By The Rev. Carlton Kelley
We will have a baptism, always an occasion of joy, of Alice Elizabeth Walters, daughter of John and Libby Walters on Sunday, October 16 at the 10 am Liturgy and again on All Saint’s Sunday, November 6 at 10am of Lilly Lutz, daughter of Jessica and Gary Lutz. It seems a good time to recall what the church believes about Holy Baptism so that we can more fully participate in these magnificent liturgies. They are magnificent because they give to us the ability to live in and with God. They are beautiful because they reflect the beauty of God.
“What are you seeking? Come and see.”
Invitations always carry an element of mystery. We are never quite sure what to expect even if we are meeting an old and dear friend for conversation. How much more then is the mystery of meeting Jesus Christ? He may be someone we long to know but have not yet taken the steps to do so. How do we come to know him intimately? Surely, this is the work of a lifetime and a gift of the Holy Spirit.
We become members of Jesus’s body through the waters of Holy Baptism. This is not an empty ceremony devoid of meaning that we do to make us feel good about ourselves or a simple ceremony of initiation. It is a sacramental entrance into the death and life of Jesus Christ, into his reality of grace, and into his Body, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is a charged sacramental act because through the waters of Baptism, the Holy Spirit gives us the grace to love more fully for the sake of the world. While all people are God’s children because all have been created by God, not all are members of Christ’s Body. In Baptism, we are joined to God’s chosen people, the children of Israel, to be a “peculiar” people for the sake of the world. This concept has been called “the scandal of peculiarity.” Perhaps we rebel at the idea that God picked one man, Abraham, and one nation, Israel, to be partners with God in God’s desire to be a blessing to the whole world. The entirety of the Old Testament is a witness to this fact of peculiarity.
Perhaps we are offended by the idea that the same nation, Israel, gave birth to the one savior and redeemer of the world, Jesus. Perhaps we are scandalized, or at least made uncomfortable, that the church has called Jesus in the Gospel of John “the way, the truth, and the life.” The entirety of the New Testament is a witness to this fact of peculiarity. That we are a chosen people is problematic only if we believe our baptisms and belief in Jesus Christ makes us superior to all other people, with or without faith. It is quite clear to even the most casual observer that we are not. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments bear witness to our continuing fall from grace and God’s gracious restoration of us from death to life. Our only claim to distinction is to follow the Cross of Jesus wherever that may lead and to accept our vocation to bring love to the chaos of the world. We need always to remember that we follow “One who served and gave himself as a ransom for many.”(Matthew 10 and parallels)
Rowan Williams, bishop and theologian, has written that our baptisms put us into the world’s “mess” and into the grim realities of everyday life. We have a job to do for the sake of the world because, as he goes on to say, our baptisms give us the humanity that God has always intended us to have. St. Paul has said that he only gloried in the Cross of Christ – a Cross that literally stood in the messy intersection of the political and religious forces of the world. It may be that unique among the world’s religions, we are called to share the pain of the world precisely because Jesus has taken that pain on himself, “for us and for our salvation.”
Many people express the concern that this peculiarity, although it would probably not be expressed in these terms, puts friends and other family members outside of God’s grace. It cannot be stated too strongly that it does not. While the grace of God is seen most clearly and completely in Jesus Christ and the church, the grace of God moves and operates in all, absolutely all, people of good will that seek the truth and apprehend beauty as they are able. The Church, at our best, has always understood this.
In the book of Acts, chapter 10:34 we read “Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all.’” This is the clear and unequivocal statement that we are to regard no one, no culture, no nation, as somehow inferior to those of us who are Christian because the humility of Jesus’s Cross calls us to a better way. All that is required is that all are people of good will who seek the truth. How God will ultimately resolve all the contradictions we see is for God to determine in the fullness of God’s time and in God’s love. Julian of Norwich has said that in the end God will do a supremely wonderful thing that we cannot now know. It has been well said that Christians must learn to live in the tension of apparent contradictions. It is our job, right here, right now, to love and to maintain the disciplines of Christ’s Body, the Church.
Yet this does not remove our task to speak Jesus’ name, to evangelize and to bring to the waters of Holy Baptism all who wish to do so. If all we say about Jesus’ death and resurrection are true – and I fully believe they are, not because I must, but because they are and have been for me – then the entire cosmos has been changed. Jesus’s Cross and Resurrection thus becomes the fulcrum around which the history of the world turns. That is the reality into which we baptize all who call upon his Name.
We are baptized to become disciples of Jesus. That is, we take on a certain discipline and a certain way of living because we follow Jesus. We are not baptized into a club or an organization, no matter how worthy. We have not been called to be volunteers for Jesus’s sake. We are called to be active and loving disciples. We are baptized into Christ’s Body, the Church, empowered by the Holy Spirit, “to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.” (BCP, p 374)
In his commentary on Luke 17: 5-10, Richard Niell Donovan writes “Jesus modeled the kind of servant ministry to which he calls us. He came to earth, not in Rome, but in Palestine – not with a silver spoon in his mouth but with a feeding trough for his cradle – not in a time when he could address the world on television, but when communication was limited to the reach of his voice – not to sit on a throne, but to hang on a cross. If we have a quarrel with the demands of discipleship, we must address our objection to the one who has modeled the kind of sacrifice that he asks us to make.” “His yoke is easy and his burden is light.”(Matthew 11:30) Thanks be to God!