"A New Body: Rejoicing"
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The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“A New Body: Rejoicing”
Rev. Amy Morgan
May 16, 2021
Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.)
27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it."
30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."
34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"
35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Zach is an elder on session and has just returned from a trip to the Holy Land, with an enthusiastic account of visiting the Jordan River. He shares, “It was so powerfully meaningful that I brought a jar of water from the Jordan River back home with me. Here it is. You can use some of it for my granddaughter’s baptism next month. It’s my way of sharing my experience.” Another elder, Marie chimes in, “You’ve just given me a great idea. My husband and I are taking our family to the Holy Land this fall. Our children were planning to be baptized at their confirmation next spring, but wouldn’t it be nice if we were baptized together with them in the Jordan River?” An elder named Joe questions, “But don’t we, as the session, have to be sure the baptism is done ‘decently and in order?’ You can’t just dunk yourselves in the river and call yourselves baptized, can you?” Finally, an elder named Anna comments, “When we wanted to have our baby baptized at our family’s camp on the lake, we were told it had to be done in church with the congregation present.”
This is a fictional scenario described in an examination for ordination. Ministry candidates were asked in the exam to respond to these various comments about baptism. Using our Book of Order and its Directory for Worship, candidates were to point out the flaws in each elder’s understanding of the sacrament and describe how they would respond pastorally in this situation.
While I’ve never had this fictional situation materialize in my actual ministry, most of these questions have come up at some point. And the question that underlies them, I think, is the same question asked by the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Christians have given many different answers to this question. Some require special water that has been blessed by a special person or that comes from a special source. Some require baptism to be conducted at a particular time and place. Other Christian communities require an educational course or a period of preparation before baptism. Most have a certain way baptism must be conducted, whether it is immersion or sprinkling, with certain words that must be said. Some Christians believe you must have a particular feeling or response to the gospel, some kind of conversion experience, before you can rightly be baptized.
For many people today, the things that prevent them from being baptized are not things the church intentionally does. It’s the culture of the church that turns them away. It’s the divisive politics or perceived judgementalism that holds them back. It’s the foreignness of church buildings and practices and language that prevents them from even walking through the door, much less getting baptized.
Lest this sound like a critique of the church or Christianity, understand that these things that may be preventing people from being baptized are things that also emphasize the high value we place on baptism. If we truly believe in baptism as a transformational experience, we want to ensure it is done right, that it is effective, that it isn’t watered-down (pun intended). Baptism is one of only two sacraments recognized by Reformed Christians. It’s important to us, and we want to protect it.
But there are (at least) three problems that arise from our desire to protect baptism. The first is that it is preventing people from being baptized. If we are placing barriers between people and baptism, no matter how well-intentioned, we are probably missing the point of baptism. Phillip didn’t require the eunuch to undergo a period of preparation or craft a personal faith statement. He didn’t require that they find the right river or bless the water in a certain way. The eunuch didn’t have to promise to be a good church member and pay his tithe. In Acts, the answer to the eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” is: nothing.
Another problem with the church’s emphasis on doing baptism “right” is that places the emphasis on what we do rather than on what God has done and is doing. Everything our theology professes about baptism – freedom from sin and birth to new life, the gift of the Holy Spirit, incorporation into the body of Christ – all of this puts the emphasis on the activity of God. These are not things humans can accomplish. So getting bent out of shape about how we are going to do this right is pretty misguided.
Finally, our protection of baptism comes out of a concern for individual transformation. We worry about personal salvation, personal response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ, personal calling and vocation. But the scriptural emphasis on baptism is entirely on how it changes the body of Christ, not the individual.
In the larger narrative of the book of Acts, we see the church growing by leaps and bounds from a small gathering of Jesus’s first followers to thousands of baptisms a day. The church quickly explodes beyond the borders of Judaism, as it is sent out from Jerusalem into territories hostile to the Jews and into predominantly Greek communities. The two stories that bookend today’s reading are the mission to the Samaritans and to Caesarea. This isn’t primarily a story about personal conversion to faith in Jesus Christ. It’s a story about the transformation of the body of Christ, the church.
And in the story we read today, as in many stories in the bible, transformation happens in the wilderness. First, let’s notice who is sent to the wilderness. Not the eunuch. He’s not the one being set up here. He’s just travelling from one place to another. Phillip, the emissary of the church, the apostle of Jesus, the already-converted, is the one sent on a wilderness road, with no destination in mind. He is sent not to transform an individual life, though that, of course, does happen. But Phillip is sent to the wilderness to transform the whole body of Christ.
Because each person who is added to that body changes it. One of the first things that happens in Acts is the disciples decide who will replace Judas. After that small addition, the Holy Spirit arrives and three thousand people are baptized in a single day. All these people change how the body of Christ operates. They have to select and equip deacons to care for the needs of all the members equitably. The newly baptized started selling their lands and possessions and giving them to the church.
Not all the new changes that came to the body of Jesus’ followers were good. The popularity of the Jesus movement threatened the religious establishment, which led to arrests and persecution and the death of Stephen, the first martyr of the church. But Stephen’s death prompted the disciples to move out from Jerusalem into new regions, to spread the gospel to the Samaritans and the Greeks and the Romans. And these newly baptized changed the body of Christ even more. Disagreements arose around circumcision and dietary laws and proper religious practice. And relaxing some of those requirements invited even more people into the church.
We all know that growth leads to change. Just ask anyone who has grown through puberty. Personal growth in our spiritual or emotional life also leads to changes in relationships, in how we spend our time and money, in how we plan for the future. Organizations that grow have to change how they handle logistics and staffing. Churches that grow sometimes need new models for ministry or have to add programs and worship services.
The last year has sent our church, and all churches, and our whole society, into the wilderness. We haven’t known where we are going, what our final destination will look like. Most of the time, we haven’t really had any idea what we are doing out here.
But the wilderness is a place of transformation. Not just for us as individuals, but for the whole body of Christ. We have left our old boundaries and definitions, and we are primed for encounters that will create a new thing, that will re-shape our body into what God needs us to be in this new time.
We were prepared for this wilderness journey by every new person who has come into our body and transformed it. In recent years, Chad Edwards became part of our body and introduced us to contemplative prayer. The Gwins became a part of our body and introduced us to traditions they picked up in Louisiana. Further back, several families with young children all joined our body at once and transformed us into a place where children and youth are welcomed and cared for. Before that, we had folks join our body who helped us care for our historic building and who challenged us to be more attentive stewards of creation. Each and every one of you, everyone who is incorporated into this body changes it.
And frankly, I think that’s the main reason so many churches prevent people from being baptized. We don’t like change. We like comfort and consistency. Placing barriers to baptism helps maintain the status quo, ensuring we never have to change what we believe or how we behave, who we are friends with and how we feel about other people.
But we are in the wilderness, and change is coming, like it or not. God is sending people our way, and we are called to encounter them in the same way Phillip did.
When Phillip encountered someone in the wilderness, he joined that person. In the church, we place heavy emphasis on people joining us. You can attend for a while if you want, but eventually you are expected to become a member, to join what the church is doing. But Phillip did exactly the opposite. He went to the eunuch and joined him, where he was at and where he was going. He didn’t invite him to follow him or follow Jesus even. The encounter began with Phillip joining the eunuch, not the other way around.
Phillip also became interested in what the eunuch was interested in. He didn’t say, “yes, Isaiah’s a nice book and all, but what you really should read is this speech Peter gave to the Sanhedrin last week about Jesus.” Again, the church tries to bait people into becoming interested in what we’re doing and thinking about instead of paying attention to what is holding people’s interest outside the church.
Phillip didn’t lead with what he knew. He placed himself in the position of the learner, leading with a question. Too often, we as Christians believe we have all the answers and lead with what we know. But that doesn’t work in the wilderness. Leading with questions is the way to encounter people in the wilderness.
Phillip then receives and responds to invitation. He doesn’t butt in where he isn’t wanted, and he doesn’t shy away from an opportunity. He also doesn’t take over and tell the eunuch which direction he needs to go. He sits beside him.
The word used in this verse for invitation is really an urgent plea or call for help. People in the wilderness are desperate to understand the world around them, to have a meaningful framework for all the information they are absorbing. And we have something of value to offer. When we talk about evangelism, we aren’t forcing something on people who don’t want it. If we are faithfully following God’s call, the invitation to come alongside others travelling in the wilderness will be eagerly extended.
And when that good news is shared and heard, nothing should prevent people from being baptized. The eunuch wasn’t tested on his understanding or experience, he didn’t have a mentor or a period of preparation. The water was just “some water.” Phillip didn’t have any special credentials. Nobody else was around to even witness the event. And none of those things prevented him from being baptized.
We don’t know anything else about the eunuch in this story. We don’t know how or if his life changed, we don’t know if he founded or joined a group of believers to form a church. All we know is that he went on his way, rejoicing.
Because that is the point. He became part of the joyful body of Christ – in Jerusalem, in Samaria, and in Caesarea. Even if he never met another Christian in his life, he was part of that body. And it made him glad.
The outcome of baptism, of incorporation into the body of Christ, is not new members or church growth. It’s not bigger Sunday school classes or church choirs. The outcome of baptism is joy. And each newly baptized person increases the joy of the whole body, even as it changes that body.
This wilderness road we are on is taking us into places we’ve never been before. Our church exists now in the digital landscape in ways it did not before. We are finding ourselves in the midst of communities struggling for justice, giving voice to oppression and abuse we’ve long ignored. The intimate spaces we inhabit have become our public realm through online meetings and social activities. We see the needs of our neighbors and neighborhoods in greater detail after such a long time walking together.
In this wilderness, God is sending us people to encounter. We can choose to criticize their theology, impose our righteous understanding on them, and try to lead them down the right path to our church pews. Or we can join them on their journey, be curious about what interests them. ask them questions, be receptive to their invitation, sit beside them, and then share how the gospel is present right in the midst of their own lives. We can ensure that nothing could prevent them from being baptized. And we can grow and re-shape the body of Christ. Then, we can all go on our way, rejoicing.
Thanks be to God. Amen.