Conquering the World
Dr. Baron Mullis
May 10, 2015 - Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6


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Conquering the World
Acts 10:44-48; 1 John 5:1-6         

Dr. Baron Mullis
Morningside Presbyterian Church
May 10, 2015


I was living in Indiana, far from home, when I was first introduced to the writings of David Sedaris. 

Somehow I had missed this acerbic writer on NPR, but when a congregation member gave me a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, I was hooked. 

You see, I am the middle of five siblings, with a younger brother much akin to the one described in the book, and bemused parents who didn’t seem much to know what to do with him.

I have a certain kinship with other members of large families.  Not to claim any superiority in my knowledge of group dynamics, but those of us who grow up in large families get certain things that smaller families might miss… we learn how to form alliances against stronger forces.  We know the first people to conspire with us against our parents with us will be our siblings, and I hate to tell you this, but it is almost a statistical certainty that your children will someday plot against you. 

Of course, if you are canny about how to handle this, you’ll know how to cull the weak one and get them to turn State’s Evidence.   I learned that the hard way that, when, confronted with the possibility of doing hard time without Nintendo, my younger brother could be fickle and feckless, with loyalty about as durable as toilet paper in the rain. 

I have also learned, though, that my adult siblings can be the best of friends, the most fervent of cheerleaders, and that some of my only-child friends could become naturalized family with bonds just as tight as those of birth. 

And so it was that I when heard Sedaris recommend a book by Blake Bailey, The Splendid Things We Planned, I knew I would read it.

But it was a different sort of memoir, a tragic one. 

I don’t feel that I’m spoiling anything to tell you that it’s a tragic memoir because the foreshadowing of what is to come is steeped in almost every word of even the opening chapters.  It is clear that the main character will quickly become Bailey’s brother Scott, and that his descent into addiction and mental illness will tax and exhaust his family’s ability to love. 

There is simply no question that those closest to us – siblings, spouses, lifelong friends – those who know us best and love us best have the capacity to bring out the best in us.

And there is also no question that when those bonds are frayed to unwinding, the very same people can bring out the worst in us.

I think this must have been the sort of relationship that the nascent church in Acts must have found with one another.  Forged into one body by Christ, and then plunged into the icy reality of his crucifixion and death, the early church shared bonds of love that must surely have seemed indissoluble.  And yet, at the same time, they could go at it hammer and tongs. 

Baptism must have been an early controversy in the church based upon the care and attention that Luke lavishes on demonstrating the changing nature of the household of God as the early church navigates the choppy waters of what it means to be called into being in Christ. 

These chapters of Acts were formative for me personally in my understanding of what it means to live with the fullness of God’s creation. 

As Drew so wonderfully preached on the Ethiopian Eunuch last week, comprehensions of who is in and who is out are overturned right and left in these central chapters of Acts.  First it is this passing foreigner whose body wasn’t quite whole – doubly excluded, as a foreigner and “not quite a man” who is brought, without even question, into the body of Christ.  Philip’s act of baptizing him was a marked departure from prior understanding of “who’s in,” and “who’s out.”

That’s Philip, a disciple we don’t hear about very much.  But we read today about Peter, a disciple we hear a lot about, baptizing these gentiles, who are not circumcised, whose bodies are just a little too whole, lacking the mark in the flesh of belonging to God, who are the subject of controversy.  And again, another decision point – or rather, a discernment point: whom is God calling into the Body of Christ?  How did Peter make up his mind to go against centuries of precedent and religious belief? 

I was sitting, many years ago, in a Family Systems workshop, studying the work of Edwin Friedman with a black Pentecostal minister, a white female Episcopal priest who was expecting a baby, and insisted, without a trace of irony, on being called Father Jane, me and my colleague who was also a Presbyterian minister.

I confess that I made some rather bleak assumptions about the Pentecostal based upon my prior experience of some Pentecostal ministers, as well as some of some of his political views he had shared.  In retrospect, it was a rather dumb theological assumption on my part because as in order to do so, I had to completely forget that the very heart of Pentecostalism is that the Spirit emerges where it will, and when the Spirit emerges, it is as clear a sign of the presence and calling of God as the Pentecostal tradition can discern.

 So, having conveniently forgotten the theology of the Pentecostals in order to hang onto my somewhat parochial assumptions about what Carl would be about and what sort of things he would say, I was more than a little astounded when we came around to issues of inclusion.

My Presbyterian colleague, I already knew, was on the other side of the aisle from me when it came to questions of ordination and marriage in the Presbyterian Church.  Then the episcopal priest, a minister in a denomination known as a leader in their openness, astounded me by siding with my Presbyterian Minister friend.  I was fully prepared, and indeed, girding up my loins, to do battle with my colleagues for what I considered their willful ignorance and intransigence when my help came from an unexpected quarter.  Where I had expected to go it alone, Carl answered before I could open my mouth.

“There won’t be any second class citizens in the Kingdom of God,” he said.

Talk about the Spirit emerging where it will. 

That seems to be the message of Acts, of the Spirit blowing where it will.  And when the Spirit blows in, there won’t be any second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. 

“Look,” said the Ethiopian Eunuch, “There is water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?”

This is what happened to Peter.  Drew, this is one of the verses I look through when I read scripture.  It’s not necessarily my favorite, it’s just one I can’t shake.   We find Peter in Caesarea Philippi, drawn by the Holy Spirit, and he falls asleep and has a vision where he sees all manner of animals, clean and unclean, and a voice says to him, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat.”

But Peter replies, “I’ve never eaten anything unclean, and I’m not starting now.”

And then God says, “Do not ever again call unclean what I have made clean.”

Then next scene is Peter preaching, and there is a whole bunch a bunch of gentiles – unclean - and sermon that closes with these words,  “Would anyone,” asked Peter, “Withhold the water for baptism?”

In sharp, almost staccato procession, the Acts of the Apostles topples any previous conceptions of “who’s in,” and “who’s out.”

As the disciples came face to face with their own notions of clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable, the Spirit in rapid sequence pricks the bubbles of their isolation freeing them to enter into the whole world that God has made and loved.

This past Monday to Wednesday, I was in Kansas City with the Board of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, on which I serve.  The Covenant Network has been, since 1996, a major voice for inclusion in the Presbyterian Church – our particular work was to overcome barriers and threats to ordination for LGBT people whom the church believes called by God to serve as deacons, elders and ministers, and most recently, to overturn the ban on Presbyterian clergy officiating at marriages of two Christians of the same gender. 

The Presbyterian Church has achieved ordination equality in polity if not yet in practice, and in the states where it is legal, Presbyterian ministers may, if they are so called, officiate weddings without concern of disciplinary action. 

These are big celebrations for those of us who believe this is the future into which God is calling the Presbyterian Church.  Indeed, even if you should disagree with me on these two matters in particular, for anyone who believes, as the confessions state, that “God alone is Lord of the conscience,” these are very good developments, because churches and sessions and ministers are more free as a result.

But we found ourselves as a board wondering what was next.  There is not an obvious concern of polity to be taken on. 

So, anyway, in our meeting, a staff member, Tricia Dykers Koenig, who has been working for the Covenant Network for many years, offered the observation that when she was hired to the staff, her credibility instantly went up.  She had, a married, heterosexual woman with children, been working for years on issues of inclusion, but by becoming associated with the Covenant Network, found suddenly that she had credibility.  She suddenly had access. 

She was in. 

And we paused as a board to think about that.  We were majority white, majority straight, majority from relatively big-steeple churches with money, and we suddenly realized there were some voices that we weren’t hearing. 

There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God.

1 John, from which we took our Epistle Lesson this morning, is all about love. 

“God is love,” John wrote.

“Perfect love casts out fear,” he went on. 

“By this you will conquer the world,” we read today.

It occurs to me, it is possible, perhaps that one or two, or maybe three or four of you are getting tired of hearing about love and inclusion – not that you disagree with either in principle, but perhaps just that it’s getting a touch boring.  I mean, we are in Acts and 1 John in the lectionary right now, and Acts is all about the Spirit’s work and how she sparked the missionary journeys of the apostles – which are all about inclusion, and 1 John is unmistakably about God, and God is love. 

I wouldn’t blame you if you were beginning to get a little bored with it.  I mean, even your pastors occasionally stare out our blinking cursors trying to figure out how to keep love and inclusion interesting. 

But here’s the thing: God never gets bored with loving us. 

God never gets tired of seeking those most in need of love. 

The fatherly-motherly-parental love of God is tenacious.  It is durable.  It is from everlasting to everlasting.  It is unconditional.

I am aware that sometimes days like today are hard for people whose parents weren’t able to be for them what a parent should be.  If that is you, I hope that you can come to know deep in your soul, the ways that God loves you.

You see, the sacrament of baptism, which we will shortly celebrate, is the sacrament of inclusion.  It is the sign and seal of God’s claim on us.  It is the declaration – not on our parts, but on God’s part, that we belong to God, forever.  Always remember that God is love, that Jesus Christ is love incarnate, and that God’s love is forever and for all. 

In Blake Bailey’s memoir, his parents are never able to be for his brother the parent he needed because it was impossible.  And so, in time, they gave up on him again and again.  It was a constant tale of tough love followed by reconciliation, followed by heartbreaking loss, followed by durable love.

Because it was love that enabled them to pick up again, and start going again, trying, again, to be the parents that he needed, even though the task was impossible.

You know, sometimes love is hard.  Sometimes it takes more than we can give, and frequently, oh far too frequently, the world gets in the way of love.

But I hope you aren’t yet tired of love and inclusion.  I hope not, because love is most surely the only thing that will ever conquer the world. 


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, Amen.

Last Published: May 13, 2015 5:55 PM