More than enough

One of the great gifts of ordained ministry is the opportunity to engage in continuing education.  In my almost 12 years as a priest, I’ve had the privilege of traveling around the country, learning from some of the leading voices in practical theology and liturgy.  Of course, as many of you probably know from experience, continuing education opportunities can be intimidating at times, especially early in one’s career.  I still remember vividly my first continuing education event way back in November of 2008.  I had come across a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent” that just sounded really cool.  I booked a flight to Oklahoma City, everyone’s favorite vacation spot, for a few days at some non-descript, airport-adjacent hotel.  It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people some whom I still have contact through social media.  For all the good that weekend had to offer, I also still vividly remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.

In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute.  I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like.  There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?  Not just here in Oklahoma, but in the priesthood.”  It all came to a head on the second day, in one of the lower level meeting rooms, at three o’clock in the afternoon.  Jonny Baker, then-head of the Fresh Expressions Office in the Church of England, had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary.  There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays.  It all led to the center where Jonny had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom.  As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative.  Give it up.  Why waste your time?”  Still, I plodded through the labyrinth because I had signed up for it and I’m a One on the Enneagram.  In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river.  This really happened.  By that point, I knew my fear all too well.  I was afraid I wasn’t enough.  I was afraid that I would never be enough.  Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest.  I grabbed a pen from the bucket and began to write.  A few letters in, the pen dried up.  Of course, it did.  I couldn’t even do that right.  I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen.  It was a promotional pen, not for Saint Swithin’s by the Sea or the United Methodist Church, but it said, “God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called.”  I thanked God for the moment of reassurance, tucked that dried up pen in my pocket, and have been mostly able to trust God to sustain my ministry ever since.

That experience came to mind this week as I read the story of Jesus’ baptism by John at the Jordan River.  Last we heard, Jesus was a twelve-year-old boy who had stayed behind at the Temple in Jerusalem while his parents made their way back to Nazareth after the Passover Feast.  Last we heard, Mother Becca was inviting us to think about how, during those three long days, Mary must have struggled with her own inadequacy in the call to be the Mother of God.[1]  Today, we’ve fast-forwarded 18 years. Jesus is now about thirty and at the Jordan River asking John for baptism.  John knows he’s not adequate for the task at hand. He couldn’t even tie the thong of Jesus’ sandal.  John shouldn’t baptize Jesus, Jesus should baptize John, but Jesus is resolute.  John is more than enough for the job because this is the way to “fulfill all righteousness.”  My friend Evan Garner spent a lot of time thinking about that phrase this week.  It’s an odd turn of phrase in Greek and it is very difficult to capture the idiom in English translations.  Righteousness is one of those fifty-cent church words that gets used a lot, but I’m not sure any of us really knows what it means.  Joseph was described as righteous when he decided to dismiss Mary quietly after she was found to be pregnant out of wedlock.  He was a rule follower, but more than that, he was compassionate.  Righteousness was found in the delicate balance of doing what was allowable under God’s law, while also doing what was best for Mary; not taking it to the extreme.  Having Mary stoned to death was also allowable under the law, but it would seem that was not the righteous or just option for Joseph.  The Contemporary English Version, an authorized Biblical translation for use in the Episcopal Church translates the whole sentence as “For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.”  Evan argues, and I agree, that what Jesus is saying to John isn’t that this moment of baptism is the capstone in God’s work of redemption for the world, but rather, it was, in that moment, the right next step in God’s ongoing unveiling of the Kingdom on earth.[2]  That’s what the season of Epiphany is all about, glimpses into God’s plan for salvation, spotlights on the still ongoing work of restoring creation to wholeness.

As Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were torn in two, the Spirit descended like a dove, and a voice from heaven spoke, maybe only to Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Here too, the Greek is hard to bring into English.  Well pleased isn’t a bad translation, but another possible rendering is “whom I have gladly chosen.”  Jesus, the human manifestation of God the Son, had been chosen from before time and forever.  We won’t hear the Temptation story for a couple of months, but in all three Synoptic Gospels, we are told that immediately following his baptism, Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan.  As a kind of pre-emptive encouragement, God affirms Jesus’ calling, names him as beloved, and reminds him that he has all he needs for what lies ahead.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember any voices from heaven at my baptism.  Still, whether you were baptized at 6 months or 60 years, I firmly believe that in that moment, as water ran down your brow, God named you as a gladly chosen member of Body of Christ, heir to the Kingdom of Heaven, and co-worker in the ongoing work of fulfilling all righteousness.  Through the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and the specific spiritual gifts imparted upon each of us in baptism every one of us has been equipped for ministry. With God’s help, none of us is inadequate for the task at hand, whether that task is building chairs for a new Sunday school classroom, leading a book study, packing sack lunches, or sharing the Good News of God’s work in your life.  God is still at work in the world, fulfilling all righteousness, and invites each of us to take our part in it.  When you feel overwhelmed.  When you feel like you aren’t enough.  Just remember, you, like Jesus, are loved by God, you were gladly chosen for the task at hand, and you are specifically equipped for ministry by the power of the Holy Spirit.  God doesn’t call the equipped.  God equips the called for the salvation of the whole world.  Amen.

[1] https://beccakello.wordpress.com/2020/01/05/three-days-time/

[2] https://evandgarner.blogspot.com/2020/01/fulfill-all-righteousness.html

Speedy Delivery

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It isn’t just the holy Scriptures that are living and active, but truly every written text can be multivalent, carrying many different levels of meaning and open to various interpretations.  This came to mind this morning as I read the Collect appointed for Advent 3 and my mind was immediately taken to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s mailman, Mr. McFeely who’s catch phrase was “Speedy Delivery.”  In the prayer, sadly, the only “stir up” prayer we have left in our current Prayer Book, we that God’s abundant grace and mercy might “speedily help and deliver us.”

It is likely due to the fact that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in theaters now and that Mr. Rogers has been in the media spotlight of late that I heard this prayer in a new and different way, but I think that’s how God works through written texts.  As we read words, especially those that are familiar to us, with intentionality, God, through the Holy Spirit, is at work in our minds, causing synapses to fire, memories to be triggered, and new meaning to burst forth.  So it was this morning as the words I’ve read hundreds to times “speedily help and deliver us” made me think of Mr. McFeely and took me down a rabbit hole of what we mean when we ask God for deliverance.

My first stop was my trusty copy of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.  That’s right, when they’re not holding internationally famous dog shows, the folks at Westminster are publishing dictionaries for nerds.  In it, the word deliverance is noted to have come to us from the Latin deliberare which means “to liberate.”  The deliverance we ask for in this prayer and hope for in our faith in Christ is liberation – freedom from our enslavement to sin.  It makes sense, then, that we would pray for such deliverance to come quickly.  Anyone who has taken honest stock of their lives will realize that the consequences of sin are what make life hard.  Broken relationships, dysfunctional systems, out of balance power dynamics, hurt, and sadness are just some of the things we pray would end “speedily” when we ask God for deliverance.

Next, I cracked open Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, which expanded my understanding even further.  Hatchett notes that this phrase “speedily help and deliver” is a 1662 expansion of the original prayer from c. 750 AD.  By adding the word help, the revisers of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer made this an intentionally Advent-y prayer.  “… this prayer sets forth better than the others the themes of the two advents: the first in which [Christ] came in great humility, and the second in which He comes in power; the first in which He came to save (read, “deliver”), the second in which He comes to help and relieve.

So, a random synapse fire helped me learn some new things today and will deepen my prayer life going forward.  I hope it helps you too, dear reader.

Hope in the Spirit

As I helped Eliza with her 5th grade math homework this week, I realized two things.  First, they are apparently doing algebra in 5th grade now.  Second, I realized how little math I remember beyond basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.  I never thought I’d forget to “please excuse my dear aunt Sally,” but alas, I’ve replaced it with some very limited basics of Biblical Greek, the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church, and since we had kids, the plot and major characters of every Disney movie ever made.  While I’m only a little bit sorry that I don’t remember much about how to solve for x, I am profoundly grateful to have made all kinds of new memories, to have learned all sorts of new things, and to have a computer with one hundred thousand times more computing power than Apollo 11 in my pocket at all times.

Two of the few things I can recall amidst the fading memories of my seminary days are lessons I learned in my Old Testament class.  Our professor, Dr. Cook, was a fan of the Canonical Method of Old Testament criticism.  This method says that the books of the Hebrew Bible should not be read in isolation.  Verses and Chapters should be read within the wider context of the book from which they come and even whole books themselves should be read with an eye toward how they fit within the larger narrative of Scripture, God’s love story for creation.  Dr. Cook also taught us to pay attention when reading the prophets and to note that any prophecy of destruction would be followed soon-there-after by a promise of some sort of restoration.  It might only be an assurance for a few, but the prophets never left the people of God without some hope for the future.

Somewhere this week, between basic algebra and the Canonical Method, I ran across an article by Casey Thornburgh Sigmon from the Saint Paul School of Theology, who suggests that understanding Isaiah eleven requires looking at the bigger picture.[1]  I was immediately reminded of Dr. Cook’s teaching and began to take a larger look at our Old Testament lesson for this morning.  It begins with a word of hope.  It is the promise of restoration to the people of Israel.  “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” If it is true that the prophets never offer judgment without hope, then we can reasonably assume that a word of future hope is rarely offered in isolation from past devastation.  Turning back to Isaiah chapter ten, we see the tail-end of a long prophetic oracle on the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Judah.  In her article Professor Sigmon notes that in order to understand this image of the stump of Jesse we first have to see how the end of the Assyrian army is promised by way of some very woodsy imagery.  “The Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will lop the boughs with terrifying power: the tallest trees will be cut down, and the lofty will be brought low.  The Lord will hack down the thickets of the forest with an ax, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall.”  Chapter ten ends with forest felled completely.  All that is left are stumps as far as the eye can see.  The trees of Judah destroyed by the Assyrians.  The trees of Assyria destroyed by the power of God.  It is a barren wasteland, stark as the bleakness of mid-winter.

As we turn to chapter eleven, suddenly, hope springs forth from hopelessness.  From a stump that is as good as dead, we see the tiniest shoot breaking forth, reaching toward the sun.  In the midst of the reign of the destructive, idolatrous King Ahaz, Isaiah looks forward in hope by hearkening back to the ideal model of kingship for the Israelites, King David.  Yet, even with David in his sights, the prophet is careful to avoid the language of any sort of human monarch, but rather builds this future redemption exclusively upon the power of God to restore all things.  The leader who will bring forth life from the stump that was left after the destruction of Judah must be one who is grounded in the Spirit of God; a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord.  With these gifts of the Spirit, the leader of this renewed Israel will judge with equity, will care for the needs of the poor, and will strike down the evil with nothing more than a breath.

Over the years, one of the three things that I have filled my head with in the place of algebra is the plot to almost every Disney movie ever made.  In 2016, Disney released a film called Zootopia.  It’s a fantastic film that everyone should watch, no matter their age. It tells the story of a bunny name Judy Hopps who becomes the first rabbit police officer in the city of Zootopia, a city built upon the idea that predators and prey can live together in harmony.  The city slogan is “Anyone can be anything,” but that gets put to the test when predators, who had evolved beyond their ferocious pasts, suddenly find themselves reverting to their “primitive savage ways” for some unexplained reason.  The whole stability of Zootopia becomes threatened by fear and the love of power.  Since seeing that movie in the theatre three years ago, I can’t read Isaiah’s portrayal of the peaceable kingdom – wolf and lamb, leopard and baby goat, calf and lion all living together in harmony – without thinking about the story of Zootopia and how precarious the peace that God promises is, unless it is built upon a foundation of the knowledge of the Lord, the pursuit of justice, and the love of neighbor.

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Heard in the light of King Ahaz and his fondness for self-preservation, worshipping false gods, and entering into treaties with the enemies of God, Isaiah’s vision of a new godly leader for Israel would have been met by hearts filled with joyful expectation.  Reading Isaiah some 2,700 years later and through the lens of our faith in Jesus Christ, it is easy to see how this vision of a restored Israel became a popular one for Christians looking for the promise of a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible.  It is easy to see how this vision of the peaceable kingdom became a popular one for Christians looking toward a hope-filled future after the second coming of Christ.  Even so, we don’t have to read this text as only describing what is possible through the coming of the Messiah or the second-coming of the Christ.  This vision of a future built on peace is possible at every level of society – individual, church, community, nation, and even the world, if we set our hope, as Isaiah would remind us, on the power of the Spirit of God.

While we shouldn’t exclusively read this lesson through the lens of our faith in Christ, as disciples of Jesus, it is our natural tendency to see the promise of the shoot of Jesse’s tree as the promise of the Messiah who we believe to be Jesus of Nazareth.  We believe that in baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit promised by the prophet.  That same Spirit of God lives within each us, guiding us toward wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord.  With our eyes fixed on the hope of the holy mountain of God, this Advent season, we join with the beleaguered people of God throughout the generations and search with joyful expectation for the shoot of new life breaking forth from the stump of sin and death.  Like our ancestors in the faith, we don’t wait passively, but rather, with God’s help, we live our lives seeking to be at peace with our neighbors, caring for those live on the margins, working toward justice for all people, and striving for the day of righteousness when we will join with the heavenly chorus and sing out the truth for all creation, “Rejoice! Rejoice!  Emmanuel has come to thee, O Israel!”  Amen.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4316

The Potential Energy of the Spirit

My high school physics teacher, Mr. Amidon, suffered from narcolepsy.  As a result, he would fall asleep at random times throughout the day.  Most often, he’d zonk out at his desk, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to fall asleep while writing notes on the board or even while showing us an experiment.  As high school students are wont to do, we took advantage of Mr. Amidon’s ailment and were very careful to not wake him up.  As a result, I don’t remember a whole lot of what I was supposed to learn in high school physics, which is probably why college physics was so difficult for me, which is probably part of why I’m a priest today and not an engineer like high school Steve had planned.  Anyway, one of the few memories I have of high school physics is the experiments we ran highlighting the differences and relationships between potential and kinetic energy.  The most obvious of these experiments were aided by gravity.  This higher we held a ball above the ground, the more potential energy is possessed.  As it dropped, that potential energy was converted to kinetic energy, and then it bounced upward, returning kinetic energy back into potential while losing some of its overall energy to friction and ball deformation.  This process repeats until all the potential energy gets transferred through friction and deformation and you are left with the ball at rest on the ground.

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While Mr. Amidon’s class sticks with me because of the narcolepsy, the power of potential energy has stuck with me over years.  It came back to me this week as I prayed for Mila Veletanlic and Thomas Stiles, whom we will baptize this morning.  As I thought about Mr. Amidon, I came to realize that, the baptismal service, especially on All Saints’ Sunday, and especially when we’re baptizing little ones, is where the potential energy of the Holy Spirit is the most obviously apparent.  This day is set aside to remember all the saints, not just those who are considered hall of famers, who carry a capital S Saint in front of their names like Saint Paul or Saint Mary Magdalene.  On All Saints’ Sunday, we remember everyone who has ever been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and give thanks to God for the work that the Holy Spirit has done through them – the way in which the potential energy of their baptism was lived out in the kinetic energy of the faith.

Toward the tail end of the baptismal liturgy, Mother Becca will say a prayer for Mila and Thomas that, while new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, restores to the baptismal liturgy a part of our ancient past, asking God to bestow upon these two children, both just infants, the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy
Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servants the
forgiveness of sin, and have raised them to the new life of
grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them
an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to
persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy
and wonder in all your works. Amen.
It will be quite a while before these two will be called upon to utilize their gifts, but today we celebrate their saintly potential to live lives of faithfulness to the honor and glory of God.

In Christ Church 101, we spend one of our class sessions talking about the Gift of the Spirit.  According to Saint Paul, the charisms given in baptism are particular gifts that each of us are given for the upbuilding of the Church.  Some are called to be apostles, some teachers, some evangelists, some intercessors, and on and on.  In baptism, the Holy Spirit bestows upon each of us unique and special gifts, but to all of us, these seven are given.

The restoration of the prayer for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit brings back to our awareness the potential energy that God imparts upon each us in baptism.  This potential energy is most apparent on All Saints’ Sunday, as the sevenfold gifts are easily tied directly to each of the Beatitudes that we hear in Matthew’.  It was Saint Augustine of Hippo, a fifth century theologian, who first found in the Beatitudes each of the seven gifts.[1]  To Augustine, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” brings to mind the gift of wonder.  It is our poverty in spirit that allows us to find amazement in the richness of God’s grace and mercy.  For Augustine, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” was a call to knowledge.  In this case, mourning wasn’t about the death of a loved one, but the result of our coming to know our own sinfulness.  We rightly grieve the role that we have played in our broken relationships with God and with our neighbors.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” corresponds to the gift of reverence as we can only show deep respect and honor toward Almighty God when we are not puffing ourselves up or putting ourselves in the place of God by judging our neighbors.  Those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” are blessed with the gift of endurance as they work tirelessly to bring about that which they desire.  By enduring in good works, they will one day find satisfaction for their hunger and thirst.  Good judgment is the gift of those who are merciful as, in deep awareness of God’s forgiveness, they choose to forgive; in knowing fully God’s love for them, they show love for their neighbors.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God,” infers those who have been gifted with understanding.  Even though no human eye can see God, those who have experienced God in their hearts can truly understand what it means to follow the way of God’s love.  Finally, those called to be peacemakers are living into the gift of wisdom; setting aside passion and rebellion, they seek only the peace that passes all understanding.

None of us knows how these two young children will live out their giftedness.  Even as mature adults, many of us who have been baptized into the faith might not be quite sure how we live out this kind of giftedness, but we can all rest in the knowledge that it is only with God’s help that we are able to claim the blessing that is the exercising of our baptismal gifts of wisdom, understanding, sound judgment, endurance, knowledge, reverence, and wonder.  It is only with God’s help that any of us is able to turn the potential energy of the Holy Spirit into the kinetic energy of bringing the Kingdom of God to earth as it is in heaven.  As you pray for Mila and Thomas today, pray also for your neighbor in the pew, for your clergy, and for yourselves, that none of us might fall asleep, but rather, that the potential energy of the Holy Spirit in each of us might be put to good work in order to bless the whole world.  Amen.

[1] http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/16011.htm (Chapter 4, Section 11).  Accessed 11/2/19

Pentecost Kitch

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I recall a discussion once held in one of my liturgics classes.  We were talking about manual actions and the celebration of the Eucharist and the difference between anamnesis, the active remembrance of an event in the past, and mimicry, the acting out of that remembrance.  For example, as we remember the death of Jesus in Rite II, Prayer A (Expansive Language Version), the Celebrant says, “Jesus stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself in obedience to your will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.”  It is unhelpful, yet, unfortunately not uncommon, for the celebrant, standing behind the altar, likely within sight lines of a cross, to also extend his (let’s be honest, it’s often dudes doing this) arms in a kind of pantomime of words being said.

 

These kinds of things tend to happen when we are either a) uncomfortable with the power of our words, or b) unsure what to do with them.  When talking about Jesus offering himself on the cross, these words have deep theological impact, and they can make us really uncomfortable.  So, we take the attention away from the words and put it on ourselves.  A similar thing happens at the fraction, when, in language that is foreign even too many priests, we talk of Jesus as the Passover, but often deflect it by way of a huge fraction motion.

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This is an ad from a Community Church. So, it isn’t just Episcopalians who are guilty.

There is no place that this tendency to pantomime away our discomfort is more apparent than on the Principal Feast which we will celebrate on Sunday, the Day of Pentecost.  Now, I’m not here to be a buzzkill over the wearing of red or the decorating of your nave with doves and flames.  I get that we need to make worship available to all of our senses, and I don’t want to suggest otherwise.  I would, however, caution clergy and their worship committees to be careful in making those choices, and to think theologically about why they are being made.  Are the dove kites going to enhance worship that day, or make it easier for us to avoid how little we [want to] understand the power of the Spirit.  Is encouraging folks to wear red a symbol of our unity in the Body of Christ or simply a photo opp for the congregation’s Instagram account?  Is the tradition of having the Acts lesson poorly read in many languages in any way edifying, or is it meant to keep us distracted so the preacher can preach yet another sermon on Jesus’ commandment that we love one another?

The active remembrance of the foundational stories of our faith is vitally important.  Too important, in fact, to be reduced to kitchy reenactments.  So, feel free to wear red this Sunday to celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit, but as inheritors of that same Spirit, also be ready to hear the powerful story of the Advocate’s arrival with power and might upon the disciples gathered in prayer.

Without a Doubt

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The story of Peter and the sheet from Acts 11 is an odd one, even by Biblical standards.  It has so many supernatural elements as to almost be absurd.  In fact, it seems to read more like a hagiography than a historical account.  There’s the vision Peter has while in a trance.  There’s the exact timing of the arrival of the men from Caesarea.  There’s the Holy Spirit descending upon Gentiles just as it had upon the first believers at the beginning.  If you were trying to write a story that would carry spiritual gravitas, you couldn’t have scripted one better.

Lost in all of the supernatural events, however, is the deeper truth which Peter is trying to articulate to the Apostles in Jerusalem – the radically inclusive nature of the Gospel message even for the Gentiles.  Mired about halfway through the fantastic story, just after the three men arrive at Joppa, Peter, now removed from his trance, receives another word from the Holy Spirit, “to go with them and not make distinction between them and us.”

That phrase has always caught my attention.  In digging into it a bit, I’ve realized that it is another example of English trying to convey in a lot of words what the original Greek handled with simple eloquence.  Other translations say “The Holy Spirit told me to go and not worry” (CEV).  “The Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting” (KJV). “The Spirit said to me: Go with them, without hesitation” (PNT).  The original Greek word means “to evaluate, consider, doubt.”

While the NRSV’s take, “make no distinction between them and us” works, I think it missed the mark on what Peter is really saying the Spirit said to him.  What seems to be happening here is an opportunity for Peter to trust God.  Not unlike that experience with Jesus walking across the water, through this vision and the call to Cornelius’ house, Peter is being invited to step way outside of his comfort zone.  As the story is relayed to us, it appears as though Peter’s actions have raised a lot of questions within the rest of the leadership of the Way.  He certainly knew, based on his faithful Jewish upbringing, that stepping into Cornelius’ house would forever change the game.

When the Spirit speaks to Peter as his stares, probably dumbfounded, into the faces of the three men from Caesarea, what I hear the Spirit saying is, “Without a doubt, go.”  “Go and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Go and fling open the gates of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Go and let the whole world know what God is up to.  Go and don’t doubt.  It isn’t for you to decide who is in and who is out.  Step out of the relative safety of this Jewish sect and watch what God has in store.”

Yes, it put Peter in an uncomfortable spot for a while, but because of his ability to trust, a skill that we know was hard earned in Peter, the Kingdom of God was opened to all and God was glorified.  I can’t help but wonder, what doubts are holding me back?  What is God calling us to do that will fling open the gates of the Kingdom?

How will I know?

I may be alone in this. It could be the result of my recent change in geography.  I’m hoping it isn’t a sign of the times.  In the past month, for the first time in my ordained life, I’ve become aware of two instances in which the efficacy of one’s baptism was questioned.  Both were baptized in the Dominical form: with water and in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which, at least according to my read of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, is all that is needed for a baptism to be considered valid in our tradition.  Of course, those who are suggesting that age and mode matter above all else, don’t care much about William Reed Huntington’s attempt at church unity or what some papist rag wearing guys in purple shirts (probably a historical anachronism) voted on in Lambeth in 1888.  Realizing that, I turned to an old friend, Maxwell E. Johnson’s The Rites of Christian Initiation, which every clergy person should have on their bookshelves.

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As you can see, I’ve been hard at work, crafting a good argument for why infant baptism by affusion should be considered just as valid as a “believer’s baptism” by submersion.  I do so, fully admitting that I am a fan of and would much prefer to see the latter become normative over the former which is how I was baptized as well as both of my children.  The crux of the question comes down to, as it always should in theological debate, the Bible.  What does our foundational document say about baptism?

The full argument is beyond the scope of what I can handle in a blog post, but suffice it to say that like most things that end up in a Scriptural debate, the waters are murky.  If you want to argue that only adults can be baptized and it should be done in clean, flowing water, the Baptism of John will get you pretty close (ignoring that the waters of the Jordan were considered ritually unclean (Johnson, 11)).  If you think that maybe younger children should be welcomed and the means of water is open to debate, the stories of entire households being baptized in Acts can be used to support your argument (ignoring the reality that just because something is not said to have not happened, doesn’t mean it did).  So, how are we to know for sure that a baptism in efficacious?

Turning again generally to the Bible, and more specifically Sunday’s NT lesson, my ongoing side in these debates is that we will know that God was present in Baptism because we see the signs of the Holy Spirit at work in the life of the baptized.  In the story of Jesus’ baptism, every account makes sure to mention the Holy Spirit descending upon him.  In various stories in Acts, we hear that the newly baptized are filled with the Spirit in the same way the 120 were on Pentecost.  In the prologue to 1 Thessalonians, again we are reminded that the surest sign of salvation is God’s Spirit at work.

For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…

Those who argue that there is only one way for a baptism to be valid won’t be swayed by fancy arguments from a giant textbook, just as I won’t be swayed away from my belief that God is much bigger than any box we want to put God in based on “the Bible says it, so I believe it.”  I’m not sure that matters though.  What matters in the end is that when the signs of the Spirit are there, no one can deny God at work.  How do I know?  I’ve seen it in those baptized at 1 day, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years, 20 years, and beyond.