Reformation Sunday 2018
How many have heard a joke about how we Presbyterians practice baptism? Sprinkling, dry-cleaning, finger-dipping, you name it, it’s out there. Of course most of these come from folks with a tradition that does not baptize children and only baptizes by immersion.
Most of the time these are in good fun. However, my chagrin rose some years ago when a parishioner shared with me an experience at a “non-denominational” Bible study. She was upset because she had been told that she wasn’t ‘saved’ because her baptism had been by “sprinkling” instead of immersion.
I assured her that she need not be afraid. That the baptismal methods of sprinkling, pouring and full immersion are all referenced in the Bible. And that the ritual act is a sign of God’s love and sealed her in God’s family.
Which is to say, how, or how much water is used isn’t the point. God’s activity, God’s free grace, enfolding us and drawing us into the body of Christ is the point. The terror industry comment my former parishioner received isn’t common. But it is one of the ways that we can direct so much energy toward gatekeeping at what is meant to be the open door of God’s grace, that we fail to attend to the life that awaits us on the other side.
Perhaps some folks focus on the moment or the means of baptism as an end all be all moment in the Christian life because what is required after baptism is so challenging. While some want to say that baptism is the goal – once and done—so to speak, when you look at the broad sweep of God’s saving grace the goal is to make people more like Christ. Baptism is an important entry to the on-going journey required for that to happen.
Along that path is found what the disciples of Jesus couldn’t seem to accept: vulnerability, suffering and death. Jesus has announced for the third time that he is going to Jerusalem and will be handed over, will be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed. The first time he had told them, Peter rebuked him, unable to accept that the Messiah could meet such a fate. The second time the disciples broke into another round of “who’s the greatest?” And now, with the third time we get James and John audaciously admitting what they want—they want Jesus to do their bidding – to grant them positions of prestige in his kingdom.
What’s your response when you hear something you don’t want to hear? Perhaps it’s defensiveness, or propping yourself up, or looking for a way around it, or anger, or denial. Sound familiar? It does for me, denial is my inner defense of choice. The glass is always half full, even when it’s empty!
James and John resort to a mixture of several strategies with a dash of what feels like entitlement thrown in. Jesus knows that they don’t have a clue what they’re asking for. But in his compassion, and perhaps recognizing that with a little coaching, the brother’s ambitions might be re-directed, he reveals what it takes to be considered great. I doubt they were much interested, for what Jesus had to say was the exact opposite of what they asked for.
Jesus says that in the new community, greatness is found not in being served, but in serving. Greatness is found not by being given positons of power, but by humbling oneself.
My guess is that we, like the first disciples, don’t want to hear that. Then, as now, we get trapped in the fiction that to be important, to be loved, to be somebody, we have to figure out how to “one up” those around us. Our egos can be tyrants demanding that we find ways to prove ourselves, to show off, to get the attention that we deserve.
Of course we all need to be seen and valued and cared for, but if we are not careful we can fall into that “all about me” pit. From that place everything should “work for me.” That’s a popular phrase these days, “does it work for you?” It works for me.
Anything that disrupts my comfort, or my convenience, anything that goes against my personal preferences, is wrong and should be changed. We don’t want to give anything up. We don’t want to release control. We don’t want to be bothered with the needs, desires or preferences of others. Because clearly ours are so important. And furthermore, this vision of humble servanthood is absolutely counter-cultural – so it makes no sense.
Our whole culture caters to the idea that everything should make your life easier, comfortable, and more beautiful. What Jesus teaches, challenges anyone with privilege. I think this is a particular challenge for us guys, where anything that can be identified as “weakness” is anathema. For what Jesus teaches challenges anyone who has power over anyone else.
And just to be clear, everyone has power, either to be a jerk, or to be really kind. Which is to say, we all have power. Jesus’ teaching applies to everyone.
All of this does not mean that we shouldn’t work hard and strive to do our best, reach goals, and achieve things. The gospel is not condemning you when you hold positions of power or authority, in the world, or in the church. That is not a bad thing. The challenge in the gospel comes at the point where your purpose in life becomes winning or showing you are better than others. When your sense of identity and self-worth gets bound up with the positon you hold. When you use your strength to lord it over others rather than to serve them.
These issues touch us at all levels of our lives from your own sense of self to your family relationships to your position in school or work to your place and perspective in the neighborhood or at church.
A few examples:
The pout! I suspect that’s what my family secretly labels my attitude when I’m upset that something is not going as I think it should. I make great plans. But at times the three other adults in my family have other plans, counter plans. They rebel! I get quite, sullen and make a headlong leap into the all about me pit.
Another example, I read recently about a neighborhood in D.C. where folks live in million dollar plus homes. They are up in arms because they fear property values in the neighborhood will decrease because churches in the community are ministering to the homeless. It is an all about me pit.
And imagine this, over the years I’ve come across folks in the church who complain because others in the church are not as humble , as faithful, as they are. Some of those folks hold on to their role in a church with a death grip, complaining all the while that no one else is willing to do the work.
These, and others like them are about our own struggles with ego, with control, with selfish desire, with temper tantrums when we don’t get our way. Not to mention examples of our experience of others who throw their weight around in selfish and self-righteous ways. Every one of these examples is self- and life – diminishing. They’re embarrassing and far below the dignity of what it means to be like Christ, to be truly human.
What Jesus shows us about the other side of baptism is that to be truly human is to bear the image of God, to be given all the grace of God, to be endowed with the power of the Holy Spirit. And then…to freely choose to surrender it all to restraining one’s power and to stand in solidarity with the vulnerable, the powerless, with those treated as less than human.
The philosopher Simone Weil suggests that to be human is not to do what is possible, but to do what is just. In other words, while it may be possible due to your strength and power to manipulate, to control, to terrorize, even beat up another person, to do so is unjust. And therefore inhuman. The truly human choice is to have the strength and the power to do whatever you want, to whomever you will, but to refrain from doing so out of love for the other.
That is what God does for us each and every moment. It is what Jesus did in his life and in his death. Jesus chose not to do what was possible, that is to rule over others, to kill, to control, to live a long life upon the earth. But out of love, instead, he freely chose to do what was just; to empower others, to lift others up, to heal, to give his life in order to set others free.
“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Jesus asks.
By God’s grace we are able to choose to enter into the life of God, to understand ourselves as part of one interconnected web of kinship in the body of Christ. And to give ourselves for others and in service to the whole. Our baptism, whether received as an infant, a child or an adult, with a little or with a lot of water, is a beautiful gift of grace that promises new and true life.
The promise isn’t that life will be easy, that we will be spared pain, that God will grant our dreams and demands for better jobs, easier retirement, money, popularity, prestige, a wealth of friends, control or greatness. Rather, baptism offers you a place in the body of Christ and sets you upon a path where you can become more truly human by emulating Jesus’ loving, humble service.
And this journey toward a “great” that is Christ-like life is an open invitation, it’s offered to all regardless of age, or status or situation in life. You don’t have be “dunked” for this journey to begin.
But I suggest God won’t leave you alone, until you have gotten out of the shallow water of selfishness and power mongering and followed Jesus into the deep. You get to choose whether you will go all in. The more you move in that direction, you’ll discover that you are seen, you are valued, you are cared for, you are loved, by God and have a great purpose.
This frees you from the tyranny of trying to earn those things from others. Buoyed up by God’s mercy, you’re given grace, freely, and encouraged to be life and hope and love for others. You become an invitation to others to climb out of the All About Me pit and jump in the waters of grace.