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Remember your Baptism
a sermon based on Acts 8:14-17
By Guest DPS Preacher, Randy Quinn

Prejudice has been a part of the human experience for as long as there have been people living in groups larger than families. The problem with most prejudices is that we are so much a part of our own culture that we don’t always recognize any bias that may exist.

In colonial America, for instance, there was no one who gave serious thought about the difference between the white free men and the black slaves. It wasn’t recognized as a prejudice, really, until the Civil Rights movement of the last half of the 20th Century. The same can be said of the way the settlers treated the Native Americans or the way we treated Asian Americans during World War II.

From our perspective of history, we can recognize the wrong of these historic actions and attitudes, but at the time, there was no compelling reason to look beyond the status quo, the way it had always been. They lived in different times, and while we don’t condone what happened then, we know we choose to live differently.

In a similar fashion, it is often difficult for people in the 21st Century to understand some of the bias that was present in the 1st Century church. But they, too, lived in different times. So let me help paint the picture a little more clearly.

When the Jews returned from exile under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, they found a remnant of their ancestors still living in the land. Only there had been inter-marriage between the remaining Jews and the occupying Babylonians. These "half-breeds" focused their worship in the ancient city of Samaria and were soon referred to as "Samaritans."

In an attempt to uphold the law and to demand purity, the "Samaritans" were excluded from participating in the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem and soon became second-class citizens in the eyes of most Jews - though to those outside the Jewish faith they appeared to be the same people.

The animosity between these two groups of people grew stronger over time. It was so strong that faithful Jews in Jesus’ day would add a day or more to their journey by going around Samaria on their way from Nazareth to Jerusalem. (I think it’s important to remember, however, that modern Jews no longer recognize the distinction between Jew and Samaritan - there are in fact no Samaritans today.)

We have been taught - and I believe rightfully so - that all people have sacred worth. But that hasn’t always been universally recognized. Because we understand the sacred worth of all people, we can imagine having pity for some people - and maybe even avoiding them - but not hatred. But how many of us have fears about drugs or gangs or violence that keep us frombbspending time in some parts of the city? As much as we would like to bring good news to those neighborhoods, we’d rather send someone else to do it than go ourselves. Our reluctance to go betrays our own prejudice.

But it’s still hard for us to imagine the kind of disdain that existed in Jesus’ day. In fact, it’s hard for us to imagine it happening to any people in any era. That’s part of why we don’t fully understand what is happening in Northern Ireland or Bosnia or Kosovo or even on the West Bank of the Jordan River today.

But it is an intense hatred, leading travelers to have much stronger feelings than our anxieties when they come near the boundaries between the two groups. With that background in mind, we begin to get a glimpse of the tension that must have been present when Peter and John were sent to Samaria. Their hearts would be racing. Their palms would be sweaty. Their eyes would dart to and fro, looking for signs of welcome but suspecting that danger was lurking around every corner. Even when they had been there with Jesus they had not been totally comfortable; now they are even less comfortable.

So why go at all? Why not just stay in Jerusalem and let these people believe or not believe however they wanted? Why put themselves through this incredible amount of stress? Well, because they were sent. They were sent by the Holy Spirit.

It’s easy for us to try and control God or limit God’s grace. It’s easy for us to try to define when and where and how God should work. And it’s easy to try and hoard it as if there is only a limited amount of grace available.

I remember giving out Valentines in school to all my classmates. Most of the time we just bought a box of Valentines and I put names on them. Sometimes I’d buy a special Valentine for one or two people - including my favorite teachers. But there were some of my classmates that I didn’t really WANT to give one to. It was the first attempt to limit God’s grace that I can remember in my own life. Ironically, we were remembering St Valentine and his willingness to share God’s love but I wanted to restrict whom I share it with.

Peter and John would have been content to restrict grace from being given to the Samaritans, but God had another plan. Philip had shared the story of Jesus with the Samaritans. They apparently believed his story and accepted Jesus as the source of their salvation. Then they were baptized. But something was missing from their baptism.

My own personal understanding of baptism is a little different than most. I believe that baptism doesn’t "happen" to the individual being baptized. I believe baptism "happens" to the congregation that witnesses it.

The water is a sign of God’s acceptance of the person being baptized - as a reminder to the rest of us that since God accepts this person, so should we. Because God loves this person, so should we. God adopts this person as a son or daughter; we are expected to welcome a brother or sister into our midst.

When the Samaritans were baptized, the ‘congregation’ in Jerusalem was not present. So when word was received about their baptism, Peter and John were sent to see what happened. The change that took place in Peter and John’s hearts was the completion of their baptism. Peter and John saw how God’s Spirit could cross boundaries and celebrated the extension of God’s grace to the Samaritans.

They laid their hands on them to ‘confirm’ what they knew to be the truth - God’s power was given to them as well.

How many of you can remember your own baptism? Some of us were baptized as infants and cannot honestly remember the event. What we know is that at baptism, the congregation witnessed the profound mystery of God’s love being acted out. The people who witnessed it knew that we were accepted as God’s children because of who God is, not because of who we are.

Then at Confirmation, hands were laid on us to confirm that God was still working in our lives. At the same time, we learned that God is calling us. As it’s said in our [United Methodist] Book of Discipline,

"Baptism is followed by nurture and the consequent awareness by the baptized of the claim to ministry in Christ placed upon their lives by the church. Such a ministry is ratified in confirmation." [1]

Peter and John found that God’s Spirit compelled them to go and serve. God’s Spirit often sent them into places where they did not want to be, where they would not have chosen to serve. But they were faithful to their calling.

As we begin a new year, I think it’s important for us to remember our own baptism - or at least remember that we have been baptized. But we were not baptized for our own sake. Our baptism is the time in our lives when God’s call is first recognized.

So today we will renew the vows we made at our baptism. Whether you were baptized a year ago, a decade ago, or a generation ago, I invite you to participate in this service. Afterward, we will recognize some people who have made commitments to serve Christ through our church this year. We will lay hands on the elected officers of our church whose terms began this week.

As much as I wish it were different, there are still prejudices in our lives. Some of them we can name and see; others are hidden at this point. Most often we see them when we are the ones in the minority - like the bias I feel in small town schools toward those who are from long-term resident families. What I know is that God calls all of us to be adopted sons and daughters in and through baptism. I know that there is no limit to God’s grace; and God’s Spirit will help us convey that to a world that needs to know they are loved.

May we all find ways to participate in that message, today, tomorrow, and throughout this year. Amen.

[1] Book of Discipline 2000, paragraph 127.