal priesthood and joint heirs with Christ, whoever we are, whatever our background or ethnicity or nationality or gender or orientation. That wild, dangerous and unpredictable Spirit of God demonstrated in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts that no one was outside the circle of God’s love, grace, and forgiveness in those first days of the Church – not the Samaritans, not eunuchs, not Gentiles… and that same wild, dangerous, egregiously loving, lavishly forgiving Spirit is still moving, working, and proving no one is outside that circle today.

And as the Spirit worked in and through Philip and Peter and John and the other apostles and believers in those early days of the Church, the Spirit works in and through you and I, joint heirs with Christ, a royal priesthood, today. And what that young person said to Bishop Tutu is what God says to each and every one of us in the here and now: “You are my children. Now go act like it.”


  1. Happy New Year! I have a question for you...when you say the Samaritians "believed", I always wonder, "believed what?" Growing up in church, I was taught I had to believe the correct things in order to go to heaven. Therefore, people who believed the wrong things went to hell. All of that type of understanding has been turned upside down for me--and for many it seems. Here is some more thoughts I had on belief.
    P.S. thanks for posting your sermons again; I missed them. :)

  2. Happy New Year to you, too! I *love* your blog post, by the way. I think the criteria for "belief" were very different in the first century. There doesn't appear to be a defined belief in the Virgin Birth until Luke's Gospel appeared, and who knows *what* they understood about the Trinity?

    Your blog mentioned "trust," and that's the best word i can find for it. As time went on, and Christianity spread enough to get on the Roman radar, it became apparent that saying "Jesus is Lord" meant that Caesar could NOT be Lord, which was an act of treason... so simply believing something to be true wouldn't be enough in the face of persecution, torture, and death.

    I have creeds and ancillary beliefs which guide and define my faith journey, but at its core, if there isn't trust in the risen Christ, witnessed to my through the Holy Spirit, then those creeds and beliefs are not enough to stand on.

    Thanks for reading and commenting, my friend.