Watered Down Christianity Is Where It's At
I have to preach a sermon in less than 24 hours, and I've been sweating over it all week. Quite literally.
I sweat a lot when I work out. And when I mean a lot, I mean more than most people. The other day I went to a spin class and really worked up a sweat. I looked around at the people in my class, most of whom were women. They were sweating, some of them anway, but not like me. My wife was next to me and she just sort of glistens. I was literally pouring sweat. It flowed out of me like I was being squeezed like an orange. Beneath my cycle there was a huge puddle. I watched as drops would descend like rain to the floor, literally splashing as they landed. It was flat out nasty.
No one else had a puddle under their cycle, not even the other dude that was in the class. He had a couple of drops to wipe up when all was said and done. I needed a squeegee and a mop to clean mine. I wondered where all that water was coming from, and why I seemed to be shedding more than most people. Some things will have to remain a mystery, I guess.
Here's something that's not a mystery: It's fairly common knowledge that the human body is 75% water. That's a lot of water, if I may say so.
After my episode at the spin class, I got to thinking...
We are made up almost entirely of water, we use it to clean ourselves, and we desperately need it in order to survive. In the Developed World we don't think a lot about our water consumption--until we get our bills at the end of the month. We waste hundreds of gallons of water on frivolous things like leaving the faucet on while we brush our teeth, taking horribly long showers, and watering our lawns. But in some places in the world, clean water is so far under the surface of the ground that people can't possibly find it. In most developing countries, water consumption is a luxury, not a right. In fact, there are places in the world right now where water is so scarce that it is more valuable than gold.
Water is transformative, too. You put it on a dying plant that is planted in dry, cracked soil and it will be revived. Where there is water, there is life.
A few days ago, I was sitting by a pool in a hotel, watching an elderly man, who could barely walk. He was crippled by arthritis and hobbled to the edge of the pool. But once he was in the water, he began to move with grace and with ease. Where there is water there is not just life, but also motion and renewal.
Jesus once said that he was the Living Water. He said that if anyone "drank" from the Living Water that they would never be thirsty again. And one of the ways that we know we are part of Jesus' community on earth is through baptism by water. Through the waters of baptism we are reminded that Jesus came to give us life, and not just us---but everyone and all of Creation. Through the waters of baptism we can know what it means to be cleansed, renewed, refreshed, moved, made new. We know that we belong, that we who would be Christ's followers are one in spirit, in purpose and in love because the Living Water affirms that we are.
But how much do we really believe this? How much do we own and embrace what it means to be filled, washed by, surrounded by and drinking from the Living Water?
The story that I am bringing to light this Sunday is from Acts 10, which has become a particularly divisive passage of Scripture for far too many Christians in recent years. And it has rested on me this week, convicting me, calling me to repentance. Repentance, it has been said, is the divine gift of being turned toward the truth.
You see, there was this Roman centurion by the name of Cornelius, and Cornelius turned his back on Roman gods, and began giving alms to the poor and hanging out with the Jewish folk in the synagogue in Caesarea. He was what is known as dikaios or living as an observant Jew. One day, Corenlius has this vision that he's supposed to send for a guy named Peter who is staying 30 miles away in another village called Joppa.
So he does.
When the story swings to Peter's perspective, Cornelius' servants are approaching Joppa around the middle of the day. Peter, meanwhile, finds himself read for a nap up on the roof of the house where he is staying. Naps are good. Naps on a roof with a nice breeze are better. But while Peter is sleeping, he falls into a trance into a state of ekstasis and the vision that he has is a doozy.
In the dream, Peter is presented with a huge sheet full of all kinds of animals that are not kosher. Every kind of animal, reptile and bird you could think of was on the sheet. A voice tells Peter, "Go to it, man. Kill and eat." Peter protests that he has never eaten anything not kosher in his whole life and was not about to start. The voice said, "If God says it's okay, it's okay. Don't make unclean, what God has made clean." The vision repeated itself three times, and then Peter woke up, probably wondering if he'd had some bad fish or something. The Greek word that is used to demonstrate what is going on with Peter at this point is diakrenomenos which literally means that he was at war with himself.
As he is pondering all of this, the Spirit of God speaks to him in a whisper that there were three men at the door, and he was supposed to go with them. At that moment Cornelius' men show up and begin knocking. They tell Peter about Cornelius, and about his vision. Peter invites them in, and the next day he goes with them to Caesarea. When he arrives, Cornelius bows down to him--the Greek word is proskyneo, which means to fall down and worship--but Peter brings him to his feet, and hears his story. In a moment of clarity, the meaning of the vision he'd had earlier becomes clear to Peter. God's grace is being extended to all people, even Gentiles. Even Roman centurions. And Peter preaches Jesus to Cornelius and his whole house.
The Spirit of God falls upon the people in Cornelius' house and they began speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter ordered that they all be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
And they were.
I thought about this passage alot
First, if you are a first century Jewish Christian reading or hearing this story, it would have been horribly challenging to absorb. Especially, if you were reading it after 70 A.D.
In 70 A.D. Titus, the son of Vespasian, emperor of Rome besieged Jerusalem after an insurrection. The siege was terrible. Tens of thousands of Jews perished, most of them horribly. Jospephus, the historian relates how thousands of Jews were crucified when they tried to escape the city under siege. Famine wracked Jerusalem during the six months the Romans surrounded the city. Death was everywhere. In the midst of the siege, when hunger had ravaged everyone in the city, a woman named Mary killed her own infant son in a moment of madness and ate half of him. Men crashed into her home after smelling the smell of the flesh roasting, thinking that she had been hoarding food. They were horrified at what they found. The word of what she did spread throughout the area, affecting even the Romans.
In the end, the city was sacked and the Temple was burned and looted. The remaining Jews were rounded up and many of them were executed in games that Titus put on in celebration of a family members' birthday.
In nearby Antioch, the city rose up against its large Jewish population in an effort to show solidarity with the Romans. Thousands of innocent Jewish people were horribly killed.
So, if you are a first century Jewish Christian hearing or reading the story of how Cornelius was baptized... would you buy it? Would it seem impossible to you that God would offer grace to someone who represented the worst of humanity to you? After hearing (and perhaps experiencing) the horrors inflicted upon the Jewish people by the Roman army, would you accept a Roman centurion as your brother in Christ? Could it even be possible, in your mind, that God would want to even save such a person.
Would you want God to?
Further, as a Jewish Christian reading or hearing this story, you would have been challenged to examine your notions of what God considered clean and unclean.
I find Peter's vision so important in this whole discussion. What Peter was being asked to do in his vision was not simply to break a simple dietary restriction. Peter's adherence to kosher food was a matter of life and death. During the Maccabean revolution, many Jews chose to die rather than be forced to eat unclean food. One priest, Eleazar, was horribly killed while his tormentors tried to force non-kosher food down his throat. The old man resisted, spitting out the food, refusing to be defiled even as he was in agony.
Peter isn't just refusing to do what he is being asked to do, he is implicitly stating, "I would rather die than do this..."
But over and over again, God calls him to eat what he considers unclean. And shortly after, Peter is called upon to enter into the house of a Gentile, to eat with a Gentile, and to baptize a Gentile---all of which were acts that made him ritually impure and challeng his notions about salvation and grace.
In the Western world, this story has been one of sunshine and roses. Cornelius had faith, and was obedient to God. He didn't even know who Jesus was, but was drawn to Christ in a mysterious and beautiful way. Peter was faithful with the message of Christ and took it to Cornelius, who received the gift of salvation as a result of Peter's witnessing to him. This story teaches the church in the West all about evangelism, the Four Spiritual Laws, and a host of other things that are completely on the surface. No one really wants to dig around in this story. It's easier to stay on the safe, surface where everything is simple, and not very challenging.
But for some people, this story would have been incredibly offensive, challenging and all about life and death.
Here's a way of thinking about it that might help to reframe the whole thing. Imagine that instead of a Roman centurion, we are hearing a story about a man who helped plan the terrorist acts of 9/11. Imagine that we are hearing about people who cheered in the streets of their Middle Eastern town when the twin towers fell to the ground.
Imagine that these people are now being given the same status in the Christian community as you. Imagine that they are now eligible to be a deacon, or an elder... or a minister in your church. Imagine that they are being baptized and that other Christian leaders are telling you that you are now brothers and sisters in Christ. Imagine that despite thousands of years of animosity, despite all of the doctrinal beliefs that you are being asked to break, and your culture that demands that you cast a suspicious eye upon them at best, and at worst that you hate them...
And you are being asked to love them.
And even further, if you look to Peter's example, you are being asked to serve them, to minister to them---and all of this before you even know anything about them.
Would you want to?
Here's a question for those of us who call ourselves Christian, who are part of what we call the Church: What does it take for us to move from doctrines of life and death to the openness we must feel in Christ?
I think it takes a new understanding of baptism. I think it takes being aware of the sacraments that are all around us and in us. If Jesus is the Living Water, then the Living Water is something that we all need, that we all have the potential to be filled with, that none of us can live without. We have the deep and powerful meaning of the sacrament of baptism in front of us all of the time. Every time we drink... Every time we bathe... Every time we clean the dirt of the day off of our bodies.. Every time we give a cup of cold water in the name of the Living Water...
And each and every person that we encounter, has the potential to live into the promise made by the Living Water, to drink and be filled and never thirst... Each person has the sacrament--the outward sign and symbol of grace unbound--of Living Water filling their bodies, showering them with hope.
Even those who some might call our mortal enemies.
These... our brothers and sisters.
Historians have traced the moments when Christianity began to spread with almost lightning speed in the first and second century. So many of these moments were predicated by disaster, by plague by hardship that befell those who had been the enemies of Christians, and Christians rose up to give aid, to offer themselves and to leave the doctrines of death and life for something more open, more freeing, more Christ-like. A Roman soldier, who became a Christian recalled how Christians came to help when there was a plague in his region. Many of them died as a result. He saw them cheerfully and willingly give of themselves over and over again. He asked someone at last, "Who are these people?" He was told they were followers of the Way of Christ. He became a follower himself, even rescinding the vow he made to Caesar when he became a soldier, and dying a martyr's death.
What if we who dare to call ourselves Christ's followers, did the same? What if we began to live into the hope of our baptism and the promise of the Living Water, who gives us life?
It would give a whole new meaning to a "Watered Down Christianity," wouldn't it?