Ritual is Just the Beginning: Acts 15.1–18

2017.5.14 our courseDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 14, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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Since resurrection day I’ve focused on a succession of new characters in our passages from Acts of the Apostles: Cleopas, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist, and the Ethiopian. Today we have two more, Paul (though we saw him briefly, earlier, under the name Saul) and Barnabas. But there have been two recurring characters or elements that I have avoided until today: male genital modification and the Holy Spirit.

The Ethiopian is a eunuch. He is a man who has been castrated. This week we have Jewish followers of Jesus stating that the Gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised as they had been. We have also had talk of metaphoric, or spiritual circumcision. Stephen decries his co-religionists:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. (Acts 6.51)

Stephen is saying they have failed to cut away what prevents them from hearing and loving God, from being led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is also concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. When he pushes back on the Jewish followers of Jesus, it is through Spirit:

 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; (Acts 15.8)

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are moments when the Holy Spirit comes upon people, sometimes at baptism, sometimes later. Sometimes the Holy Spirit “falls upon” a whole group at once, sometimes on individuals who have been physically touched by those who have already received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, by this account, wholly unpredictable.

Predictability may be one of our biggest problems as humans, at least for we humans who want to rise above our humanity, even just a little bit. The Bible is, in its entirety, a testament to our predictable shortcomings. We want so badly to do better, and yet…

Remember how Abram and Sarai went out into the wilderness to show their faith in God? For decades they wandered. And for decades God promised them a child. But they became impatient. Abram and Sarai let their impatience over take their faith, so they forced the slave Hagar to bear their next generation. As a result, their wanderings extended.

When God made the promise of a child again, it came with two markers: a change in their names to Abraham and Sarah plus circumcision for Abraham and all the men in his household for all time forward.

It is as if our Biblical forebears are saying we need to have some literal skin in the game or we will be lost and aimless forever.

But physical circumcision proves to be insufficient. In the next desert journey, Moses’ leading of the slaves away from Egypt, he instructs the people:

Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer (Deuteronomy 10.16)


…the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, in order that you may live (Deuteronomy 30.6)

For a long time, we have been trying to find a way to make permanent our faithfulness to God. We have tried to not be easily distracted by shiny idols and easily corrupted by greed. We have tried to keep God as our Lord, rather than the kings of nations. We want, so very badly, to come home to God. To stay free and fed in the garden, tending to what needs care and leaving alone what is not meant for us. But we keep, predictably, falling short.

Which is, I think, why I have come to love baptism as a ritual of covenant.

Please do not hear this as anti-Semitic supersessionism. I know that is basically how the Christian testament is framed, but I am in no way saying that Jewish rituals are wrong and now we Christians have it right. My love of the Christian font is not a rejection of anyone else’s sacred spaces or practices.

Baptism, after all, has as much potential to be meaningless or shallow as Stephen and Moses say their peoples’ circumcisions are, if not more so because it leaves no permanent mark on the body.

So how does it work and what is there to love here?

In answer to the first, I don’t know. I don’t know what goes on, exactly, when we come together around the font.

But starting the work of faith through baptism feels like such an honest representation of the work of faith. Saying yes to God in slippery water is to let go any pretense of controlling God.

Fleeting in nature, soon dried up by a cloth and evaporation, baptism embodies how elusive moments of transcendence can be, how briefly we are really able to sustain the greatest commandment to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.

At the very same time, baptism demonstrates that all we need to quench our thirst for deep relationship and a home is ours for the asking. The Ethiopian shows us that if we ask for the water, if we ask for companions in covenant-holding, here they are. And if we ask for the Holy Spirit, she comes, too.

Think about the generative moment between God and tehom in Genesis: God invites the water to separate and so she does. She then takes the form of Wisdom in Proverbs. There it is her turn to cry out to us: she wants to be our sister (8.1; 7.4). It is the covenant power of the Holy Spirit at work when Ruth and Naomi become sisters in their widowhood. God does not appear once in their redemption from certain death and into new life. It is another kind of holiness that binds them together and makes them strong in their promise: Where you go, I will go, and your people shall be my people.

As Stephen and Moses teach, true circumcision is an ongoing ritual of demarcation demonstrated by how all of us walk through the world. As Philip and Paul add on, we need to continually to wash away obstinacy from our hearts, in order to demonstrate a ready response to God in our lives.

Baptism is, like circumcision, a starting point rather than a goal.

Marking ourselves as God’s is the process of a lifetime. We will fail as predictably as ever. But if we let her, through invitation and each other, the fluid strength of the Holy Spirit will right our course home once more.

Ben and Eli, are you ready to mark your beginning in water and Spirit? To let us go where you go, to be your people, and to become ours?

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