Who Is In Charge

Acts 10:44-48 (NIV)

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

Acts 15:8-9 (NIV)

God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.

Acts 10:44-48 and Acts 15:8-9

My daughter’s birthday came shortly after the latest meetings of the Anglican Consultative Council, and since I have been reading on Episcopal News Service and Anglican News Service the reports on the meetings (and the reports on the reports on the meetings), this has meant that I have been observing the interactions of various figures in the ecclesiastical hierarchy at the same time that I have been observing the interactions of a group of 2nd grade girls at a slumber party.  This combination has convinced me of the truth of a quote I came across in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Eat, Pray, Love.  Gilbert writes, “I met an old lady once, almost one hundred years old, and she told me, “There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history: How much do you love me? And Who’s in charge”

The question that arises in today’s scripture readings is “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  It seems like such a simple question.  Sure, if they’ve received the Holy Spirit, yeah, go ahead and baptize them.  We are so used to the idea of baptizing Gentiles, and it seems to us so obvious now, that it is easy to forget that when it was new it was mind-bogglingly controversial.  It is easy to forget that for many in the first-century Church, the idea of offering baptism to someone who was uncircumcised really did violate everything they held sacred.  Many of Jesus’ followers were completely enraged at the thought of accepting people who did not obey the Word of God, and they fought bitterly about it.  They were understandably aghast that Peter would do something so clearly contrary to the code of purity and righteousness they had devoted their lives to.

We talk about there being four gospels, and that’s true.  But there is something special about the Gospel according to Luke, and that is that Luke gives his accounts of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus but he doesn’t stop there; he keeps right on writing about all the things that happened after the resurrection as the Holy Spirit works in the lives of the disciples who have been transformed by the risen Christ.  Luke keeps writing about the formation of the Church in the first century, with all its conflicts and all its miracles.  Luke’s continued writings are what we now call “Acts,”  which is short for “Acts of the Apostles,” although some commentators say it should be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit” and they have a good point there.  The Christian story does not end with Easter, it continues after Easter as the Holy Spirit works in the lives of flawed and limited mortals who make up the Church.  And so now, on the Sundays after Easter we always read from the book of Acts, to hear what happened after the first Easter.

What happened after the first Easter was that the followers of Jesus experienced the Holy Spirit working in themselves, and in other people, sometimes very Other people, sometimes the people they least expected.  And that is what has happened over and over in the conflicts the Church has had over whether to withhold the sacraments: people change when they see the Holy Spirit at work.

For example, it used to be that the church withheld the sacrament of marriage from interracial couples, since there were many laws in this country which made interracial marriages illegal.  Many people insisted that interracial marriage was contrary to the will of God and argued this point with theories and theologies.  Over time, though, people’s understanding of the will of God changed, not usually by theories and theologies, but by seeing the love and faith of some interracial couples, and becoming aware that there was something holy there.  One that realization dawned on them, it was as if they asked, “Can anyone withhold the sacrament of marriage to these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

The ordination of women seemed to huge numbers of people to violate the clear teaching of scripture as well as thousands of years of tradition.  The ordination of women even seemed totally contrary to nature.  There were plenty of theories and theologies about how ordination was not what God intended for women, and how the movement toward it was a sure sign of the Downfall of Western Civilization.  Men were vehemently opposed to it when it happened, and so were many women.  It was deeply divisive.  But the reason the movement was able to gain traction was simply that people saw the Holy Spirit at work in the spiritual leadership of women they knew.  And once they saw it, it was as if they asked, “Can anyone withhold the sacrament of ordination to these women who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”

All I can say is that I am deeply grateful that I can be among you today as your priest because of the courage and sacrifices of the women and men who forged through the controversy and hostility and resistance and enormous obstacles simply on the strength of their conviction that the Church could not withhold the sacrament from women who had received the Holy Spirit just as men had.  There were so many arguments against them, including the argument that they should wait until we had done more theology, wait until everyone came to consensus, wait until it wouldn’t damage relationships with others who disagreed, wait until it wouldn’t cause trouble.  God wouldn’t want us to cause trouble, right?

It seems there are always more reasons to condemn than there are to hope.  It is so much easier to burn down a barn than to build one.  The experience of the Holy Spirit in another person is a very difficult point to prove in an argument.  It leaves us open to all sorts of ridicule and scorn from those whose arguments are based in following the rules.  But once we have seen the Holy Spirit in someone, the experience opens us up to love that person in a new way.  Perhaps it is love that causes trouble.

In his book, Aging Well, the researcher George Vaillant takes on and writes about “longitudinal studies,” studies that follow people’s lives over the course of many years to find out what leads to a life of wellness (physically and psychologically) over the long-term.  Although I think there are a few points in the book in which the evidence he collects on lives of faith leads to a different conclusion than the one he draws, it is on the whole an excellent book.   There is a very good article on his work in this month’s issue of The Atlantic entitled, “What makes us happy?”  The journalist writes, I watched [Vaillant] give a lecture to…graduate students on the power of positive emotions—awe, love, compassion, gratitude, forgiveness, joy, hope, and trust (or faith). “The happiness books say, ‘Try happiness. You’ll like it a lot more than misery’—which is perfectly true,” he told them. But why, he asked, do people tell psychologists they’d cross the street to avoid someone who had given them a compliment the previous day?

In fact, Vaillant went on, positive emotions make us more vulnerable than negative ones. One reason is that they’re future-oriented. Fear and sadness have immediate payoffs—protecting us from attack or attracting resources at times of distress. Gratitude and joy, over time, will yield better health and deeper connections—but in the short term actually put us at risk. That’s because, while negative emotions tend to be insulating, positive emotions expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.

To illustrate his point, he told a story about one of his “prize” Grant Study men, a doctor and well-loved husband. “On his 70th birthday,” Vaillant said, “when he retired from the faculty of medicine, his wife got hold of his patient list and secretly wrote to many of his longest-running patients, ‘Would you write a letter of appreciation?’ And back came 100 single-spaced, desperately loving letters—often with pictures attached. And she put them in a lovely presentation box covered with Thai silk, and gave it to him.” Eight years later, Vaillant interviewed the man, who proudly pulled the box down from his shelf. “George, I don’t know what you’re going to make of this,” the man said, as he began to cry, “but I’ve never read it.” “It’s very hard,” Vaillant said, “for most of us to tolerate being loved.”

Questions that will come before the Episcopal Church’s General Convention in July will include what to do about the moratorium on authorizing liturgies that bless same-sex unions and what to do about the moratorium on electing and consecrating a bishop that some people in the Anglican Communion hierarchy do not approve of.  There are plenty of complexities to those questions.  But many of our deputies will also ask the question, “How can we withhold the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament of ordination to gay people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  The way we answer that question will put us at risk, will expose us to the common elements of rejection and heartbreak.  As the work of the Holy Spirit so often does.  It is very hard for most of us to tolerate love, for us to tolerate hope, for us to tolerate faith.

In so many situations in our lives we ask those two important questions: How much do you love me? And Who’s in charge?  I expect that the answer to the first question is a simple one.  People do not love us according to the standards we draw up of how much they should love us.  People do not love us according to how much love we deserve.  People do not love us according to how much love we need.  I expect that in the end, people love us as much as they can.  All of us, struggling with our wounds and our limitations, struggling with grace, love as much as we can.

There is suffering in our lives when people’s loving us as much as they can does not seem to be enough.  Sometimes we shut down then, into despair, or condemnation.  Sometimes, even in our wounded state, we open ourselves to tolerate the love of God.  And it is then that we may glimpse the answer to the second question, that despite what seems like an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary, the One who is in charge is the Holy Spirit.