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That Which Prevents


OT: 2 Kings 10:15-17                    

NT: Acts 8:26-40

This afternoon we will be doing something we have not done in a long time: a baptism. I think it would be worthwhile to prepare ourselves for it by focusing briefly on an important baptismal text in the Acts of the Apostles, today's New Testament reading. This is one of those passages that reads significantly different depending on whether you are reading it in the King James Version or one of the more modern versions. It's not so much the archaic flavor of the language, all those "thees" and "thous," but rather a question of length. You see, there exist two rather different versions of Acts, one about 20% longer than the other. Both of them seem stylistically the same, so conceivably both might be different editions by the same author. He may have expanded or abridged his work. But the longer version gives hints of being a later expansion of the shorter, perhaps by a later author who simply was able to mimic Luke's style. The King James Version uses the longer text, while the RSV and other modern versions have decided the shorter is the original text of Acts, and so that's the one they use. That is my working hypothesis in what follows.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian is one of the places where there is an interesting expansion in the longer text. I believe that it is very significant theologically. Let's look at the moment in the story in which the Ethiopian, convinced by Philip's interpretation of Isaiah 53, starts running ahead of Philip and says, in effect, "OK, I've heard enough. I want to get baptized in the nearest creek."

"And as they went along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, 'See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?'" At this point, the shorter text of Acts goes straight to this: "And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him."

That little phrase, "What is to prevent my being baptized?" is significant. In one form or another, it pops up in several New Testament baptism texts (and even once in a text of the Isis religion).

Ananias says to Paul, "And now, why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, washing away your sins."

Peter says to his companions in the house of Cornelius, "Who can prevent these from being baptized, since they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?

In what was probably an early infant baptism text, Jesus tells the disciples, "Let the little children come to me and prevent them not, for of such is the Kingdom of   God." The text is signaling the parents to bring their infants forward to be baptized.

It is interesting to speculate on the question, why was this note of "no delay" repeatedly sounded? One possibility is that it was intended to warn against an actual tendency some people had to delay being baptized. Why the delay? Because they were afraid that baptism would wipe their slate clean, wash their sins away, but that if they went on to slip up and sin again, they would be irretrievably damned! After baptism they were on their own! This was actually a great problem in the early church. Constantine waited till he was on his deathbed to be baptized; he was afraid of making a fatal slip when it was too late. As comical as it seems to us, and as superstitious, it was a real matter of concern to the early church. So maybe it was already the fashion to delay baptism by the time the New Testament was written.

But I see something else in the many exhortations not to delay baptism. I see a kind of breathless excitement, an eagerness. Certainly Carrie has been eager to be baptized--and patient, too, since our rotten plumbing caused a delay in baptizing her. I see the note not to delay as meaning, "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's do it!"

And in the shorter version of Acts 8, nothing does prevent the baptism. As soon as the Ethiopian catches the glint of the desert sun on a creek or a pond they pull over, and in he goes! But in the longer version, something is interposed right at this point. Once again the Ethiopian says, "Look, here is some water! What is there to prevent my being baptized?" But just here our later scribe has inserted a bit of dialogue. Philip issues a caution, sets a condition: "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And then the Ethiopian replies with a suspiciously ecclesiastical-sounding confession of faith: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." And then, finally, Philip is willing to dunk him.

Do you see what has happened here? Time has gone by, more water under the bridge, so to speak. And it has come about that the church is more particular than it was at first about just whom it is willing to accept for baptism. Not just any Tom, Dick, and Harry. Not just any publican and sinner. Not just anyone who wanted to come to Jesus. Historically, as you know, the church began to demand a statement of faith before it would baptize you. That is precisely where the various creeds came from. They were check lists, pass words, shibboleths for those seeking baptism. You had to repeat the creed before you went under. You couldn't belong to the church unless you qualified.

This left the doubter out in the cold--the kind of person Jesus welcomed. Think of the poor guy who blurted out to Jesus, "I believe! Help my unbelief!" How about Zacchaeus, Thomas the doubter, the thief on the cross? None of these guys would even have known what you were talking about if you asked them whether they could sign the dotted line on the Apostles Creed with a clear conscience.

The church has become choosier than the text of Acts 8 had shown Philip being when he baptized the Ethiopian on the spot. The church had decided it was to be a society of the like-minded, an institution with a party line. They didn't want anyone rocking the boat. If you had your own ideas, your own interpretations, well then, you were welcome to go elsewhere (namely, to hell!). This is the viewpoint of the Pope today when he silences dissident theologians like Matthew Fox, Charles Curran, Hans Kung.

So the Ethiopian asks "What is to prevent my being baptized?" and in the original text, Philip's implicit answer is "Nothing at all!" But in the longer text, something actually does stand in the way of the baptism. Literally! The conclusion of the story, the baptism itself, is literally delayed, since a scribe has inserted the requirement of parroting the party line before the baptism can occur! The original openness of the waters of baptism have now been closed. The church charges admission before it will let you enter, and the text has been rewritten to accommodate it to that view.

Originally, baptism was the equivalent of when, in the lifetime of Jesus, someone would drop everything and follow him, no questions asked. The decisive act of enlistment with Jesus. Did the first disciples have a creed full of beliefs about Jesus? It is plain from the gospels that they did not. In fact, Jesus only later asks what opinions they have reached concerning him. And when Peter shares his hunch that Jesus is to be understood as the Messiah, it is striking that Jesus tells him not to tell anyone else! It's as if he didn't want to foreclose the question! He wanted others to be able to come to their own conclusions. And others did: there are many strands of the gospel tradition which do not presuppose that Jesus is Messiah, but which think of him in many other ways.  

I have always maintained that the church can be and should be like the original circle of the followers of Jesus. All we need have in common is a serious commitment to learning of the way of Jesus of Nazareth. That commitment excludes nothing. You are still encouraged to learn of the wisdom of the philosophers, the Sufis, the Buddhists, the yogis, the scientists, the rabbis. That commitment requires nothing in the way of belief. You may regard Jesus as the virgin-born Son of God, as God incarnate, as a merely human teacher, and as a teacher with whom you do not always agree. I think I know of one member who views Jesus as an extraterrestrial. Only you can decide what you think about Jesus and about the truth. About what your spirit has to do to grow. But we find an advantage in being fellow seekers together.

Here's the unspoken charter of our church, a quote from Spinoza: "Faith allows the greatest latitude in speculation, allowing us without blame to think what we like about anything, and condemning, as heretics and schismatics, those who teach opinions which tend to produce obstinacy, strife, and anger."

The church, this church, is the fellowship of seekers traveling in the company of Jesus and of other great spirits. Because of that we decided some years ago no longer to require baptism of anyone wanting to join our church. We offer it, but we do not require it. Because the minute you require it, you are making it into a barrier to be crossed, a hoop to be jumped through. If it poses a problem, then it has become what the New Testament calls a stumbling block, a dead work, a hindrance to the life of faith.

This is also why we have no creeds. Not even the one I just quoted. Though that does, I believe, sum up our position, the minute we made it into a formula to be ritually repeated, we would have made even that statement of spiritual liberty into a confining bond. It would suddenly exclude those of a more traditionalist, literalistic faith who nonetheless want to be associated with us. We want to include, not to exclude. And creeds, even true ones, are meant to exclude.

Carrie Chappell will be baptized this afternoon, and we will be requiring nothing of her in the way of theoretical beliefs. That is not the kind of church we are. We would be committing a crime against Carrie if we somehow persuaded her that it is her duty to foreclose her search for spiritual truth, to prematurely settle issues that must probably remain open all her life, if she is honest with herself. We do not want to drown her religious and intellectual curiosity in the waters of baptism. We are simply affording her the chance to make clear to herself and to others where she stands, specifically that she wants to stand in the company of Jesus of Nazareth, among the friends of the Truth. And what could possibly stand in the way of that?

[After I had baptized her, I presented her with a Bible. A Koran, and the Tao Te Ching.]




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