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Sunday, June 11, 2017
Scripture: Acts 8:26-40
Rev. Jill VanderWal
During my time in youth ministry I discipled a group of young women for over four years. One Sunday evening we met for our study time and they were so excited to tell me about the events of the previous night. We baptized Emma! In my mind pictures flashed of a lake or a bathtub…and I said…you did WHAT? They had been at a youth rally, the church had invited students to come forward and baptize their friends. My response was…Great! And well…that’s not like anything I’ve experienced in the Presbyterian Church.
It is these experiences and questions that have helped me explore and understand more deeply the significance of baptism in our Christian tradition and in the context of our rich Presbyterian heritage. Leading up to our scripture today, Acts 7 was story of persecution and stoning of Stephen. Saul, (before his conversion) is threatening this band of believers and they have scattered. Thus the first missionary journeys are a product of persecution.
Luke’s account of Philip’s divinely guided encounter with the Ethiopian was fascinating to first-century Romans or Greeks, for in their view Ethiopians or Sudanese lived literally at the southern edge of the earth. A powerful, literate, black, Eunuch. This is really an exceptional encounter.
Acts 8:26 “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury.”
The Spirit instructs Philip to approach the chariot and he asks, “do you understand what you are reading?” The Eunuch replies “no, how could I?” So Philip explains, the man believes, and in seeing water asks, “why not be baptized?”
Two Striking Things:
1) The role of the Spirit in directing Philip to go and what to say. It takes him 30 miles away to Azotus. The Spirit is the active, personal force in the story directing Philip. This story reminds us of the very personal direction of the Spirit, and invites us to be ready, any time and any place to talk about Jesus.
2) The message of baptism. The Eunuch asks, “What can stand in the way?” The response is…NOTHING! The conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch graphically demonstrates the inclusiveness of the gospel. No apparent obstacle–whether physical defect, race or geographical remoteness–can place a person beyond the saving call of the good news.
A Covenant People
Old Testament covenant signs include the rainbow, which appeared following a covenant made with Noah. Circumcision is believed to be a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. Such signs entail blessings and sanctions on those with whom God covenants. In the Old Testament there was endless sacrifice to keep the covenant – obedience and purity laws and the need to earn good standing.
Jesus brings the New Covenant, through his life he models God’s love and invitation to all in grace. In the early church confession of faith in Jesus and baptism were the signs of the New Covenant.
Over and over God leads people through water to freedom and rebirth. When God makes covenants, God provides physical signs associated with the covenant (i.e. rings for marriage). Signs help us see and experience an inward reality on the outside.
In Reformed theology, a sacrament is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. Paul’s words in Ephesians,“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.”
We participate in (2) sacraments: the Lord’s Supper and baptism. The questions I get most often are: Can I be re-baptized? The answer to that is no – we re-affirm vows but do not re-baptize. The second question I get most often is why do we baptize infants? Here are a few thoughts on infant baptism from NT Wright, a contemporary theologian.
“God has ways of making himself known intimately to children from their earliest days. Perhaps one of the—dare I say—sacramental ways by which God does that is precisely by the loving welcome of the Christian community. Of course children can’t articulate their knowledge of God. The five-minute-old baby can’t put a hand up and say, “I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” But I suspect that some of those little children have a deeper, fuller faith than many adults who say those words every Sunday.”
“A very little person can be totally full of the love of God. Even though, of course, when she grows up and becomes a bigger person, she needs to be filled with more and more of the love of God. But that little person is not half full just because she’s a little person. I realize that this is not a great, well-argued theological justification of infant baptism. It’s simply a way of saying that I suspect that some of our Western cultural prejudices are at stake here.” NT Wright from On Word and Sacraments: Baptism Reformed Magazine
Reminders of our Baptism, An invitation to Dive In ..Again
In September of 2014 our family visited Michigan and spent a rainy day at Warren Dunes. I was in a dark place of personal doubt, overwhelmed by a conflict at work and life felt like day-to-day survival. We climbed the dunes – I was thankful it had rained, it made the huge 260 foot dune firm and easier to walk up. At the top the kids and Scott ran down one side and I turned to walk by myself. It started to rain. As it did I felt like God was pouring his rain water over me. I felt this small steady voice say…remember, you are mine. I am working this out, I am working in you, I will not leave you. I make all things new. It was the first time in my life I had any connection to my own baptism. When Martin Luther felt discouraged or afraid, he’d often splash water on himself and declare, “But I am baptized!” John Calvin advised readers depressed by evil to “reflect that they are still on the way” to the “complete victory” that God promises in baptism.
The Water invites us to Remember who you are. Remember whose you are.
A way I remember this moment is by looking for sea glass. Sea glass lives in the place where the water meets the world. It is an image that reminds me….I working on, shaping, forming you – all the sharp, jagged edges are being worn down.
Every time you see water—like when it rains or you go to the river—remember God’s beauty and sustaining love all around us, and remember that you’re a baptized child of God.
“You are not your own; you belong to God. You have been cleansed from your sin. You have been identified with the death and resurrection of Jesus. You belong to the multigenerational, multicultural family of God. Pause at the baptismal fountain. Feel free to touch it. Dip your fingers into the water, take a piece of sea glass as we remember that baptism marks the beginning of a spiritual pilgrimage… a life of being refined, shaped.”