This week and next, we’re going to take some time to talk about the sacraments that are central to our lives as a community of faith: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Today, I’d like us to start by reading Psalm 46 – a glorious reminder that God is not just with us. And not just for us. God’s presence is so powerful it is akin to a place – a safe place in which we find refuge from all that is evil. Psalm 46
And now we will turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, a church that apparently needed a strong reminder about what it means to live in a complicated world in light of the lavish grace of God. In the selection we read today, he addresses one of the questions that we still wrestle with…
If God’s grace is so big, so healing, so cleansing… What does that mean about following the law? Or following Jesus? If, as Paul says, where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, should we just keep on sinning and leave the forgiveness up to God?
Listen for the Word of God from Romans 6:1-11
Like Psalms 23 and 91, also psalms of assurance and confidence in the Lord, we don’t hear a guarantee in Psalm 46 that life will be easy just because God is with us. Rather, God promises to remain with us, no matter how dark the valley gets or how difficult the troubles that surround us. The writer of this Psalm has clearly been there… experienced that… and has earned faith enough to share this truth.
When he writes about mountains shaking such that the seas roar and foam, the reference is less about natural disasters than the cosmic forces that would seek to tear God’s creation apart. Forces that – because God is present – we need not fear.
The writer knows what it looks like when political powers and principalities are doing the shaking, seeking to unseat rulers and nations. To bring chaos. In our time, he might have written about terrorist threats and actions.
Whatever the turmoil, we are told, God offers a point of stability that shall not be moved.
God is our help.
The writer knows the folly of placing one’s faith in any power but the Lord’s. God’s presence is the genuine source of refuge, of strength, of comfort.
God’s presence is the source of restorative waters… rivers that offer joy and gladness. Rivers, that in the person of Jesus, will be called living waters, waters that assure that we never thirst.
The psalmist tells us that it is in the city of God where the rivers and streams make the hearts glad. The city of God is where the baptized are gathered. Not a literal city, so much as, well… a church.
Where the baptized are gathered, the Spirit of God is present.
And thus the church- the gathered body -is also a place of healing and hope.
A place of refuge.
Over and over again, from creation to the new Jerusalem described in Revelation, images of water evoke God’s care and God’s presence. It is no wonder then that approaching the waters of baptism requires more than instructions for completing a ritual.
Understood more fully, and more communally, baptism is not simply something that is done, it, too is a place. A refuge to which all are called. A refuge to which all are re-called
And as we noted in our reading through Ephesians, there is but one baptism. There is no special baptism for those who had been near, and no alternate baptism for those who had been far off…
One baptism for all….
Jews and Gentiles, enslaved and free, men and women, old and young.
All who hear and whose hearts respond to the news of God’s great love for them.
All who believe that God’s grace is greater than any sin.
All who belong to the family of God are invited to repent and be baptized.
And then, from the moment we are baptized into a community of faith, we are called and equipped by God in the Holy Spirit to walk in the way of Christ, to live worthy of the calling to which we were called.
I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the early church, including those meeting in Rome and Ephesus were dunking churches. OK – technically, that would be baptism by immersion. But you know what I mean.
I grew up in a tradition that required full immersion, as opposed to the way we baptize from the font here. Which is still more splash than sprinkle, but not all the way in…
Anyway, chances are good that like John the Baptist, other Jewish prophets and rabbis would have used a river or lake to baptize. The person would walk into the water, repenting of their sins, receive a blessing and be immersed into the water.
Down into the water
Down into death
Up into the air
Up into new life.
Into the water dry and dignified
Out of the water looking like a drowned rat.
And in that baptism moment, they were changed.
Not just outwardly in their dripping robes; they were no longer who they had been.
Paul would like us to see this as a direct comparison to what Jesus experiences in the time between Good Friday and Easter morning. Jesus went into and through death to life.
Because of that journey, the power of resurrection becomes evident in the body of Christ in two ways: Baptized followers of Christ celebrate his victory over death. We trust that we will live with him forever. And baptized followers of Christ share in his victory over sin. We can and will live holy lives right now. In this world.
That is the power of resurrection: the power of grace for the individual, the community and the world.
In Paul’s view, it is the power of resurrection that makes the idea of a sinful baptized person a laughable oxymoron. It is a silly contradiction in terms. Paul essentially says, “You are dead to sin. Stop acting as if you are even capable of sin. Live like you know who you are.”
Perhaps you have experienced one of those moments when a friend or neighbor or even family member has said or done something awful… Told an egregious lie, destroyed a relationship… Committed a crime and was arrested…
And because that act was so out of character, all you could think to say in your shock was “That is not like him at all.” Or “she’s a better person than that…”
Confronting them directly, you might ask… “Who are you?” or “I don’t think I know you any more…”
Well – a baptized person is a whole new person. A person that the powers of darkness no longer recognize. And a baptized body of believers looks nothing like the rest of the world.
This is true for all of us, no matter how long ago or how early in our lives that baptism happened. Even if you can’t remember the water touching your skin or who was there, you can remember your baptism. At least in the way that is most important to our community of faith being a refuge from a sinful world.
You can remember your baptism by remembering that you belong to God, you are adopted into God’s household.
No longer enslaved by sin, no longer enlivened by sin’s power, you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. We are empowered – for all of life – by the Holy Spirit.
Let me say that again – through the waters of baptism you and I are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. And that is very good news indeed!
What do you think of when you hear those words.. Dead to sin?
At one point, I thought maybe it meant being a perfectly sinless human. Which of course, I was completely unable to pursue. For one thing, I am not a very good perfectionist, and being perfectly sinless would require me to make the right decision on how to think and act and speak and move through life a bajillion times a day.
Never going to happen.
But I think now that Paul is really talking more about an operating system. Like the underlying software that allow our phones and computers and other digital tools – to function properly.
So, my old operating system – the old human part – was really glitchy. It was an old version that was created with all good intentions but became corrupted somehow. That old human OS was a mess and caused me to experience the world – and thus respond and move through the world – in ways that failed to honor God. The hate and fear that leaked out of me was more a reflection of sin than faith, hope or love.
New life in Christ – living as a baptised follower of Jesus – is like getting a whole new operating system installed.
In this OS, there is no spirit of fear, only the Holy Spirit. There is no darkness, no hate. No glitches. Just a solid platform because there is grace… so much grace. Grace in such abundance that it leaks out of me, leaving a trail of joy and generosity and kindness and love.
When I function using that operating system, and that system alone, the one that runs on grace… my experience of life and the world is changed completely:
I can trust that God is with me, that God’s Spirit indwells me.
I have entered a whole new Kingdom in which Christ is King and I am living in him.
And… because we are not baptized into a one to one relationship with God, but into a huge pre-existing family, a giant network of followers of Jesus, we experience that new Kingdom in community.
Like the Israelites passing through the river into the promised land, you and I have passed through the waters into a promised life of abundance.
A place of refuge.
A place where we can stay wet… Practically swimming in God’s grace.
All that grace? Paul doesn’t really think it’s an invitation to moral anarchy – where we sin more and more and more so that we might experience greater and greater depths of grace.
No… Paul is all about the kind of transformation that comes when we know who we are and who we belong to. The kind of transformation he experienced and then witnessed in countless others.
But here’s the thing… understanding baptism as participating in the death of Jesus means that there is a lot of resurrection life to participate in as a baptized believer.
It won’t be perfect… After all, we live in anticipation of the resurrection of Christ. Rather than erasing our capacity to sin completely, our baptism OS puts sin in check.
The ongoing work of the Holy Spirit allows us to create and maintain boundaries, so that our lives reflect the Law of Love: Love for God and love for neighbors. All of our neighbors. And access to resurrection power means we have the capacity to get better at living as a community that exhibits faith hope and love to the world.
In that sense, baptism is a process, a journey toward Christlikeness.
A life that is grounded, shaped and formed by the death and resurrection of Jesus is motivated by and directed by that same Jesus. Who has defeated sin forever. So, our new way of operating and experiencing the world means we can no longer tolerate, much less cooperate, with sin.
In other words, our faith provides an understanding that new life with Christ is an assurance of salvation beyond death. AND an understanding that this assurance is lived out in discipleship… a life that is dedicated to God in this time and this place.
That means giving all of our lives over to God.
Day after day after day.
Moment by moment by moment.
Facet by facet.
And even with a shiny new operating system… that can be hard.
C. was telling us in a session meeting last month about a baptism story in the book he was reading about stewardship. The author was writing about how we sometimes hold back a part of our lives, a portion of our resources, and pretend that it isn’t God’s- that we’ve somehow earned it on our own and can reserve it.
That might mean holding back a certain percentage of our income we don’t want to give, a particular behavior pattern that we don’t want to change, or a grudge we don’t want to stop holding… you get the idea.
How is that related to baptism? Well, the author points back to this story from the era of Charlemagne.
You may or may not recall that Charlemagne was the most powerful European ruler in the Middle Ages, leading the Franks to rule most of Europe. He converted to Christianity, which was the beginning of what church historians would call an era of Christendom.
Perhaps as a means of assuring God was on the side of the Empire, Charlemagne expected his soldiers to convert and be baptized into the church. The soldiers would go down to the river en masse to do just that.
But by some reports the baptisms were a little unusual.
When it came time to be immersed, they would hold one hand up out of the water, so that it would remain dry. Yes- it was their sword hand, the hand they wanted to be able to use in battle to kill as needed. As if to say.. I’ll let you change every part of me, I’ll give over all me… except that part…
Now, I’m not entirely sure that’s solid ground, theologically speaking. But I can see how that logic works. And if I’m honest with myself, search my heart a little, I must confess there are things that I have left dry. Or perhaps allowed to dry out.
Rogue apps, connecting back to that old operating system.
There are sins that this faithful believer can’t seem to shake, still needs to confess, still hasn’t trusted God enough to transform.
Shall I go on with those sins, so that grace for me might increase?
No… and here’s why.
I am not alone.
You and I belong to each other, just as surely as we belong to God. Just as surely as the aches and pains of my little toe matter to my digestive system, my sin affects you.
Not just each of you, but all of you.
And our life together in Christ.
Our health and witness as the Body of Christ.
And the reverse is true.
Your sins matter to me.
And my health.
And it goes far beyond these walls…
Far beyond the membership rolls we keep.
The sins of all who claim membership in the body of Christ,
All who are brothers and sisters adopted into God’s family,
All who are baptized… no matter how wet or dry they seem to be…
Their sins matter to us, too.
Because we all belong to each other.
The events that unfolded this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, even as I was putting these words to the page, made it really hard for me to claim some of our brothers and sisters. I watched and wept and wondered…
How much of your heart do you have to hold out of the water to be able to spew such hatred for the Jewish community?
How much of your heart must stay dry to consider people less than human because their skin is brown or black?
How much must of your heart must one give over to hatred to openly choose symbols of intimidation and death used by the Nazi party and the KKK? I mean… these folks didn’t feel a need to cover their faces!
And how are we to respond?
Knowing that yes, there is grace enough, even to cover sins so proudly displayed by torchlight…
How are we to faithfully respond?
I have to start by remembering that those hate-spewing protesters matter to God.
Just as dearly as the Jews matter to God.
Just as dearly as African Americans and immigrants and women and all of us matter to God…
Despite their evil, sin-filled chants.
And because my operating system is grace-powered, they all must matter to me, too.
The ones spewing hate and the ones they despise.
All of them matter.
All of them belong.
All of them are a part of us.
And – against all logic- I want to invite them back into the waters…
I want to go up and ask…
Do you remember who you are?
Do you remember whose you are?
Do you honestly believe that this is the calling to which you were called?
That’s when an uncomfortable truth hits me…
I, too, desperately I need the waters of baptism.
My sins are no less harmful to my relationship with God, no less harmful to my relationships with you and others in the Body.
And so I long to be back in the water.
Not just a little damp, but soaking wet.
Holding back NOTHING.
Nothing of mine, nothing of ours.
Which of course, makes me think of Peter… in that moment when Jesus was teaching the disciples what it meant to be a servant by washing their feet.
And Peter – God bless him- He was having none of it. He knew it would have been much more appropriate for him to kneel down. For him to be washing his rabbi’s feet. Because in his heart, Peter knew that Jesus was so much more than a teacher or friend.
But Jesus made clear that wasn’t the way it was going to happen.
And Peter relented. And then, in his own inimitable, always passionate way,
Peter took it even further:
Wash all of me, then, Lord. Not just my feet… all of me.
Wash the dust off my feet, sure.
But there is all the dirt and muck that my heart has picked up along the way.
The words I’ve spoken that soil my mouth.
The silence I’ve kept when your children needed an advocate.
The selfishness and self-centeredness that leads me to treat others as less than.
Like Peter, I cry out in these difficult times, Wash all of me!
That I might be a better servant
Wash all of your children… Head to toe
That we might be more faithful followers
That we might make a difference in the building of your kingdom
And then that OS kicks in, reminding me that the waves of grace have already washed over us. That Christ has already done the work.
I remember who I belong to.
I remember that God is and will be my refuge and my strength.
I remember my baptism and am thankful.
Remember, dear ones.
Remember your baptism.
Remember who you are.
Remember who we are.
And be thankful.