All Request Summer Sermon Series
Modern Families/Holy Spirit Baptism
July 10, 2016
Rev. Fritz Nelson, First Presbyterian, Columbiana
My dad butt dialed me the other day. In the ensuing conversation I learned he was planning an evening walk on the beach with the three women in his life followed by erd-behr-bowla – a German punch of white wine and strawberries.
One of his walking companions was Ruth, a widow in my father’s church who likes to hang out with him. The second, Gabriella, a Methodist pastor from a neighboring town whom my dad met through the legal aid work he does. The third, Franci, a college student who found refuge at Gabriella’s house until she moved into my father’s house. They, along with Franci’s brother Bruce – who also lives with my dad – and Ruby, a friend of a friend who has permanently settled into my father’s guest room, make up the family my father currently sustains and is sustained by. And its nothing like the family in which I grew up.
At one time, family looked like Leave it to Beaver or The Brady Bunch. Now its Modern Family. I recently saw an article about a group of single parents who went together on a house, sharing meals and childcare. Are they a family? How about an unmarried adult who independently adopts or births a child? How about a same sex couple? Or individuals in long-term committed relationships who don’t get married? Or sprawling complex networks of current partners, former partners, and kids from a range of partners? And if they are families, are they “biblical families?” worthy of our honor, respect and blessing?
I hate that term “biblical family.” It’s come to mean the 1950’s white, American coupling of a man and a woman in a long term, until death does us part, relationship. First comes love, then comes marriage then comes mommy pushing the baby carriage. Dad “brings home the bacon.” Mom watches the two or three kids, volunteers in the community and maybe works a little to make extra money. She obeys her husband and never walks despite affairs or abuse. This is the family (minus the affairs and abuse) I was raised in. It’s the family many of you were raised in. It was conceived in Victorian England, reached its peak in 1950’s America and is quickly evaporating. Its also not necessarily Biblical.
All sorts of families show up in the Bible – from Adam and Eve’s arranged marriage to Noah’s nicely traditional clan, to Ruth’s securing a marriage proposal by crawling into Boaz’s bed, to Solomon’s extensive harem. Jesus, born in scandal, never marries and disowns his biological family in favor of a spiritual family. “These,” he says pointing to his disciples, “These are my mothers and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” The Apostle Paul also remains single, believing marital relations to be a distraction from one’s relationship with Christ.
How are we supposed to respond when a sibling or a friend ditches their first wife, has a torrid affair with the woman they’ve been eyeing, elopes and then tried to pick up the pieces and blend the families? How are we supposed to respond when our parent, after loosing a spouse, builds an entirely new family around them? How are we to respond when we receive an engagement announcement and there are two grooms or two brides?
I went to Boston a few months ago partly to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary with my father and my sister. But I also went to meet my father’s new family. I was nervous. I had a thousand legal and practical questions. I also felt displaced by a set of relationships for which I had no name and no context. Was this new family my family? Was it a family at all?
Not long after Pentecost, God calls Peter to go minister to a family far removed from his own. Cornelius, a Roman army officer, has questions about the gospel. He invites Peter to his household – a household including a wife from a politically advantageous marriage, multiple children, slaves and hangers on. They were Gentiles, uncircumcised, living a set of values far removed from the good Jewish values practiced by the apostles. As Peter speaks, the Holy Spirit falls upon all who hear the word. All the good Christians – that would be those who came with Peter – were astounded. How could God bless this family that literally was not kosher? They didn’t keep the laws. They didn’t follow the customs. They were not a good, devout, acceptable Jewish family.
Scripture talks of two baptisms. The first – baptism by water – washes away our sins and joins us to the family of God. The second – baptism by the Spirit – fundamentally transforms us and changes us. We receive the heart, mind and love of Christ. We become born from above. Presbyterian theology teaches that baptism by water is a once in a lifetime event. Its also mandatory for full church participation. Baptism by the Spirit can be a dramatic event or a gradual awareness. It can happen once. It can happen multiple times. It can happen not at all. It is required for a fulfilling Spirit filled Christian life. It leads us and the church in dramatic new directions – directions that can be scary; directions that can crush establish traditions, directions that can heal the world.
We know baptism by the Spirit when we see it. The window salesman in my New York church who was a powerful preacher and constantly led others into mission – baptized by the Spirit. The lady who was in church every Sunday spitting fire and hatred at those around her – not baptized by the Spirit. As the Spirit descends on Cornelius and his family, it forces Peter into uncharted territory. Cornelius’ unkosher family is also a blessed family, fully included in the broader family of God.
One night during my trip, Gabriella came over for dinner. As the conversation drifted around the topics of school, jobs, church and the welfare of a crazy web of extended relationships; as my dad’s eccentricities were humored with appropriate eye rolls; as the dishes disappeared in record time, I realized that the Spirit of God was in this place. That this was family. A different type of family, but family nonetheless.
Once Paul grudgingly accepts people’s desire for intimate relations and connections, he lays down the household rule of love. Wives, love your husbands, for they are to you as Christ is to the church. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church. In the Roman Empire when husbands did everything but love their wives, even in a not all that distant time when husbands could abuse their wives with impunity, these are radical words. A biblical family is a Spirit filled family, linked together by deep, mutual, Christ like love.
Roslyn and Jimmy Carter, who just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary, bring the light of Christ wherever they go. My friend Gaitley and his husband, a Spirit filled couple who led a revival in their sleepy Presbyterian church, can only be said to have a relationship blessed by God. Another friend was a walking marital train wreck, but her ability to keep her sprawling collection of exes, kids and others connected was truly a gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Brady Bunch has become Modern Family and our relationships will never be stuffed back into that 1950’s box. Thankfully for us, the Holy Spirit never much liked boxes to begin with, sustaining and blessing myriad relationships in myriad forms where the deep, mutual love of Jesus Christ can be found. Amen.