Scriptural text: 2 Kings 10:15

Outside the chapel at Asbury College (now Asbury University), where Carrie and I went to school and met, is this plaque.

Photo credit: Mike Davis, fellow Asbury alumnus

Photo credit: Mike Davis, fellow Asbury alumnus

This is a quote that comes from 20th century Methodist missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones, who was a graduate of Asbury. Some have called him the “Billy Graham” of 20th century foreign missions. He had a friendship with Mahatma Gandhi before Gandhi was assassinated. Along with Gandhi, Jones was also a significant influence upon Martin Luther King, Jr. In Jones’ dialogues with peoples of other faith traditions, his desire was that this motto would guide the spirit of the conversation. (To read more about E. Stanley Jones, click here.)

This idea resembles the posture I wish to use in the conversation we’ll be having in the coming weeks. It is based in the posture of humility. It is a posture, I believe, of what John Wesley called a “catholic spirit,” which was the title of one of Wesley’s better known sermons. The Scriptural text of that sermon of Wesley’s is the one from 2 Kings I read this morning. You will notice that the ‘c’ in ‘catholic’ is not capitalized. This means that I’m not here to spell out the Roman Catholic understanding of baptism. The word catholic simply means universal, as is evidenced in the Apostles’ Creed we recite weekly. So to have a ‘catholic’ spirit in this sense means to have a spirit that recognizes that there are multiple voices and opinions that are brought to the table of theological discourse on issues like baptism.

So let me start off with a confession this morning, a confession that I hope you will say along with me. I come and acknowledge to you that it is possible that “I might be wrong.” Wesley said it this way in his sermon ‘Catholic Spirit’:

Although every man necessarily believes that every particular opinion which he holds is true (for to believe any opinion is not true is the same thing as not to hold it) yet can no man be assured that all his own opinions taken together are true…A man knows in the general that he is mistaken; although in what particulars he mistakes he does not, perhaps cannot, know. [Although he speaks of a hypothetical person in the masculine gender, the spirit of Wesley’s quote would be best understood as inclusive of both male and female.]

So, along with Wesley, I stand before you acknowledging that I am sure that there are some opinions, theological or otherwise, that I hold that are mistaken. I don’t know which ones they are, or else, I’d change my mind on those. But having a finite mind means I don’t have it all figured out and I think you’re right there with me on that. So, if you are willing to admit that, too, I invite you to now turn to your neighbor and say out loud, “I might be wrong.” [Fortunately, the people responded to this. The sounds of crickets would have been most unwelcome. 🙂 ]

“I might be wrong”…But I do think I’m right about baptism and am convinced to such a degree that I feel very confident and at home in the Wesleyan theology espoused by The United Methodist Church. Therefore, what I will be sharing in the weeks to come represent not only my own views, but the explanations of this doctrine and practice by our Church.

You may ask, “What? You mean Methodists actually have an opinion on something? I thought we were an ‘anything goes’ type of church.” So let me say, “Yes, we have an official stance on this.” We are not indifferent when it comes to baptism. One of the insights I gained from rereading Wesley’s ‘Catholic Spirit’ in preparation for this series is this: “A catholic spirit…is NOT an indifference to all opinions.” I said last week, and I repeat again this week that the rule that guided Wesley and that I seek to use in guiding us in this theological discussion is the rule: “to think and let think.” In his young adulthood, Wesley was really close friends with another Methodist named George Whitefield. Over time, Whitefield’s theology was influenced by others and his understanding of grace drifted from that of Wesley. In some not so kind letters written to one another and sermons delivered against each other, the rift between the two friends became quite vast. But when Whitefield died at a relatively early age, guess whom he had arranged to preach at his funeral. That’s right, his old friend, John Wesley. And in the funeral sermon Wesley said this:

Let us keep close to the grand scriptural doctrines which he everywhere delivered. There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God…are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may “agree to disagree.”

“To think and let think.” Well, it is an unfortunate thing that, as I see it, Methodists for a long time have cast to the wind that first admonition “to think.” Why? Perhaps it was and is for fear of stepping on toes. Perhaps it is because we don’t want to be perceived as arrogant or argumentative. Perhaps we’ve been afraid of being perceived as imposing our views on those with whom we would like to welcome despite the potential areas of disagreement. And this has often led us as Methodists to be seen as a church where anything goes and we’re often considered as weak or “not as biblical” by other faith traditions on matters like baptism. We are fine to “let think,” to be okay with whatever people believe and think, which is great because we’ve opened our doors to folks with various sorts of backgrounds and that makes the United Methodist Church, in a lot of ways, a very hospitable place in which to worship and grow as disciples of Jesus, because of our welcoming spirit. And I know for many, possibly most or maybe even all of you, the phrase “United Methodist” on the sign out front is NOT the reason you are here. I understand that and respect it. But I also hope you all understand that if were not for those two words (United Methodist) on the sign, I wouldn’t and even couldn’t be here. So as someone committed to serve in churches in the Methodist connection, I am committed to helping our Church (both here in this congregation and in conversation with other pastors and leaders in the connection) get consistent in belief and practice on theological matters of identity like baptism.

To return to the rule “to think and let think”…By casting aside the admonition “to think” through our own approach to theology and life, we have failed to speak with clarity about these potentially divisive matters. This lack of clarity has led to all sorts of confusion and a lack of unity amongst our churches about central doctrines like baptism. This confusion and lack of unity has been manifested in the unfortunately oft-used term “Christening”; it has shown up in the malpractice of “rebaptism” and in the lack of the practice and understanding of the baptismal reaffirmation service (you can find that on page 50 in the UM Hymnal); it has played out in the confusion on which modes (that is, how the water is used/applied) of baptism are appropriate, and so on. Facing the reality of this lack of clarity and unity, in 1996 the UMC adopted an official statement about our understanding of baptism that is recorded in a document called, “By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist Understanding of Baptism.” That contains our official stance on baptism. But let’s be honest, it’s not like this study became widely known. I even wasn’t aware of it until a couple of years ago…and I’m a Methodist preacher!?!?!

Now, some of you know either through hearing me tell part of my stories of baptism or by reading it on a series of blog posts where I stand on the issues and questions relating to the sacrament of baptism. Some of you have not heard or read my thoughts to date, but even if you have, there will be things I share with you over the next few weeks that I have not shared elsewhere. So I encourage you to join me in this conversation. Here in this opening message of the series, I want us to begin by laying all our cards out on the table. I’m not here to put on a poker face or to use some sort of secret attack or ploy. I am here for an open and honest conversation.

So let’s lay our cards on the table. Here are your cards. (At this point, I go over some of the results from a survey of questions relating to baptism that the congregation filled out in the weeks prior. The survey I did is also online and can be found here.)

Now here are my responses to the survey. 1. What mode of baptism was used when I was baptized? Aspersion, or sprinkling; 2. How would I rank the primary modes (immersion, pouring/affusion, and sprinkling/aspersion) of baptism in terms of what I find most meaningful? I have no preference. When counseling with candidates for baptism and/or their parents or sponsors I will lay out the reasoning and support for each and allow them to decide. 3. Was I baptized as an infant? Yes, although many referred to the act as Christening. 4. What is my opinion of infant baptism? I am strongly in favor of the practice. And I say to you that my mind changed on that. I grew up and was opposed to the practice until I studied the reasons for why the majority of the Church for 2,000 years baptized infants. And my transition to be in support of it occurred when Carrie and I were engaged. And given her upbringing in a nondenominational church that did not believe in infant baptism, we had to have many conversations about it because it would affect how we would proceed if and when the time came for us to be parents. We ended up on the same page. Therefore, Sam and Julianne were baptized in their infancy…Let me rephrase that…Sam and Julianne ARE baptized. I’ll explain why I say it that way in a moment. 5. Other than the UMC, what other faith traditions have I been a participant or member of? I’ve always been a member of the UMC, but there was one year in college when I attended a nondenominational church along with Carrie. As we grew into support of infant baptism, though, we switched to the tradition of my upbringing.

So now you know where I’m coming from, and Carrie too. Now, let me show you where we’re heading over the next few weeks. I want to spend a week on each of the primary modes of baptism: immersion, affusion (or pouring), and aspersion (or sprinkling), laying the biblical reasoning and understanding of each. Along the way, it is my hope that we will clear up the muddied waters of our somewhat confused past. In this series you will hear me talk about the differences between our approach to baptism versus that of other faith traditions, some of which many of you have belonged prior to now.

This next thing I’m going to say is huge, maybe even the most important theme of this series is that I will talk about the idea that the sacrament of baptism is not so much an experience as much as it is an identity. Baptism is first about WHO we are and with WHOM we are united (i.e., Christ); the questions of what and how are secondary. As it is about identity, that is why I said earlier that Sam and Julianne ARE baptized. I AM baptized into Christ.

We will then conclude the series with a moment of a congregational celebration of reaffirming our baptismal covenant that I alluded to earlier on page 50 of the UM hymnal. There were some individuals among you who responded last week that you have not been baptized. If you would like to be baptized during this series or sometime in the near future, I want to invite you to speak with me either during the closing hymn this morning, after the service, or by yourself or your parent/guardian/grandparent calling, emailing, or sending me a message on facebook; whichever is most comfortable and easiest for you.

May our ‘catholic spirit’ here in this conversation make it a holy conversation based in the posture of humility. And may that be a model for our ‘catholic spirit’ for our friends and neighbors who may wear the colors or be enjoined as members of another denomination. The rule to guide us remains the same: “to think and let think.” At the root of this guiding rule is the royal commandment, “love your neighbor as yourself.” In his sermon ‘Catholic Spirit,’ Wesley rephrased the conversation between Jehu and Jehonadab:

Though we can’t think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt we may…[I only ask] that single question: ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart? If so, then give me thy hand.’

“Here we enter a fellowship; sometimes we will agree to differ; always we will resolve to love and unite to serve.” Because our unity in love and service to Jesus and our offering of the Christ who heals to the world that hurts is how we live into our baptism, which is at the heart of our movement’s mission. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

(For a brief primer on the United Methodist approach to baptism, check out this video by ‘Chuck Knows Church’:)

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You may have seen an article or two about a pastor who decided that leaving a sanctimonious note along with a failed attempt to erase an already added gratuity was somehow a good idea or taking a stand or something. Plenty of posts have been written and I suppose I could add more here to voice how ludicrous it was to write such a thing, but I’ll leave that be. I think this post pretty well sums up my view on the matter. Apparently, the pastor in question has responded with an apology for the snide comment and that she didn’t intend to erase the gratuity, so there’s that. I hope she apologized directly to the server too. And let us be people of forgiveness, too, for even pastors make errors in judgment and sin from time to time, too. (Shock, I know!)

But as I witnessed news of another embarrassing moment for Christians in the marketplace (often in the restaurant/service industry), I was taken back to my own time of waiting on tables during seminary. And I also considered the livelihood of a dear lady in Camden who passed away this week. She was the sister of a friend of mine at Post Oak. Her name was Joyce and she was a server at a restaurant in Paris (TN). Joyce was loved dearly by those with whom she worked and according to many testimonials by those whom she served.

Reflecting upon these things has me wishing that we disciples of Jesus can somehow overcome or turn around our notoriety for the way we treat those in the hospitality industry who wait on people. It is often a thankless job and unfortunately church-going folk are the biggest contributors to the thanklessness of it. One would think we should know better but perhaps we have forgotten about a crisis that existed early in the life of the church recorded in Acts 6:1-6, which in part tells us of the blessed nature and of those who are called to serving food.

Before Carrie and I got married, her dad asked me one thing: to get a job even though I was going to seminary. Hence, partly out of fear (:)) and partly out of curiosity for how it would be to work at a restaurant, I applied for a job as a server and got it. Little did I know at the time that my tenure as a server would be as integral to my theological education as the seminary classroom. ‘Seminary’ is the English word taken from the Latin seminarium, which means “seed bed.” A seed bed is a place where seeds go to die so that they may bear fruit. Hence, one’s theological education should be in some way, a process of learning how to die. (Morbid, I know!)

In a sense, my experience waiting on tables was just that for me; a part of my process in learning how to die. It was so not only because of the conversations that took place over rolling silverware and in those dead moments where there were more servers than guests in the restaurant, but also in learning how to put others before myself, how to serve, how to give, how to fight, how to multitask, how to ask for help when I’m “in the weeds,” and how to listen. Lessons I’m still learning and haven’t perfected, but lessons that train about as well as any about the art of pastoral living. By the end of my time there, I was beginning to think of my 4-table section like a 4-church charge (for non-United Methodists out there, a “x#”-church charge is when more than one congregation have the same pastor at the same time).

But beyond the tasks associated with the waiting on tables, it was the relationships I formed with my coworkers and my oft-returning patrons that I saw as formative for me. Working in that environment helped me see as E. Stanley Jones described it that we Christians sometime have the tendency to unfortunately “separate the material and the spiritual.” In the process of serving while in seminary, I died to my own tendency to view this as a “less important job.” I died to my own tendency to be heard and instead to listen to the stories of pain, fear, expectations, and hopes of my fellow servers. I died to my own tendency to just do the tasks asked of me and instead help another server in the weeds or to share a few more moments with customers who needed an ear to hear or a shoulder to cry on as much or more than a hand to bring them food or a refill on their drink.

I’m not sure if he was right or not, but E. Stanley Jones viewed that the disciples in Acts 6 made an error in relegating the distribution of food to be done by seven “others” so that they may devote their whole time to God’s word. A casual reading of the passage may not indicate there was a problem with their choice, for God worked through, though we might say in spite of, their decision by adding to their number. Jones said, “They separated what God had joined. In the Incarnation the material and spiritual were one – the Word became flesh. Here the Word became word. The material and the spiritual were separated.” That is, they “turned life into two compartments – the sacred and the secular” (see pages 80-81 of his devotional ‘Mastery’) and the compartmentalization exists to this day, each time we think of feeding hungry people and the mission of making disciples as two separate entities.

But what I learned in the seminary of the classroom and the restaurant is that the two go hand-in-hand, or at least they should. Isn’t it intriguing that one of the seven (Stephen) set apart for distributing food ends up delivering one of the most powerful sermons ever delivered (see the very next chapter for proof)? Maybe the author of Acts was subtly wanting us to catch the irony of Stephen’s doing both food service & the ministry of the word. Stephen’s acts, as they point back to the Christ who both taught AND fed people, who both preached good news AND healed people, who both offered forgiveness AND raised people from the dead, should serve as an important message for us Christians, especially pastors, that even though it is wise to delegate responsibilities, that does not mean you should not participate or follow others’ lead in those activities. That’s why it’s good, for example, when a pastor goes and serves food to hungry people, even being willing to follow the orders of those who are charged to lead in the distribution. That’s why it’s important for me to offer to get a loaf of bread or a tank of gas to someone who is sick or grieving, as well as praying for/with them and offering words or silence of comfort. In this process maybe we can grasp with ES Jones that “all legitimate life has to become sacred again. And all legitimate occupations a manifestation of the Kingdom.”

That’s what waiting tables in seminary taught me.