22 January 2017

Healing Our Divide

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Sometimes the Lectionary knows exactly what we need to hear. Sometimes the Revised Common Lectionary (which we use most Sundays) speaks directly to what we’re facing and experiencing in our lives. It’s as if it holds a secret wisdom or knowledge. On this Inauguration weekend—in a nation torn and divided over the election of President Trump, when we’ve witnessed violent protests and historic marches across the country, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long time, if ever, in this country—we’re given this text from the Apostle Paul writing to Christians in Corinth. “For it has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you…”(1 Cor. 1:11). Near the beginning of his letter Paul begs, urges, “…I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose”(1 Cor. 1:10). We could say that the church in Corinth was a “hot mess.”

First, a word of caution. Paul wrote his letter to a small, yet influential community of Christians in Corinth. He wasn’t offering a social commentary on how the city of Corinth should be organized. Neither was he writing to the authorities of the Roman Empire or to Caesar. Paul’s not writing to the U. S. Congress and he’s not writing to the people of the United States. He’s writing to the church—a particular church. His first concern is the witness of the church. However, what he offers here might have something to say to the entire church, to the many divisions that continue to tear at the fabric of the church today. And it’s only then, when the church deals with its own divisions and models a new way of being, that maybe—just maybe—we might have a leavening effect on society as a whole. Perhaps, then, the Church might have something constructive, redemptive, and healing to offer the nation, especially when a nation is in crisis. When the Church steps up and becomes the Church of Jesus Christ, when the Church is really the Church, the world is blessed for it. When the Church fails to really be the Church, the entire world suffers for it.

So what’s going on in Corinth? Competing personality cults. These competing alliances or groups are causing divisions, schismata, in Greek. Schism. Schisma refers to a tear in a garment, which often had political associations, as in political factions struggling for power, thus tearing apart a community. Paul, writing from Ephesus, across the Aegean Sea in Turkey, received word about the quarrels. It must have been serious enough for someone to send a report to Paul, who, you’ll recall, was the founder of the church in Corinth. What were these factions gathering around? Troublesome preachers. Religious figures. These different groups were claiming or seeking power over others in the church. Party spirit. Factions. Cliques. Allegiances. “I belong.” I belong to Paul or Apollos or Cephas or Christ. Political parties at this time were named for individuals. The parties were clusters of power around a personality. There were people who said, “I belong to Paul.” These were folks committed to Paul. You imagine people saying, “I was a charter member of First Church, Corinth. We were here from the start. Paul is our man. No, he’s not the greatest preacher; he can be a little dry. But we stand with him. He’s hard working and committed to the gospel.” (We know that Paul wasn’t an eloquent speaker.) Others said, “I belong to Apollos.” We know from Acts that Apollos was a learned Jew from Alexander who settled in Corinth who preached the gospel (see Acts 18:24-28). Apollos was a passionate, eloquent, silver-tongued preacher who dazzled his hearers with his impressive rhetorical skills in the pulpit. “We just love when Apollos preaches. He’s so entertaining.” There was another faction around Cephas, whom we know little about. And there was even a group that claimed, “I belong to Christ.” This was a group of purists that effectively said, “We’re the real Christians, with direct access to Christ, unlike the followers of Paul and Apollos and Cephas. We know what it really means to follow Christ.”

Competing personality cults. In each party, Christ is treated as a commodity or possession to be haggled over.[1] But Christ doesn’t belong to us. We belong to Christ.

We also know that there were some in the church who believed that they were more spiritually sophisticated than others; they felt they knew more. Paul calls them the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones, these so-called spiritual elites—and they were arrogant. And we also know that these factions had something to do with the way the divisions win Roman society, beyond the worshipping community. Roman society was highly stratified and these social stratifications made their way into the worshipping community. We know there were very wealthy people in the community living in homes large enough to accommodate worship. These socio-economic divisions—from the very rich at the top down to the very poor at the bottom, with the free at the top and the slave at the bottom—these socio-economic identifications that formed Roman society crept their way into the church, causing considerable damage and division in the fabric of the worshipping community. Why? Because when the church gathered for worship, the wealthiest members of society broke bread and shared the cup, shared the Lord’s Supper, with slaves.

All of this division was extremely disturbing for Paul, as he watched his ministry there unravel. He throws important questions back to them. “Has Christ been divided?” The answer is, no, of course. There is only one Christ. Then why is the body of Christ divided? By the way, the Greek word Paul uses here for divided, memeristai, was often used to describe a divide or split into political parties. Paul asks, “Was Paul crucified for you?” He could also have asked, “Was Apollos or Cephas crucified for you?” Then why are you investing them with so much power and authority and give them devotion? Or, were you baptized in the name of Paul or Apollos or Cephas? If you were baptized into Christ, then why are you giving greater meaning to your association with them? In fact, Paul confesses, “I thank God that I baptized none of you,” well, maybe a handful, “so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name.”

This is the nature of their “quarrel.” The word Paul uses here speaks of intense strife, a hot dispute, an emotional flame that ignites whenever rivalry becomes intolerable. It seems that this community is at the breaking point. Paul appeals to them to be in agreement, to mend their ways. The Greek word Paul uses here is often used to describe the mending of fishing nets. In other words, he urges them to restore the fabric of the church, heal the division. He begs them to harmonize their lives with the same purpose, the same mind.

And that same purpose and mind, the only purpose, the only mind, that should claim their allegiance is, as Paul says, the “message of the cross.” It’s the cross of Christ, which has a kind of power, dunamis (as in “dynamite”), Paul tells us; it’s the power of God revealed in and through the weakness and foolishness of a Roman cross. And that, if you think about it, is just plain odd and weird, bizarre and scandalous that God would act decisively through a ghastly Roman cross. Cicero (106-43 BC), the Roman philosopher and politician, once said, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen but from his thoughts, his eyes, and his ears.” Crucifixion was ghastly, horrifying, a form of execution reserved only for enemies of the state, of the Roman Empire. But Paul essentially says, “Don’t avert your eyes. Look at the cross.” Yes, it was scandalous and foolish for Christians to claim that the God of love could be viewed there, on a cross. But Paul says, from his own personal experience, that there’s wisdom and power there. The cross has power. And it has the power to reorient our lives. Christians are to be about the “politics of the cross.” It was William Stringfellow (1928-1985), the noted attorney, theologian, and activist, who spoke of the “politics of the cross.”[2] The politics of the cross, he said, is the most radical form of politics because when we align ourselves with God’s power displayed in Christ’s suffering on the cross, then every other allegiance we have to any other ideal, collective, principality, and power is called into question. “It means,” says Stringfellow, “acting politically in a manner which confesses insistently, patiently, fearfully, joyously that Jesus is the Lord [not Caesar] and that the Lord already reigns.”[3]

And, so Paul calls the church back to its Lord, to Christ. Our allegiance must be with Christ. Christ alone. Our baptismal identity is in Christ. The church gathers around its Lord, one Lord. Not Caesar. This is the basis of our unity.

All of this is tough because we are, by nature, tribal creatures. We like to break ourselves up into tribes or families or parties or teams or ethnic groups or nations. We then allow these associations to define us. Orioles fans disparage Yankee fans. And Yankee fans disparage Orioles fans. Growing up outside New York City, Giants fans have little in common with Jets fans; it’s as if they live in parallel universes. In Glasgow, Scotland the rivalry between Celtic and Rangers soccer clubs was at one time very intense. Celtic was once the Catholic team; the Rangers were Protestant. So you had Protestants and Catholics competing out on the soccer pitch. Yes, it’s natural to have teams or associations. Conservative and liberal. Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Communist. These designations reflect who we are and direct our steps in the world. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But when they take priority over our identity as Christians, then something is seriously wrong. And when these categories are combined with the word “Christian,” as in “liberal Christians” or “conservative Christians,” or these associations supersede our identity in Christ, then these categories, which are extraneous to our common life in Christ, tear the body of Christ asunder. And when these extraneous categories take on more power and authority and meaning than Christ himself, they separate us far from Christ and they tear the church apart.

One of the prevailing tragedies of our time is the way identifications, categories, and associations in the wider culture have seeped their way, like a toxin, into the church, adversely affecting our ability to be the church, to engage in ministry, to be the body of Christ. We need to remember that the words “conservative” and “liberal” are not biblical categories. You won’t find these words in the Bible. In fact, I wish we would stop using these categories or labels. “Conservative Christians” should not be questioning the faithfulness of those “liberal Christians.” “Liberals Christians” should not belittle their “conservative” brothers and sisters in Christ. I wish we didn’t say, “I’m a conservative Christian” or “I’m a liberal Christian.” What does this really mean? And how does such a designation help us, together, be faithful to Christ? These designations are often made to control or judge people. How does behaving this way advance the Kingdom of God?

When I was in seminary classmates tried to put me in a theological camp—it’s what one does a lot at seminary. After dinner one evening, I left the table before others and went back to my room. A little later, a friend from my floor, who was at that table, said, “We were talking about you after you left.” He said, “We couldn’t figure out if you’re liberal or conservative.” I just smiled and didn’t say anything. I wanted to say, “Don’t project upon me.” Some might view my theology as very liberal or progressive, but there are also aspects of my theology that some would say is conservative, even evangelical. Actually, I tend to view myself as a liberal evangelical. But then I would have to define for you what I mean by the word “evangelical.” All of these labels or designations don’t help us mend the fabric of the community; they don’t help heal the body of Christ.

In my home church there was a women, Myrtle McMahon, a senior member of the congregation, who was a good friend and a dear soul. She used to pray for me every day, especially when I was at seminary. She used to say, “Kenny, I pray for you everyday that you don’t become too liberal.” She was so worried about me. Why the fear?

I’m convinced that these so-called liberal or conservative identifications are more ego-driven than Spirit-driven. We hide in these camps. We use these words to protect our fearful egos from the other, from the imagined threats of the other. How does living this way build up the body of Christ? God is neither conservative nor liberal. There are places in scripture where God acts in ways that one might call liberal or radical, and other ways that can make the most ardent progressive recoil. And there are places in scripture where God acts in ways that one might consider to be conservative or traditionalist, and ways that can cause the most conservative soul to feel uncomfortable. Truth is, God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat. God judges every political party equally, especially those that presume their party platform is an extension of the Kingdom of God.  Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) said, "The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism."

At this painful moment, what might offer some healing? What should we do? Maybe Christians should try giving up our labels and associations and parties—or, at least, loosen our identifications with them—in order to find our unity in Christ. This isn’t easy, I know, but it’s what we need to strive after. “Unity is both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ.”[4] That’s how the Confession of Belhar put it, a confession of faith now part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which emerged from the Reformed Church of South Africa in the 1980s. It’s a remarkable statement or confession aimed as reconciliation between the white and black Christians of South Africa, post-Apartheid. They knew that they needed to first confess the sin of racism within the church, work to heal divisions within the Church, if reconciliation was to then overflow into society.

How can the church take up its call to be an agent of healing in society, of binding up the wounds of God’s people, without first tending to the wounds of division within it? The Christian body is broken, diseased, and slowly breaking up all around us. And as the Church breaks up, as the fabric of our cloth unravels, the society around us follows suit. The Church can’t heal everything that ails American society—that’s an impossible and overwhelming task. Perhaps what we can do, without becoming self-obsessed and narcissistically turning inward, is attend to our wounds, our divisions, mend the things that need healing in the church. For, I believe that our nation at this time needs the church of Jesus Christ to really be the church. Perhaps a healthy or healthier church will, in a small way, help to bind up the nation’s wounds and help heal our divisions. The more we are faithful to Christ and faithful to the “message of the cross,” the more we are clear about what it means to be Christ’s disciples, the more we embody love and grace and compassion and justice and kindness toward one another in the church, the more we stand where Christ stands—and Christ always stands with the most vulnerable among us, the hurting, the weakest, the poorest, the marginalized—when we suffer with those that suffer, the more we make space for the weakest and most vulnerable among us, the more we give ourselves to one another, the healthier and more vibrant the church becomes—along with everyone else.[5] Then we can really be salt (Matthew 5:13) in a world that’s increasingly subject to destruction and decay and be light (Matthew 5:14) in a world that’s precariously sliding toward darkness.

We are called to step up and be Church, united in our work, called to really be the Church, with the same mind and purpose, rooted and grounded in love (Ephesians 3:17), rooted and ground in Christ, as we engage in the politics of the cross.


Image: Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

[1] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 23.

[2] William Stringfelow, The Politics of Spirituality (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1984), 44.

[3] Stringfellow, 45.

[4]Confession of Belhar, Book of Confessions, Presbyterian Church (USA).

[5]This is a central theme of Belhar, “…the church as the possession of God must stand where the Lord stands.” I encourage you to read the entire confession, which may be found here.

15 January 2017

A Holy Question

John 1:29-42

Second Sunday after Epiphany

They’re tracking his every move, following him around.  They can’t keep their eyes off him.  Word is spreading about what happened yesterday at the Jordan River, about the baptism, the baptism of Jesus.  On the following day, John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  As Jesus approached, John shared with the crowd—shares with the reader, shares with us—something about John’s relationship to him, about how he saw the Spirit descend like a dove, about the promise he received, that when he saw the Spirit of God descend and remain, that person would be the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  “And I myself,” he says, “have seen and have testified this is the Son of God” (Jn. 1:34).

John is doing a lot of talking here.  Did you notice that Jesus doesn’t say a thing?  He’s silent.

Then the next day we find John standing with two of his disciples.  (John the Baptist had his own school of disciples). The three of them watch as Jesus walks by and after he walks past, John exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (John 1:35).  The two disciples hear John say this, and then they follow Jesus.

Notice, again, Jesus doesn’t respond to John’s exclamations.  He’s silent.  The disciples follow, but he doesn’t acknowledge their presence.  The disciples are behind him.

But, then, Jesus turned—turned around, turned down a lane or street?—we don’t know.  He probably knew he was being followed.  He turned—perhaps surprising or startling them—and said, “What are you looking for?”  They say, “Rabbi, Teacher, where are you staying?” Jesus says, “Come and see.” So they went there together and remained with Jesus until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon.  (John, the Gospel writer, loves detail; everything is intentional. Why do we have the exact time?) Andrew went and told his brother, Simon, that he just met the Messiah.  So he brought Simon to Jesus and Jesus gave him a new name, Peter.  Rock.

John’s Gospel is sublime, mysterious, and profound.  The opening lines alone—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…” (John 1:1)—leave one breathless.  The Gospel of John, unlike Matthew, Mark, and Luke, trades in sophisticated Greek philosophy and apocalyptic Jewish theology, masterfully woven into a narrative designed less to inform than to transform the reader, as it gives witness to Jesus as God’s Messiah.[1] If we take a cursory glance over some of the key words or phrases just in the first forty-two verses of the first chapter, we see that John introduces weighty theological concepts. We have: Word or, in Greek, Logos.  “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was God.”  We have references to life, light, living light, darkness, belief, children of God, the “Word became flesh,” a theology of incarnation; glory, “grace upon grace,” Christ, Son of God, Messiah, baptism, “Lamb of God,” sin, Spirit, baptism by the Holy Spirit, discipleship. Johns spends considerable time and space informing the reader about Jesus.

And, then—this almost took my breath away when I realized this—what’s absolutely amazing is that the first words uttered by Jesus in John’s Gospel are these: “What are you looking for?”  The opening verses of John begin and kind of stay in the rarefied heights of theological contemplation.  However, there’s something that’s almost jarring and disruptive about what Jesus says.  Throughout the text, there’s a lot of moving and seeing and exclaiming and walking and following.  The two disciples are following behind Jesus, but then Jesus turns, turns back on them, toward them, surprising them, and asks, “What are you looking for?

Jesus appears on the scene in John’s narrative asking a question!  And what a question it is.  What are you looking for? Two words in Greek: Ti zeteite. It might sound as though Jesus is simply asking, “What do you want?”  A literal rendering of the Greek reads, “What seek you?”  But imbedded in the question, more evident in Greek than English, is a deeper meaning, and it’s this: What do you seek in life?  Jesus turns and says to them: What do you seek in life?

I love the fact that Jesus begins his ministry in John’s Gospel with a question. A deep question.  An essential question. With that question Jesus, the object of their pursuit, throws their pursuit back upon them.  He flips it around.  The consummate teacher, who teaches not only to inform but also to transform his students, Jesus asks a question.  This question forces them to become more engaged, become more aware and conscious of who they are and what’s driving them.  A questions call for a response.  And a good question wakes us up, shakes us out of our complacency; it pierces our souls, strikes our hearts, and cracks open our lives.  A good question shatters our assumptions and breaks up sclerotic thinking.  A good question can transfigure reality and cast everything in a new light.  A good question can be holy. 

This is significant.  Jesus doesn’t arrive on the scene here teaching theological propositions for us to believe or to think our way into believing.  He doesn’t offer pious or religious platitudes for us to adopt and practice.  Jesus engages these would-be disciples, these curious souls, with a question. What do you seek in life?  Within Judaism we find a long, venerated tradition of asking questions.  Unfortunately, some of this is missing in the Christian tradition.  In Judaism, one questions a text, questions the characters in a text, even questions God. Truth emerges out from the questioning and wrestling after truth.  Questions can be holy.

I love that we see the Messiah as a questioning spirit—and, as the Christian tradition has affirmed, if when looking at Jesus we see what God is like, then God, too, must be a questioning Spirit, who teaches through questions, who speaks to our own sense of curiosity, who helps us discover what it is we’re really searching after.  Jesus welcomes our curiosity and responds to our pursuit of him. 

Questions seem to be an essential dimension of a healthy, vital faith experience.  So, why do we forget this?  Maybe it has something to do with the fact we have outgrown the curiosity and wonderment we had as children.

That’s what Robert Coles discovered.  Coles is a psychiatrist and former professor at Harvard University.  In his classic work The Spiritual Life of Children, Coles explored the “questioning spirit” of children.  As we know, children love to ask a lot of questions!  Right?  This questioning spirit is essential in the life of faith, but it’s often overlooked (as we see in the rise of religious fundamentalism, where people are taught that it’s in appropriate to ask too many questions).  In an interview with Krista Tippet, host of the public radio program On Being, Coles said this loss is a “great tragedy….  Because,” he says, “after all, if you stop and think about Judaism, the great figures of Judaism are those prophets of Israel, Jeremiah and Isaiah and Amos.  They were prophetic figures who asked the deepest kinds of questions and were willing to stand outside the gates of power and privilege in order to keep asking those questions. And then came Jesus of Nazareth, who was a teacher.  You might call him a migrant teacher, who walked about ancient Israel…seeking and asking and wondering and reaching out to people and daring to ask questions that others had been taught not to ask or even forbidden to ask.  This inquiring Jesus, this soulful Jesus, searching for comrades—let’s call them,…buddies.  They were his buddies, and they were willing to link arms with him in this kind of spiritual quest that he found himself impelled toward or driven toward.”

Coles goes on to say that, “Now, both in Judaism and Christianity, of course, there are rule setters, and at times they can be all to insistent, some would say even a bit tyrannical.  But the spirit of religion…is what children connect with—the questions, the inquiry, the enormous curiosity about this universe, and the hope that somehow the answers will come about.”[2]

What do you seek in life?  This is Jesus’ question to you and me.  It’s a question designed to wake us up, to move us out of complacency, to pierce our souls, to strike our hearts, break open our lives. What if you allowed this question to work on you, allowed it to penetrate your heart?  What if Jesus’ intent is to break our hearts wide open? What if this is the only way for us to pour out our hearts in love for the sake of the world?  What if you allowed this question to break you open? What then? 

Jesus asks this of us not once, but again and again.  If you can’t quite imagine Jesus asking you that question, ask yourself:  What am I seeking in life?   Where’s my heart?  Where my passion? What am I looking for?

For the two disciples, Jesus’ question called forth this response, “Where are you staying?”  The two were clear about what they were looking for in life—namely, him—so, Jesus said, “Come and see.”  He didn’t have a theological debate with them.  He said, “Come and see.”  They spent time together.  They spent afternoon together, “until about four o’clock in the afternoon” (John 1:39).  When was the last time you spent an afternoon with the Lord?  And after they spent time with Jesus, dwelling in his presence, encountering him in and through a relationship, then they discovered who he really was—all because of one question.

What do you seek in life?  How we answer this question will direct our steps and inform our lives as his disciples. 

Long ago, Saint Augustine (354-430) prayed,
Give me the strength to seek you,
 oh, you who allowed me to find you,
and who gave me the hope of finding you more and more.”[3]

May this, too, be our prayer.

[1] See Jaime Clark-Soles, Reading John for Dear Life: A Spiritual Walk with the Fourth Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 2.
[2]Cited in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (New York: Penguin Press, 2016), 165-168.  See also Robert Coles, The Spiritual Life of Children (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1990).
[3] Augustine, The Trinity (XV, 28, 51)
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08 January 2017

Driven Back to the Beginning

Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism of the Lord

Our journey begins with baptism. Our calling, our vocation, our ministry, our life begin at the font of blessing.  We are born out of these waters.  We begin at the font, in the waters of our baptism, again and again.

Baptism, from the Greek baptizo, meaning to “to dip” or to “plunge” into water.  It doesn’t necessarily mean, “to wash,” although it’s implied.  And, to the chagrin of many Presbyterians, it doesn’t mean to pour or sprinkle a little water over the head of a baby.  Baptizomai means to dip or to plunge under, as to be overwhelmed, overcome with water, swamped, fully immersed.  To plunge down or into the water implies a surging up and out of the water.  Going down into the depths is followed by a coming out of the depths.  Dying and rising.  And it’s the rising, rising up out of the water after having gone down, in, and through the depths, surging up to the surface, which signifies the beginning of something new.

Water is elemental.  Around 350 million years ago we swam our way out from primordial waters and crawled upon dry ground.  Scripture tells us that water is associated with birth and new birth and renewal, beginnings and new beginnings—from the waters of Genesis to the waters of the flood; Israel’s exodus from Egypt through walls of water, from slavery to liberation; Jesus gestating in the water of Mary’s womb.

And it should not be overlooked that it’s at the River Jordan—in the river itself—that Jesus received his calling, discovered his vocation, and realized the purpose of his life.  This is significant, because it gives us a better sense of what baptism meant for Jesus and the early church. 

We often think of baptism as the first step in becoming a Christian or the ritual of admittance into the church.  Both of these associations are true, today, but they don’t make any sense when applied to Jesus, who wasn’t baptized in order to become a Christian or because he was about to join a church. 

Jesus plunged into the depths, into the chaos of the waters, into the turbulent tides of the river, and emerged, free from its control, released from that which overwhelmed him.  And then he came up out of the water.  He rose up out of the water into a new life, conscious of a new identity borne in the depths, when he was underwater, grasping for air.  He stepped out of the water with a new sense of God’s purpose for his life, empowered by the Spirit.  “You are my beloved, in whom I take great delight” (Mt. 3:17).

We know from the very beginning of the Christian experience that to be baptized meant to be baptized into Christ (not necessarily into the church).  The Apostle Paul tells us we are baptized into Christ, into his death (Romans 6:3), which implies baptism into Christ’s resurrection life. Paul says, “…we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  This means that the pattern of Christ’s life, this pattern of dying and rising, dying and rising, is now determinative or normative for the Christian. 

Dying to sin, rising to new life. 
Dying to hate, judgment, and fear; rising to trust, acceptance, love. 
Dying to our own agendas and selfish desires;
   rising to God’s will and purpose for our lives. 

To be baptized in Christ means that we are “dipped” or “dropped” or 'plunged” in mystery. We are plunged into the mystery of Good Friday and Easter, plunged into the mystery of God dying and rising; it’s the same mystery we proclaim in Communion, in breaking bread and sharing wine.[1]  We become part of this mystery and this mystery takes on life in us.

This means that someone who has been baptized “into Christ,” along with an entire community of Christ’s people who have been similarly plunged into Christ’s life, will share or participate in Christ’s life and will, therefore, mirror and reflect his life, will echo it.  Dying and rising.  Putting off the old, sinful self; putting on a new self in Christ, becoming new people. (See Colossians 3:1-17.)

A new humanity is being formed around Jesus by virtue of our baptism.   Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the leading theological minds of our age, talks about this dimension of baptism with such simplicity and beauty. “The new humanity,” he says, “that is created around Jesus is not a humanity that is always going to be successful and in control of things, but a humanity that can reach out its hand from the depths of chaos, to be touched by the hand of God.”  So, how can one tell if one’s been baptized?  If you ask, “‘Where might you expect to find the baptized?’ one answer is, ‘In the neighborhood of chaos’.  It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured and needy.  Christians will be found in the neighborhood of Jesus—but Jesus is found in the neighborhood of human confusion and suffering, defensely alongside those in need.  If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led toward the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its destiny.”[2] 

Being baptized, then, means taking risks and getting dirty and being chaotic (which is abhorrent to a Presbyterian’s sense of decorum and order).  We’re called, like Jesus, to get messed up in the world for the sake of God!  Or, to put it another way, Williams says, “You don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!”[3]

Baptism is so elemental to our life as Christ’s people.  Your baptism shapes your understanding of your life as a Christian; it helps you, enables you to actually live out and embody the life of Christ.  And this is essential for all Christians, especially those of us who were baptized as infants.  If you were baptized as an infant, you probably don’t remember your baptism.  Nevertheless, we all need reminding, we need these sacraments to remind us and show us and stir us and shape us. We need help being God’s people.  We need help fulfilling our calling, our vocations.  We need help remembering who we are as God’s children.  That’s because it’s so easy to forget who we are.  Some can’t remember the last time they sensed God’s image dwelling in them, it’s been that long.  Some have never known that they belong to God.  That’s why we must begin with baptism.

When we consider the meaning of our baptism, we are “driven right back to the beginning,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) once said, the great German Lutheran pastor-theologian.[4]  Writing from a prison cell in Berlin, May, 1944, Bonhoeffer shared thoughts on the baptism of his namesake Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge, the son of Eberhard Bethge (1909-2000), one of Bonhoeffer’s closest and dearest friends.  (When I was in seminary, I had the privilege of hearing Bethge talk on the nature of Christian friendship and what it was like to be Bonhoeffer’s friend.  He spoke at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton.  I’ll never forget that evening.) 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In May 1944, Bonhoeffer didn’t know that within the year he would be dead, executed by the Nazis for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer’s phrase, “we are once again being driven,” refers to wartime conditions in Germany, but also throughout so-called “Christian” Europe and beyond, driving him to reconsider everything.  The cataclysm of the war threw the church into crisis, especially the German church (both Protestant and Catholic alike).  In the last years of his life, in letters and scraps of paper smuggled out of Tegel prison in Berlin (later published as Letters and Papers from Prison), we find Bonhoeffer wrestling with profound existential questions:

What does it really it mean to be a Christian?  
What does it mean for me to say, “I am Christian”?
Who is Christ for me? 
What does it mean to be his disciple? 
What is the Church?
What is its future? 
What will it look like? 

It was the occasion of a baptism which drove Bonhoeffer back to the beginning of his understanding—because that’s what baptism does!  Again and again, whether we share in or witness one or remember our own, baptism drives us back to the beginning, sending us back to the waters, plunging us down into the depths, so that we can rise up—again and again—with answers to these questions, in order to be God’s people in the world.  It all begins at the font.

That’s what baptism does: it calls us to commitment.  These waters speak to us and ask, How committed are you?  Who is Christ to you?  What does it mean to be his disciple?  Are you willing to go down into the waters, be overwhelmed by the water, in order to come up new people?  As Bonhoeffer knew, our baptism into Christ, then, forces us to consider anew—or maybe for the first time— the heart of Christian existence: “reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship.”[5] 

The entire scope and reach, height and depth of the Christian life find their origins in the waters of our baptism.  And in these waters—and every time we plunge into them—we get to affirm (and reaffirm) who we are and whose we are. 

And, when we rise up from their depths, like Jesus, we discover (or rediscover) what we’re call to be and become, by God’s grace; we discover what is being asked of us.

Image:  Daniel Bonnell, "Baptism of Christ".

[1] This image is taken from Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2014), 2.
[2] Williams, 4-5.
[3] Rowan Williams, 6.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Thoughts on the Baptism of Dietrich Wilhelm Rüdiger Bethge. Written from Tegel Prison, Berlin. May, 1944. Letters and Papers from Prison  (Touchstone, 1997), 299.
Bethge, May, 1944
[5] The quote continues, “—all these are so difficult and so remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them.”  For more on Bonhoeffer, see Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).