Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 10, 2015
Acts 10:44-48 Commentary
It sure was a lot easier to get baptized back then. Last week we saw Philip spend a relatively brief period of time explaining to some Ethiopian a passage in Isaiah and next thing you know—at the stranger’s request no less—Philip is baptizing him and the man went “on his way rejoicing.” Now in this passage—again after Peter has spent a fairly brief time with a bunch of Italians who are about to serve him his first-ever pizza with ham and pepperoni—Peter gets all exuberant and starts throwing water around willy-nilly to baptize every last person in the house of a man named Cornelius, whom Peter had only just met.
Good thing they had not yet developed New Members and Inquirers Classes or come up with rubrics and Books of Order by which to regulate the careful administration of the sacraments or I’d guess that most of the people who get baptized in the course of The Book of Acts would have had to wait a good long while.
Of course, I’m poking a bit of fun here but still . . . when the Apostles sensed the presence of true faith—however new and under-developed that faith may have been—they baptized. Whenever they could see evidence that the Holy Spirit had moved into the hearts of others just as assuredly as at Pentecost that same Spirit had taken up residence in their own (surprised) hearts, they baptized. They baptized people in towns where there was no faith community subsequently to receive the new baptizands. They baptized people they were unlikely ever to see again. The Apostles would get no follow up in years’ long catechism classes or through a series of sermons on the basics of Christian doctrine. Nope, they just baptized wherever they encountered the simple confession “Jesus is Lord” and then went on their way, trusting (apparently) the same Holy Spirit who prompted the new faith in the first place to take care of all the other details.
Now it’s true: the Apostles being the Apostles we could assume they had a greater, Spirit-given insight into such matters than most of the rest of us have had in subsequent church history. It may also be true that the explosive era of those earliest days of the still-forming Church represent an era that has to be considered in many ways to be unique, though, of course, there is an age-old debate among Christian folks as to just how unique one ought to consider that early church and how much we ought actually to expect that same power and those same gifts and insights today. Maybe it’s less that the Spirit stopped offering certain things and more that we stopped being open to receive them.
Perhaps. I’m not going to touch on all that in this post and I doubt that my fellow preachers who read this would be very much tempted to use one of the Sundays after Easter to tackle all that, either.
Still, there is no denying that the Apostles baptized fast and furious in Acts and without coming anywhere remotely close to waiting for the kinds of maturity or manifestations of understanding that we would wait for today vis-à-vis an adult. Yes, many traditions baptize the infants of believers very readily and there may be an analogy there to a willingness to be pretty liberal and effusive with the waters of baptism. But things are different with others whom the church encounters. Maybe this is part of the reason why in some places baptisms—especially adult or believer baptisms—are comparatively rare. I’m not saying we should always have a bottle of water with us, ready to pour it onto anyone who makes even modest positive noises about Jesus.
But there was something about the Apostles and the events reported in Acts that made baptisms happen much more quickly and a whole lot more often than is often the case today. Maybe part of what was behind all that was not just the uniqueness of the era reported on in Acts and not just that the Apostles were so much more reliable as spiritual barometers than the rest of us might tend to be. Maybe part of what was behind their effusive willingness to baptize was the fact that they had a much higher expectation that the Holy Spirit was on the move than we sometimes have today.
As time went on in the Book of Acts, that expectation of the Spirit’s work was soon married to also a whole lot of surprising twists and turns. After all, the disciples-turned-Apostles who had for so long had such a narrow focus of wanting Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel alone could hardly have anticipated Ethiopian eunuchs and Gentiles living in Caesarea to be the leading candidates for receiving Jesus’ Spirit into their hearts (and even Peter, as we know from subsequent chapters in Acts, has a little ways to go in getting this all the way through his thick skull). Nevertheless, the expectation that the Spirit was on the move churning out new candidates for baptism had a lot to do with the apostolic willingness to baptize fast and often.
In these weeks after Easter and with Pentecost coming up again soon, it’s not a bad question to wonder how open we are to seeing the Spirit on the move today and how open and willing we would be quickly and gladly to respond to new faith whenever we then encounter it as we try to keep step with that very busy Spirit of the Living God!
There is no single feature to the Christian church that reveals our unity with Jesus and all Jesus’ people than the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist or communion). In his memoir, Open Secrets, Richard Lischer employs a most lovely image at one point. In the church he first served following his graduation from seminary, the wine chalice used for the Lord’s Supper was a fairly large goblet made of a shiny silver. Each time when he presented the wine, he would lift the cup up high over his head. A few people in his staunchly Lutheran congregation didn’t like that move–they thought it looked too Roman Catholic. But Lischer says that the reason he did this was because when he lifted the cup up, he could see on the curved underside of the chalice the entire congregation reflected. It reminded him of the fundamental truth of the sacrament: when we eat the bread and drink the cup of our Lord, we thicken our union with him but we also become members one with another. We are all one in the cup we share.
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