By What Power?

Some time ago there was an article in TIME magazine which described how over 100,000 former Christians have downloaded "certificates of de-baptism" in a bid to publicly renounce the faith. The website, sponsored by the National Secular Society of London, invited visitors to "liberate yourself from the Original Mumbo-Jumbo that liberated you from the Original Sin you never had," and allows them to print out a paper certificate that uses quasi-formal language to "reject baptism's creeds and other such superstitions."

"Churches have become so reactionary, so politically active, that people actually want to make a protest against them now," the society's president says. "They're not just indifferent anymore. They're actively hostile." He says that every time a preacher or religious leader says something outrageous, like hateful comments about Muslims, or calling gays an abomination, or blaming the poor for their poverty, they get another rush on the demand for certificates.

And, of course, there is a tidy profit to be made. You can get these certificates printed on parchment at only $4.50. That adds up! It seems to be catching on. In Italy, the Union of Rationalist Atheists and Agnostics sponsored the country's first-ever "de-baptism day," in which the no longer faithful had a de-baptism ceremony and signed de-baptism forms.[i]

I wonder what a de-baptism ceremony looks like. "I de-baptize you in the name of"...what? "I de-baptize you in the name of Secular Humanism"..."In the name Atheists and Agnostics?"..."In the name of the god of the Omnipotent Self."

I don't want to make light of this too much. The whole sermon could be preached on the theology of baptism, emphasizing that baptism isn't so much something that we do, but rather is a response to something that God has already done. It is an acknowledgement that God was already active in our lives even before we were aware of it. And no certificate can take away God's love and grace. No ceremony can diminish the power of water to give life and clean. 

But let's face it, many of the critics of the church make valid points. All too often we have put the purity of dogma ahead of the integrity of love. All too often we have taken the rich, sparkling wine of the gospel and turned it into the dull, dreary dishwater of everyday culture, reversing the gospel. All too often Christians have misused faith as a substitute for thought, when faith, in fact, is what makes good thinking possible. And so it goes without saying that the stumbling block for most sensitive nonbelievers is not Christ, but Christians. Especially when Christians are so tied to issues of control and power that they don't allow room for the Spirit of Christ to liberate lives and even institutions.

It was Annie Dillard who quipped "What a tragedy that so closely on the heels of Christ come the Christians."

Which leads us to our scripture from Acts. Peter and John had been heading up to the Temple in Jerusalem at about 3:00 o'clock in the afternoon when they saw a man who had been lame since birth begging by the Gate. Peter says "I have no gold or silver, but what I have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk!" And the man not only stands and walks, but starts leaping around in exultation and delight. One would think that the whole community would start leaping around as well, and they might have, had Peter been able to keep his mouth shut. He starts preaching. "I wasn't the one who did this. It wasn't our power at all that caused this healing. It was the power of God, and the power of faith in the name of Jesus. (v. 3:12-16)

Well, he kept on preaching until finally he and John were arrested. Then they appear before the big guns of the faith. There are the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, and they aren't singing hallelujahs because a desperately needy man was healed. They are angry. And the reason for the backlash becomes clear in their question: "By what power...did you do this?" See how adept they were at reframing the issue? The issue was no longer healing, resurrection, and the mercy of God. Now the issue is power.

They did not ask "How did this happen?" or "What is the meaning of this?" They asked "Where did you get the power to do this? Who authorized you to do and say these things?" Here's what I think was happening: You've heard of people with "control issues."  That's the religious authorities to a "T." They wanted people to be faithful and prayerful but to do so only under the exclusive banner of the temple and its protocols. But what we find again and again in these stories of the early church in Acts, was a first century pandemic of the Holy Spirit that spread like wildfire. The followers of Jesus could not be contained by normal channels or regulated by rules and structures.[ii]

Luke wrote the book of Acts, and notice how he viewed religious authority and institutional structures. He wasn't anti-institutional. If I had a dime for every time I have heard someone say "I am spiritual, but not religious," I could retire today. Luke was actually pro-temple, pro-religious institution. Right after Pentecost, the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church, he writes that followers of Jesus spent much time together in the temple. (Acts 2:46) Remember where Peter and John were going when they came across the beggar? They were on their way to the temple to pray.

And in these early chapters depicting the first century church, we find that the Christian movement already had an organizational structure. They would have Bible study, meals, fellowship, and prayer, and evangelism programs and outreach to the poor. It's right there in Acts 2.

So the issue in the scripture before us is not anti-institutional in nature. Something else is going on; and I think Tom Long, professor of preaching at Emory University, hits the nail on the head when he asks the question: Is the institution responsive to the Spirit, or is it curved in on itself? Listen to how he puts it:

Whenever political or religious authorities set themselves up as the only legitimate broker of what people need and defend that authority, inevitably, the Holy Spirit breaks down those structures.[iii]

Some of you remember in your own lifetime when Jim Crow laws excluded African-Americans from full participation in public life, but there was an outbreak of the Spirit, which summoned civil rights leaders, mainly from the churches, who challenged such structures.

You see, these temple authorities in Acts were not interested in the Spirit. They were interested in temple authority for its own sake. "By what power do you do these things?" they wanted to know. "Who told you to do this?" The message was clear: If the disciples wanted to do religious business in Jerusalem, then they needed to get a license from the temple power brokers. That's the kind of authority that needs to be questioned! "By the power of the name of Jesus," answered Peter and John.

That power can be threatening, even frightening. Some of us remember how scared we were--or our parents were--when our political, social, and religious institutions began to change in ways that reflected the Spirit of the Risen Christ, and all of God's children could eat where they wanted and live where they wanted and vote the way they wanted and worship where they wanted. At the church I serve in Memphis, a number of people left the church in the early 1960's when the pastor and the session of Idlewild unambiguously claimed that this was God's church, not our church, and any child of God was welcome here, thus affirming what was always true in the heart of God but the church had been slow to see--that we are all God's children and the Spirit of God was blowing across the nation and the church in unsettling ways, but ways that reflected the mind of Christ.

It can be scary when our institutions are responsive to the Holy Spirit which wrestles power and control from us!

The Sadducees, bless their hearts as we say in the south, just wanted to protect their culture, their way of life, their tradition, their faith, from the threat of corruption of new ideas and new practices. They weren't bad people; let's make that clear. They just insisted on hanging on to the old dogmas that had been handed down through the centuries in order to keep things stable and quiet and peaceful.

But Tom Wright reminds us that the resurrection is a radical departure from the status quo. He writes about the Sadducees that "If God suddenly does such a drastic thing, they (to put it mildly) cannot guarantee that they will end up in power in the new world that God is going to make.[iv] In other words, this text reminds us of the power of the Risen Christ to transform, but also the resistance to that change from those with a stake in the status quo.

Now for the hard question: In what ways is the Spirit of the Risen Christ moving across our land, our churches today that are upsetting and unsettling to those in power? Now, this may seem paradoxical, but I would like to suggest that that very Spirit is present in our increasingly diverse multi-faith world. That can be very threatening to many. I have seen full page ads in newspapers that have used this very text, especially verse 12, where Peter states that there is no salvation outside of Jesus Christ, to promote a rather exclusive view of salvation.

I am not saying that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere or that all religions are the same. Not at all. But Peter found the power to heal, not in a mental exercise or a doctrine or dogma that separates those who believe from those who do not, but in the transforming relationship with Jesus Christ. His distinction in his speech in Acts 4 was between the stifling power agenda of the rulers and the transforming power of God in the name of Jesus.

Some of the most treasured relationships I have developed over the past ten years or so have been with some of my Muslim friends in Memphis. Our church has had a series of intentional dialogues with members of the Islamic Center there. We studied together, ate in each other's homes, and prayed in each other's houses of worship. It has been transformative for me and for all who were involved. They have reminded us that we have more in common in our religious perspectives than differences. I found a fierce faith in the oneness of God that we have, which commends the oneness of all people. They want peace just as much as we want peace. They have spoken out strongly against the more radical terroristic elements of their own faith. The problem is that the media has paid no attention to those statements.

But here's the point. Whereas such relationships can be threatening to those who are trying to protect the country and the faith that they love from the corrupting ideas of the 21st century, as well as protecting their power, perhaps, I have found in my relationships with people of other faiths the expanding, transforming spirit of Jesus! I have found that kind of openness and respect, listening, really listening to each other, is a way of salvation, healing, wholeness as we work together on behalf of those who are suffering in wars, poverty, and hatred. It is because of the Spirit of the Risen Christ that we are able to draw wider circles of relationships, of inclusivity, of appreciation, even with those of different faiths.

Could it be that the Spirit of the Risen Christ is warming our hearts, gradually prying our fists open so that we might let go of the structures and laws and dogmas within our church that have kept us from being responsive to the Holy Spirit?

It can be scary, I know. Peter was so alive with the Spirit that he could not refrain himself until he was crucified upside down. As for me, I'll take my cues from Jesus of Nazareth, who crossed every boundary, broke down every barrier, manifesting his freedom and called others to theirs; I'll take my cues from the Risen Christ, whose first words to Mary in the tomb were "Do not be afraid."

"I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit," we say at our baptisms, which means, of course, that God is never through with us. The God who created us in God's very image and loves us all, the Son who came not to condemn but to bring healing and salvation, and the Holy Spirit which challenges and confronts even long held assumptions so that we might leap and dance at new found freedom. That is a power that cannot be thwarted, even through a certificate!

Let us pray. What a beautiful, wonderful world you have given us, O God. Make us ever mindful of the depth and breadth of your love for us given in the person of Jesus Christ who lived for us, died for us, rose for us, and reigns in power today for us. Amen.


[i]"De-Baptism Gains a Following in Britain,"  TIME, April 14, 2009.

[ii] Tom Long, Feasting on the Word, Year B, vol. 2.  David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors.  Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009. P. 432.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone, Part 1,  Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2008, p. 63.