May 10, 2015
Acts 10.44-48; 1 John 5.1-6; John 15.6-17
+ Many of you have probably heard the events that have been going on in the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida this past week. There, at the Cathedral of St. Luke in Orlando, a gay couple were seeking to have their son baptized. A date had even been set. Then, all of a sudden, the dean of the cathedral informed the couple that they would have to postpone the baptism because some of members of the cathedral had an issue with the fact that the parents were gay. There was, of course, an uproar. The Bishop, Greg Brewer, got involved. And now, it seems, the baptism is back on.
Personally, I was at a loss throughout all of this. I have never heard of a baptism being canceled or postponed because the congregation didn’t support the parents.
It is particularly and almost strangely fortuitous that we have our scripture reading for today from the book of Acts, which just happens In our reading form Acts we find Peter asking hat very important question:
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing….”
As you all know, I am very outspoken when it comes to issues of baptism. So this situation in Central Florida really hit me hard on a few levels. I am appalled by any situation in which someone is actually being denied baptism (which is the real issue here). Especially—especially—in the Episcopal Church.
I’ve never heard of it. Ever. Even from the most conservatively orthodox people. It absolutely boggles my mind.
Now, I of course, have had my own friendly debates on the issue of Baptism with people who are both very liberal and conservative (and I apologize for throwing those terms around. I’m not certain anyone is 100% either conservative or liberal, especially in the Episcopal Church)
There are some of my more liberal friends who think it’s crazy that we here at St. Stephen’s baptize on any Sunday other than the Sundays designated as appropriate in the Book of Common Prayer—those being namely the Easter Vigil, Pentecost Sunday, All Saints, and the Baptism of Our Lord.
Others are really perplexed by the fact that we do what others may call “private” baptisms—namely, baptisms that are done outside of the regularly scheduled Sunday Eucharist. Of course my argument has always been that there is no such thing as a “private” baptism. As long as two or three are gathered together in the name of Christ, the Church is present. And with Christ present, there is nothing “private” being done.
I, of course, quote our reading from Acts from last week in which Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch right there in the river. I seriously doubt that was done on a Sunday designated as appropriate by the Book of Common Prayer, nor was it done in the context of a regularly scheduled Sunday Eucharist.
Now, I am not playing the rebel here. I am not trying to be a maverick. Any of you who have heard my sermons on a more than regular basis know that I hold baptism as so incredibly important. The only thing I preach about more than baptism is…
…love. Which you’re also getting this morning as well.
But, no, I am not being a rebel or a maverick about this. I am simply striving not to withhold the waters of baptism from anyone. When I appear before the throne one day, I will take my chances that I erred on the side of baptizing anyone under any circumstances rather than upholding some orthodox standard. And the rules that the Church—capital C—applies to people does, often, withhold those waters, whether that is the intent or not.
And I, as a simple priest trying to love God and love others, am simply not in the place to withhold anything as a powerful and as incredible as baptism from anyone. Nor should I. Not should any of us.
Because—and I never preach about God’s disappointment, never, but if God is going to disappointed with us, if Jesus is going to wag a finger at us, it is for issues like this. If when the Church—capital C—acts more like a bureaucratic museum upholding its some kind of pseudo-orthodoxy rather than radically proclaiming God’s acceptance and love, then the Church has failed—and failed miserably.
The Church’s job is to proclaim that love. Unabashedly. Loudly. Without limits. Even if it means breaking its own human-made rules. Because that is God’s love. It is without limits. It is never withheld. Which of course leads me into the other thing I love to preach about.
Today, we get a double dose of love in our scriptures. Jesus, in our Gospel reading, is telling us yet again to love. He tells us:
“Abide in my love.”
A beautiful phrase!
And St. John, in his epistle, reminds us of that commandment to love God and to love each other.
Now, as you hear me preach about again and again, this love is what being a Christian is all about. It is not about commandments and following the letter of the law. It not about being “right” or “perfectly moral” or self-righteous or even orthodox. It is not about being nice and sweet all the time. It is about following Jesus—and following Jesus means loving fully and completely.
Loving God. Loving each other. Fully and completely.
Yes, I know. It sounds fluffy. But the love Jesus is speaking of is not a sappy, fluffy love. Love, for Jesus—and for us who follow Jesus—is a radical thing. It is a messy thing. It is, often, an uncomfortable thing. To love radically means to love everyone—even those people who are difficult to love. To love those people we don’t want to love—to love the people who have hurt us or abused us or wronged us in any way—is the most difficult thing we can do. If we can do it at all. And sometimes we can’t.
But we can’t get around the fact that this is the commandment from Jesus. We must love.
“Abide in my love” does not mean living with anger and hatred and bitterness. Abide in my love leaves no room for homophobia or sexism or racism or any other kind of discrimination. You can’t abide in love and still live with hatred and anger. You can’t abide in love and still be a homophone or sexist or racist. It just can’t be done.
When Jesus says “Abide in my love” it really is a challenge to us as the Church. I know that people are scared by this. What this baptism in Orlando shows us is that the Church is really changing. And, for some people, for a lot of people, that is frightening.
But the Church of the future, whether we like it or not, has to shed these old ways of acting out in anger and fear and hatred. The Church of the future needs to constantly strive to abide in the love Jesus proclaims. If it does not, it will become an antique store filled with the antiques of a close-minded past. It will become an outmoded, hate-filled cesspool.
And if does, then that’s the way will be. I won’t be a priest in a Church like that. I doubt many of here this morning would be members of a Church like that.
But, I know it will not come to that. I know as well as I am standing here this morning with you, that that love will win out. God’s love always wins out. Besides, if the Church becomes a place in which baptisms are denied and others are continued to be denied, then I know it is not the place in which God’s radical, all-accepting love dwells. If that’s what the Church becomes, it will, in fact, stop being the Church. If the Church becomes a place of hatred or anger, I doubt many of us would remain members of that church.
This is why the Church must change. This is why the Church must be a place of love and compassion and radical acceptance.
This coming Thursday, we celebrate the Ascension of Jesus. On that day, he was physically taken up from us. But what he has left us with is this reality of us—his followers—being the physical Body of Jesus in this world. We can only be that physical Body of Jesus when we also become his physical heart as well. We can only do that when we abide in his love. When we love fully and radically. There’s no getting around that. There’s no rationalizing that away. We can argue about it. We can quote scriptures and biblical law and canon law and ecclesiastical precedence and the Book of Common Prayer all we want. But abiding in love is abiding in love. And abiding in that love means loving—fully and completely and without judgment.
To be Jesus’ presence in this world means loving fully and completely and radically. Call that heresy or a simplistic understanding of what Jesus is saying or part of the so-called “liberal agenda.” I call it abiding it in Jesus’ love, which knows no bounds, which knows no limits.
So, today, and this week, abide in this love. Let us celebrate God by living out Jesus’ command to love. As we remember and rejoice in the Ascension, let our hearts, full of love, ascend with Jesus. Let them soar upward in joy at the fact that Jesus is still with us. And we when we love—when we love each other and God—the Spirit of God’s love will remain with us and be embodied in us.