Easter VI 2009
Theme: The Holy Spirit and Baptism
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, you have infused us with your Holy Spirit and brought us to the waters of baptism; we are yours for now and through eternity, help us to listen to your Spirit that we may continue your work in the world, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
There is a new web site called SoulWow. It is sponsored by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, which seems redundant since Brooklyn and Queens are on Long Island. The site is mainly a video, also available on YouTube, featuring a 30-something Fr. Vic.
I assume Fr. Vic is actually ordained and not an actor. The purpose of the web site and the video is to encourage Long Island Catholics to go to confession. As Fr. Vic says, “Nothing soothes the soul like a true confession.” The site lists the benefits of confession: “no purchase necessary, free, get that almost baptized feeling, 100’s of priests waiting to take your confession, and the only way to cleanse yourself from the inside out.”
The ad campaign was launched to get more Catholics to confession during Holy Week. But wait! It is being held over! If you missed Holy Week, you can still take advantage of this great offer! Call your local parish. Appointments are available Mondays from 3 PM to 9 PM. The diocese notes that confessions were up with sinners seeking absolution.
So, during Eastertide when we focus on Jesus’ resurrection, we can spend our Mondays focusing on our sins! Because, after all, it is all about us and not Jesus. Now I am not saying that confession does not provide psychological and spiritual relief from our guilt, which it does, but Eastertide? Perhaps a more liturgically and theologically correct push for this program would have been in Lent. I don’t know if the campaign will continue past the Easter season.
If you want to check it out it is soulwow.com.
One thing the diocese did do was generate a lot of attention. They used two simple and easy to use tools: a web site and a YouTube video. (By the way, the YouTube video has four stars out of five on YouTube.) Perhaps Our Saviour could do something similar, only without a confession theme and hopefully a little less crass.
But I want to go back to one of the selling points of the SoulWow web site, “get that almost baptized feeling.” Confession includes, typically, an absolution for any or all sins confessed. At baptism, our sins are washed away as we become part of Christ’s body, the church. With our sins washed away, we are in a state of purity to be with God. Then we leave the font to go sin again.
This may then take us to the question of what brings to baptism? The story we heard from Acts may help answer that question.
A lot happens in the acts reading before what we heard today. It is as if we walked into a movie theater near the end of the movie. There are little things like: where is Peter? Who is he talking to? And why is he talking to this particular group? This all started with Peter receiving a vision about the eating of clean and unclean animals.
The message was that what God has made cannot be segregated – all are clean. At about the same time, a Roman centurion received a vision from God that he should talk to a man name Simon, who is staying in Joppa. Simon Peter was told by God to go with the people the centurion, Cornelius, sends. It should also be noted that Peter would consider Cornelius’ messengers as unclean.
Peter arrives at Cornelius’ unclean, gentile, house in Caesarea. It’s well kept, but is unclean because gentiles are born unclean. Cornelius tells Peter about his vision. Peter then tells the household that God shows no partiality. Peter also tells them a brief story of Jesus. The climax of the story is that Jesus rose from the dead after his execution, ironically, at the hands of Roman soldiers.
It is in the middle of Peter’s speech, that the Holy Spirit interrupts by taking control of Peter’s hearers. It becomes obvious that Peter is not in charge of this meeting. The Jews who accompanied Peter were surprised that the Holy Spirit would taint herself by entering these gentiles. The gentiles began to speak in other tongues. They probably praised God in Greek, because the Jews understood what they said.
Hearing and seeing all of this, Peter asks who would deny baptism to these people who so dramatically received the Holy Spirit. There were apparently no objections, so Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Peter then stayed with them a few days longer, no doubt continuing his teaching of their new-found faith. Peter and his Jewish companions also would hear the gentile’s stories.
Notice that they are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. At this point in the church’s history there is no one baptismal formula. Matthew, at the end of his gospel, has Jesus commanding the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The event at Cornelius’ house happens before Matthew writes his gospel. Eventually, the Trinitarian formula becomes the way to baptize people. This change in the whole church amazingly takes place in about four decades. See, the church can change.
Of course the main point of this story is that baptism is not just for Jews. It is for everyone. But there are still subtle, or not so subtle, guidelines in this story. The main one is that gentiles are baptized only after receiving the Holy Spirit. Paul will later argue that there are no barriers to baptizing anyone. Paul implies that one who is baptized needs to exhibit faith in Christ and have some realization why that person would have such a faith.
Less than a century later, the church develops rules requiring education prior to baptism.
In this story, people hear instruction, receive the Holy Spirit, and then are baptized. The Book of Common Prayer says that we receive the Holy Spirit and are reborn in Christ at baptism. This notion comes from St. Paul. So, which is it? Holy Spirit and then baptism or baptism and then the Holy Spirit?
I’m not sure there needs to be a distinction. I believe that, unless we are baptized against our will as an infant, we are pushed by the Holy Spirit to be baptized. Baptism then becomes our response and affirmation that we belong to God. All of us belong to God – some people are just in denial. When we willingly go to baptism, we affirm our membership in the church and promise to engage in ministry in the church according to our God given gifts or talents.
Sometimes the Holy Spirit has a hard time getting through our stubborn desire to stay the way we are. Maybe SoulWow is a way to help the Holy Spirit get through to people.
How can the Episcopal Church be relevant to younger generations who have already rejected us? How can we pass on the tradition of the church to younger and future generations while being open to what the Spirit has to say to us now? There are some answers. There are also more questions. Stay tuned.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, we thank you for the gift of the forgiveness of sins; through your son you took away our sins and you continue to guide us in your light through the Holy Spirit, keep us focused on your inclusive love, so that we may reflect that love, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: Acts 10:44-48 (NRSV)
44 While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, 47 “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.