A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church
May 13, 2017
I don’t know if you caught it in last week’s story about Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch he met on the wilderness road. But when the Ethiopian man said, “what is to stop me from being baptized?” the good Presbyterians probably all thought, “well, sir, there are a few things. First, according to the Book of Order, you need to meet with the session and the pastor. Then we need to schedule it to happen in a service of public worship”.
And while the text today doesn’t mention our friend from Ethiopia, you just know that not everyone was happy when they heard about Phillip doing renegade baptisms on the wilderness road.
The Book of Acts, and the experience of our own faith journey, reminds us of the tension inherent in the living out of faith. On one hand, it is a Spirit-led experience, uncontrollable and surprising at every turn. On the other hand, it is a human run enterprise. And most humans do not see ‘uncontrollable” and “surprising” as appropriate models for church governance.
When we do it well, we find that balance. We listen for the voice of the Spirit. We watch for signs of the Spirit’s presence, so when we see her at work, we can respond as she leads.
We also crave the structure and stability that allows us to hand down tradition in authentic and meaningful ways. Also, we don’t want things to devolve into utter chaos and mayhem as people use the Spirit as an excuse for poor boundaries, or to do whatever they want.
Chaos vs. Order.
About five years ago, Dahlia Lithwick offered us an article called Chaos Theory: A Unified Muppet Theory. In her genius observation, we are all divided into one of two kinds of muppets. We are either Order Muppets or Chaos Muppets.
“Chaos Muppets are out-of-control, emotional, volatile. They tend toward the blue and fuzzy. They make their way through life in a swirling maelstrom of food crumbs, small flaming objects, and the letter C. Cookie Monster, Ernie, Grover, Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and—paradigmatically—Animal, are all Chaos Muppets. Zelda Fitzgerald was a Chaos Muppet. So, I must tell you, is (Supreme Court) Justice Stephen Breyer.
Order Muppets—and I’m thinking about Bert, Scooter, Sam the Eagle, Kermit the Frog, and the blue guy who is perennially harassed by Grover at restaurants (the Order Muppet Everyman)—tend to be neurotic, highly regimented, averse to surprises and may sport monstrously large eyebrows. They sometimes resent the responsibility of the world weighing on their felt shoulders, but they secretly revel in the knowledge that they keep the show running. Your first grade teacher was probably an Order Muppet. So is Chief Justice John Roberts.
It’s not that any one type of Muppet is inherently better than the other. It’s simply the case that the key to a happy marriage, a well-functioning family, and a productive place of work lies in carefully calibrating the ratio of Chaos Muppets to Order Muppets within any closed system.”
It reminded me of the Book of Acts. The early church searching for the perfect balance between Chaos and Order. If you have too many Order Muppets, nobody gets cookies, or gets baptized. Too many Chaos Muppets, nothing gets done.
Which are you?
It can be hard to classify oneself, so perhaps it’s best to let a trusted friend break the news to you. I want to consider myself an Order muppet–I’m the one who gets a little twitchy about Phillip’s rogue baptism after all. But you’ve seen my office. Presbyterians, as a tribe, probably tend toward Order muppets—our unofficial motto is about doing things “decently and in order”, after all.
In any case, as we look at this story from Acts, watch them find that balance between the chaos of the Holy Spirit and the order of church tradition.
We’re told “certain individuals” were causing trouble. They were teaching “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved”.
Many church leaders had trouble with this teaching. I can think of a few objections to it. One, when God instituted circumcision with Abraham, it was a sign of the Covenant, a sign of God’s work to make the People of God. It was not about salvation. It was a sign of the Covenant. I can only imagine what Paul and Barnabas had to say to these “certain individuals”, but I’m sure Paul agreed with me. Right?
This is partly an argument over how old traditions and customs fit in to the new faith. It is partly an argument over who gets to make decisions, insiders or outsiders. Paul and Barnabas or those other guys? Or can just anyone decide how the faith will be lived out in their own community? Who gets to interpret the scriptures?
It also, though, reveals some tension between insiders and insiders. Paul and Peter are like the Jets and the Sharks of the early church.
They approach the world differently but they all just want to be free to sing and dance on the streets of New York! I mean, they just want to spread the Good News of the Gospel…
Peter knew Jesus and followed him as he taught, sort of like the guy who was baptized as an infant and went to Sunday School his whole life. Paul was a more recent convert and had the zeal of a born again follower. They differ on style, but agree on substance.
Listen to Peter’s words. “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.”
He and Paul are actually in agreement about what those other guys were erroneously teaching, but he can’t help but remind everyone that God made a choice for him.
We’ll hear a bit of Paul’s version of this bragging in next week’s text.
Peter’s speech, once he gets past the bragging, is actually one of my favorites.
“And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
He reminds them of what it is that brings them together—no distinction between them— despite their different experiences—the grace of the Lord Jesus that saves us all.
Circumcision is the illustration in this text of the way we try to manage the gifts of God into some kind of commodity we can control. Today, thank goodness, that is NOT a question anyone ever has, or will, ask in this church. I know we have other ways of ordering things so some people are in and others are excluded. They can be big ways—excluding people because of the way we interpret scripture, for example. Or they can be smaller ways, subtle things we say and do that signal to people that they are not welcome.
And whenever we do it, because we will, because we’re human, we need to remember Peter’s words. Why are we placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke we have not been able to bear? We need to remember to listen for the voice of the Spirit, and how she may be calling us away from our control. We need to remember the time when we recognized how God’s grace was for us, and make sure we aren’t trying to hoard it now, keeping it to ourselves.
And so we’re back to the balance of Order and Chaos.
When we think of the chaos of the Holy Spirit though, I want to be clear I’m not suggesting the Holy Spirit is just like the muppet Animal.
She doesn’t create chaos for the sake of mayhem, but to keep us from putting our trust in the wrong things.
The Chaos Muppet of the Holy Spirit shows up when we get too settled, when we start thinking that we have cleansed our own hearts by the ways we have structured and ordered the gift of grace. She reminds us grace is always a gift, nothing we earn or control or withhold.
How we discern whether it is the holy spirit or our humanness that is calling us to chaos is admittedly a challenge. I will say that in my own life, the Holy Spirit has never called me to do something I would have done on my own.
Howard Rice, who was a professor at San Francisco Seminary for many years wrote this about how we can discern if it is a Holy Spirit kind of chaos that is leading us.
1. The experience of the holy is ordinarily something people do not seek out.
2. The experience of God has the element of awe. As Calvin said, “whenever the feeblest ray of the Divine glory bursts upon us, we cannot avoid being alarmed.”
3. The experience of God always demands something of a person, and often that demand requires the person to accomplish something difficult.
4. Confirmation of the spiritual experience should be sought from others we trust.
While he wrote his book before the Uniform Muppet Chaos Theory was discovered, Rice argued that those 4 guidelines help us avoid the temptation to use religious experience to gain control over our lives, to find the appropriate balance between chaos and order. He writes,
“Perhaps the greatest illusion in seeking only what we want from God is that we are trying to keep control over our lives when we really know at a deep level that control is one element we cannot have.” (page 39)
The story of the church in Acts illustrates those guidelines. Questions about appropriate doctrine were decided in community. They brought their concerns together and took time to listen to each other and share guidance. For both Paul and Peter, their call to follow God took them places they wouldn’t have chosen, that they hadn’t chosen, on their own.
And the divine mystery of God continually leads people to expand the Table, to keep inviting people we once thought were outside, beyond our concern. We will gather both at God’s Table tonight, and then after worship, at tables in the fellowship hall. May we be on the lookout for divine chaos as we share fellowship, and remember how divine order has brought us together to this place, tonight.