Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptism of Jesus

Acts 19
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

Week two of 2015, and you’re already feeling the pressure.

The tree is still up, Christmas cards might better be described as New Year’s cards, calls need to be made or returned. Clearly, what you need is a fresh set of excuses. And for that, we need only turn to scripture.

And you don’t need to look very hard. God said to Eve ‘what have you done?’ and Eve said ‘it wasn’t me, it was the talking snake.’ A timeless classic that still works in the right setting. Of course, Adam isn’t quite as creative, so he just blames poor Eve.

Or Moses, when you have nothing to say: ‘But I am not eloquent—I am slow of speech and of tongue.’ Or Jeremiah: ‘I am too young and cannot speak.’ That only works for a while.

Or try multiple excuses at once, following Luke 14: ‘I just bought a field and have to go look at it; I’ve just bought five yoke of oxen and have to go look at them; I just married a wife.’ These will work in most situations.

Or Acts 19: “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
“No,” they said, “we haven’t even heard that there’s a Holy Spirit.”

So you see how this works: start with the basics (it wasn’t me, I can’t say, I gotta go, I didn’t know) and simply add details. Try not to be too specific, particularly in the area of livestock acquisition, but don’t be afraid to blame others, especially snakes that talk.

Acts 19 is an odd little passage. It begins with a reasonable enough question (“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”) and concludes with twelve fresh baptisms. Along the way we learn how things can go off the rails, how things that seem obvious are easily missed, and how quick corrective measures can set everything right.

And the confusion is easy to understand. If the imperative is ‘accept baptism and begin your new life’ then there might not be an opportunity to clarify which baptism. John was well known in the nascent church, his baptism was popular, and a community that lacked a complete outline of the story could easily be confused.

But it ends well: they learn the difference between John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism, they are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and Holy Spirit—that they only just discovered—comes upon them and causes them to prophesy.

If only things were so neat and tidy, and so easily resolved. If only things could be cleared up with a quick visit from a traveling expert. If only the answer to every vexing question was so simple and quick to implement.

This has been another difficult week for those who follow the news, with a new set of tragic circumstances and a new set of outstanding questions. We have been asked, once again, to define terrorism, to consider the implications of radicalized young people in our midst, and to try to integrate all of this with our faith and our sense of what to means to live in a free society. There are many large questions, and some of them touch religion, and therefore cannot easily be ignored.

First and foremost, is the question of religious tolerance and free speech. Since Wednesday there has been considerable debate about the nature of satire and the role of provocative images in this terrible story. Newspapers around the world have debated whether to reprint them, underlining how important they are to the story. We cannot blame the victims, and violence is never acceptable or justified, but the desire to intentionally provoke others is part of the story.

So are cartoons of the prophet Mohammed part of a satirical look at world events, and a way to bring about change, or are they part of a racist undercurrent that has always existed in France and exists in our society as well? A hundred years ago it was acceptable to depict Jews with a large hook nose, or the Chinese with buck teeth and round glasses, but no longer. How are cartoons that stereotype Muslims, or the most revered person in the Muslim tradition, any more acceptable than the other depictions we have set aside and deemed unacceptable?

Freedom of speech is usually the answer that follows, but there is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech. When others are harmed, or there is a risk that the person speaking will bring harm to themselves, we curtail freedom of speech for the sake of the whole society. US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes famously said that freedom of speech does not include the ability to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theatre. Laws that govern hate speech are another example, along with laws that require truth in advertising. We regulate free speech all the time, but have a hard time deciding what to do with things that offend some but not all.

In many ways, this is a clash between our values as Christians and the values of the society we inhabit. We try to preach tolerance and understanding, standing with the oppressed, loving our neighbour as ourselves. Compare this with the societal value (misattributed to Voltaire): "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Allowing people to say anything or insult anyone is a societal value that is hard to reconcile with the values we espouse in this place.

But none of this is new. We in the church have always put limits of what people can and cannot do, despite the “free society” idea that we cling to. You can’t join the church unless you are baptized, you can’t become a minister without being a member, you can’t become a minister without being in essential agreement with the Basis of Union (or agreeing to join the pension plan).

In other words, we discriminate in a way that may offend some. But our freedom of religion has precedence over the right to be free from discrimination. IBM can’t ask you in a job interview if you believe in God, but we can, and we do. And this, of course, means that we have more in common with religions that also discriminate than we do with secular employers who cannot. And it unsettles our sense that we are just like everyone else, just like a free and open society, when in many ways we are not. Add to that the fact that we don’t pay property tax—something that offends more and more people all the time.

So we discover that we have much in common with our co-religionists (and sometimes more in common) than we have with the the world out there. We also understand that the success of interfaith dialogue and cooperation is being both respectful of others and confident in our own faith. In other words, we not only try to get along, but we try to defend religion and religious people. And this is very hard to do.

If you listen carefully to the reporting and the commentary, there is a subtle debate happening about the nature of Islam, and the nature of religion itself, and whether we (as religious people) are at the root of the world’s problems. ‘But wait,’ we say, ‘we’re not like those other religions, or even like those other Christians. We’re special, and just like everyone else in Canada.’

Except we aren’t. As I’ve tried to show, we’re really more like religious people than secular people, though you wouldn’t know it from reading the Observer or talking to many of my colleagues. We are increasingly uncomfortable as representatives of the Christian religion, or religion generally, when that is precisely what we are. We can pretend to be different, but that’s not how we’re seen. Ask an atheist if they think liberal Christians are better or different than other Christians, and the answer will be ‘absolutely not.’

The lesson of Acts 19 is both having the correct belief and knowing who you are. It is knowing who you are and to whom you belong. Paul wants them to understand that baptism in Jesus Christ is the source of their new life, and that the gift of the Holy Spirit will allow them to prophesy and share the message of their new religion. This message was true then and it remains true now. We need to understand ourselves, and what makes us both unique and what makes us similar to the other people who seek after God. May the Holy Spirit help us, Amen.


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