Whose Baptism?

Acts 8:26-40

thekla2
This fresco represents the calling of Thekla, which led her to renounce her engagement and her life as a married woman. Thekla appears at a window (far left), listening to Paul as he preaches with his raised right hand on an open codex. Behind Paul, stands Theokleia, Thekla’s mother, with her right hand raised in admonition (her eyes and right hand have been scratched out, an indication that someone considered her a heretic). Thekla was not permitted to appear in public, but she heard Paul’s sermon from the window of a neighbor’s house and was spellbound by his words. In spite of her mother’s admonition, she renounced her engagement, followed Paul, and spread the word of God. “Stylistic comparisons suggest a date for these paintings in the late 5th or early 6th century A.D., in particular in the Justinianic period” [Austrian Archaeological Institute (www.oeai.at/index.php/st-pauls-grotto.html)].
 “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The Ethiopian treasurer asks Philip this as they ride along in the treasurer’s royal cart and carriage. “Look, here is water!”

And Philip responds by leaping off the wagon, and baptizing the new believer.

No special water.

No special time.

No special place.

An ancient story, not in our Bible but still from 180 AD, is the story of “Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Thekla, like the Treasurer in our Gospel today, is a noble. She listens to Paul’s preaching, and she decides to become a follower of Christ. She breaks off her engagement with another nobleman and says: ‘I’m staying a virgin and following Paul about and the Christ!’ This goes over just as well as you think it will. The town flogs and tosses Paul out, but decide to burn her at the stake if she won’t give up Christ.

And she won’t.

What begins is a series of miracles — rain saves her from the fire, smoke covers her like clothing so she doesn’t have to be naked, and Thekla walks boldly back to Paul. She now says – Don’t just let me come with you, listening, but let me cut my hair and pass myself off as a man, so I can preach this good news too! Just give me a baptism!

And Paul says no. She’s a woman, and women clearly don’t preach. So he won’t baptize her.

But Thekla doesn’t go home.

In the very next town, Thekla again is told to give up Christianity and marry a guy. And again she refuses. And again the town takes her clothes away to shame her and tries to kill her. Again miracles occur. When it looks like things are over and Thekla is in the middle of the city arena where the pond is full of hungry seals and the land with every angry beast, Thekla knees and prays.

“In the name of Jesus Christ do I baptize MYSELF” and she throws herself into the pond of hungry creatures.

No special time.

No special place.

No special water.

Then there are more miracles. Lightening strikes and fire and lots of chaos. Every animal and every human that tries to harm Thekla finds they cannot. In the end, the town is scared of her and asks, “Who are you?!”

She answers, “I am the handmaid of the living God; and what I have about me-it is that I have believed on that his Son in whom God is well pleased; for whose sake not one of the beasts hath touched me. For he alone is the goal (or way) of salvation and the substance of life immortal; for unto them that are tossed about he is a refuge, unto the oppressed relief, unto the despairing shelter, and in a word, whosoever believeth not on him, shall not live, but die everlastingly.”

The governor orders clothes given to the woman and her permitted to leave.

But Thekla says no. She’s put on the garments of salvation, and those are what she’ll leave with.

A whole lot of the town converted to Christianity that day.

Thekla then traveled, preaching, testifying, healing, and teaching the Word of God.

When she ran into Paul, he was amazed to see what a following she had, and he asked what was going on – and did she still want baptized? She answered, “He that hath worked together with thee in the Gospel, hath worked with me also unto my baptizing.”

In other words… The same person who converted you, Paul, to Christianity and brought you to understand the scriptures is who baptized me.

That same person is who baptized the Ethiopian treasurer. Philip just was there, enabling the receiving of the gift.

That same person baptized each of us.

The water doesn’t matter.

The time doesn’t matter.

The place doesn’t matter.

Baptism is a gift from God to us, and we respond back to God. And as a community, we welcome our new sibling and begin to walk with them through all of their lives.

It is why little ones can be and are baptized.

Baptisms are from God.

No human can prevent them because we humans, we’re participating in and witnessing a sacred moment between an individual and the Holy Divine.

No one here heard the conversation Rebecca and God had today. But it happened. It is in her soul. There in the desert near Ethiopia, or in the crowded coliseum arena of a city, no one HEARD the conversation that man or woman had.

But Philip and a whole ancient city witnessed the holy moments.

Today you are Rebecca’s witnesses. You need to tell her the story of her baptism. Just like you need to tell the story to Alden, and every one of our children — age 0 to 100.

And we need to remember our own baptisms, and the stories we’ve been told about them.

At that moment, you and God connected in a brand new way. At that moment, you joined in Christ’s birth, and life, death, and resurrection. At that moment, you gained a family that will never, ever fit in one place for a family reunion. (Well… no reunion here on Earth.) At that moment, some human baptized you in the name of Christ – but it was God who reached out, touched you, washed you, sealed you with the Spirit, and gave you a new life in Christ.

So who’s baptism is it? In our scriptures, we hear of people arguing about whether someone has received the baptism of Paul’s, or the baptism of John’s. You may today hear today people refer to the Methodist baptism, or the Catholic baptism, or the United Church of Christ baptism…

But there is only one baptism. One God. One Creator, sustainer, and redeemer in who gifts us this sacred ritual.

We all share the baptism of Christ.

Amen.

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