Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Philip and the Evidence: a Sermon for the Baptism of Christ, Epiphany 1, 2022

 This sermon, or one something like it, was preached January 9, 2022, at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee.

When I was ordained - both times I was ordained - I was ordained a deacon on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation, at the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville. And I grew up in Knoxville. You've heard that before. And my mother's people are from Caryville, in the coal country north of Knoxville, on lower reaches of the Plateau, but north and east of here. When I was ordained I found myself wondering, so I'm going to get to this point in the service and the Bishop is going to lay hands on my head. What would happen if I were slain in the Spirit?  And a little over six months later, when I was ordained a priest at St John's Church in Memphis - then it was the Bishop and also all the other priests laying hands on my head - what would happen if I were slain in the Spirit? 

Now, if you're not familiar with that phrase, it is one of those moments, common in Charismatic and, Pentecostal expressions of Christianity, where the Spirit comes on someone and they are laid out on the floor, bang! Let’s call it a holy faint, but it’s believed to happen because the Spirit overwhelms the person.  And having grown up in this part of the country and knowing something about and even experiencing Pentecostal worship, I wondered about that. What would happen if Bishop Sanders laid hands on my head and I were slain in the Spirit?

Which brings us to today. No, not me being slain in the Spirit, but today, for all that we talk about the baptism, all of the focus is on God being present in the Spirit and God being present where we don't expect it. 

Today I want to talk about Philip. Where did Philip come from? Anytime you look at the Lectionary and you see a set of verses as short and truncated as we have in the Acts lesson today, the first thing to do is ask yourself what's missing; because when they've made that tight of selection, the context may be really interesting. And I found the context today really interesting because it's about Philip. 

The disciples heard that the word had come to Samaria - well, wait a minute! How did that happen? And why? Samaria of all places! We know, and especially from Luke, that Jews and Samaritans, they didn't talk to each other. They actually had some common roots, but some significant differences. And it was one of those things where they were in many ways so alike, they couldn't stand each other. Why Samaria?

Well, the answer to the question is Philip, Philip the Deacon. Now, how does Philip become a deacon? If you remember, and we hear earlier in Acts that the members of the early Christian community who were Greek-speaking Jews kind of felt like they were being shorted by the early Christian community who were Hebrew-speaking Jews, Aramaic-speaking Jews. And so the Apostles said, “Well, we're going to appoint seven good men as diakonoi, waiters - basically seven leaders in the Greek-speaking part of our community, who will make sure that the widows and orphans get their due.” The most famous of them was Stephen, but also justly famous is Philip. And when you look into the rest of the story and you look into the eighth chapter of Acts as a whole, the first thing you see is that after Stephen was martyred, there was persecution in Jerusalem and the Christian community, or some scholars think maybe just the Greek-speaking part of the Christian community, got scattered. And in that scattering, Philip goes to Samaria.

This is also the same Philip who at the end of this chapter meets the Ethiopian eunuch on the road. See, there is this consistency about Philip. He was ordained, we would say now, for the function of taking care of the people who were left out. And so when he is thrown out of Jerusalem, he goes to some of the most left out people that he can imagine. He goes to Samaria. 

And by God's grace, he's successful in Samaria. He is convicting in Samaria. They believe, and they see him doing wonderful things. In fact, one of them who sees him doing wonderful things is a guy by the name of Simon. We know him as Simon Magus, the guy who, after he sees what happens with the Apostles will say, “Listen, lay hands on me, too, and give me this power and, and I'll pay you for it.”

And Peter will say, “You keep your money. You do not understand. And your heart is not in the right place.” And this is interesting, because Simon believed, Simon had been baptized, too. 

He and others had received baptism in Jesus, but had not yet received the Spirit. Isn't it amazing what happens when they just give you this little chunk here: we have a minister, someone who is committed to the ministry of those who've been left out, and he goes to those who've been left out and time after time he is successful. And in fact, we know that the Spirit is with Philip because at the end of the chapter, it is the Spirit that catches Philip up, carries him out of Samaria, and takes him down to the road south of Jerusalem to meet the Ethiopian eunuch.

 At the same time, Philip for all his success needed, or at least the early Church felt he needed, confirmation of his authority.  And in Jerusalem the remaining Christians and the Twelve hear, my Lord! My Lord is doing something in Samaria. Phillip’s got something going in Samaria. And they don't go down there and say, “You shouldn't have done it.” They don't go down there and say, “This is a good start, but we're gonna finish it off.” They go down there and say, “Okay, so far so good. And we will now lay hands on all of them.” It's easy for us to confuse this, and I imagine some people have seen this, as a model for Confirmation as we practice it in the Church post the Apostolic Age. I don't think this is really that because this is not so much liturgical. This is a new step in bringing these outcasts - and believe me to Peter and John the son of Zebedee, these people would still have been outcast: they’re Samaritans! -  and they bring them into the Body. And we know they're brought into the Body because when they lay hands on them and pray, they receive the Holy Spirit

And whatever they do, there is enough evidence that the Holy Spirit has been received, that, again,  Simon wants in - unfortunately wants to buy his way in and not believe his way in - because he sees something. We don't know exactly what, but he sees something. Now we've spent a lot of time in the years since thinking about what that something is. And we know that it's important because in the baptism of Jesus, in all of the stories we have in the Synoptic gospels of the baptism of Jesus, this moment happens.  Luke all but ignores that Jesus was baptized, doesn't even say that he was baptized by John. Look in your bulletins and you'll see that they took a few verses out. In those verses John gets arrested. In Matthew and Mark it's a little bit later, but in Luke John gets arrested apparently before Jesus gets baptized. Odd, considering it's Luke that makes a concrete connection between John and Jesus. And we still believe he was actually baptized by John, but Luke doesn't make a big deal of that. What he does continue to make a deal of is that after the baptism and as Jesus is praying, it is under those circumstances is that the heavens are opened and the Spirit descends visibly as a dove, “in bodily form.” There's something there to see that lands on Jesus. And there is a voice. There is something there to hear, or at least that Jesus hears: “You are my beloved Son. And I am pleased with you.”

So we know how critical the Spirit is in empowering people, right? Because this is where Jesus' ministry starts. John is now off the table. This is where Jesus' ministry starts, and it has to do with this wonderful Trinitarian moment. Don't miss that. The Son here's, the Father speaks, the Spirit descends, the Trinity's present. And it is from this moment that we start seeing the evidence. 

See, the church has always taught that when theS pirit is moving, there's evidence. We have lists from Paul in Romans and in First Corinthians of the gifts of the Spirit. Actually, there are several different lists of the gifts of the Spirit. And I've seen some people try to say there are seven and some nine -  I actually read was something that said they were 18 because with all of these different lists, they wanted to make them additive, not overlapping. But there are certainly the ones that Paul talks about in Romans 12: prophecy, ministry, teaching, preaching, charity or giving, leading or governance, mercy. And later on, he also talks about tongues and interpretation of tongues, but in a context where, okay, that happens, but that's hardly the most important of the gifts.  Elsewhere, Paul talks about fruits of the Spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, long suffering, meekness, faith, modesty, self-control, chastity. So the expectation has always been when the Spirit moves, there’s evidence. Understand, if you look at those lists, it doesn't have to be dramatic. Again, I had that wondering about what would happen if I were slain in the Spirit, but it seems that the most profound and important evidences of the Spirit aren't that dramatic. They're in day-to-day living and in day-to-day functions that serve to reflect God's presence in the world. 

It’s kind of like my perspective on miracles. Most of you know that I spent nearly 40 years as a hospital chaplain, and people would say to me, “Have you seen any miracles?” I would say, “I've seen lots of them.” But I want you to appreciate my perspective on a miracle. A miracle is an event that shows God's presence in the world, whether we think we understand it or not. It’s a miracle when the medicine works - Not because we didn't think it would, but because it's evidence of God working in the world. It's a miracle when people get better. And I will tell you sometimes as a chaplain, it is a miracle when people find rest at last, not because we don't understand what's going on, or we don't have a perspective on how God is working in the universe, but because these are signs of God's presence in the world.

So Jesus, having been baptized and praying, receives the Spirit in this sense, and I say in this sense for a reason, and his ministry begins and we see the evidence; and Philip goes to another group of cast out people, the Samaritans, and he's preaching and baptizing and there's evidence. And the Apostles come down to confirm the evidence. And the evidence is certainly perhaps healings and wonders, but also the way the church is built up. And also the way people who had been cast out, left out, are brought in and made part of the community. 

Ordination is like that. My ordination, your ordination - I mean, you knew that right? One of the best comments I knew from my recently retired Bishop, Bishop Marty Fields, was that the primary ordination for ministry is in baptism. And we receive the Spirit from God, which we know is going on in baptism - if not only in baptism - for ministry, to see the evidence. And lay people have the broadest perspective on where that evidence can be shown. Bishop Field said that in ordination, your focus, or where you show your evidence, just gets narrower and narrower. The Bishop has the least scope of all because that's most focused. The layperson has the most choices of where and how to show evidence of the Spirit working in the world and the most opportunities with these varied gifts that any one of us may have. - and one of these gifts each one of us surely does have - to show the evidence of the Spirit working in the world. Maybe it's like what happened with the Lectionary. What I mean by that is, I saw this little snippet and said, “There's got to be more to the story than this. There's something going on. I’ve got to put in some effort to look for it.”

By the same token, we believe that by virtue of God's presence, the Spirit is working in the world. We believe that by virtue of our baptism, the Spirit is in some sense working in each of us. And we may need to put in some extra effort to see it. Sometimes it's harder to see it working in other people. Sometimes in our overly-expressed humility, it’s hard to see it working in ourselves; but the opportunity is there to see and participate in the work of the Spirit in the world. For after all, we have been baptized in the baptism of Christ in a tradition that comes to us from the Apostles. We have been baptized and we can start looking in our own lives and in the lives of others for the evidence that in us is the Holy Spirit and the fire, the power, to show the Spirit in the world.

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