Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Third Sunday of Easter.
“Therefore, let all Israel know beyond question that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
When the crowd heard this, they were cut to the heart. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
Peter replied, “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.” With many other words he testified to them and encouraged them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation.” Those who accepted Peter’s message were baptized. God brought about three thousand people into the community on that day.
A few years ago I had the good fortune to visit Salisbury Cathedral in the south of England. It is a stunning piece of medieval architecture—huge, solid, ornate. Very much by design, it gives off the impression of being changeless, almost eternal. My experience has been that time seems to stop inside cathedrals. They can seem like museums that people happen to worship in.
Which is why I was absolutely delighted by the Salisbury Cathedral baptismal font. Oddly enough, for at least 200 years, the cathedral didn’t have a permanent font—a portable Victorian basin was wheeled in from a side chapel when necessary. In the late 1990s, the rector began pushing for a permanent font in the church, which meant getting her congregation to agree to change—no small feat in a congregation where the traditions go back nearly eight centuries! The new font was finally installed in 2008.
It’s no ordinary font, though. Designed by William Pye, a “water sculptor,” it’s nearly ten feet wide, with a green basin shaped somewhere between a cross and a diamond. Water pours out over the corners and into a grate below, where it’s collected and pumped back up into the font, so that there’s a never-ending stream of living water. Even with tourists, you can hear the flow of the water all over the sanctuary.
It took my breath away, this living, flowing water in the midst of all the stone and history. It was a tactile reminder that we were in a holy place, not just another tourist destination. All the fonts I’d ever seen before had kept the water neatly inside—bowls, basins, even full immersion baptismal pools aren’t supposed to spill. We keep the water contained so as not to make a mess. But here the font overflowed, and the church was designed to turn the mess into art.
Our scripture this morning is a baptismal story—the first baptism since Jesus’ own. Last week we read Peter’s first post-Easter sermon, which planted the seeds of why this new community needed to exist: to be the people of Jesus Christ, witnessing to his ministry, life, death, and resurrection. This new church would exist only because of Jesus.
This week we get the people’s reaction: how? How do we form this new community? Where do we even begin?
What should we do? they ask.
Peter’s response: repent and be baptized. Turn to God and receive God’s forgiveness. Act out your rebirth in the water.
After last week, when Peter accused the crowd of killing Jesus, it’s a stunning reply. The crowd asks “what do we do?” and Peter doesn’t say “accept your punishment. Instead, he says “accept your forgiveness.”
This is how the church gets its start—with forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only way a bunch of regular folks are ever going to get to be the body of Christ—the only way to move forward when we get in each others’ way, as we inevitably will.
But that’s not all Peter offers to this new community. He also offers a gift: the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So far, all the language that Peter has been using was not wholly unfamiliar to the Jews gathered for the festival of Pentecost. He has called Jesus a descendent of David. He has named them collectively as Israel, even though Acts goes to great lengths to record how they come from nations all over the middle east. He calls them to repentance, just as the prophets of the Old Testament always did. And so when he starts in with this promise of the Holy Spirit, a promise for them and for their children, the people gathered there would have known what this meant—that God had chosen them and them alone, to make another covenant with, just as God had with Noah and Noah’s children, Abraham and Abraham’s children, David and David’s children. This community might be new, but it’s playing by a set of very old rules. God chooses one set of people over the rest. God belongs to them.
Except. Except the sentence doesn’t end where all those other promises did. Peter says, “This promise is for you, your children, and for all who are far away—as many as the Lord our God invites.”
As many as the Lord our God invites.
And in just a few words the covenantal door is blown off its hinges.
This new community—forgiven and spirit-filled—will be open to all. All people will be welcomed in it, Jews and Gentiles, men and women, free people and enslaved people, from every country, class, and race. This is the story of the book of Acts: a church that haltingly, stumblingly, learns to open its doors as wide as Jesus opens his arms.
We have not always been good at this, the church universal. We have not wanted to let God do the inviting, preferring to keep our own guest lists. We have wanted to limit the community of the church, make it comfortable, stock it with people who think like us. But God is pushy, I have to tell you, and the Spirit is always blowing. And I believe that the church is stronger when we welcome others the way we have been welcomed: with forgiveness, with grace, and with the promise of God’s love for them.
Like many cathedrals, Salisbury Cathedral was built on the east-west axis; it was important for many of our Christian ancestors that they worship facing east to the rising sun. The baptismal font is positioned centrally within the sanctuary, which means that the four corners of the font line up with north, south, east, and west on a compass. The water of the font literally pours out to the four corners of the earth.
The Bible doesn’t say where Peter and the apostles’ baptized those 3000 new Christians who were welcomed into Christ’s church that Pentecost day. But I think Peter would have appreciated the Salisbury font, with its water that runs off in every direction, grace that cannot be contained, forgiveness that runs amuck.
I found much to be fascinated by in the cathedral— it’s full of famous graves and religious statuary and historical artifacts, the Magna Carta among them. But all morning I found myself circling back to that font, and I soon noticed I wasn’t the only one.
There we stood, circling the water, tourists from from all over the globe. I could hear voices speaking Arabic and French and Japanese and other languages I don’t know how to distinguish. Some of us were likely Christian, pondering baptism and grace. Most of us likely were not. Yet all of us were drawn to the water—the living, free-flowing water—and we stood transfixed.
Sometimes God blesses us with a glimpse of God’s own vision for the church.
And it’s stunning.
To God be the glory.