Sunday sermon from May 11, 2014
Text: Acts 2:37-42
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa
We have been reading through Peter’s sermon on the Pentecost day, this extensive section of the second chapter of the Book of Acts. The spirit has descended and given all those gathered of Judea the ability to hear and understand each other, and, as we heard last week, Peter is trying to interpret the astonishing events of the day in light of the just-past crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and not only that, but he’s laid a fairly thick guilt trip on his Judean audience for Jesus’s death; you’ll remember from last week’s reading Peter’s repeated cadence “this Jesus, whom you crucified.” But this week his attention turns from the historical event of the resurrection to the decision at hand for those gathered, and those with Jesus’s blood apparently on their hands. You’ve seen this amazing thing, Peter says, and I’ve tried to explain why, and I’ve told you the good news and I’ve told you the bad. The question now is: what are you going to do? And the answer, in this text, is baptism. Hearing Peter’s pronouncement of their guilt, the crowd screams out “brothers, what should we do?,” and Peter replies: “Repent, and be baptized,” and a few verses later the text notes that all those who welcomed the message were baptized, about three thousand people. Not a bad days’ work for a budding apostle.
But it’s not immediately clear exactly what theological effect this baptism is supposed to have. Of course, on one hand, Peter’s got the crowd pretty well whipped into a frenzy; they’re clearly eating out of his hands at this point and maybe when they shouted “brothers, what should we do?,” he could have gotten away with giving out old-timey elixir or magic beans or really, whatever he wanted. I think it’s fair to say that he let a profit opportunity pass him by. At least bottle the water first, Peter. These folks have money to burn. So perhaps it is presumptuous to say that the baptisms have any sort of theological effect at all, other than to give the crowd something to do with their guilt and their excitement. But Peter makes a fairly distinct claim to the contrary. He gives the sacrament two fairly distinctive selling points: “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Why this baptism? That your sins may be forgiven, and that you might receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The first of Peter’s selling points is fairly well-worn territory, even by the time he says it. By the time the Pentecost comes around, baptism is already a well-worn practice for repentance and the ritualized cleansing of sin; in the time of John the Baptist, of course, it signifies the washing away of the sin of the world, the commitment of the faithful to lead lives somehow separate and apart from the lives of vice and corruption and greed that are always such the regular course of human affairs. So it is even today, that our baptismal vows often include the directed renunciation of evil, so that the waters of grace can wash us clean and rid us of the dirt and grime and stench of fallen creation. You might have heard that a few weeks ago no less a public figure than former Vice Presidential Candidate and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin waded into the theology of baptism, suggesting at an NRA rally that if she were in charge America’s enemies “would know that waterboarding is how we’d baptize terrorists,” a statement which, I suspect, regardless of your feelings about Sarah Palin or your feelings about torture, might have you at least raise your eyebrows. Baptism as torture doesn’t sit well. But, setting aside several other substantial objections — including Palin’s disregard for the actual desires of the baptized – I suppose that if baptism really and simply is at its core a kind of divinely-powered steam-cleaner, and if you are so convicted about the particular dirtiness of American detainees, then perhaps then perhaps the Governor’s sacramental theology is somewhere along the right track.
But the washing away of sins is only the first of Peter’s selling points for this baptismal act. Of course given that he’s just accused the crowd of murdering the Messiah, repentance and forgiveness might be the first thing on their mind. But it’s not the whole package – but wait, there’s more! – That your sins may be forgiven, and that you might receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the crowd’s in the market for repentance and forgiveness, but given the events of the day – the Holy Spirit descending in flame, the gift of tongues and understanding dispersed among all the gathered tribes of Judea – we’d understand if they were interested in something a bit more fantastic than the mere assuaging of their guilt. They’ve been witness to nothing short of an apocalyptic act, so Peter’s not just selling forgiveness; he’s selling the take-home version of what they just saw: the gift of the Holy Spirit — you know, that crazy flame that just tore up the hillside. And more than that: Peter’s sermon makes clear that Jesus’s resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit mark the beginning of a new kind of relationship between God and God’s creation. That crowd is witness to the dawn of a new era of human history; it’s a new world order, and by pitching baptism as the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter’s offering access, entrance, an invitation into what that world is going to be. God has invaded. Death has been overcome. The boundaries between Heaven and Earth have fallen away, to say nothing of the flames of the spirit. Y’all are gonna want to see what comes next, Peter says. Best get baptized.
All of which to say that there is a kind of tension between these two selling points, between selling baptism as the washing away of sin and selling it as the gift of the spirit, because so often the first feels like retreat from the world while the second in this case wants nothing more than to engage it head-on. Baptism as divinely-powered steam cleaner seems bent on washing off all of the dirt that naturally accrues when we play outside in the real world; on the other hand, baptism as the gift of the spirit feels more like an invitation to throw open the doors and go get our hands dirty. It feels less like an exit strategy and more like an invitation, more like an entrance ticket, more like a guest pass to next act of the God who brought fire down upon the mountaintop. And, to be fair, the disciples who receive this spirit go on to do all kinds of amazing things. Remember those characters bumbling around at the end of the Gospels, scared to leave their homes, unable to recognize Jesus standing next to them, afraid and confused at every turn? Well, after Pentecost, after this gift of the spirit, it’s not just a new dawn for creation; these guys turn over a new leaf. They’re preaching to packed houses. They’re tearing up Jerusalem. They’re even healing the sick and casting out demons! These disciples who once cowered in fear behind the locked door of the upper room now rush headlong into the fray. Because this baptismal gift of the spirit isn’t just an invitation. It’s liquid courage.
Liquid courage. Which means that the question isn’t just “what does baptism do?” but also “What will we do in response?” Some years ago a few friends and I had secured badges of the lowest possible rank to the Iowa City film festival: basically we had paid some amount of money for the privilege of walking around in a public area and, if some film screening happened not to fill up with people having better badges than us, we might get a seat. This rarely happened. And so we spent several days realizing just how pointless were the badges we carried around our necks. Their pointlessness was never on more naked display than when we realized via some local gossip that a few minor celebrities had deigned to make an appearance at this festival and were hanging out in a particular VIP tent. And so, having nothing else to do, we went over to the entrance to this tent and once again realized that our badges got us nowhere – to get in, you had to have a particular sticker on top of your badge. But then, after a good spell of bored-out-of-our-minds gawking and loitering, we discovered discarded on a corner of the ground a few of the stickers themselves! And now we could just put the stickers to the badges we already had and then we, too could be VIPs, and we could go into the tent, and who knew what adventures might befall us? It seemed almost inevitable that, after going inside, we would be discovered by some passing talent scout and whisked off to a life of glamor and luxury.
And so we readied our new stickered badges, and walked up to the entrance to the tent, and then, I have to tell you, we just totally chickened out. I mean, we just kept right walking right past like nothing had ever happened because what if we got caught? and won’t we get in trouble? and won’t the authorities of the Iowa City Film Festival figure out that we don’t belong?, because it’s not enough just to have the invitation. You have to have courage. The courage of the apostles, to take this gift of the Holy Spirit and let it loose upon Jerusalem. The courage of all those who follow that same Spirit headlong into the here and now, proclaiming the good news of the Gospel, healing the sick, uplifting the poor, loosing the bonds of injustice, freeing the captive. Yes, baptism symbolizes the gracious forgiveness we have in Jesus Christ. Yes, it marks the covenant of grace that passes to each new generation of God’s children. But for those children of God; for we children of the Pentecost; baptism also asks a question: Will you serve? God sends us into the world as servants of Jesus Christ and his commandments: Will you follow? God sends us into the world as foot soldiers in the great triumphant cosmic march of redemption: Will you fight? God sends us into the world to be agents of reconciliation, to be ambassadors of mercy, to be advocates for righteousness. It is no small task. The powers of sin and death have yet fully to relinquish their grip. It’s not for the faint-hearted. But it is for the baptized: do you have the courage?
Here’s a fun trick that you should not try at home. For any of you who have ever put your hand into a flame or put out a candle with your fingers, this is the next step: you can, in theory, put your hand into a vat of molten lead and bring it back unharmed. I’m talking metal cooking at six, seven, eight hundred degrees. Now, before you try it — and, again, please don’t try it — before you try it, there’s one secret step. All you have to do first is dip your hand in water. Just regular water. Just a quick dip, shake off the extra, and then right into the lead. What happens is pure science: the heat of the lead turns the water to steam, and the steam becomes a layer of gas that ends up insulating your flesh from the temperature of the lead. At least for a moment. I wouldn’t recommend trying it for long. But then again, I wouldn’t recommend try it at all. Regardless. It’s called the Leidenfrost Effect, and if you go find the right Mythbusters clip you can watch it happen. Fingers go in the water, fingers go in the lead, everything comes out just fine. Because the water’s not just cleaning the skin. The water’s giving it strength, power, resilience that it would never have on its own. Just a dip in the water and suddenly there’s no telling what you can do. If you have the courage.
Do we have the courage? It should be the question that we ask, of all days, on this Mother’s Day. For whatever else motherhood may be, whatever it may mean, whatever it may mean to each of us here gathered this morning – for surely each of us can acknowledge that few things in creation are as complicated as the cause of motherhood – but surely at its core motherhood is nothing but an act of radical courage, an act malcontent with the world as it is, an act that recognizes the incompleteness of the present age, and yet an act that gives itself in service of a better day to come, an act that imagines God’s grace pouring into each new generation, as Peter so passionately argues — this promise is for you, and for your children, and for all who are far away. Yes, Peter says, baptism will wash away the past. But it will also lay the future vividly open before you. It will ask of our hopes and of our imagination and of the sweat of our brow what world we offer to those who will inherit it from us. 200 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted weeks ago and held without mercy. Their mothers had the courage to imagine something better. In this country one in five children live below the poverty line. Their mothers had the courage to dream of something better. Every week, 375 children in Amherst country take home bags of food prepared by Amherst Cares. Their mothers had the courage to hope for something better. The question for us is and should be: do we have that courage? Do we have the courage to hope and dream, the courage to speak for the voiceless and serve the needy, the courage to follow the path of Jesus Christ and fight for justice and forge some better tomorrow?
It’s the question baptism asks us, and maybe it should torture us, just a little bit. And it should be the question we ask, today of all days, we who are the children of grace, we who are the children of the courage of our mothers, we who are the children of the courage of all who came before us: if we are the heirs of the gift of the Holy Spirit descended in flames upon the mountaintop, will we live into the courage of those convictions? If we have truly been steeped in the living waters of God’s grace, will we step into the fray with faith, love, hope, and just a bit of reckless abandon? For if we are truly seeking the ends of the one who made all things and sustains all things and redeems all things, what force on Heaven or Earth could be our equal? If we truly are sealed with the mark of the one who rose from the dead, what obstacle could ever stand in our way? If Jesus Christ is for us, who can be against us?