This is the fourth of a four-part sermon series preached at Ellendale UMC about our new vision statement: “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ.” Here are the links to the other sermons:

Part 1: “…to be the hands of Jesus…”
Part 2: “…to be the feet of Jesus…”
Part 3: “…to be the voice of Jesus…”

A sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-18 and Matthew 26:26-30

Something happens to our bodies about the time we turn 30, I’ve discovered. Things stop working like they once could and illnesses take a greater toll and become much more difficult to get over – harder to lose weight. I know, I know…some of y’all are saying, “Just wait till you turn 40…or 50…or 60…” But for now, just allow me to be amazed at this discovery and don’t take away my pity party. The Avett Brothers recently released a song that says this:

Call the Smithsonian I made a discovery
Life ain’t forever and lunch isn’t free
Loved ones will break your heart with or without you
Turns out we don’t get to know everything

Get the young scientists, tell them come quick
I must be the first man that’s ever seen this
Lines on my face, my teeth are not white
My eyes do not work and my legs don’t move right.

–  The Avett Brothers, Smithsonian

Several weeks ago on the Sunday morning we began this sermon series on our new vision at Ellendale – “…to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus Christ” – I woke up queasy and I knew it wasn’t just nervousness about preaching that sermon or anything. You see, my daughter had had a stomach virus a couple of days earlier that made her vomit. So when I woke up feeling unsettled on that Sunday, and then when my wife woke up a few minutes after me and she said she felt queasy, too, and threw up about 2 minutes later, I knew some rough hours were coming. I prayed right then and there – “God, if you can help me hold it together until 12:15 so that I can get this sermon preached in both services, after I get home you can let this hit me as hard as it has to.”

Well, God was faithful to God’s end of the deal. I kept my distance from the congregation that morning, and I made it to 12:15, put on my Green Bay Packers gear (that was the Sunday they played the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs) and then collapsed onto my bed, which I did not leave except to go to the bathroom for the next 36 hours. I couldn’t even get up and cheer when Mason Crosby kicked the winning field goal. Ugh…that was horrific…my body has never felt that badly in my whole life. I ached in places I didn’t know you could ache. My body was getting all out of sorts and I couldn’t get comfortable…just miserable.

Now after I recovered, I’ve had several weeks to ponder about this…not so much the getting older part, but the mystery of how a body processes and responds to an illness. The body is an amazing thing – sometimes extremely fragile, at other times remarkably resilient. It’s amazing how all the parts of the body are intertwined and interconnected…to such a degree that when one part, or shall we say, member, hurts, the whole body hurts with it. Yet at the same time, while the body might be wiped out, there are still some things that you have to do to sustain you through those rough times…even when you have the stomach flu, you have to keep eating and drinking – to stay hydrated, to get some nourishment, however small it is, to the body for the sake of its survival and recovery when the stuff finally goes away.

And then there’s that first meal you have after the virus is finally gone – is there anything quite like that satisfaction? I mean it’s not like you’re able to go after a filet mignon and lobster tail right away, but just the feeling of health and life and strength come back…it’s so refreshing to eat and you know it’s going to stay down.

To put it another way – during the sickness, at times it felt like I was getting dismembered – my body was being torn in pieces. And the last thing I felt I had the strength to do was to piece my body together and eat and drink. The other thing about it is that when my feet couldn’t get me to the kitchen, what had to happen? My wife or the kids had to bring me something.

So the point to consider: when our bodies are all out sorts and we feel dismembered, the way to get well again is through a process we might call re-membering, putting the members back together, and this is best done through nourishment of a meal – to practice and celebrate recovery from an ailment, to get healthy again, to gain strength so that the body, now made well, can go on about its mission…its purpose – vitality! Life!

There are times when the body, that is, the church, is all out of sorts too. Fractured relationships, broken trust, as Paul alludes to in his letter to the contentious Corinthians, jealousy over not getting to be the part of the body you want to be, pride – all of these and more that tends to dismember us, if not in actual people leaving the church, at least in a virtual distance even if we’re in the same space to worship or to learn in Sunday school or to break bread. There are times, probably, where you just don’t “feel like” it…like breaking bread with him or her or them. “Ugh! I have to share at the table with them?”

But Jesus has said that when we come together to break this bread and drink this cup, we are to remember him. Remember by recalling the mighty acts of redemption through Jesus Christ, but also by re-membering, that is putting the members of the body back together, through a meal of reconciliation – a meal to restore the fellowship, to practice the presence of God and be truly present to one other, to gain nourishment so that the body, being made well by the mystery of God’s grace, can go on as a body sent out into the world to share that grace with those who are broken and hurting, with those who for some reason or another can’t or haven’t made it to the table yet.

um-communion-plate-and-chalice4.jpg

We come to the table and the words are spoken – make these elements Christ’s body and blood so that we…that is the church…might be the body of Christ for the world around us – the world outside these walls. This isn’t a private meal, but an open one so that we all can experience God’s healing grace and become more faithful and empowered to be, as we have envisioned – “…the hands, feet, and voice – yea, the whole body – of Jesus Christ.”

Lord, your summons echoes true when you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you and never be the same.
In your company I’ll go where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow in you and you in me.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Offer Them Christ

Primary text: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

(A Sermon preached on the 19th Sunday after Pentecost – Year B – World Communion Sunday, 2015 – Jackson First UMC; Jackson, TN)

Have you ever just failed something miserably? Perhaps you went into some project with the highest of expectations of how successful and fruit-bearing it would be. Then perhaps at the very start, or perhaps a few months into the process chaos ensued and you were losing your grip and the desired outcome became far out of reach. You ever felt like a failure? Well, you’re not alone.

When John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was in his early 30s, he set out from England to the colony of Georgia with a grand vision of converting the Native Americans and establishing a grand movement that would spread from Savannah throughout the land. On the trip, however, he realized his own need for depending on God’s grace through a series of unfortunate events. He fell in love with a lady named Sophia Hopkey in Georgia, but he didn’t make a move quickly enough and she got tired of waiting on him so she married someone another man, William Williamson. (Seriously, William’s parents? You couldn’t get any more creative than “William Williamson”?) Well, Wesley got jealous and for reasons to minute to go into detail in this setting, Wesley used his pastoral authority and refused to offer them Holy Communion on the next occasion of their attendance at worship. The husband sued him, some reports say that he challenged Wesley to a duel, and a warrant was put out for his arrest. The trial ended in mistrial but by then the trust in Wesley’s leadership had declined and it became clear he needed to leave. To put it in our terms: it was time for the S/PPRC to inform the bishop they desired a move. If Wesley had a twitter account, he would’ve tweeted out: “Gotta get Georgia off my mind. #MissionFailed” (See what I did there? h/t Ray Charles.) So he went back home to England and never came back. That was in the mid 1730’s.

Fast forward about fifty years. Wesley had matured a lot over those years. The Methodist movement had really taken off, both in England and in the colonies that were now becoming the United States. The Revolutionary War was coming to an end and many ordained clergy were returning to England and this was going to leave many, many Methodists in America with no access to the sacraments. Wesley knew that he couldn’t go back to America. He was over 80 years old and loyal to the crown. But he was a pastor and saw the American Methodists as sheep without a shepherd. So he ordained Thomas Coke with the purpose to go to America and ordain and commission Francis Asbury, a Methodist preacher in America, to be the superintendent, or presiding elder, and begin a new denomination. Wesley was in his 80’s and as he was saying goodbye to Thomas Coke on the boat heading to America, Wesley said the famous words, which were his last to Thomas Coke: “Offer them Christ!”

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, "Offer them Christ!" (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

John Wesley, sending Thomas Coke to America in 1784, saying, “Offer them Christ!” (Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/giveawayboy/5091781104)

Offer them Christ! Fast forward about 230 years: the movement had become an institution and established roots across the globe and throughout America, including where we are in the Memphis Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church. Under the leadership of our current bishop, Bill McAlilly and the Nashville Area Strategic Mapping Team, a mission statement for our conference was revealed last year after a year-long process of discernment, prayer and conversation on many levels. The mission statement that was the fruit of those efforts was adopted at Annual Conference in 2014 reads thusly: “The mission of the Memphis Annual Conference is to discover, equip, connect and send lay and clergy leaders who shape congregations that OFFER JESUS CHRIST TO A HURTING WORLD, one neighborhood at a time.” That is, our mission is to be the church, then, that follows Wesley’s call: “Offer them Christ!” How are we living up to that?

What does all this have to do with Hebrews? Well, let’s rewind and go back to the first century and ask what is going on in the opening parts of Hebrews. This is one of the beautiful poetic passages in the New Testament that speaks to the supremacy of Christ. Here the author of Hebrews speaks of how Christ is superior to all that has gone before and is superior even to the angels. Then there is this clear allusion to the psalms as the author quotes Psalm 8, which reflects on the magnificence of creation and ponders on how amazing it is that God esteems humanity so highly even given the vast expanse of the universe and how small we are in comparison to it all. But then the writer of Hebrews turns the psalm on its head when applying it to Christ. While the psalm wonders soaring heights, Hebrews voices amazement over surprising depths. Ponder the depths of the exalted Son, who is supreme over all, nonetheless stooped to a status ‘lower than the angels,’ to be joined to the lowliness of the human condition. As Tom Long, preaching professor at Candler School of Theology at Emory, notes, “Hebrews does not wish to argue that Jesus…came just to the edge of human life and dipped his little toe into the pool of suffering. Rather, he wants to claim that, for a brief moment in time, the eternal and exalted Son purposefully and redemptively plummeted to the depths of human suffering and weakness.”

The author of Hebrews is well-acquainted with the brokenness of the world. He or she would have read the headlines that doom our newspapers, that run across the ticker on the bottom on the screen, that fill the trending topics of bad news on twitter, and said – Here is a world that is hurting and broken: a hole in the ozone and a fragile created order – offer it the Christ who according to Scripture is the One through Whom the creation came into being; the torn fabric of a society that is stripped of grace and bent on death as innocent people get senselessly slaughtered from a college campus in Oregon to the streets of Jackson – offer them Christ who offers a peace to a world at war; a people spreading destruction in the non-redemptive act of putting someone to death as though “an eye for an eye” demonstrates the justice of a forgiving God – offer them the Christ who is rich in mercy and came to give life; bodies are plagued by cancer that advances and is so aggressive as to bring bones to break – offer them Christ who heals; the broken places of the human heart and fractured relationships – offer them Christ who reconciled us to God and one another! This world and our lives are broken. Chaos reigns, it seems. But, Hebrews reminds us that if we would see Jesus…that he entered the chaos and lived among the brokenness and took it all on, all the way to death, then maybe we too would see that resurrection is on the other side of this, that we might cling to the hope that Christ brings us, his brothers and sisters, to glory.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face – [a face that was scarred and crowned with a wreath of thorns piercing his head];

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. – [but the path to glory goes through Calvary. What depths of love!]

The world is broken. This town, this neighborhood is broken. Our lives are broken. Christ entered our brokenness. Offer the Christ who heals to the world who hurts, for Christ brings us, the children of God, to glory.

Offer them Christ! But do not miss this: before you can offer them Christ, you must receive Christ. Receive Christ in your life. Receive Christ in the bread & wine; in his body & blood. Receive Christ in the holy meal, the holy mystery. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Acts 2:14-39

We are a Pentecost people. Last week we were reminded in thinking about immersion that we are a people of the cross and the resurrection. This week in thinking about pouring, we affirm that we are people of Pentecost! Pentecost always falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter and is the time when we remember that the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. This event is what is often called the birthday of the Church and is what we often refer to when speaking of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. We are a Pentecost people, baptized in water and the Spirit, which took place on that occasion. This is why we can say to God, as hymn #605 in the UM Hymnal says: “We your people stand before you, water-washed and Spirit-born.”

Baptism through Affusion (or pouring) (Photo credit: Rick Hogaboam - totascriptura.com)

Baptism through affusion (or pouring) (Photo credit: Rick Hogaboam – totascriptura.com)

Last week, we talked about the Greek term βαπτίζω, and referred to its definition as “dipping, immersing, or submerging for the purpose of washing or cleansing.” But there is another meaning of βαπτίζω that we didn’t talk about last week. βαπτίζω can mean at times, simply, “to overwhelm.” This is not hard to see when we think about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The disciples gathered at Pentecost were “overwhelmed” to the point where some spectators thought they were intoxicated. If you’ve ever had a large amount of water poured over your head and face unexpectedly, you know what an overwhelming sensation is. This is why pouring, or what is also called affusion, is a beautiful symbol and usage of water in baptism.

Now before I continue, I want to take a step back and acknowledge something said last week about rebaptism. As I was posting the sermon manuscript and remembered the way I presented it, I think I might have been a little too harsh. Let me share with you that it’s not my intention in this series to talk about “rules” or to lay out an agenda saying “It’s this way or the highway.” Moreover, I’m not interested in shaming the institution nor individuals nor families for the ways that baptism may have been confused or misunderstood in the past. And I think the way I said it last week may have come out that way. So let me clear it up and speak from my heart and my experience, that I’ve been right here with you. I was re-baptized when I was 10 years old, having previously been baptized as an infant, though my parents and probably most of the folks in my home church called it a Christening, and viewed that more as a dedication service than a “real” baptism, which would be done whenever I made a profession of faith. This is played out in debates and discussions about “infant baptism” vs. “believer’s baptism.” But I have difficulty with these phrases because they’re grammatically using “infant” and “believer” as adjectives rather than a personal recipients of divine grace.

Baptism is baptism, whether it is given to an infant or to a youth or adult. And we do not insist that people have to do one or the other, nor do we insist that it has to be done in a particular mode. An infant baptism is no more or less valid than “believer’s” baptism. Immersion is no more valid than pouring or sprinkling. Really, we have more freedom in our church for parents and new Christians to follow their own conscience in these matters than most others. This is because we believe the emphasis is not in the obedience of the person or parents of the one baptized, but in the proclaimed identity of the baptized. That’s why the voice that says, “This is MY Son!” upon Jesus in baptism is more crucial than the fact that he got more or less wet than others perceive. When a person is baptized, we believe it is God saying over the infant or young person or adult “This is MY child!” That’s what I hope we can think of in terms of baptism being about identity rather than a feeling or experience that we think is necessary for someone to follow a certain way. When I was an infant the pastor applied water to my head and invoked the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in baptizing me; in that act I was proclaimed as God’s own child.

There’s more to that story, but in telling it in the context of thinking about pouring, since that’s the theme for this week, I am reminded of how I felt the water on the Sunday after I made my profession of faith at age 10. I got wet y’all! It wasn’t an immersion, but it was more than just a sprinkling. The pastor filled his hands with the water and dumped it on my head. I remember the feeling of water flowing over my head as if it had been poured from above.

And how this fits with baptism is that pouring is an action of water coming from above, it is the sign and seal of the Holy Spirit like what we see at Pentecost. In baptism, we recognize the gift and promise of the Holy Spirit. In the sermon at Pentecost, Peter says that promise is for “you, your children, and for all who are far away – as many as the Lord our God invites.” Hence, again, baptism and its accompanying promise are not about an individual’s decision, but about the action, invitation and gift of God to bring salvation and offer it to all. In baptism, we acknowledge the work of the Holy Spirit in the person’s life, be it as an infant or at the time the person comes to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior. Baptism is that person being brought into this new identity as God’s child, a covenant community, being united with Christ. Baptism, then, is never a “private event,” because it involves commitments not only from the ones being baptized and/or their parents/sponsors, but also the entire community in covenant with one another, called the local church, who agrees to support the baptized with encouragement, prayers, and coming alongside them in the journey of discipleship.

Carrie and I sometimes get asked, “Why did you have Sam and Julianne baptized? Why not wait and let them decide that on their own?” One of the ways we have found helpful in responding to this question is to imagine it like a party…a Holy Spirit party, if you will. This party began at Pentecost and has been going ever since. That first crowd was the first generation of people who would be invited to the party, but then the invitation and promise was given to their children as well. There are some traditions where even children raised in the church are not completely welcome to the party or to participate in all its functions, and are told they aren’t really a part of the party until they’re old enough to decide they don’t want the life outside the party. In thinking through the parable of the prodigal son, this is like telling the child that they need to prodigal experience in a far off country before they can know the true joy of being welcomed home by the loving father. But where this fails, in our view, is that it misjudges the sin of the elder son who stayed home. His error was not that he didn’t go away, but that he never really claimed the party as his own. The grace was always there for him, too. He just never owned where the father had claimed him as his own as well: “…everything I have is yours…”

I hear it said all the time that babies shouldn’t be baptized because they don’t know what’s really going on. I think I understand that because I’ve thought that myself. But as I began to realize that baptism is about God’s gracious action prior to my response of faith, I asked myself, “Do we really ‘know’ what’s going on either? Do I really understand all of God’s grace?” Is it simply about the individual’s ability to “make a decision”? If so, then baptism would be about faith, rather than grace. But if baptism has to do with salvation, and I believe it does, then it is based not on me, but on God’s grace. Yes, I need to make the decision and own the faith, but that is my saying “Yes” to where God has already said, “Yes” to me. Baptism, in other words, is God’s “Yes” upon your life. And God said “Yes” to you long before you could even say “Yes” back, or even before you were able to utter the words, “Dada” or “Mama.” That’s why we say that baptizing an infant is as appropriate as baptizing a youth or adult. Because God has invited us all to receive grace. Thanks be to God.

Pouring is a beautiful image because it is significant language in the other sacrament in which we are about to participate. This day is World Communion Sunday, which falls on the first Sunday of October every year. An emphasis is made on this day that despite whatever differences we have in doctrines, practices, and so on, from all across the world on this day, Christians of multiple denominations unite together to celebrate this holy meal. It’s kind of an image of what took place at Pentecost, which was a festival where people from all across the known world came to Jerusalem to celebrate the giving of the Law; people from various sectors, or denominations, of Judaism came for this purpose and on that one occasion, the Holy Spirit was poured out so that the message of the good news of Jesus Christ spread to all the places that were there represented. That’s what this meal is about. We will pray that the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us and these elements that in this meal we will be filled, or baptized, with the Holy Spirit to go out to share the love of Christ with our neighbors as well.

We are a Pentecost people.

Romans 6:1-11

There was a man who wandered into a church one Sunday morning right as the closing hymn was being sung. The pastor was in his baptismal robe, standing in the baptistery ready to immerse anybody that came forward. This wanderer went forward. The pastor asked the wanderer, “Sir, are you ready to meet Jesus?” The man responded, “Yes, I am.” So the pastor grabbed the wanderer, put him under the water for a couple of seconds, brought him back up and said, “Do you believe?” The man said, “Hmm…No.” The pastor dunked him back down in the water again for about 10 seconds, brought him back up and asked again, “Now, do you believe?” The man said, “No.” The pastor put him back in the water, held him down for about 30 seconds this time, brought him back up and asked, “NOW, do you believe, son?” The man replied, “Yes, pastor I BELIEVE you’re trying to DROWN me.”

And people wonder why Methodists approve of sprinkling.

I reiterate the rule to guide us: “Here we enter a fellowship; sometimes we will agree to differ; always we will resolve to love and unite to serve.” – E. Stanley Jones.

As I have been preparing for this series, I had to ask myself a few questions. First, “Are you sure you want to do this?” When I decided that yes, this was something I thought was important enough to address at length, the question I then had to ask myself was, “If I’m going to spend a week on each of the primary modes of baptism, which one should I start with? What progression do I want to take, in terms of the quantity of water used in each: from the most water (immersion) to the least (sprinkling) or vice versa? Or should I start with the mode most frequently used in the baptism of y’all?” Well I decided to start with the mode that was most popular among those who rated them in the survey from a couple of weeks ago, and that result was immersion. To use a water analogy, I figured I would get my feet wet with immersion and work my way to the deep end of sprinkling. Maybe that sounds a bit backwards, but I’ve been a backwards kind of guy at times, anyway.

So let’s talk today about immersion. Very few Christians have difficulty with immersion as a valid mode of baptism. There is a whole tradition within the Church universal, known as Eastern Orthodoxy, which immerses even infants when performing baptisms. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters will sometimes immerse adult converts to Catholicism. And most Protestant denominations and non-denominations who consider themselves evangelical use immersion on believers as the ONLY appropriate mode of baptism. This is true of Baptists, Church(es) of Christ, Pentecostals of all sorts, and so on. And yes, even we United Methodists, despite the reputation that we are afraid of water, will use immersion as the mode of baptizing persons who have not been baptized before, if that is their choice.

There is obvious Scriptural support for immersion. Most admit that Jesus was immersed when baptized by John, although others have said, “Not necessarily.” Some have suggested that when Matthew 3:16 says that Jesus came “straightway out of the water” after he was baptized means that he was standing in the water the whole time and that John took water and generously sprinkled or poured it over Jesus head. My guess is that many of you don’t see that as a likely interpretation, but acknowledge that there are many who do and that’s why you’ll often see artwork depicting John with a shell pouring water over Jesus head in the midst of the river.

A stained glass window depicting Jesus' baptism as affusion (photo credit: stainedglasscanada.ca)

A stained glass window depicting Jesus’ baptism as affusion, or pouring (photo credit: stainedglasscanada.ca)

A more common approach from the strongest advocates of immersion has to do with the original language of the New Testament text, which was Koine Greek. In this common form of Greek in the ancient world, the word for baptism was ‘βαπτίζω’ (pronounced something like ‘bap-tee-zow’), and the most common definition of this word βαπτίζω means “to dip, to immerse, or to submerge.”

After an immersion (photo credit: Broadway UMC in Maryville, TN - broadwayumc.net)

After an immersion (photo credit: Broadway UMC in Maryville, TN – broadwayumc.net)

Therefore, what is often heard in some faith traditions is that the only appropriate mode of baptism is that which sticks as close to the literal meaning of the Greek term βαπτίζω as possible. And certainly most of us have access to enough water to be able to immerse a baptismal candidate. So it goes that for many Methodists who don’t immerse but could have done so, we will have been deemed unfaithful to the practice as laid out in Scripture, or at least for the language it was written in. But where this way of argumentation takes the wrong approach, in my view, is that it focuses more on the method of how the water is applied rather than on the purpose of the action. For even when the term βαπτίζω is used, there is a purpose behind it, and that purpose is “to cleanse…to wash…to bathe.” When we think about purpose and put it in these terms of “cleansing, washing, and bathing,” then we know that there are potentially a number of ways that this can be done faithfully. Stepping out of the realm of sacrament and baptism for just a moment, what comes to your mind when you hear those terms associated with “cleansing”? What method is most effective? Perhaps for some it is to take a bath; for others to take a shower; still for others using a wet cloth and scrubbing would get the job done most effectively. So, back to baptism, when we talk about being washed from sin and born of the Spirit (both inherent ideas in the theology of baptism), immersion is certainly a great way to convey this, but so are other methods. I’ll save those for the next couple of weeks.

By now, you might be beginning to think about me, “You sound like a Methodist who’s afraid of water. You’re not giving immersion its full due.” Perhaps you’re right, but what I’ve been trying to show up to this point is that the argument that immersion is the only valid mode of baptism is not as rock solid as some would have us believe. We as United Methodists believe other modes may convey the purpose and meaning of baptism as well as immersion. Ironically, United Methodists are not as concerned with the “method” of how the water is applied in baptism as we are with the purpose of the action.

And what is the purpose? The primary purpose of baptism is to proclaim an identity, rather than an experience. As baptism is the sacrament of identity, it is first about WHO we are; but even more so, WHOSE we are and with WHOM we are united (that is, Christ). When this is put together with the notion of “cleansing,” we can see why the appropriate response of the people of God to the grace given in baptism says:

We your people stand before you,
Water-washed and Spirit-born.
By your grace, our lives we offer.
Re-create us; God, transform! (UM Hymnal, 605)

The question of how (or what mode to use) is secondary, though it’s good to know the symbolism conveyed in each potential mode. Each portrays rich biblical imagery about the purpose of baptism.

And this passage from Romans (6:1-11) conveys the very richness of immersion. If I seem to have been taking down some of the arguments for immersion up to this point, now I want to raise up what is truly great about this mode of baptism. Immersion is beautiful, as going under the water and being brought back up portrays the bodily death and resurrection of Jesus. And since Paul says that we are baptized into Christ’s death, immersion portrays this union with Christ very well. That union with Christ means that what is true of the Messiah is true of us. This is our identity as being united with Christ. What is true of Christ is true of us. As verse 5 says, “If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his.”

In addition to portraying our union with Christ’s story, Paul is also subtly alluding to an earlier story, that of the Exodus. The gist of this passage with regard to the Christian community is that we should no longer being slaves to what? Sin! That’s right. We have tasted and known the grace of God through the waters of baptism, just as the Israelites had been delivered through the waters of the Red Sea. And what a marvelous grace and deliverance that was, for the Israelites in the Exodus, for Jesus in the resurrection, and for us in baptism. What Paul is saying is that grace, that deliverance, that claiming of God over our lives in baptism is so wonderful that we are to live the rest of our lives trusting in the grace of God that brought us out of the land of Egypt, away from slavery to sin, and into the land of promise, the relationship and union with Christ.

Now here’s where things get sticky and we begin to see things differently about this holy act. Many other denominations and traditions will refer to this act of baptism as an “ordinance,” whereas we Methodists and several other traditions refer to baptism as a “sacrament.” Of course, some make no real distinction between the two, but the main difference is in the approach. For many, the act as “ordinance” means that it is Christians obeying and doing what Christ commanded, or “ordered” us to do, by “baptizing” newly made disciples. And for those who see this as the work of humans, there’s no problem with doing it again and again and again. In many of those traditions, you can get baptized as many times as you want really. This shouldn’t the case for we who see this as a sacrament; that is, not the work of humans but the action of God in Christ. The purpose of baptism is not to acknowledge a decision, but to welcome God’s gracious action in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To put it differently: you may have heard that baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward faith or decision. But if we approach baptism as God’s activity, then it is an outward and visible sign of an inward GRACE. That God gives grace to us before we even know it means that it is not about our choice, much less a desired feeling. The grace is of the variety that cleanses from sin and gives us our identity.

We believe that the One who does the baptizing is God. And again Paul says, when we are baptized, we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection. That only occurred once. So to repeat a baptism or to “re-baptize,” from my perspective, is to proclaim one or both of these notions: 1. That God’s action was insufficient; and/or 2. that it’s possible to crucify Christ again. (That is not to say that when people have re-baptized, they have intended to communicate this as such; that just seems to be the implications IF we believe that baptism is indeed the action of God uniting us with Christ in his death and resurrection.) As Paul says, “He died to sin once and for all with his death.” And our baptism, whenever that was, is a union with Christ in his death and resurrection. If we have been united with Christ in baptism, we have been claimed by God’s grace and we know that God’s mighty acts of deliverance do not fail.

Trying to bring us now to the practical level of where this passage leads us: the question is often posed, “What about sin after I’ve been baptized? What if I’ve wasted the grace or have acted as though I’m back in Egypt?” To that, I’d say that at times we get cases of what I might call “spiritual amnesia,” where we forget our identity as the children of God, or we forget or lose track of God’s claiming us as God’s own. In coming back to our senses, we don’t redo the act, we don’t literally go back to Egypt, and so on. Rather, what is needed is a reminder, a remembrance of our identity. That’s what Israel did every year in telling the story of the Exodus at Passover. Celebrating the annual feast and retelling the story was the annual cure for the spiritual amnesia that they were so prone to develop, as are we. For us, that remembrance of baptism is that our “old self” was crucified with Christ when we first entered the waters of baptism. As N.T. Wright put it, “Once you are baptized, of course, you can try to shirk or shrug off your new responsibilities. You can pretend you don’t after all have a new status…But what you can’t do is get unbaptized again. Don’t even think of trying to go back to Egypt.”

So as the beloved of God, being immersed in God’s redeeming love, raised and delivered from slavery to sin, let us live for God in Christ, living out and remembering our baptism through the power of Christ’s resurrection. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

“…Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who has wronged us…” – from the prayer Jesus taught his disciples according to St. Luke’s account (11:4).  This statement, or something near it, is uttered by the lips of most Christians on a weekly, and for some, daily basis. We entreat the God who gives daily bread to forgive our wrongs. In Matthew’s rendering of Jesus’ teaching, that is the only part of the prayer that Jesus returns to immediately in order to exegete: “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins” (6:14).

One of my New Testament professors, Joel Green, wrote of this part of the most commonly uttered prayer (emphasis mine):

The ‘for’ [of Luke 11:4b] does not introduce a relationship of quid pro quo between divine and human forgiveness, as though God’s forgiveness were dependent upon human activity (6:35; 23:34!). Instead, Jesus grounds the disciples’ request for divine forgiveness in their own practices of extending forgiveness. As in previous texts (esp. 6:36), Jesus spins human behavior from the cloth of divine behavior; the embodiment of forgiveness in the practices of Jesus’ followers is a manifestation and imitation of God’s own character.

The image conveyed here is that of an open or closed hand. If you clinch your fists in holding a defiant grudge, they are not open to receive divine forgiveness either, for forgiveness can only flow through extended arms and open hands (viz. Christ on the cross).

Forgiveness is a significant word in the vocabulary of those of us who claim to have been recipients of Divine forgiveness. We who embrace the forgiveness offered by the crucified One who cried out to his God, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do…” find that as we have been forgiven, we are expected to be forgivers when others offend us. Yet what I witness and even feel in many encounters and my own experience where a wrong or injustice has been done is that forgiveness is a term that though often used, is rarely understood or expressed in the delicate yet precarious way I perceive it to be offered by our Lord.

An Historical Case Study

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Cover of _The Sunflower_ (credit: betterworldbooks.com)

Simon Wiesenthal, an Austrian Jew and Holocaust survivor, in his book entitled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness recounted a time when he was randomly called to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier. When Wiesenthal entered the room the patient begged for his forgiveness for atrocities he had committed in his life, particularly of an incident where he took part in the mass murder in a building housing about 300 Jews. This soldier and his comrades had set fire to the building and as Jews tried to escape the flames, they gunned the victims down. Being haunted by the tremendous guilt for participating in such a despicable act and knocking on death’s door himself, the fear of eternal punishment crept in upon this man who begged for “any Jew” to come and absolve him. Wiesenthal listened to his confession, but left the room (never to return) without saying a word.

Wiesenthal pondered and invited the reader to respond to the question of whether his silence was justified or if he should have offered words of judgment or forgiveness to the soldier. His plea for feedback regarding the predicament he faced garnered hundreds of deeply intriguing responses from people of various backgrounds all across the world. I highly recommend my readers to pick up a copy of the work and wrestle with the dilemma, because as the subtitle suggests, the situation raises not solely the question of whether he should have forgiven the soldier, but even challenges the presupposition that he could have done so. The (real or hypothetical) possibility or impossibility of absolving such a person varies according to the worldview of those who have responded and their replies will surprise you, I think.

Our World Today

Wiesenthal’s dilemma brings to the surface the significant differences of people’s approaches to forgiveness. If you think that Wiesenthal not only could have but should have said, “Yes, I forgive you” with ease and then gone on back to his imprisoned livelihood under evil’s grip, then I think you’re greatly underestimating the true costliness of forgiveness. Yet what I hear in the court of public opinion when someone has committed some terrible act or spewed some poisonous and hateful words and it appears in media outlets is that very idea. And forgiveness appears to be packaged that way not only by those advocating for the absolution of the offender but also by those who call for his or her head on a platter. Forgiving someone, in this seeming popular sense, means giving them a clean slate, a free pass, maybe even desiring to let them pick up where they left off before the offense was brought to light.

But forgiveness, as I see it, is not a mere free pass; else we could call it cheap grace. It’s not a blank slate, although to some degree we might call it a second chance. Forgiveness is rarely an instantaneous thing like a simple transaction and is not a merely static reality. Forgiveness, like giving birth or being born, takes time and requires the giving up of something valuable (by both the forgiver and the forgiven) in order to be fully experienced.

I remember being taught that the best way to define justification (a word commonly interchanged with forgiveness in theological circles) as “It is ‘just (as) if I’d‘ never sinned.” Now that’s a clever play on words and gets some of the concept, but ultimately this cliched slogan is insufficient, for it fails to truly wrestle with the reality and depth of the consequences of humanity’s proliferation of injustice, immoral behavior and evil. It also often fails in that it tends to see forgiveness as an end in itself rather than as a means to a more perfect goal: the real change that comes from the Divine life implanted within.

The Mechanics Of Forgiveness: East and West

Although this isn’t always true, it is generally the case that Eastern and Western cultures approach the agents and actions of forgiveness quite differently. A big difference lies in the expected answer to the question: Who takes the first step toward forgiveness and reconciliation: the offended party or the victim(ized) party? In most Western paradigms, forgiveness is potential when the offending party approaches the victim(s), expresses sorrow and asks to be forgiven. Forgiveness is achieved if the request is granted. In many Eastern paradigms, I’ve been told that forgiveness is an offer given by the victim(s) in approaching the party who offended [them].

Now consider the paradigm at work in Christ’s ministry of forgiveness, reconciliation, and wholeness.

Forgiveness As Means To A Greater End

I love what C.S. Lewis said about forgiveness that my friend Matt O’Reilly recently pointed out in this post. Lewis said:

Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the [person] who had done it. That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.

And this is part of why I’m of a Wesleyan/Methodist brand of Christian. Because the grace that bears with it the forgiveness of sins is free, on the one hand, and costly, on the other, but never cheap nor quick. If forgiveness is all you want, I think you’re not asking for enough. Forgiveness itself isn’t the remedy, but the means to something greater. In forgiveness, Christ sees the mess we’ve made of our world and our lives, yet loves us enough to reconcile us to God’s self, help us see the evil we’ve perpetuated, repent from it, and cooperate with this God whose kingdom comes to end all death, evil and hostility. This opens that path to wholeness and reconciliation, which will bring the work of grace that began in forgiveness to its completion. So as we live and forgive, may we hear and continually speak to one another the good news that both allows us to feel the costliness of our own sin as well as the freedom that comes with declaration of absolution: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

And that, sisters and brothers, opens a window into the unique nature of this divine forgiveness in which we are called to participate. For in the holy mystery that these words accompany, we will discover that forgiveness is much more than an emotional feeling or expression but is a sacramental act that came and comes at such a terrible and great cost. Thanks be to God!

Resting. Eating. Drinking. Enjoyment. These are blessings of the created life. They existed before the curse. Hence they are not inherently ‘sinful’ even though we preachers are sometimes keen on pointing out the vanity that often coincides with excessive idleness or consumption. The sin of the ‘rich fool’ who stored up treasures was not that he should “relax, eat, drink, and be merry,” but that his action(s) in this came at the neglect of and detriment to his neighbors and hence to his own soul as he did not regard the God who brought the harvest.

Have you ever understood the first sin as one of unhealthy consumerism? Adam and Eve were given a whole garden of fruit from which to enjoy, except for just one. Yet a commercial aired that created within their hearts a perceived need of something they must have in order to truly be fulfilled. The tempting words of the serpent went something like this (my paraphrase):

“You will not surely die if you eat that fruit. But God doesn’t want you to eat of that one tree because he knows if you do, you will be like him…mature, powerful, able to know what is good and what is evil. So go ahead; take, eat that fruit, for that is how you become like God!”

Contrast this with the words that Jesus shared at the meal on the night before his death. For the meal before him, Jesus regarded and gave thanks (Eucharist) to God. He gave the bread and the cup to his disciples and said something like this (my paraphrase):

Take, eat this bread which is my body; drink from this cup which is my blood; this is how God has become like you! Given to the point of death.”

Photo Credit: Rev. Sara Tate took this photo at Carrie's and my vow renewal in July 2013.

Photo Credit: Rev. Sara Tate took this photo at Carrie’s and my vow renewal in July 2013.

Rest. Eat. Drink. Enjoy. For the re-created life still involve these blessings, but they will always compel us to give thanks to God and break bread with our neighbors.

Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us.
Grant that we may go into the world in the strength of your Spirit, to give ourselves for others.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! Easter is not just a day, but a season of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The Gospel passage for the 2nd week of Easter (this past Sunday) was John 20:19-31, where Jesus mysteriously showed up twice through/behind a closed door to be with his disciples who were gathered together. The first time, they were all there except for Thomas. The second time, however, Thomas was there along with the rest.

A week (or so) separated the incidents, and I can’t help but imagine that that week must have felt like an eternity for Thomas, who wanted no less of an encounter with the risen Jesus than what the others were afforded, but was merely told it was true that Jesus was no longer dead. Underneath the surface, there is something quite wonderful, however, about that week and the relationship between Thomas and the other disciples. That is that despite Thomas’ struggles, his doubts, his defiance at demanding further proof, the others did not cast him out, condemn him, shame him, or beat it in his brains to “just believe!” No, they sat with him in his doubts, broke bread with him (surely more than once in the course of the week), allowed him to struggle and waited with him until the Lord graciously and peacefully returned in their midst. And sure enough, Jesus showed up again.

Though there’s no record of a meal with his disciples in these two gatherings when Jesus appeared, there is, nonetheless, something beautifully sacramental about what takes place and our senses and minds can be drawn to the holy mysteries of Jesus’ resurrection and the meal we celebrate as we await Christ’s return in final victory where we will feast at the heavenly banquet.

In those two encounters, Jesus’ presence was real in the midst of his followers, who were gathered together. He gave words of peace and reconciliation, and offered his body and the marks where he had bled to not just be seen, but even to be touched by those seeking the truth. And he breathed on them the Holy Spirit, sending them into the world as the Father had sent him. If you listen carefully to these parts of the story, you will notice that each of these aspects is integral to our understanding of the Eucharist, or Holy Communion.

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller's blog on patheos.com)

Jesus offers his scarred body to Thomas (credit: Joel J. Miller’s blog on patheos.com)

Christ is really present in the shared meal when we are gathered together for Communion. In confessing where we had abandoned and/or failed in our design to faithfully follow Christ, we are forgiven our sins and hear the pardoning words in the name of Christ and then share words and signs of peace and reconciliation. Christ invites us and offers his body and blood to us, not just to see, but to touch (and in the sacrament, to partake). The Holy Spirit is poured out upon those gathered and the elements to make it so. We invoke the Holy Spirit to enable us to bear the scars and be the body of a crucified and risen Lord for the world around us. Even the final prayer reiterates this plea for the Holy Spirit’s empowerment for mission: “Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself to us. Grant that in the strength of your Spirit, we may give ourselves for others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“…As the Father has sent me, so I send you…”