Wednesday, 29 April 2015

What is to prevent me from being baptized?

Readings for May 3, 2015. Acts 8, 26-40, Ps. 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15

The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is hugely interesting as a story of the early church. It is one of several "outside the box" conversion stories in the book of Acts showing how the good news of Jesus is reaching into new places. Here, at the beginnings of the church, people who never would have found their way into the Old Testament definition of God's people, are welcomed as full members of the church.

The eunuch is a foreigner, likely black, a high court official to a non-Jewish Queen, and is a castrate. (Important to understand that as a castrate, he would have been considered an incomplete or blemished man, and excluded from the assembly of the Lord Deut. 23:1. Castrates were often put in charge of household operations or the royal harem. A couple of stereotypes about them; eunuchs were considered to be especially trustworthy in all matters, and they were also sometimes thought to be sexually "loose". These stereotypes seem to be in contrast with each other, but I'm not sure this was any sort of issue in the contexts in which they were found in the ancient world.)

What intrigues me most, is that Philip doesn't bat an eye at the fact the man is a foreigner, or eunuch, or whatever. The question he asks the Ethiopian is; "do you understand what you are reading?" Philip gets right into the chariot with him and they talk about the scripture and the Jesus story. The Eunuch believes, and his question back to Philip is; "what is to prevent me from being baptized?"

Nothing. There is nothing to prevent this baptism, not ethnicity, not distance from Jerusalem, not sexual status, not service to a foreign Queen.

"What is to prevent me from being baptized?" How would we (the church) answer this question should someone of ambiguous gender, connections to a foreign government, racial difference from us, and limited ability to connect with our community request baptism? Would we have to strike a committee, deliberate for months (or years), cross-examine the candidate more thoroughly than any other requesting baptism, grill them about their orientation...Unfortunately, it seems we often err on the side of legalism rather than love.

Our anabaptist heritage takes baptism very seriously. Catechism (preparation for baptism) in the early anabaptist church sometimes took over a year to complete. Candidates had to be thoroughly sure of their decision. One important reason was that it could be a life or death decision. This second baptism could, and sometimes did, make a martyr out of someone. It was not only a declaration of faith, but a "criminal" act against the state. The anabaptists were also very concerned about purity of lifestyle-because they had to be clearly different from the corrupt ways of the institutional church. They had good reasons for their stringency, but I don't see that kind of strictness in Philip.

I sometimes think the legacy of our heritage has negatives for today's situation. We aren't in the same situation as the early anabaptists, we aren't facing persecution or encouraging heresy. I think our very careful heritage still binds us in ways that maybe aren't as relevant now. We too often think of baptism as an "end point", a declaration of a fully formed faith, a declaration of a "pure" lifestyle. Instead, it seems better, to me at least, to think of baptism as a starting point. A declaration of intent, a desire to follow Jesus, to work toward as "pure" and moral a lifestyle as possible, a commitment to care for and help each other toward serving God with our whole beings. Baptism is acknowledgement that, no matter our starting point, we are striving to follow Jesus and grow in faith and practice.

So how would we answer someone who asks; "what  is to prevent me from being baptized?" Philip didn't add any "hoops" for the eunuch to jump through. What he did was discuss scriptures and share the good news of Jesus. There is nothing to prevent someone from being baptized if they declare their desire to follow Jesus.

This story from Acts has been seen as a message of hope for people who have felt excluded from the church. The Eunuch is reading from Isaiah-a prophet concerned with the outcast, the poor, the oppressed, those who suffer injustice. It proclaims a saviour who cares for all those rejected by society, a saviour who will die for those people no one else will accept. This story is a message of hope for the lgbtq people who long to be close to God. They are accepted here on profession on faith.

So how do we read this story into our situation today? How will we answer the question; "What is to prevent me from being baptized" when someone outside of our mainstream asks this question?

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Too important to leave to specialists!

Lectionary Passages for April 26, 2015. Acts 4:5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, John 10:11-18

This morning I read that; "Bible study is too important to leave to specialists." (Millard Lind, Ezekiel, Believers Church Bible Commentary.)

That sentiment jumped back to mind when I read about the uneducated and ordinary men who amazed temple leaders and scholars with their clear message. No one had any words of opposition for what Peter and John had said and done, and so, they were set free instead of thrown in jail.

The scriptures have no power if they are only for scholars. They have power when ordinary people experience healing and hope and then get excited about sharing their stories so that others can join in. We need our experiences of life to help us interpret God's message, and we need to do that in the presence of others. What John and Peter were saying and doing was giving tangible evidence to claims of faith.

Where is the tangible evidence in our lives? When someone is healed, or finds an answer, or learns to hope, or experiences the love of God through others, or is supported through difficulty, when those stories are shared, faith gets exciting. It starts to be more than words on a page or "thou shalt nots."

1 John 3 is a great passage to go to when we are frustrated with words and caught up in the semantics of faith. ""This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another..." (v 23)  That puts things pretty simply. There are so many things we can get to arguing about, but the most important thing is that we remain true to this core, that ordinary people act in love to each other. That isn't a love that glosses over difficulties, but tries to keep them in perspective.

Psalm 23 and the reading from John both talk about God as the good shepherd. I had a chance to help look after some sheep this winter-and I sure read those passages differently now! Sheep are dumb. They are defenseless. They are ill-equipped to find their own food and water. They need a lot of help! Without a good shepherd, they are hungry, lost, in danger, uncomfortable....When Jesus says; "I am the good shepherd, the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep." (John 10:11) the question WHY? rings in my head! There is nothing on the sheep's part to merit the good care, except that the sheep are of economic benefit to the shepherd. We aren't of economic benefit to God, so the only answer left is love. Rather humbling.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Doubts are like ants in the pants...and I thank God for my ants!

Lectionary texts for April 12. Acts 4:32, Ps 133, 1 John 1:2, John 20:19-31

"Doubts are like the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving." Fredrick Buechner

I resonate with doubting Thomas when he says: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

Belief in God, in the whole Christian story, is not something that comes easily to many people. It is also something that, once gained, may not stay. True belief, I think, is more often wavering than unwavering. It just doesn't neatly fit the rational, provable scheme of things as we understand the world.

Thomas had walked beside Jesus throughout his ministry. He knew the teachings, believed in God, and worked at being a disciple. But he couldn't believe that Jesus had actually risen from the dead until he saw and touched him. He needed the same combination of anecdotal and empirical evidence the others had received. (Funny how we think of ourselves as scientific and fact based while considering the ancient world as "not" what we are. Yet here is a clear example of personal experience, reported facts, and a need for a replication of the results. Sounds like scientific verification to me!)

I read a posting by a D. Mark Davis who did some good work on translating this passage from the original Greek. He really doesn't like the NIV translation of verse 27 which reads; "...stop doubting and believe." I tend to agree with him. Telling someone to simply stop doubting and believe is a bit like ordering someone to "be happy" or "stop worrying." While we may aspire to those states of mind, there is no way to command this in anyone. We can't even stop ourselves from worrying at night, so how can we simply and suddenly believe? The disciples and Thomas spent years with Jesus, saw his work, heard his teaching, and still needed to see and touch the risen Christ. It was hard for them to believe. No wonder Jesus says: "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

I am a pastor, and I deal with doubts, my own and those of others. When I hear horrible news of famines, abuse, war, and corruption, I wonder where God is. When I experience personal tragedy or failing, those can be times of wavering or of renewed faith. Recently I listened to someone question their faith. Years of struggle and prayer and belief and yet more struggle and no end to struggle very understandably leads a person to question the existence or caring nature of God. Not to have doubts, I think, would be delusional. I appreciated this person's honesty and marvel at the strength they are still able to draw from their belief in a God who can give hope in place of despair.

So far, I've always found my doubts to be useful tools, and I've learned to embrace my times of wavering belief. My doubts unsettle me and push me into opening mind and heart to new ideas. They push me to strive to understand, to study, to pray, to question. They cause the rejection of cliched responses to the faith questions of others. They help me to listen more carefully in a quest for understanding. They help me respond to other "Thomas" types.

D. Mark Davis suggests that a better translation of some of the verbs in the John story would be more indicative of a gradual coming to belief instead of an order to instantly believe. I like that, especially for those of us today (in possession of science biased brains) who "have not yet seen and are coming to believe."

I doubt that I will ever stop doubting, and ironically, that encourages me. So far, doubts have served me well (in spite of their their discomfort) because they have always pushed me to grow.

"Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith." Paul Tillich