5 Pentecost B—5/3/15
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
Pr. Scott Kramer
Some of us are old enough to remember when Bruce Jenner won the gold medal in the decathlon at the 1976 Olympics. Almost forty years later he’s back in the news again, making headlines for a very different reason: Bruce Jenner is transitioning to a woman. Meanwhile, in our nation’s capital the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments for and against the constitutionality of gay marriage.
In other news, the names Ferguson and Baltimore surface again and again as questions of race and justice continue to command the attention not only of these communities but of all of us across the land.
Not only sexuality and race, but religion and money are hot-button issues, and all of these hot-button issues are important details in the story that is our first reading for today from Acts, chapter 8. It’s the story of Jesus’ disciple Philip and his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.
In a nutshell, the story is this: the Holy Spirit leads Philip to engage in conversation with this man, the man learns about Jesus and baptism, and along the way he says, Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized? And Philip baptizes him! Neither the man’s race, nor his religion, financial status, sexuality or anything else prevent Philip from welcoming him into God’s family through baptism.
Now, growing up in the church I was taught that there’s a certain way we Lutherans do things. First off, we baptize babies. And that seems pretty close to what Philip does in this story. No interview. No interrogation. No hoops to jump through. Just baptize!
But early on, the church came up with a process called the Catechumenate so that those seeking baptism couldn’t receive communion and maybe not even be allowed to attend worship until they were baptized.
Much later, Lutherans came up with a different process: As those baptized babies got older they went through two or three years of confirmation instruction. They learned all about the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments. Many of us stood in front of the whole congregation and, shaking in our boots, recited a memory verse and then we were considered full members of the church. This is the way we did things.
We come up with ways of doing things for the sake of order, don’t we? And order is good, but order can also become a means of control and we become gatekeepers who decide who’s in and who’s out. Hot-button issues like race, and religion, sexuality, money—these become hot-button issues when those who have power become afraid of losing control.
Philip was no Lutheran but he also knew there was a certain way of doing things. What was he supposed to do with this man who had just asked him to baptize him? On the one hand, this Ethiopian eunuch was a Jew, who wanted to become a Christian. He’s a man of wealth and power. On the other hand, he’s a foreigner. He’s black. He’s a sexual minority. The eunuch wasn’t like Philip. He didn’t fit the usual categories of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus.
And yet, Philip put up no obstacles. He set aside concerns about good order, about power and control. What do you think led him to make that decision?
Today’s gospel reading is about vines and branches. If you’ve seen any vine growing wild or even in your home garden you know there’s not a lot of order involved. Vines twist and turn and go all over the place. What’s important, as Jesus reminds us, is not that the shoots of the vine follow some order but that they are connected to the main vine. As long as they remain connected to the vine they will produce flowers, or fruit.
What is it that connects us to the true Vine, to Jesus himself? John answers that question plainly in our second reading. Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…If we love one another, God lives in us; and his love is perfected in us.
And then he says: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
Faced with what he did not know or understand, Philip nevertheless baptized the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip acts on the basis of love, which casts out fear, and sometimes sets aside good order.
When a young child in the arms of a grown-up comes forward for communion and reaches out her little hand, she gets the bread. If she were older she might ask: What is to prevent me from receiving communion? If an adult comes forward to receive the body and blood of Christ we do not ask whether the person is baptized. If you come forward, no matter who you are, it is as if you are saying, What is to prevent me from receiving the assurance of God’s grace, forgiveness, and love?
Or, as happened this past year, when a young woman comes forward and asks to be baptized, our response is, What is to prevent her from being baptized?
We the church of Jesus Christ do pay attention to order, and tradition, and accountability. As we do, we are also aware of how easily we can become more concerned about control and power and tradition and good order than we are concerned about love. What is new and different can make us afraid, but our hope is not in power and control. Our hope is in the love of God in Christ, and perfect love casts out fear.
What difference does it make who is baptized and who receives communion? It makes a world of difference, because what we practice in our life together we take with us beyond these walls into the world. What we practice here can determine how we respond to bigger questions. For example, if love and hospitality and welcome and acceptance are our practice as a community of faith, how might those practices influence how we respond to the story of a famous male athlete’s decision to become a woman? What guides us? Rules? Tradition? Fear? Or….love?
Or, as the most powerful legal authorities in our land deliberate the legal merits of gay marriage, how might love and our practices as a community of faith inform our response? How does love inform our response to questions of race, and power, and justice? How does love inform our response to questions of wealth and power?
Beloved people of Christ, let us love one another, not just in word but in attitude and deed. As the Holy Spirit led Philip, may the Spirit also lead us to choose love.