The Sunday Sermon: Dying as one to become life with many

Rev. Richard Hogue
St. Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego

            I want to welcome our baptismal candidate, DJ, and his family, the Urquias! It’s always a special occasion when we get to baptize anyone into new life, regardless of age or experience. Baptism is one of the most tangible signs we have that God’s grace can and does flow into every life, and that is’ never too early or too late to say “yes” to God’s love of this life and this world.

            We get a clear sense for this “never too early, never too late” possibility in baptism directly from our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, which we read from rather than Hebrew Scriptures as the first reading throughout the fifty-day Easter season. For those unfamiliar with the Acts of the Apostles, it’s a sort of part two to the Gospel of Luke and is the only Christian Scripture, referred to most often as the “New Testament”, that is neither a Gospel—following the life of Jesus—nor a letter, or epistle, between a leader and a church community. It alone tries to give a narrative of the early church, following approximately the next two generations of leaders after the Jesus’ chosen apostles, focusing primarily Peter, but even more so on Paul, or Saul as we will know him for now. Interesting note, the Acts of the Apostles only refers to Paul as an apostle once (14.4), and yet he is heard most often in this book.

            But there is another theme that sticks out like a sore thumb for the trained classicist who knows more than a thing or two about Ancient Roman philosophical and cultural norms: that is the total emasculation of so many male characters in the Acts of the Apostles, which puts a great many things in stark contrast relative to the form, function, and growth of the early church. Many of us in this era think of Roman culture as bacchanal, obsessed with parties and lavish signs of wealth. While that was certainly true for a specific class of Roman elites, there was another philosophical school that was far more popular than any sort of hedonism we associate with that time. Stoicism, as a lived practice, was by far and away the philosophy of choice for the average Roman man, or those who wished to gain access to the Roman patriarchy, conquest, dominance, and greed. It was also the leading philosophy of the Roman military elite, and it flowed into the ranks of centurions too. One of the more interesting characteristics of Stoicism is the focus on bodily control. Stoics were not merely concerned about mindset, but about physical discipline. It was considered emasculating to not have full control of your body. The most ardent Stoics would even decry any sexual acts of pleasure as beyond the pale, as it were, since the moment of highest pleasure for men was seen as loss of bodily control.

“It is important to bear in mind that the Stoics do not think that all impulses are to be done away with. What distinguishes normal impulses or desires from passions is the idea that the latter are excessive and irrational. Galen provides a nice illustration of the difference (65J). Suppose I want to run, or, in Stoic terminology, I have an impulse to run. If I go running down a sharp incline I may be unable to stop or change direction in response to a new impulse. My running is excessive in relation to my initial impulse. Passions are distinguished from normal impulses in much the same way: they have a kind of momentum which carries one beyond the dictates of reason. If, for instance, you are consumed with lust (a passion falling under appetite), you might not do what under other circumstances you yourself would judge to be the sensible thing.”

This makes what Romans often did to their enemies, from capturing and binding, to blinding, to crucifixion, a sign of lack of control, and the ultimate repudiation, logically speaking. Taken to the nth degree, one might even think of the conquered and colonized as subhuman.

            With this in mind, what are we to make of what happens to Saul on his way to Damascus and what follows? He falls, he is blinded, he hears a voice that commands him to release his grip of control of his own life, and he is taken care of by strangers. He is not self sufficient in anyway, and is totally emasculated, he is wholly dependent on others, and thus cannot be virtuous in that world.

            And yet, much like Jesus’ own total, and far more brutal emasculation on the torture and execution device we know as the cross, Saul’s story is not done. In fact, the point of Jesus’ life may be the highest contrast to a philosophy like that of the Stoics: we have so little control in the face of everything, that only a reliance on God’s grace and love shared in community can give us the blessed assurance to live a truly free life without feeling any control. Instead, the Holy Spirit will comfort and guide, even thru the bowls of hell as Jesus experienced.

            That community piece, relying on the love and care for each other collectively, is one found throughout the Acts of the Apostles. One can point directly to Acts 4.32-35 to see how this would clash severely with Roman popular culture, not to mention religious attitudes:

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

This is the antithesis of so much in our culture, then and now, because to rely on others and to irrationally love all your neighbors is not logical. But God’s love and Jesus’ life show us that it is irrational, that to be first is to be last, to be last is to be first, and that to die to our selves is to be alive in Christ.

            Ultimately, that’s what makes today’s baptism the ultimate subversive symbol. For Saul, his baptism caused him to die to his old self, he shed the scales from his eyes so he could see the world anew. DJ will not have scales fall from his eyes, but perhaps his family, he, and we as his community may see the world through Easter eyes as one full of possibility. Yes, it is scary to consider baptism, because as we descend into water, or have it poured over us, we are proclaiming the end of one life and the beginning of another. We say we die in baptism to rise alive in Christ. Just like in the beginning of Genesis, where the waters of the deep move unordered, we see chaos, but God sees boundless possibility.

That is why all new things are somewhat scary, and growing pains are a real experience in life. I will go as far as to say it is normal to feel threatened by the new, as creatures who enjoy habit and comfort. Even in joyous circumstances, we can feel anxious, we have several examples here at St. Paul’s, like moving into the new offices, or in establishing new partnerships where we share a mission. It is scary to not feel comfortable, in control, and it is certainly scariest to die to oneself, because it means we lose something. But that’s the point, because to die is to live, according to Jesus. To give is to receive, according to Jesus. But just like the shell of a seed, that withers away to allow new life to sprout, so we too are both shell and seed.

DJ, and all others who receive God’s grace and recognize it for the gift that it is, you are tangible signs of God’s world alive with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is like the wind, you neither see it coming nor know exactly where it is going, but you can trust the feeling of it. God’s work is not done, and today’s baptism is another sign of that divine truth. May we follow Jesus even if we are afraid because we will find and share, peace, joy, and home together. Amen.

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