by Dr. Sam Laurent, Director of the Episcopal Center at Duke
All of us have come to church for ressurance. We come needing to reaffirm that we know the order of things. Difficulties and confusion buffet us all the time, and the decisions we’ve made are never truly certain. There’s always the career path we didn’t follow, the friendship we let fall away, the things we didn’t do because we chose to do the things that we have done. All those paths we didn’t get to explore make us feel uncertain, even anxious. So we come to church to find simplicity and predictability. We come to gain confidence in the way we live our life.
Do these things, and be secure in God’s love. “Do this in remembrance of me.” That’s the implicit deal behind a lot of religious behavior. All of us have been motivated by it. Surely some of us are today.
I’m not criticizing. I hardly have the standing to do so. A need for comfort and solace is a very fine reason to come to church. If you’re part of this service, you’ve surely found comfort and solace at church, and I thank God for that.
We need our narratives to help us sort the chaos of life into a manageable path. I am baptised and I practice as a follower of Christ. I try to live by Jesus’ teachings, and though I surely fall short, I am blessed that my God is a God of grace, and forgiveness is mine. That’s not just a statement of belief. It’s a narrative. That’s a framework around which I organize the events of my life. The ups, the downs, and the moments of growth.
This narrative framework is one of faith’s greatest gifts to us when it comes to day to day life. It is a way to understand the vagaries and insults of life as part of a bigger story, and to hold them up to the light of God’s love. It is a narrative of truth. You are marked as God’s own, and you are loved as God’s own, without any conditions. It’s just the best possible news, and it’s true.
This brings us to a paradox. Our narration of God’s particular love for us and how that love works is a core part of how we understand our world. And God does things that bring that narrative into question. Both of those sentences are true, and they seemingly conflict. Hence, paradox.
Peter and company ran into this paradox in this passage from Acts. Peter is in the middle of a really very good sermon when the Holy Spirit falls on everyone who is listening. This is the Spirit acting beyond Peter’s control, falling willy-nilly on people who had not been baptised, as though the ritual markers of relationship with God didn’t matter.
“Circumcised believers” is a biblical term that’s just never going to not surprise me. But there they are, and the circumcised believers who were with Peter were astounded. And why wouldn’t they be? These people are, like Peter, and like Jesus himself, Jewish. The circumcision is a mark of the covenant that designated them as God’s chosen people. That covenant, according to the narrative, outlines the parameters of what life with God looks like. The Law designates how Israel lives as a sign of its special relationship with God.
And now God is just pouring the Holy Spirit out on people who are not circumcised or baptised, and they are speaking in tongues. Any sense of humans having control over the story of God is quickly falling apart.
The paradox is in place. Jesus’ Jewish followers, whose lives and understandings of God’s blessing are shaped by the Covenants of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and now Jesus, are now witnessing the bestowal of God’s Spirit upon people who aren’t participants in those Covenants.
You can imagine, between the lines, some gasps of “what the heck?” and “so what does all of this actually mean?” This is a major, major clash of paradigms. Religious discipline versus free love. And it’s one we can see today.
Every time people try to draw a line and decide who is in and who is out when it comes to God, God has historically washed the line away with love. Schisms beyond numbering, an ever-increasing number of religious traditions, and the sacred keeps manifesting all over the place whether we would like it to or not.
We need to realize that this does not jeopardize our personal narratives. Our personal narratives stand. I was baptised and raised as a Christian. I work to conform my life to Jesus’ teachings, and I give thanks daily for the grace that holds me in my frequent falterings. That’s a true narration of my life, regardless of what is happening elsewhere.
What is challenged—and ultimately undercut—is our authority to impose narratives on other lives. The Jewish Covenant is a beautiful and profound expression of relationship with God that grows and develops to this day, and if you aren’t learning from Jewish traditions, you’re missing out. The Christian movement that was in its infancy in this story from Acts has folded countless souls into the fold of God’s love. These narratives describe what God is doing and what God has done. Describe, as in “write down.” All of our talk about God, all of our theology and doctrine amounts to the notes we have taken about what we have seen.
But we overstep when we try to prescribe. Prescribe, as in “write before.” Prescribing God’s action substitutes our judgment for God’s, presumes to tell God what God is going to do. And that never goes well.
Peter, who spent most of the Gospels being the guy who didn’t get it, is now the guy who gets it. He says “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
The baptism, an outward and visible sign, should surely correspond to this very obvious inward and spiritual grace. If our sacraments do not help us to name the movements of the Holy Spirit, they are simply gatekeeping exercises. That would not do. And so Peter makes sure that the Gentiles who have received the Spirit are baptised. Thank God, too, because that’s how I got to join this story, and probably you, too.
In the end, we are led to inhabit the paradox. Our story of God and God’s relationship to our lives is true. The order of things as we have experienced them has real truth to it. This we can affirm.
And yet, our narrative cannot be more than our narrative. If we presume the authority to narrate for other people we head swiftly down the path that has led us to this moment, when black voices shout out to claim their grievously overdue right to determine their own story. Forcing our narrative on others is oppression, plain and simple. “We are God’s favored ones, and you who are outside this group are not” is the first thought in many a tragic history.
If we superimpose our story on those around us, we foreclose the hearing of their stories. And that would be a sin, for God is at work in them. Peter realized it that day. He did not understand it, he did not posess the full knowledge of God that would allow him to see things as God sees things, and he never ever, did. But he recognized the Holy Spirit moving in other people, and he named that with baptism.
Hold your story of God close, and share it generously. But listen more than you speak, because God is always working up a surprise for you. That’s how you know God is God.