Easter 2016 Sermon Series - Week One Preaching Notes
Key Words: Renounce, Reject, Repent
Notes for Acts 11:1-18
Over the next seven weeks we will be talking about what it means to live as baptized disciples in Christ’s holy church and members of the United Methodist Church. As we consider our baptismal vows over these weeks, we will be looking at texts from the book of Acts that teach us about what it meant to live as baptized disciples in the earliest Christian communities.
The Book of Acts tells an exciting story. It opens where the end of the Gospel of Luke leaves off, with the disciples waiting in Jerusalem, as Jesus has instructed them, for Jesus to return on the day of Pentecost and clothe them with power from on high. Acts then recounts the story of the emerging community of Christ followers in the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is an important story to know because looking at our history can help us better understand our role as disciples of Jesus Christ for our world today.
Alongside the readings from Acts, each week during this series, we will also be looking at one of the seven vows we make when we present ourselves for Christian baptism and membership in the United Methodist Church. These vows come from our Book of Discipline and are captured in the liturgy of Holy Baptism found in our hymnals.
It is important to talk about living as baptized Christians during the season of Easter, because in the early church, this season was developed as an extended period of catechesis; that is, instruction and teaching on the meaning of discipleship for people who had been baptized into the community of Jesus Christ on Easter morning. The texts we read during this season help us understand our role as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world today.
The first vow we are asked to make on the day of our baptism is this:
“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”
Renounce, reject, repent. It is a tall order.
I recall that when the new liturgy for baptism was first introduced through the publication of the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal that it represented quite a departure from the version in our previous book. Specifically, I remember people responding somewhat negatively to this opening vow, which speaks of spiritual forces of wickedness, evil powers, and sin. People who were presenting babies for baptism especially didn’t like hearing these words. They preferred to think of their infants as innocent and free from the stain of original sin.
I can understand those feelings, but as United Methodists, we do believe that everyone, even innocent children, are tainted by what we call “original sin.” What we need to understand is that sin is not a strictly personal thing, especially in the context of our opening vow. Sin here is communal and systemic. Our children are born into a world in which there are spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers already at work. Consider Paul’s words to the Ephesians: “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, NRSV). To acknowledge this fact as we present ourselves or our children for baptism is simply to make a clear statement that in the name of following Jesus Christ, we intend to fight against these forces and powers throughout our entire lives. We intend to live by a different code, a different set of values, a different order, from the one the world espouses. In short, we intend to live as part of God’s kingdom.
- What “spiritual forces of wickedness” and “evil powers of this world” would you put on your list if you were making one? Consider the world, your own community, your particular congregation, your work, and your personal life.
- Are there things you are doing that destroy God’s people, deface God’s creation, and stand in opposition to the coming of God’s reign?
- How can you “obey God rather than any human authority”? What might you need to change? How do you need to “live differently” in your own context? Is it always possible to do this? What can you do if it is not possible?
- Name one thing you can do to witness to the power of the Holy Spirit over and against the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of the world.
The language of our vow actually goes back to the practice of baptism in the very early church. Don’t forget that when the Christian faith was born, people who chose to follow Jesus were counterculture. The gods of Rome and the imperial cult of the Roman Empire dictated that people live by the religion of the state. Although Rome did allow for religious minorities, such as Jews, to function, to do so was to choose to live a marginalized life. Our holy Scriptures bear witness to example after example of our Jewish forebears rubbing up against not just the religious practices, but the political and cultural laws of Rome.
When Christians began to grow in numbers, they found themselves doubly marginalized. Not only were they not Roman, but they were no longer Jewish. They were a small minority who were heavily persecuted from every direction.
When a person decided to give his or her life to follow Jesus Christ, it was a decision to live as an outcast. It meant something. It meant that the person was no longer going to live the way he or she was living before. It might mean the person had to change jobs, if the job the person had previously held put him or her in conflict with what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. It might mean that the person had to reject some friends or even family members. It might mean the person had to move into a different home and live with a community of people.
This change in life status was marked by a lengthy ritual that involved renouncing the evil spirits of the world, rejecting those things that did not lead to discipleship, and turning one’s life in an entirely new direction. Priests would literally blow air into the person’s ears and mouth, commanding the evil spirits to come out, before the individual entered and emerged from the waters of baptism.
One of the things that concerns me about the church today is whether, when we baptize someone into the community of faith, we really expect anything about that person’s life to change. Sometimes I worry that in the name of being open to everyone and making it as easy as possible for people to join the church, we have thrown any expectations we might have had that our members are going to live differently as a result of their baptismal vows right out the window.
In the text today, Peter is taking a stand against the religious authorities of Rome. It is a stand that will come with a cost, not just for Peter, but for many of the early followers of Jesus Christ. But it is a stand he must take, because for Peter, being a disciple of Jesus Christ means that he is called to live by a different set of standards than the ones held by the culture in which he lives. He simply cannot sit silently by in the face of injustice and evil in the world around him. His faith in Jesus Christ has taken him on a new path, and it is a path laden with risks.
Consider that Peter’s public refusal to obey any human authority over God comes on the heels of witnessing the power of God at work in the newly founded Christian community. Both Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, have just dropped dead after holding back funds for themselves after the sale of a piece of land and then lying to cover it up. Can you imagine any of our churches imposing the expectation on our members that if they sold a piece of land, all proceeds would go directly to the church? And if people held back any portion for themselves, they would suffer God’s punishment? I can’t imagine that! How far we have come from the expectations of the early Christian communities!
At any rate, word had spread that the power of God is very strong in the community of Christians. This has the Roman authorities on the defense. They can’t afford for more and more people to begin openly rejecting the rule of Rome and its gods in favor of following Jesus. They don’t want people to declare war on the ways of the Roman Empire. If this new community is to be allowed to survive, it will need to conform itself to the culture of Rome, not the other way around!
- When we consider our own communities of faith, how much time do we spend conforming our messages, our actions, and indeed, our very interpretation of our holy texts, to the prevailing culture of the United States in the Year of our Lord, 2016, and not the other way around?
- How can serious reflection on our first baptismal vow challenge us to not just believe, but to act differently because we have chosen to follow Jesus Christ as his disciples?
(Note: See also pp. 1-3 of Easter Series 2016: A Focus on Our Baptismal Vows and the Book of Acts)