May 8, 2011
Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Today’s scripture lesson takes place on Pentecost. Pentekostas (Greek pronunciation) was the Greek name for the Jewish Festival called “The Festival of Weeks” or Shavu’oth (sha-vu-ōt) in Hebrew. Shavuot is a celebration of God's gift of Torah to the people. In a Christian context, Pentecost is a celebration of God's gift of Spirit to the people.
I think, we forget exactly how Jewish the Bible is. Peter, a Jew, was spending time with other Jews, and then preached to Jews during a Jewish holiday. Additionally, to convince the Jews of the validity of Jesus, he uses the words of a Jewish prophet, Joel and a Jewish King, David. Historically, for Peter, there was no big separation of Jews and Christians. It was one community. If there was a separation, it would be more like a little bit of fraying around the edges.
The best example I can think of is a family reunion. I haven't been to a family reunion in years! But what I do know is that if you get all of my family into one room, we will probably be polite and play well together for the time that we are in that room, but we will be very relieved when we separate. In my family, my grandmother and one of her sisters didn't get along very well. However, to "make-nice," they would gather occasionally. When their kids became big enough to take care of their own social lives, they stopped gathering altogether. And unfortunately, the squabble, in the form of my great-grandmother's dishes, continues. It is always about the inheritance, isn't it?
The early church was like this. A big "happy" family of Jews and Jesus-following-Jews. They were not quite at the point where they were rejecting each other. In fact, it was very important politically for the Jesus-following-Jews to be seen and accepted as Jews. There were only two religions allowed by Rome. The Roman religion and Judaism. If Peter and his crowd could not claim to be Jews, then they would be in trouble with Rome.
Peter is an amazingly powerful witness to the transformational power of repentance and forgiveness. Here we have Peter, who denied Jesus three times, the ultimate betrayal by not only a disciple, but a dear friend. Peter knows what it is to be forgiven and is a walking witness that God gives second chances. It is really a beautiful story. Through Peter, who he is and the witness that he gives, the Israelites in his community hear the message of Christ and are cut to the heart. And they ask simply, "what should we do?" "what should we do?"
Peter's answer is straightforward: repent and be baptized. Let me amend that, it sounds straightforward. Here's the tricky thing in this passage: In the Greek, repent is plural and baptize is singular. There is no individual repentance.
That is stunning. There is no individual repentance. This turns our rugged American individuality on its head.
Recently, in the news in Seattle, the final settlement in the case of Native American woodcarver, John T. Williams was announced. When I first read the settlement, I was more than a little bit annoyed. The city of Seattle was paying $1.5 million to Williams' family. Now, I was not annoyed that the family was getting the money, but in the settlement, the people I consider to be at fault, were protected from being sued. However, after reading the word repent as plural, as something for the whole community, I am reconsidering my annoyance. After all, people who do wrong things are not created out of a vacuum. There is always a social and political structure that has helped them. So maybe the Seattle Police Department, at a high level, is saying, "we created these conditions, we are sorry, and what should we do?" This scripture and this story are about the repentance of the entire group and the cry, "what should we do?"
This makes life complicated.
I remember several years ago when my son was little and collected Pokémon cards. Does everybody know what a Pokémon card is? Well, he was playing at our next door neighbor's house and in the course of their play, one of our neighbor's son's cards became damaged. It was a Pikachu card. The damage wasn't intentional, but Kennedy had to know that the card would get bent because of the way he was playing with it. So, perhaps reckless behavior would be a good description. When I talked to Kennedy, I asked him how he was going to make it right. After giving it some thought, Kennedy gave one of his Pokémon cards to replace the damaged one. However, he gave a valuable collector's card to replace an ordinary card. I encouraged him to do so. Even though I had given the card to Kennedy as a gift and it came from the family's funds, it was important that Kennedy see the totality of the situation. He made it right and the entire family paid for it together.
Maneuvering an 8 year old boy to "repentance" was difficult enough. It is hard to imagine what we can do to make any group that is larger than a family group move towards the cry, "what can we do?" If I think of my life as concentric circles with my family in the middle, I might have my kid's schools as a circle, my church, the city of Woodinville, King County, Washington state, the United States. It quickly escalates to all of humanity. It seems so overwhelming. We might even think that in our smaller circles, we are doing everything just right. It is only those "other" people. If that group would get with the program, then everything would be solved. The problem is that everybody thinks this way. We make those people "other" and they do the same to us. It doesn't matter what labels we have. Liberal, conservative, Christian, Muslim, atheist, union worker, entrepreneur. We all point the finger at each other and say, "repent!" Well, guess what?! We are they. They are we. We must all repent together.
I cannot even fathom how to make that happen.
And then there is the other side of the coin, so to speak. Repent and be baptized. The baptism here, in Greek, is singular. Repent as a community, baptism as an individual. That is interesting. At first I was thinking about baptism in the way of the early church when it was undergoing persecution. Back then, it took about a year of teaching before you could be baptized and admitted into the inner-circle of the church before you could fully participate in the body of the church. The reason for that was because of possible persecution. There would be bad consequence if they let a Roman into the community before they were sure that person was really a Christian.
However, this would not have been the case within Peter's lifetime. During Peter's life, baptism would have been characterized by the baptisms that John the Baptist did. However, during the writer of Acts' time, it would have been characterized by some persecution of Christians. So, I think we need to hold both things together. This baptism is a ritual based in Jewish ritual as we see lived out by John the Baptist AND it is a Christian ritual as lived out in the early Christian church.
Baptism, as a ritual, is based out of the desire for purification. There has always been ritual purification around the Temple. Baptism was not only for cleansing one of sins but to "form a part of holy living and to prepare for the attainment of a closer communion with God." John the Baptist was in this business. The business of helping his fellow Jews live a life of holy living. He baptizes people at the Jordan River and he is trying to lead people towards a closer relationship with God. When the Pharisees and Sadducees arrive, he says to them, "I baptize you with water." But wait for the next part of the sentence. "for repentance."
I baptize you with water for repentance.
This seems to be a self-repeating loop! Repent and be baptized. Be baptized with water for repentance. Perhaps there is a never ending cycle of rising up out of the baptismal waters only to need repentance and renewal. It sure seems to be that way! And in our rising up, what are we seeking? Holy living? How do we do that? Peter tells us one way. He tells us that we should "save ourselves from this corrupt generation." Now hear the words of Deuteronomy 32:4 and 5-
4b A faithful God, without deceit,
just and upright is Adonai;
5 yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him,
a perverse and crooked generation.
Sound familiar? A perverse and crooked generation, a corrupt generation. We see it Deuteronomy which is the story of a people that lived around 1200 BCE. We see it during the life of John the Baptist sometime around 30 CE. And we see it in the writer of Acts in about 85 CE or so. Does it actually ever change? Can we call every generation a perverse and crooked generation? A corrupt generation? Perhaps. But, simultaneously, we can call each generation loving, saving, healing, and justice seeking—all things that come from holy living.
When I think of one of the most difficult things to happen recently, my mind goes to the earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan. And specifically, I think about the nuclear power plants on the coast and all the damage to the environment that is being done. It is horrifying. What just slays me, though, is the thought of the workers that continue to work at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. The workers there are not un-intelligent. They know what it means to work in and around nuclear materials. And yet they have the courage to rise up and to continue to work because if they don't do the work, nobody will. There was and continues to be great risk. The IAEA continues to list the situation as very serious. Per the official reporting, emergency workers are now seeing high radiation measurements within their bodies. These workers are poignant examples of what it means to rise up and to work towards fixing something that is disastrous—an engagement of holy living.
Often, we can put a face on disaster and label it perverse, crooked, or corrupt. It is much more difficult when it is an entire social structure that is the culprit like what is happening in Japan. How do we face it? How do we deal with it? Would you cut the electricity to your house if it came from a nuclear power plant or from a coal mine? I don't think I would. In a thousand ways, every day, I participate in systems that are corrupt. Whether they harm the earth as in pollution or harm people as in prejudice and hatred, the systems are corrupt, perverse, and crooked. As participants within a system, it calls for repentance from all of us. And it calls for the rising up that comes from breaking forth out our baptismal waters and seeing the world through God's eyes.
It is interesting to me that this scripture of repentance and baptism "arises" on Mother's Day. However, it is very fitting. The first North American Mother’s Day was conceptualized by Julia Ward Howe. Howe had become so distraught by the death and carnage of the Civil War that she called on Mothers to come together and protest what she saw as the futility of their Sons killing the Sons of other Mothers. She wrote the following proclamation:
"Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears say firmly:
"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, "Disarm, Disarm!" The sword of murder is not the balance of justice! Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war.
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God."
Rising up is hard. Changing systems is hard. But it is what God would have us do. And God has us doing it together over and over again through the strength of our baptismal waters or our baptismal tears.
So, go forth, repent, be transformed, and rise up.
Shalom and Amen.