A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles (10:44-48)
While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.
1 Sing to the Lord a new song, *
for he has done marvelous things.
2 With his right hand and his holy arm *
has he won for himself the victory.
3 The Lord has made known his victory; *
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
4 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
5 Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
6 Sing to the Lord with the harp,*
with the harp and the voice of song.
7 With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
8 Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
the lands and those who dwell therein.
9 Let the rivers clap their hands, *
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
10 In righteousness shall he judge the world *
and the peoples with equity.
A Reading from First Letter of John (5:1-6)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John (15:9-17)
Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Another week, another conversion – at least that’s the way it seems to be with our series of readings from the Acts of the Apostles.
Through most of the church year, our first reading on Sundays is taken from the Old Testament. But during the Easter season, it comes from Acts: a New Testament book that explores the spread of the new life given to the world through the resurrection of Jesus. And the selections that we hear narrate a series of conversions as the first disciples expand the reach of the gospel to person after person, to group after group.
It all begins on the first Christian Pentecost, a feast that we will be celebrating again two weeks from today, in which thousands join the “Way,” as it is called. Many more join the apostles after Peter and John heal a lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. In last week’s reading, Philip baptized into the community of believers a man from an exotic, far-away place: the Ethiopian eunuch. Now today, Peter baptizes the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and his entire household: the first non-Jews to join the rapidly expanding movement. Conversion after conversion — it’s an evangelist’s dream, at least for certain types of evangelists.
William Willimon is a bishop in the United Methodist Church, a New Testament scholar, and a long-time professor at Duke University Divinity School. In commenting on the two-volume work that we know as “Luke” and “Acts” (Acts, page 100-105), he makes three important points about conversion as it is portrayed in these books.
First, conversion in Acts is a communal event. He puts it this way: “In our radically individualized milieu and our radically subjectivized approach to conversion, we do well to note the communal, corporate quality of conversion in Acts. Conversion is adoption into a family, immigration into a new kingdom: a social, corporate, political phenomenon.”
Second, conversion is a beginning, not a destination; and it is a vocation: a calling to a new way of life and to a lifetime journey. Contrary to what some churches and evangelistic preachers emphasize, conversion is not a one-time event that puts people into a position in which they can smugly accept the idea that they are “in” with God, while other, non-converted people are “out.” Instead, people are converted for something. Conversion lays a foundation on which people can stand and begin to work together with their fellow believers in the work of building up the kingdom of God. Conversion is a calling to become part of an association of co-workers with God.
Finally, stories of conversion in Acts are “stories about the gifts of God – God is the chief actor in all Lukan accounts of conversion…. These are stories about God’s actions, not about the church’s programs.” The narratives of Luke and Acts are stories of people recognizing the power of God’s Spirit working in their lives and in the lives of those around them and of their faithful response to God’s initiative.
These reflections are not just observations that help us better to understand the stories of Luke and Acts as they relate to the emergence of the early church. They pose critically important questions and challenges to the ways that we think as a church today and to the ways that we act as a church today.
If, in fact, conversion is a communal event, then neither baptism nor the life for which it commissions us is ever a private affair. Faith must be personal, but it can never be private. We are all in this together, and we are all responsible for one another and for the work that we do together.
Second, conversion and its ritual expressions – traditionally, Baptism, Confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist – are not ends or goals in themselves, but only beginnings. They lay the foundation for an entire lifetime of service with our fellow believers, service to the world in God’s name. They find their full expression only in what we do after we have been baptized, after we have been confirmed, after we have shared in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.
And finally – and this is where the church has often missed the point and continues, in many instances, to miss the point today – conversion is not about simply adding names to a church’s membership register. It is not about trying to fill a worship space on Sunday morning or about meeting a budget. It is about incorporating into the Body of Christ new people who are responding to God’s Spirit in their lives by committing themselves to sharing in the work of God in the world. Neither older approaches, that try simply to get new members for the church, nor newer approaches, that provide one-time events with some sort of “cool factor” — neither of them takes seriously the powerful act of conversion as described in Acts. And neither of them takes seriously God’s call to us for conversion today: a call to accept and embrace and live the mission that God has entrusted to us. Conversion is conversion for something. Baptism is baptism for something. And without that something, without that commitment to the shared work of building up the reign of God, both of them are empty events.
Jesus, in today’s gospel reading, insists to his followers – to us as well as to his first disciples: “I do not call you servants… but I have called you friends… You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.” We have not been called by God to be a special, privileged group of folks who alone share the key to God’s life for ourselves. Instead, we have been called by God for mission, for bearing fruit, for doing the work that God has entrusted to us: the work of proclaiming God’s Good News and of building up God’s reign in the world. And we do so as friends of the one who dedicated and gave his entire life to that work. We do so as co-makers with him of God’s new creation.