Something New

Lamb with Nimbus, Baptism of Jesus window, FPCEYou’ve seen the “Indiana Jones” films, haven’t you? There’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” and, later, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” They’re adventure movies that take you around the world, and give you a sense of the excitement there must be in exploring mysterious ancient cultures.

More than twenty years ago, I worked with a pastor-archaeologist who was the closest thing to “Indiana Jones” I have ever known.  Lew H. was his name, and in the early 1970’s, he spent three years as a lead archaeologist on the dig at Caesarea Maritima, south of Haifa, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. When we visited the site the spring before he died, Lew told the story about the day he found something new.

Lew’s team was exploring a square plot of ground south of the old crusader fortress when they uncovered a domelike roof.  A doorway was located, and enough sand scooped away to provide access.  Then Lew made the first entry by crawling through the narrow opening.

When his eyes grew accustomed to the dim light of his headlamp, he realized that he was lying upon human bones.  Later, his team would determine that the building, in its final years, probably in the early eighth century A.D., had been used as a morgue for the dead.  As Lew rolled over to look up, he saw flecks of blue paint peeling off the underside of the dome.  It was then that he really got excited.

Lew’s team had found a “Mithraeum,” a temple of an ancient religion dedicated to the worship of Mithras, a minor Roman god.  It is still the only Mithraeum ever discovered in the Middle East.  And Lew was the first person in more than a thousand years to look at its interior dome, which was originally painted in the colors of the nighttime sky.

In the first century, the Mithraeum would have been a popular house of worship.  At that time, Caesarea was a seat of government and the Jewish capital.  It was a center of commerce with trade between Rome and Judea passing through its harbor.  Protection for a population of about 50,000 was provided by a garrison of up to 600 soldiers.

Mithraism was a very popular religion with Roman soldiers. They were drawn by its associations with power and strength. For Mithras was a strong god, a warrior god.

One of those soldiers was Cornelius, to whom we are introduced in the tenth chapter of Acts.  In fact, Cornelius was among a handful of the highest ranking officers at Caesarea Maritima, for he was a “centurion.”  A centurion was the “leader of a hundred,” and was responsible for preparing troops as well as commanding them in the field.

Almost certainly Cornelius had visited the Mithraeum.  Luke tells us that he was “a devout man who feared God,” who “gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.”  What did Cornelius think as he watched the strange ritual of men being baptized in the blood of a bull?  As he looked up at that dome painted in nighttime blue and stars, did Cornelius long for a picture of something new?

Today is “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday — a note at the end of your worship program explains the day on the church’s calendar.  It’s a day that marks the end of the Christmas cycle.  It’s a time that is bound together with “Epiphany,” the holiday – even older than Christmas – on which Christians celebrate the “appearance” or “manifestation” of the divine in Jesus Christ.

Matthew’s text tells about the first moment of epiphany that is recorded by all four biblical gospels.  Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the River Jordan.  The Spirit of God descends upon him like a dove, and a voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The epistle reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us about the time, many years later, when the baptism of Cornelius is preceded by another epiphany.  In fact, a whole series of little epiphanies occur, to Peter and Cornelius, then to their friends.  Scripture paints these mini-epiphanies, brush stroke after brush stroke, and layer upon layer, until finally they meld together into a new portrait of spiritual truth.

When you read the tenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, you see how Peter resists a vision from God.  Foods that are considered ritually unclean are laid before Peter, and he is told to eat – “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter’s spirituality is wrapped up in the dietary codes that are a part of Hebrew heritage.  God works slowly and carefully to overcome his cultural conditioning.

Peter’s experience is not so different from Christians today who grow up in one town, or one church, with one way of believing and behaving that is considered the only “right” way.  Very early in my ministerial training, I realized that the Gospel of Jesus Christ transcended my cultural conditioning.  I learned that I must rise above the preferences of my little “tribe.” If I didn’t, I would compromise my ability to be an effective ambassador of God’s good news, and risk being left out of what God was doing in the world.

It’s the same with Cornelius, who opened his eyes to see God at work in the world beyond his hometown, who learned to worship God in Jesus Christ rather than the religious traditions he had grown up with in Rome. And it’s the same with Peter, when God calls him to work that runs counter to his natural inclinations.  Cornelius and Peter learn that God is painting a new picture of reality.

God always is doing a new thing.  From beginning to end, the Bible paints a picture of God at work to redeem what has been lost, to restore to the kingdom of God in places where people are not subject to Christ’s Lordship. The Church constantly faces the challenge of answering questions like, “What new thing is God doing now?”  “How can we be part of it?”

Today we ordain and install new ruling elders and deacons, who enter ministry at an interesting time for the church both nationally and locally. Everywhere, the need for leadership is growing, but the time and energy available from volunteers seems to be shrinking. When I entered ministry in the 1980s, one minister might provide guidance and support to many committees chaired by church members who would donate five to ten hours per week (or more) to volunteer ministry. Today, we have far more two-career households, and greater demands from work, school, and extracurricular activities. We’ve reached a time when there simply aren’t enough leaders available. No matter how your pastor tries, he knows that can’t effectively lead the work of thirteen different committees and task groups in our congregation. Sometimes, even half that feels like a stretch.

In our larger denominational body, Presbyterians are recognizing that the organizational structure that worked so well in the past seems to be increasingly obsolete, and talking about the need for adaptive change.  Our new elders and deacons will be participating in some adaptive changes that may mean streamlining structure, that certainly will mean letting things of lesser importance go unattended, so that things of greater importance may be accomplished.  At times, letting go of things of lesser importance may feel frightening, but when we do so, it may be possible to bring more sanity and health.

The relationship-building and discussion that took place yesterday morning in officer training will continue in the weeks and months ahead as our deacons and elders continue to discern God’s will for our congregation.

The story of Peter and Cornelius teach us that “epiphany” is not limited to one season, or to the first “born again” experience of each believer.  Epiphany is part of our continuing conversion to the purposes of God, and our baptism into God’s plans for the world.  I encourage you to be open to the leading of God’s Spirit, and to choose to be part of the discernment process in events like next week’s Annual Meeting Sunday.  For now as always, among people of faith, God is painting a picture of something new.

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~ by JohnH1962 on January 12, 2014.

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