In Praise of Ritual

John 15:9–17; Acts 10:44–48, preached by Chris Bohnhoff on May 05, 2024

Grace and peace to you, friends. So! We made it to sabbatical. Are you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated yet? That’s OK if not; we’ve got some time still. Some of you have asked me how things are going now that I’m “official.” And the answer is that it feels great. I attribute that at least in part to last Sunday’s ritual of sending Jane off to rest and adventure, and presenting me with the keys to the pastor’s office and you with a beautiful box for storing your memories of the time we’re entering. That ritual signified something to me. It held meaning that I’ve taken forward.

At the risk of repeating old news, I’ve had no lack of ritual lately. After church last Sunday I graduated from seminary. I traded my white robe for a black one —with even more awkward sleeves, and a silly hat with a tassel that must have been designed specifically to get stuck in glasses, nose, and teeth, sometimes all at the same time. And before graduation, there was even more ritual: a special chapel service, an awards banquet, and a president’s reception. Lots of ritual.

Rituals like these sometimes get a bad rap in our culture. Maybe people think they’re pretentious, or a pain in the neck, or just a formality with no real purpose. Maybe, too, people have witnessed enough ritual that feels coercive, more like indoctrination, and they’re skeptical. I’ll admit that that was actually my first response when I read today’s passage from Acts.

We hear in the passage that the folks with Peter—or Stands on the Rock, as Peter is called in the First Nations translation—were visited by the Holy Spirit and began speaking in new languages. So, who are these folks? What brought them together? Peter was talking to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household. Earlier in the text, we learn that “he and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” (Acts 10:2) So, not your typical Roman soldier. Angels visit Cornelius in a vision and tell him to invite Peter to come speak to him. Then angels visit Peter in a vision and tell him to accept the invitation to see this Roman soldier, which couldn’t have been comfortable, given what had happened to Jesus, and the general political climate in Israel. But Peter follows the angel’s instruction, hears about Cornelius’s vision, and proceeds to do what God and Cornelius asked him to do: tell the Roman soldier about Jesus.

Now we’re caught up to our passage, where Peter is sharing the Jesus story when, midsentence, God’s Spirit descends on Cornelius and his household. Peter sees and hears that God is with this Roman solider. I love how the First Nations translation brings the social dynamics alive: the “Tribal Members who came with Stands on the Rock. . . could hear and see with their own eyes that even on the people from Outside Nations, the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out.” (10:45-46)

To his credit, Peter responds that, even though Cornelius doesn’t follow Jewish laws and occupies an entirely uncomfortable social location deep within the culture of his oppressor, Peter’s God is also clearly Cornelius’s God. 

Next comes the bit that I wasn’t sure about: “So he instructed them to participate in the purification ceremony. . . welcoming them into the sacred family.” (10:48)

My skeptical, 21st-century, progressive Christian ears heard this text, and somehow my hackles went up on behalf of the Roman centurion! Why do they want to ritualize this amazing thing that they just witnessed so quickly? What’s going on? What are they roping this guy and his family into? Isn’t that funny? I, a person who believes in the beauty of baptism and the gospels would get squirmy about baptizing a Roman soldier?

Maybe it’s because of some deep Indiana Jones association with the phrase “purification ceremony.” Or. . . maybe it’s because the commencement address at my recent graduation included a story about the speaker’s great-grandmother, and how she lived through Indian boarding school in Oklahoma. She had seen white folks, Christians, do their best to use expressions of Christian ritual to stomp out her classmates’ Native culture and enforce a power dynamic that kept white folks in power and Native folks out of it. We know the power of ritual, its capacity to deeply ingrain a collective narrative. I think of the pledge of allegiance I grew up reciting to start every school day, for example. In the wrong hands, ritual can be used as a tool of domination. Which makes me wonder whether a distrust of ritual could be one of the reasons for the decline of the church.

But we also know that ritual isn’t always a tool of domination. Ritual can be important and meaningful—for individuals and for communities. I think of the senior chapel I participated in. I got to preach to that community from my experience: the joy from that chapter of my life, the vulnerability, the failures, the wisdom gained. I said things that had been building up in me for four years. It was scary, because I was sharing deep experiences, not the half-formed ideas that often form the basis of seminary class discussions. But delivering my experiences, my full being to that space of ritual. . . I left more seen, both to the community and to myself, than when I entered. And through the giving of my story in a ritualized space, some of the protective barriers I had up protecting my own vulnerabilities came down, and they’ve stayed down. I feel like I have more space now for God to enter.

And from the other side, not as a ritual leader but from my seat in the audience during graduation, I took in that ritual and my understanding of who we were as a community grew. To see and hear the family members supporting us students; to hear the music performed, the prayers offered by my classmates, even just hearing the titles of the thesis papers people wrote. . . my sense of the world and what I am connected to changed. Through ritual.

When ritual is used as a tool of domination, our old stories, our practiced motions and words are the finite container into which all lives are expected to fit. But when used like it was here last Sunday, and around my graduation, and by Peter and the centurion, ritual can hold the stories that define us, that form us, and it can stretch to embrace the newcomers and the old hands, those seeking stability and those seeking something new, something beyond words, beyond our understanding.

The story of the book of Acts is exactly this stretching of God’s embrace, as Peter and Paul and the rest see with their own eyes that God’s sacred family extends past the bounds of Israel to all creation. The proof is before them, the visions of God’s intentions planted in their souls. The soldier in the passage has already been baptized by God’s Spirit, but the ritual of baptism is needed for Peter and the Tribal Members as much as it is for Cornelius and his household: for them to stretch their understanding of who their sacred family now includes.

And here, at the very end of my message, we tie back to our passage from John: that to abide in Jesus’ love, to follow his commandments, is to complete our joy. Can you imagine the joy, the joy that encompasses happiness and grief and everything in between, that Peter experienced realizing that he and a Roman soldier were now siblings in Christ? It feels good to have stories stretched, to find a spiritual bond with new folks.

As we sink into this sabbatical time, may our joy be more complete. May we open our hearts to one another and to the stranger and let our stories intertwine, revealing our common dwelling in the heart of God. May it be so. Amen.