Many thanks to Facebook friends and acquaintances, Tom Eggebeen and Chris Duckworth whose posts this past week jumpstarted my ruminations for the sermon given on Jan. 11, 2015.
New Testament Reading Acts 19:1-7
1While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. 2He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” 4Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — 7altogether there were about twelve of them.
Gospel Reading Mark 1:4-11
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
I’ve been thinking this week about what it means to be a Christian; what it means to be baptized and claim to be a disciple of Christ. I’m struck by how many Christians seem to think they have a free pass look down upon the poor, to neglect those who have served this country, to take food away from hungry children, or to deprive medical care to any but their own.
This is a self-centered Christianity. This is a faith that doesn’t look beyond one’s own relationship with God. This is a faith that has a person say, “I’m saved. But you aren’t.” Or, “I’m saved and the only way you can be saved is to believe as I do.”
And, sadly, it seems to be very popular –
A friend of mine, Tom, pointed out a line in an obituary that struck him as odd this week. It said, “Because of Bill’s faith in God and trust in Jesus Christ as his savior, he is rejoicing with the saints gone before him today.”
I’m sure all our sympathies go out to this man’s friend and family.
But here’s the thing: this brief “testimony” phrase is a classic example of “conversionist” theology. Those of you who are familiar with Billy Graham may recognize this as a version of his gospel, the “personal decision – personal savior” world of Christianity, with its focus on “me.” This is the altar call of Christianity, something we Presbyterians aren’t used to. Come forward and make YOUR exclusive commitment to Jesus Christ. The altar call is singular – focused on one person, at one time, in one place.
As Tom said, “In truth, ‘Bill’s faith and trust in Jesus’ didn’t effect any of this … quite the contrary: It’s God who effects this, sometimes with us (even our cooperation is of the Spirit), and mostly in spite of us.” Bill’s faith was the work of God’s grace.
Now I acknowledge that all faith is personal… and a work of God’s grace. Some of us come to faith in a gradual crescendo – from the time we’re children going to Sunday School and then Confirmation, and then a lifetime of questions. Some of us come to it in a lightning bolt moment, as if we’ve been hit in the chest with the realization that God is with us. Some of us might come to it with a catch in the throat and hot tears behind our eye, knowing we’re completely unworthy and yet knowing that we are loved.
And we are all different in what we believe and how we’re able to talk about it. But there are commonalities. We celebrate the same sacraments. We recite the foundational elements of faith in creeds and statements of faith. And if we are true to the teachings of Christ, we explore our faith in community. We are not in this just for ourselves, are we? If all we want is to be saved, then I’d posit that is an empty faith.
But if we claim the baptism of Christ, then we proclaim that we are not alone. We are one with Christ. We are the body of Christ, on this earth to work towards the example Jesus set for us. We are to care for the poor, the wounded, the sick, the hungry, the young. We are to care for each other, figuring out each day what it means to love ourselves and everyone else, too.
John stands at the bank of the Jordan River, inviting folks to repent, to name their sins and reclaim their humanity, to turn away from those sins to something better, something that is to come. And as they enter the water, their sins are washed away. Each one enters, leaving behind the detritus of his or her life, giving all that over to God.
And along comes Jesus. He, too, steps into the river now polluted with the sins of all those who accepted John’s call to repentance before him. He enters that water, that repository of our sin, our pride, and our doubt; in that one act he declares his solidarity with us and with all those who were and are to come.
Our book of order tells us: Sacraments are signs of the real presence and power of Christ in the Church, symbols of God’s action. Through the Sacraments, God seals us in redemption, renews our identity as the people of God, and marks us for service. (Directory for Worship, W-1.3033)
The body of Christ is all of us, and baptism is the bond of our unity in Christ. As we are united with Christ through faith, baptism unites the people of God with each other and with the church of every time and place. Barriers of race, gender, status, and age are to be transcended. Barriers of nationality, history, and practice are to be overcome. As Paul told the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Just as there is no “I” in team, there is no “me” in Christian. It isn’t about me, at least not in an ego-driven way. It is about how I treat others. It is about how we treat each other – it’s about being humble before God, recognizing that in the enormity of God’s good creation we are not as significant, or as important, as we might like to think we are.
In fact, God’s love and redeeming grace are available to all people. God offers it freely and baptism is a gift from God, emanating from that grace. When we respond to that invitation to grace, we accept our identity as a children of God. Yes, baptism calls us to repentance, but it also offers us the opportunity to be faithful and become a disciple. Baptism identifies us as a church and it commissions us to ministry, to service in the world.
Baptism bookends Jesus’ ministry – beginning with his own baptism by John, to his final charge to his disciples in Matthew – “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
We are not alone in this crazy thing called faith. Salvation is not an independent decision or act – it isn’t up to us and nothing we can do will guarantee or deny it. Salvation comes by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ. And as undeserving as we think we are, every time we confess our sins, every time we turn back to God, every time we remember our baptism, every time we eat the bread and drink the cup, we affirm our connection to each other, to God, and Christ as children of God.
May it be so. Amen.