The book of the Acts of the Apostles describes the story of how the mission of the apostles shifted focus from the Jews to the conversion of Gentiles. We get a brief glimpse of this work in today’s reading from Acts. Phillip, the first travelling evangelist, has converted Gentiles in the region of Samaria. If we think about it, this is an interesting place to begin the conversion of Gentiles—not simply because of the long history of distrust and hostility the two share but the complete and total rejection of Jesus and his ministry when he came through Samaria on his way to Jerusalem. In Luke 9, we read:
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’* 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then* they went on to another village.
There is a long history of animosity between these two cultures dating way back into antiquity and the times when the area of Samaria had once been known as the Northern Kingdom and had fallen to the Assyrians.
Since that time, the Jews in what had been known as the Southern Kingdom had fallen into disagreement with those of Samaria based simply on variations of cult practice as Jews. The Samaritans were not as invested in the Temple and thus did not hold the city of Jerusalem in such high esteem and they had intermarried along the way which was unacceptable to those who considered themselves pure and thus of the true faith. When Jesus comes to preach there, they aren’t interested in what a Jew has to say—they’re Samaritans and doing just fine. But the insult of not receiving Jesus is almost too much for some of the disciples who have accompanied him. James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, the Sons of Thunder, are outraged and, fueled by their anger, seek first to destroy those who would not agree with them. So, it is a bit surprising that John, the one who wanted to call down fire from heaven to consume them, would be the one to return with Peter and call down a different type of flame to consume them—the flame of the Holy Spirit.
Bishop Curry has called us to walk as Christians in the Way of Love. In so doing, we start by turning. Turning from evil to all the creative possibilities of salvation. Turning from our emotions driving our thoughts, actions, beliefs, and decisions to our faith determining those things. Turning from our focus on self and what we want or desire to God and his purposes for us. Turning from that which estranges us from God and leads us down a path of brokenness to that which draws us closer to God and brings us into wholeness. It is this turning that deepens our conversion process and helps to bring transformation in our lives so that no longer are we driven by what we can accomplish but by what God can. Turning is life-long conversion: a transformation and renewal of life in Christ. For many of us, our life in Christ begins in the sacrament of baptism.
Baptism is a rite of initiation in which we are brought into Christ’s body, the church, by water and the Holy Spirit. Later this morning/In a few minutes we will initiate our newest member, Anne Fitts Cunningham, to share in that life in Christ. As an infant, she cannot make the promises and participate in the spiritual practice of turning that will come to define her life. But as the community she is baptized into, we will promise to do all in our power to support her in her life in Christ. As Christians, we have renounced the cosmic, systemic, and personal evils that draw us from our love of God and made promises to accept, trust, and follow Christ. These renunciations and promises are the first step in learning how to turn, how to live into the life-long conversion we are called too as citizens of the Covenant.
In order to renounce evil, we must be able to recognize it. Evil is that which desires to estrange us from God. Sometimes it is easy to see evil—the monster in the closet, which plays on our fears; the terrorist that attacks the innocent; the xenophobic mob that attempts to destroy another culture, if not, an entire race. But more often than not, evil exists in the shadows, in the places where the light is filtered and that which is bright has dimmed. Those places where we find ourselves walking in the shadows, where evil quietly and unobtrusively enters in making us believe that we have more control and power in the cosmos, in the world, in our lives, than we truly do. Cosmic evil would have us believe that we have the power to manage nature and history. Systemic evil would have us believe that we have the power to manage human affairs and the social systems we create. Personal evil would have us believe that we have the power to manage our own lives. Our renunciation of evil is not acquiescence to it, it is a recognition that power does not lie within us, it lies within God.
These renunciations are immediately followed by what we have affirmed and promised to adhere too about God—the acceptance of Jesus Christ as our Savior, the affirmation of our complete trust in God’s love and grace, and our promise to obey and follow God. Those affirmations and promises help us to nurture and grow our relationship with God that we might partner with him to do the work of reconciliation he has called us too in this world. But the only way we can learn to live into the life Jesus has promised for us is when we put him in the center of our being: when our faith becomes the fuel that drives our train.
Steam trains have an engine, a coal car, and a caboose. When our engines are fueled by our emotions—the way we feel about the world—our faith is usually left dragging along behind. When we are driven by our anger or our guilt or our fear, we are limited in our response to the needs and brokenness of this world. But when we live into our baptism, the way the Christian life works best, then it is our faith that fuels our engine and our emotions follow. We will still know anger, guilt, and fear but it will no longer drive our actions, decisions, and beliefs: it will no longer have power over us. To turn from a life of self to a life of faith transforms our worldview and allows us to embrace spiritual virtues like humility, forgiveness, moderation, generosity, gratitude, contentment, and patience.
That’s what John, the Son of Thunder and the apostle of Jesus, is able to do. As a disciple, he was learning to turn. His reaction to the Samaritans those many years ago when they rejected Jesus, came from that gut place where emotions fuel the engine and faith still lingers behind. But by living into an on-going conversion as he followed Christ, he is quick to volunteer to facilitate that same people’s reception of the Holy Spirit—the affirmation and inspiration of a Gentile faith. He has become an apostle—an official representative charged with a commission by Jesus to act as a messenger to spread the Good News of salvation.
We are baptized into the discipleship of Christ. The order of water baptism followed by receiving the Spirit is defined by Jesus’ own baptism and reflected in the working out of our baptism and subsequent life in Christ. It is on-going conversion. Living into our baptismal covenant is living into the spiritual practice of turning. Turning from our misplaced beliefs in what we can do and opening ourselves to the work God invites us to participate in. It does not mean we will allow evil to continue in this world, it means we will do everything we can, through faith in Christ, to not participate in that evil and instead participate in a life in Christ.
You have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever. You have been received into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood. Amen.
Epiphany 1C: Isaiah 43:1-7; Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17; 21-22
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, January 13, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer