June 15, 2020
The Proper 7A Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Matthew 10:24-39 from the Lectionary Gospel; Genesis 21:8-21 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Romans 6:1b-11 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism: Q&A 88 (Lord’s Day 33)
Author: Scott Hoezee
John Donne was a seventeenth century author, poet, and preacher. In his poems and sermons, Donne penned a bevy of striking lines. “Death, be not proud . . . Death, thou shalt die!” “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Strikingly familiar lines like that pop up all over the works of John Donne.
I remember my college English professor saying that he once recommended the works of John Donne to a friend. When he later asked this friend what he thought of Donne, this person replied, “He’s a good writer, but he uses too many clichés.” Well . . .
Matthew 10 may make a similar impression. In these 42 verses Jesus is on a kind of linguistic jag as he piles up one memorable line after the next.
The lost sheep of Israel.
Shake the dust off your feet.
Sheep among wolves . . . shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves.
Two sparrows are sold for a penny . . . even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Whoever confesses me before people, I will confess before the Father.
I did not come to bring peace but a sword.
Take up your cross and follow me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
If anyone gives a cup of cold water . . . he will not lose his reward.
Were it not for the fact that Jesus appears to have been the first person ever to say these things, you’d have to conclude that he was having his own cliché festival that day! These are among the best-known verses in the New Testament. At first glance this may look like just a jumbled mish-mash of diverse sayings. But when you step back and look at the whole of Matthew 10—including the key portion in this Year A lection of verses 24-39—you see that these words are all related to what life is going to be like for the disciples once they begin proclaiming the gospel on Jesus’ behalf. The picture Jesus draws, however, is alarmingly distressing.
The chapter begins happily enough: Jesus confers great authority on the twelve disciples. He gives them power to do miracles and he provides them a hopeful message to proclaim. Jesus sends them out in gentleness, telling the disciples that it is not their job to fight when the going gets rough. They are not to brow-beat people with the gospel. If people don’t like what the disciples have to say, then they are to move on, simple as that.
If they are roughed up in a certain town, they are told simply to move on to the next village. If they get arrested, they are not to call some high-octane lawyer but are to let the Spirit speak through them, providing them with an on-the-spot defense counsel. The disciples are to be gentle souls and loving proclaimers of the gospel. They are not to be warriors, they are not to be shrill, they are not to hang around where they are clearly not welcome. Their lives need to be consistent with the gospel of grace they proclaim. Their very demeanor must mirror God’s love.
The chapter begins by sounding these notes of non-violent, loving gospel proclamation. But what startles in the balance of the chapter is how the rhetoric of Jesus steadily spirals down, down, down. The outlook here gets pretty grim pretty quickly. Despite all their loving rhetoric and gentle demeanor, the disciples are going to get slammed, beat up, arrested, falsely accused. Despite a message of love, they themselves will be hated. Despite their transparent witness to God, they will be called devils.
Worse, their words will bring about the dissolution of families on account of the disagreements that will swirl around Jesus and his gospel. And if all of that is not surprising enough, Jesus himself then declares that he did not come to this earth to bring peace but strife! So if you don’t love him more than mom and dad, if you don’t love Jesus more than your own sons and daughters, then you’re a gospel fake, a holy wannabe.
Apparently Matthew has not read the Gospel of Luke where the angels herald Jesus’ birth as the advent of “peace on earth!” And it looks like Jesus’ version of “family values” is a wee bit different than what sometimes gets touted today. All of which should give us considerable pause. Why is the gospel going to be so hated? What’s the rub? What is the essence, the core, of what lies behind the negative, sometimes even violent, reaction which some have to the Christian faith? (And if Jesus himself predicted this, why do so many Christians in North America today react with mere shock whenever they find society opposing the gospel?)
Why is the gospel sometimes hated? Well, let’s admit that sometimes it is because the bearers of the gospel are themselves glaringly un-Christ-like. In history the Church at times tried to convert people at the point of a sword on threat of execution. Certain Medieval popes were little better than mafia types who literally had their enemies assassinated. Eventually in history the followers of Jesus were not the ones being thrown into jail because of their beliefs but instead it was the followers of Jesus who were throwing other people into jail because of their unbelief! In all of these ways and a thousand more beside, it is not difficult to know why the gospel was despised or rejected. The gospel gets polluted when we who bear the message are ourselves living at cross-purposes with the gospel’s content.
True enough. But in Matthew 10 Jesus seems to assume that the disciples will not be hypocrites. Jesus appears to operate from the premise that the disciples will be innocent doves and vulnerable sheep who will faithfully proclaim the good news. But even still Jesus predicts all manner of persecution, rejection, hatred. Apparently it is not just the church at its worst that will be rejected but the church at its very best, too. There is something very near the heart of even the purest proclamation of the gospel that is just flat out not going to sit right with a good many people. What is that something?
In a word: Surrender.
The heartbeat of the gospel is grace and love, forgiveness and renewal, hope and joy. These are commodities so precious that on the surface you can’t imagine anyone’s not wanting them. Rejecting the gospel would be similar to someone’s just hating the site of adorable kittens and puppies. How can you not like puppies!? They’re so cute! So also how can you not like the gospel: it drips with love, grace, and hope!
But it’s what lies behind the love, grace, and hope that nettles people. God’s forgiveness is great until you realize that accepting it means acknowledging that you’re a rather greasy, guilty sinner. Has anyone ever offered to forgive you for something you don’t think you did? Forgiveness is lovely, of course–it’s one of the more beautiful words in the English language.
But it can sound ugly if your acceptance of it would implicate you in something you refuse to acknowledge ever doing. Suppose I come up to someone and say, “Dan, I would like to forgive you for that completely rude and inappropriate thing you said to me a few months ago after that committee meeting.” Well, if Dan happens to believe he said nothing that was even remotely out of line after that meeting, then his response may well be, “You can keep your lousy forgiveness! I don’t want it because I don’t need it.”
Surrender. Surrendering to God’s offer of forgiveness implicates one in a sin which many people don’t think they have a problem with in the first place. Another lovely word is grace. Few words shine more brightly or are more redolent of a generous spirit. Even the cognate words of grace are all positive: gracious, graceful, gratis, gratitude, Graciás, graced. Who could not like grace? Maybe anyone who refuses to believe that he needs outside help. Maybe anyone who is convinced that human cunning, personal skill and achievement, or just the sum total of a good life well-lived ought to be enough to make the grade with God.
Accepting grace implies helplessness, paralysis, inadequacy. Many people have a hard time admitting they need Prozac to hold depression at bay or that they need food stamps and some welfare to help make ends meet. Shame often attends those who are on the dole, who are dependent instead of independent. That’s true even when the assistance being granted through medication or some government program is restricted to just one area of life. Embracing grace, however, says something about the whole sweep of your existence. And for some that’s just too big a load of shame, disgrace, and dependence to accept.
The most striking verse in Matthew 10 may well be verse 36 where Jesus predicts great strife within families. The verse there seems to be a quote from Micah 7:6 and is usually flagged as such in footnotes. But if this is an allusion by Jesus to Micah, then it is doubly surprising. Because in Micah these words occur in the midst of a lament over Israel’s sorry state of affairs. Micah warns the people that things have slipped so far in Israelite society that you can’t trust even the lover in your own arms, you can’t trust judges because they are all on the take, you can’t trust the rulers because they’re all out to line their own pockets with ill-gotten gain. This is a lament over a society gone wrong.
But then in Micah 7:7, the prophet ends this litany of doom with these words, “But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.” In other words, in the face of sons dishonoring fathers and daughters rising up against mothers and of a man’s enemies coming chiefly from within his own household, the one hope you can cling to is the coming of God (presumably to make all things right). So how can it be that Jesus—the ultimate arrival of God in our midst—quotes Micah 7:6 and its sad portrait of family squabbles as a state of affairs that will RESULT FROM his ministry and presence? Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what you would expect?
If ever there were a verse that reveals to us one more time that the true coming of God is always surprising and mysterious, this inversion of Micah 7:6 is surely it!
Years ago a man named Millard Fuller was pretty near the apex of an American success story. He was a high-octane corporate executive working eight days a week and pulling down close to a million bucks a year. But then one day he heard God calling to him, telling him his life was overfull and his priorities out of whack. So in prayer with his wife one day, Fuller re-committed his life to Christ. He quit his job, moved to a more modest house, and wondered what to do next. What he ended up doing next was building affordable houses for low-income families who could purchase these homes interest-free. Today we are most of us well aware of the great good Habitat for Humanity has done.
A preacher once re-counted Fuller’s story but was later approached by someone who asked, “How old were Fuller’s children when he quit his job like that?” It took this preacher a minute to appreciate what lay behind this query: how dare Fuller uproot his kids and subject them to a less lavish lifestyle just so that he could serve God?!
That is just the way lots of people think these days. Taking up a cross to follow Jesus is, even economically for some, as unpopular now as ever.
Author: Stan Mast
During Ordinary Time in the church’s calendar, we are encouraged in our walk with the God who has done great things for us. The opening line from Charles Dicken’s masterpiece, A Tale of Two Cities, perfectly summarizes a particularly poignant time in Abraham’s walk with God. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
After years of wandering and wondering, trusting and doubting, brave obedience and cowardly compromise, disappointed laughter and unrecorded tears, Abraham and Sarah came to the moment for which they had been waiting for nearly a century. Here at last it all comes together. And it all falls apart. It was the best of times and it was the worst of times, at the same time.
Many in your congregation will understand this time all too well. Perhaps you do too. This story teaches the essential truth about such times, the truth that will get God’s people through the best and worst times of our lives.
It was the best of times, of course, because Isaac was born. After decades of seeming delay and deep disappointment, God had kept his promise. “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age at the very time God had promised him.” And Sarah who had laughed in disbelief at God’s promise a year earlier now laughed with joyous faith at the fulfillment of that promise. “God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.”
On a deeper level, the birth of Isaac meant that the covenant of grace could continue. With the promised child born, there could now be descendants as numerous as the sands on the shore populating the Promised Land forever. From the line of Isaac would come the Seed who would bless all the nations of the world. All of heaven must have joined the party that Abraham threw on the day Isaac was weaned. It was the best of times. Everyone in heaven and in Abraham’s household was deliriously happy.
Well, not everyone. As the party was going on, Sarah spotted “the son whom Hagar had borne to Abraham” mocking. Fourteen-year-old Ishmael spoiled the party by “Isaacing” it says literally, by laughing at, making fun of, ridiculing Isaac. With that, the best of times turned to the worst. Mother Bear Sarah furiously demanded that Abraham “get rid of that slave and her son.” “That slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
Abraham blew up in return, because, although Ishmael wasn’t Sarah’s son, he was definitely Abraham’s. Sarah saw Ishmael as a rival to Isaac; Abraham saw him as his son, his first-born son. Abraham was distressed by Sarah’s unreasonable demand, but God said, “Don’t be distressed…. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you….” The next thing we hear is that Abraham “early the next morning… sent her off with the boy” into the desert.
The child born of the flesh, the non-chosen son, is excluded from the covenant of grace. Isaac is nestled safe in the bosom of Abraham, while Ishmael is dying of thirst out in the desert. It was the best of times and the worst of times in Abraham’s walk with God.
Abraham’s experience was not unique to him. The Christian faith and our individual lives are full of what G.K. Chesterton called furious opposites. “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites by keeping them both and keeping them furious.” The story of Abraham is filled with such opposites. As interpreted by the New Testament, it teaches us that we are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone. It must lead to a life of obedience.
Further, the behavior of Sarah illustrates with painful clarity the furious opposites in humanity. We, who are created in God’s image, can act like beasts. We can bless and curse in the same breath.
And this story reminds us of perhaps the deepest mystery of all, the furious opposites of election and reprobation, the mystery of a loving God who elects Isaacs and rejects Ishmael, a doctrine so reprehensible to some Christians that they call it “the doctrine born in hell.” The Christian faith is filled with such paradoxes, furious opposites that tax our minds and test our faith.
On a more personal level, our walk with Christ is filled with furious opposites that break our hearts—times when we laugh with Sarah and weep with Hagar, times when life is divided right down the middle of our souls, because in the same moment we have to throw a party and attend a funeral. There are times when we want to praise God and we want to curse God.
Think of a young family that celebrates the birth of a baby, only to discover that she has serious birth defects. Or a young man who in one night wins the game for his team and then has his girlfriend break up with him. Or the woman who is succeeding wildly at work while her family is breaking apart at home. Or at the moment you feel closest to God some disaster makes you wonder if God even exists. Many of us can relate to Annie Lamott. Looking back on the roller coaster of her life, she says that her two favorite prayers are “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” and “Help me, help me, help me!”
When the furious opposites of life come together, it’s like a strong warm front from the Gulf of Mexico colliding with a cold front from the Arctic. The result is a tornado that threatens to blow away everything that isn’t tied down. This story reminds us of the line that anchors us in the storm. From beginning to end, one line runs through this story, one strong cord holding together Abraham’s walk with God in the best and worst of times. “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah, as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.” God is as faithful and true in keeping his promise as he is generous and gracious in making it. Although God may wait and we may waver in our faith because he waits, God is faithful. In Isaac, God keeps his promise of salvation for the world.
Well, that‘s fine when things turn out well, in the best of times. But what about the worst of times, when things don’t turn out? What about Ishmael? He is sent away, excluded from the covenant of grace. He is not elect, as Isaac is. God himself said this—“it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” What are we to make of this? Well, we could speculate about the mysteries of election and reprobation as my Reformed forebears did endlessly, but let’s stick to the story.
The story reminds us, first of all, that Ishmael was not innocent. He mocked Isaac and Sarah. Let that sink in. He mocked the Promised Child. He must have known God’s promise to Abraham; he had heard it for years. He is at the age of reason here, so we can’t say he didn’t know better. But on this occasion of great joy in the fulfillment of the divine promise, he chooses to insult both God and his Word, in the person of his brother.
This is a grievous thing- to ridicule the grace of God, to reject what God in his grace has provided for the salvation of the world. In fact, when God began his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob way back in Ur of the Chaldees, God said in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse.” So, on the one hand, Ishmael got what he deserved for his mockery, exactly what God had threatened for those who scorn and oppose his grace.
But, on the other hand, notice how the promise of God runs through even this terrible time for Ishmael, and actually provides for him. “Do not be distressed about him,” says God. “I will make the son of the handmaid into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” When the boy cries out later in the story, huddled there under a bush, dying of thirst, the Bible says, “God heard the boy crying….” God heard the boy and provided water and a way to live in the desert and a wife from his mother’s home country of Egypt. In the end God made him into a great nation with twelve princes, the beginning of the Arab nations. As he had promised. Even for Ishmael, the promise of God is the anchor in the storm.
Ultimately, it is God’s will that triumphs in this story. God is faithful in keeping his promise to each person. Through all the furious opposites of life, the strong straight line of God’s faithfulness holds us fast and anchors us in the storms of life.
That straight line of God’s redeeming love runs through all of Abraham’s life and Isaac’s and Jacob’s, down through the years to the cross, where the Promised Child brought the blessing of Abraham to the world—to Jews and Greeks and Romans and Arabs, even to us. There at the cross meet all the furious opposites of life and of God—human sin and divine forgiveness, love and wrath, grace and justice, heaven and hell. In the cross the tensions and mysteries of life were reconciled by the redeeming love of God. It was the best of times and the worst of times.
Abraham, of course, did not know the cross. That’s what makes his response to the furious opposites of life so amazing, and so important for us as we walk with God through the terrible mysteries of our lives. God spoke to Abraham in his distress and Abraham responded to God’s word, even God’s hard word, with obedience.
Verse 14 says, “Early the next morning, Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar….” The only thing Abraham could see was his wife and son walking forlornly into the deadly desert. I suspect he watched them through tear dimmed eyes. But God had promised that he would provide for Ishmael, and Abraham walked by faith, not by sight. Thomas Merton said, “We do not first see, then act. We act, then see…. The man who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts the journey.” When a close walk with God is full of mystery and misery, there is only one thing to do. Trust the promise of God and keep going. Walk in the faith that God’s redeeming love shown on the cross will hold us fast.
As I wrote the above comments, I heard two songs in my heart, both by William Cowper: “O for a Closer Walk with God” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Those are two of the best loved old hymns of the church, but Cowper himself experienced little of the grace of which he wrote. Tormented that he had committed the unpardonable sin and hounded by rumors of an illicit affair, he had a nervous breakdown. He attempted suicide several times and spent time straight-jacketed in a mental institution for his own protection. For the last quarter of his life, he avoided church entirely.
What are we to make of such a man? Was he a hypocrite, a fake, perhaps an Ishmael? Or was he a struggling believer caught in the furious opposites of life, who was able to express his faith only in his music. In one of his other hymns, one spurned by many church-goers because of its emphasis on the blood of Christ, we hear his testimony. After beginning with “there is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins,” it sings “redeeming love has been my theme and shall be ‘til I die.”
That redeeming love was the theme of Abraham’s life, the straight strong line that ran through the best and worst of times.
Psalm 69:7-10, (11-15), 16-18
Author: Scott Hoezee
If this were a typical year, an ordinary summer season, probably not too many preachers would gravitate to the somewhat plaintive, somewhat brooding 69th Psalm. In the Year A Lectionary for this particular year, this also falls on Father’s Day for those who observe this. It’s getting to be summer, vacation season, a time for sweet corn, strawberries and BBQ picnics. In a typical year, Psalm 69 would not be most people’s first choice.
But to state the merely obvious: 2020 is not a typical year and this is not an ordinary summer season (even if in the church we are in the Season of Ordinary Time). We are more in a Season of Extraordinary Time, a combination of an abiding pandemic of COVID-19 and a time of great civil unrest due to several racist killings this Spring, the most famous of which was the on-camera death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Thus, in the year we actually have and not the typical year we might wish we were having, maybe Psalm 69 strikes a chord after all. Maybe this would be a good preaching text for June 21, 2020. Maybe the plaintive notes of distress here capture what a lot of people are feeling. Some feel trapped by racism, surrounded by the enemies of an unjust system, of cops gone bad, of even whole systems of healthcare delivery and access to resources that feel stacked against them. There are most assuredly more ways than one to feel surrounded by foes the way this psalmist clearly felt.
Others of us may feel trapped in systems of privilege we don’t want but that we know contribute to the suffering of our sisters and brothers of other ethnic groups or skin colors or races. We are wounded by comments on social media that only confirm the worst stereotypes of, say, white people, and when we participate in marches or protests or do other things to agitate for a change we passionately believe in, we are made sport of by some (sometimes maybe even by fellow family members or coworkers or former friends). It seems like for the poet of Psalm 69, the more pious he tried to be to atone for sin and beg God for change, the more some people poked fun of him.
Oh yes, Psalm 69 may speak to this moment. Perhaps it will be the wise preachers—but also the bold and the brave preachers in some places—who will proclaim how both this Psalm’s message of lament and fatigue fits our present moment but also how its call for justice to rain down from God fits this moment. As usual the Revised Common Lectionary stops up short on this reading before we get to the less pleasant parts about wishing various forms of calamity to fall upon the psalmist’s enemies.
And, of course, as people who now follow the Prince of Peace in the Person of Jesus Christ the crucified, we cannot wish for destruction of our enemies but rather for their forgiveness—by us and by God. This psalm reading pairs with a reading from Matthew 10 and as this week’s sermon starter on that passage reminds us, disciples of Jesus may expect trouble in the world and scorn and persecution but that is no reason to abandon the Gospel’s core message of love, grace, and forgiveness. We cannot witness to a Gospel whose very ethos we obscure in how we behave in our own lives.
Still, we can cry for and call for justice. We can expect God to do the right things in the long run, including on those fronts that right now have us sore distressed racially and in terms of other social disparities that the COVID-19 epidemic have laid even more bare than they were before. It’s not just that we want to be personally delivered—and many Psalms of Lament sometimes give off such individualistic pleas for deliverance—but we want also systemic change, societal change, and yes, let’s confess it: we need reform in also the community of God’s people that just is the Church.
In fact, that would be the place to begin our reflections on Psalm 69: with the fact that we have those who seem to oppose the Gospel not just “out there” in the big bad world but “in here” within the fellowship of believers where too often we also participate in and contribute to patterns of privilege that only perpetuate wider abuses against people whom we are supposed to regard as our sisters and brothers in Christ. And maybe this fits with Psalm 69 too: after all, from the looks of things, the people who most mocked this poet’s attempts at piety were fellow Israelites, fellow citizens of Jerusalem perhaps who sat at the city gate, drinking and mocking all day long.
At any given moment in the history of God’s people, we have all had work to do to follow God’s ways, to avoid the ways walked by the mockers and the revilers. We all need divine deliverance for our own sinfulness but we also need to ask God to look down on this world and bring the justice and—through that—to bring the shalom for which God designed life in the first place.
Psalm 69 may not feel terribly rosy at first glance. It might seem like a bad fit for summer or Father’s Day or . . . whatever. But it fits quite well. May we find the courage to proclaim both its message of condemnation for those who mock and its message of salvation for those who hope.
Sixteen times across the better part of 10 sickening minutes George Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe.” Not surprisingly, his cry became the rallying cry of the protests against police brutality and a racist system just generally. More, it became a metaphor for how many people of color feel all the time. “We can’t breathe.” The boot of the oppressor remains on the necks of too many people.
The Lectionary begins its reading of Psalm 69 at verse 7 for some reason. But I would like to suggest that it is the opening few verses that capture something that needs naming in this moment: for too many people, they can’t breathe. They feel like the poet of Psalm 69:
1 Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
3 I am worn out calling for help;
my throat is parched.
We can’t breathe. Save us, O God.
Author: Doug Bratt
Baptisms are usually joyful occasions. In the church I pastor we gather children to a place where they can watch what’s happening. Most of us end up smiling before the baptism’s all done. However, as a colleague has noted, if we really understood what’s happening when we baptize people, we might be more sober about it.
Some people think of baptism much like they think of having a photographer take their baby’s six-month portrait. Baptism is, for some, just one of those rituals good parents perform for their children when they’re babies.
On the other hand, some have always thought of baptism as a kind of magic. They assume that it somehow automatically gives those who are baptized a ticket to heaven. Some fear that if their baby dies before baptism, he or she will be lost.
So, for example, my grandfather rushed my father to the baptismal font on very the first Sunday of his life. My grandma couldn’t even join them because she was still recovering from giving birth.
Christians profess that baptism has no magical powers to guarantee anyone’s entrance into heaven. We don’t view Jesus’ followers who die before being baptized as somehow forever lost. Baptism, after all, symbolizes something that’s true from the moment of a Christian’s child’s conception: Christians’ children are holy to God.
Most of God’s adopted children believe that baptism is more than a ritual but also less than a magical ticket to heaven. Basically, we profess that in baptism God comes to the church with both a reminder and an assurance.
When, after all, Paul mentions baptism in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, he doesn’t speak of either a hollow ritual or magical power. In fact, he basically seems to mention it to remind and assure his readers of our riches in Christ Jesus.
Baptism reminds God’s dearly beloved people that Christ has completely washed our sins away with his precious blood. In baptism God reminds and assures us that Christ’s blood is even more effective at washing away sins than soap and water is at washing away COVID-19 particles.
So, for instance, in I Corinthians 1:12-13 Paul points a divided church to its baptism. “How can you possibly claim that you belong to Paul or to Apollos or to Peter?” he rhetorically asks the Corinthians. When we were baptized, after all, the apostle insists, we were permanently identified with Jesus Christ.
As a result, the apostle basically insists, those whom the church has baptized must not return to our pre-baptismal ways. We must live as those in whom Christ’s Spirit lives to make us more and more like Jesus Christ.
Yet those who proclaim Romans 6 might want explore how the racism and racial injustice that led to the deaths of our African-American neighbors belies this claim. Regardless of the color of their skin, when our neighbors are baptized, they’re identified with Jesus Christ and, as a result, with us. The kind of individual and systemic racism that plagues so much of North American culture contradicts the Christ-likeness that God longs to produce in God’s adopted children.
Christians also profess that baptism points us to and reminds us of both the reality of our sinful nature and Christ’s finished work on our behalf. It reminds us that we can’t somehow scrub away our own sins like racism. Our baptism reminds us that only Christ’s blood and Holy Spirit can wash away our sins.
So as a colleague has noted, though we sometimes link the words “remember and believe” only to the Lord’s Supper, they also apply to the sacrament of baptism. When we baptize people, we incorporate them into Christ’s body. However, the sacraments also vividly remind us of what Christ has graciously done for us.
So every time the church baptizes someone, God’s dearly beloved people remember and believe that Jesus Christ lived, died and rose again. Each baptism reminds us that we are people whom God has made dead to sin and alive to himself in Christ. So each baptism also challenges us to live up to our high calling as those for who Christ died and in whom his Spirit now lives.
Yet in Romans 6 Paul also strongly implies that baptism doesn’t just point Christ’s followers to what Christ has done. In fact, the apostle seems to suggest that baptism somehow changes those whom the church baptizes. Paul, after all, suggests that our baptism is really about a kind of drowning and death.
Those, whom the church baptizes, Paul says, are baptized into “Christ’s death.” While we’re not sure what that exactly means, we can at least say it means that God frees those whom the Church baptizes from slavery to Satan, sin and death. God somehow uses baptism’s waters to loosen the grip our sinful nature has on those being baptized.
Of course, the baptismal water itself doesn’t free that baptized person. Nor does the baptizer change him or her. It’s God’s Holy Spirit, working in that baptized person, putting to death his or her sinful nature.
Those whom the church baptizes still commit sins. However, Christ’s Spirit also gives baptized people the power to resist temptation. So as one theologian notes, baptism, in a way, somehow de-claws sin’s fierce power.
The Christ into whom we baptize people is also, however, the risen Christ. So the Spirit who breaks sin’s iron grip on us also raises the baptized person to new life. After all, just as God raised Jesus from the death, God also raises the baptized person so that he or she may too live a life of a faithful reception of God’s amazing grace.
However, we sometimes assume that we must remember our baptism in order for it to affect us. Yet what if we saw baptized Christians’ profession of God’s saving work in their lives as the reception of what God already did at their baptism? What if baptized believers’ growing faith and obedience is a sign of their death to sin and resurrection to a new life that God affected at their baptism?
Even though we may not remember our baptism, we can celebrate the affect it’s had on us, by God’s grace. God’s beloved people can celebrate the faithful obedience that has, through the power of the Holy Spirit, somehow grown out of it.
Of course, this raises some painful questions about people whom the church baptized but have now abandoned the church and Christian living. Those questions prompt not easy answers, but, instead, perhaps, both a challenge and a promise.
The church’s challenge is to persistently point people who have been baptized to the promises embedded in their baptism. When we baptize people, the church promises to do everything we can to help them accept the promises God made to them in it. After all, while God has done everything necessary for our salvation, baptized people also need to faithfully receive that finished work.
So God’s adopted children constantly pray that those whom we baptize will faithfully and persistently recognize God as their God and themselves as God’s children. To that end, Christians receive baptized people in love, help to instruct them in the faith and include them in our fellowship.
Yet we also know that some people respond to their baptism, as well as our love, support and prayer and sometimes even Christian education by turning their backs on the Lord. Virtually nothing grieves Christians more than this awful rejection.
Yet baptism keeps hope alive for spiritually wandering loved ones. A dear colleague likes to say that when we baptize someone, it’s as though God attaches one end of a bungee cord to that person and the other to the baptismal font. So while people may wander far from that font, the Spirit serves as a kind of bungee cord that keeps drawing them back. As long as they live, after all, God makes the power of God’s amazing grace available to those whom the church has baptized.
So those whom baptized people have wounded by their faithlessness can cling to their baptism as a reason for hope. Peoples’ baptism is no magic guarantee of their salvation. And of course their sin matters to them, God and us.
Yet Paul strongly suggests that something happened in and to them when even eventual spiritual wanderers were baptized. God’s Holy Spirit planted a seed that God persistently waters, fertilizes and cultivate so that it flowered into a new life of faithful obedience.
So, as one scholar notes, when Spirit turns a baptized person’s life back toward God, we shouldn’t be stunned. If before they die those whom we’ve baptized finally find they’re moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, we shouldn’t be shocked. If they finally find that Spirit’s movement sweeping away their resistance to God, we shouldn’t be startled.
After all, the love of the Christ whom we meet at the baptismal font is unconditional. The power of the Spirit who moves into those who are baptized is great. And the grace that collects those whom God has chosen is, through the work of Christ and his Spirit, irresistible.
Harry Ashfield is the main character of Flannery O’Connor’s, “The River.” This young boy who calls himself Bevel grows up in what a largely loveless home. His abusive parents spend most of their time either drinking or recovering from their drinking. Virtually everything they say to Harry is either a sarcastic joke or cutting criticism.
One day, Mrs. Connin, Harry’s religious babysitter, takes him to the river where the unpretentious but charismatic Rev. Summers is baptizing people. Mrs. Connin convinces Summers to baptize Harry, whom they both mistakenly call Bevel.
After baptizing Harry, the preacher tells Harry that he now “counts,” that he’s finally someone. Harry, whom O’Connor calls Bevel throughout the rest of the story, leaves the riverside feeling for the very first time that he now somehow matters.
Yet his baptism leaves Bevel feeling unfulfilled. While the preacher had promised him that he’d enter the Kingdom of Christ when he baptized him, Bevel doesn’t feel like he’s entered anything yet. He, after all, must still enter his loveless home.
So the day after he’s baptized, Bevel returns to the river committed to finally entering this Kingdom of Christ. When, however, he tries to baptize himself by plunging under the water, he can’t stay submerged. Bevel just keeps bobbing back up to the surface.
He decides this whole baptism thing is merely another cruel joke, just like the ones his parents so often told or played on him. So in anger, Bevel kicks out at the river … and loses his footing.
The river’s current, says O’Connor, catches him “like a long gentle hand” and pulls him “quickly forward and down.” “For an instant,” O’Connor adds, Bevel “was overcome with surprise; then, since he was moving quickly and knew that he was getting somewhere, all his fury and fear left him.”