Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Sermon: The Politics of Baptism (4 Pentecost/ 24 June 2007)

4 Pentecost: 24 June 2007
(1 Kings 19:1-15a/Psalm 42/Galatians 3:23-29/Luke 8:26-39)
The Politics of Baptism

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

In a bit over a week our country will celebrate the 231st anniversary of its independence. On this July 4th we are engaged in war in Iraq and Afghanistan – a war lacking a definition of victory and a strategy for exit. Governmental approval ratings are amongst the lowest ever; we have lost confidence in our elected leaders from both parties. The majority of citizens recently polled are convinced that America is headed in the wrong direction, though I doubt that same majority could agree on what the right direction would be. Still, on July 4th there will be flags and bunting, parades and picnics, fireworks and the National Anthem, and speeches – many speeches. And for a time – albeit brief – we will feel better about ourselves, about this enterprise of freedom and democracy. Though we fail to reach it, the American ideal still beckons, and many – not least those against whom we erect fences both concrete and political – strain toward it, long for it as did our ancestors.

In some churches next Sunday the American flag will lead the cross in the processional and dominate the sanctuaries. The National Anthem and God Bless America will be interspersed with The Old Rugged Cross and To God Be the Glory. The Pledge of Allegiance will supplement or supplant the Creed. The blood of fallen soldiers will be mingled with the blood of the Lamb. In a paroxysm of patriotism the dividing wall between Church and State will be leveled. Religious language will be co-opted for patriotic purposes: America will become the light of the world, the city on a hill, the New Jerusalem. Go into all the world making disciples will become go into all the world spreading democracy. Independence Day will eclipse Easter in its power to thrill and motivate and identify a people.

On Independence Day there are no Democrats or Republicans, no Conservatives or Liberals, no Hawks or Doves; all are one, all are Americans. Such is the power of a national celebration to unify a people. Independence Day not only celebrates the political act of our forebears, it is a political act – as much, or perhaps more so, than voting. The most basic meaning of polis, the Greek root of politics, is city or town. But it connotes much more: the building of a city, the formation of a people to inhabit the city, and the governance of that people. Politics is the creation of a distinctive people: calling them, forming them, uniting them, and governing them. So, on Independence Day we call our people together – the 4th of July is a collective celebration with events designed to appeal to groups of people. We tell the distinctive American story and extol the formative values of our country as expressed in our founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. We display our national symbols and offer all citizens ample opportunities to pledge their allegiance to our flag, a unifying act reminding us that we are one nation under God. We listen as our elected officials assure us of the superiority of our government and our way of life, assure us that all people everywhere aspire to them. Political activities all, for politics is the creation of a distinctive people: calling them, forming them, uniting them, and governing them. And that’s why it’s impossible to separate faith and politics – at least impossible to separate the Christian faith and politics. The story we tell, the story we live, is inescapably political, for it too is about the creation of a distinctive people: calling them, forming them, uniting them, and governing them.

Our national government currently is divided over an immigration bill, a political issue in every sense of the word. It’s all about who gets to be counted among our people, about who gets the benefits of citizenship. Those blessed to be “in” through accident of birth debate membership requirements. Who’s more useful, someone to pick our vegetables, slaughter our chickens, and do our day labor, or someone with a college degree – a doctor or a computer engineer? Is reuniting families important or is utilitarian value the sole criterion? What about those illegal aliens – let’s not humanize them by calling them neighbors and friends – those illegal aliens already among us? Do we deport them? Do we give them amnesty? Do we create for them a hopelessly complex legal path to citizenship? Those of us who were never on the outside looking in get to decide these issues, those of us who received citizenship as a gift from our parents, those of us who never were aliens. Such is American politics.

But it’s not God’s politics. No one is among God’s people by accident of birth. No one receives citizenship as a parental gift. All of us who are now citizens were once aliens – illegal aliens – for we had broken God’s law. We were insurgents in rebellion against him. We were, by human standards, of no value at all, with no hope of inclusion among God’s people.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be (1 Cor 6:9-11a, NRSV).

Paul actually understates the case, here, when he says “some of you.” All of you. All of you, it should be, for every person apart from God is an idolater, every person worships some god, even if it’s the god of the atheists.

How from this mass of illegal aliens did God ever form a people?

And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11, NRSV).

Some cross the Rio Grande, some cross the Atlantic, some cross the Pacific to become citizens of the United States. But all of us, without exception, cross through the waters of baptism to become citizens of the household of God. And in those waters we are washed – we cease to be among the great unwashed masses of humanity. In those waters we are sanctified – made holy and set aside for sacred use. In those waters we are justified – declared by God to be in the right before God, declared to be among his people. All in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. All through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Through the gospel of Christ God calls a people. Through baptism he forms them and unites them.

For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV).

Whatever else baptism is – and it is always more than we can say at any given moment – it is initiation into the distinctive people of God, naturalization – or, more appropriately, “super-naturalization,” since it is an act of God. Baptism is always political because it is always about forming a people for God. The old distinctions that used to matter – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female – are subsumed by the only distinctive that now matters, being one new people, those in Christ Jesus. This makes baptism a profoundly political and profoundly subversive act, so much so that if our government ever really got the implications of Christian baptism we might all be taken dripping wet directly from the font and thrown into solitary confinement in Guantanamo. I’m not really trying to be dramatic. Rome got it and they exiled the baptized, or crucified them, or immolated them, or otherwise eliminated them as troublers of the empire. The Communist Russia of recent past – no different. China, Indonesia – they get it and they persecute the baptized who will not compromise the gospel of Christ. We like to think that couldn’t happen here, that America is different, that it is a Christian nation, for God’s sake. But it’s not, it never has been, and it never can be. The evangelical moral majority who were, or are, on a quest to win back America for God are simply deluded. America never was God’s and so can’t be won back for him or to him. God has no country. God has a people – all those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus and unified in the one Spirit.

This new Christian political reality challenges all other political realities; that’s what makes it subversive and threatening to the status quo. It’s an issue of loyalty, really. Is our allegiance to the flag or to our Lord Jesus Christ, to the Constitution or to Scripture? And if we don’t see the inherent conflicts it may be because we have closed our eyes.

The United States has the right to secure and protect its borders, to keep out the undesirable aliens. I wonder, are there borders in the kingdom of God – fences and patrols?

The United States has the right to defend itself from aggression, from all enemies foreign and domestic. I wonder, is the sword drawn in the kingdom of God, is the Prince of Peace served by acts of war?

The United States has the right to enact and enforce law. I wonder, are the laws of the land always compatible with the will of God?

We could go on but it would belabor the point. Baptism is a profoundly political act because it forms the distinctive people of God in Christ Jesus. Baptism is a profoundly subversive act because it creates a new set of loyalties that challenge the status quo. What a scandal Jesus presented on that day when

his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:31-35, NRSV).

What a scandal Paul presented when he insisted that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; all are welcomed around the same table.

What a scandal we will present when we say, “Come Sunni, come Shiite. Come Hutu, come Tootsie. Come white Afrikaner, come black South African. Come Hindu, come Muslim. Come Republican, come Democrat. Come liberal, come conservative. Come citizen, come illegal alien. Come death row inmate, come innocent victim. Come to the water of baptism. Come to Christ. Come to the one, holy people of God – a kingdom of priests from every tribe and tongue and nation. Reject the old politics of race and religion and nationality and division and embrace the new politics of God. Relinquish the old loyalties of flag and family and embrace the new loyalties of cross and church.”

William Willimon tells this story.

Last fall we had a panel discussion on “Homosexuality and the Church.” (Who told us to call people “homosexual”? A nineteenth-century Viennese psychotherapist who wrote a book arguing that there were males, females, and a third sex, homosexuals. What on earth are we talking about when we talk this way? Why should the church be interested in such labeling of people?) After the discussion, a young man came up to me saying that he was “a baptized Episcopalian” and “none of you have a right to tell me who I am. I define myself.”
I noted that if this first declaration were true (“I am a baptized Episcopalian”) his second was false. In baptizing this young man the church was quite clear, or at least should have been clear (false advertising is so wrong), that we were telling him who he was, namely a cherished child of God who was washed, gifted, chosen, called, and named

Whatever else Willimon intends by this story, it must mean that nothing is more constituative of our identity than baptism. Sexuality, gender, race, nationality: all subverted by and subsumed under baptism. If we primarily define ourselves by anything other than our baptism, we have forgotten who we are. It is our baptism that defines us, and not we ourselves. Our identity is baptismal identity. Our loyalties are baptismal loyalties. Our politics are baptismal politics.

Somewhere along the way – and you can blame Augustine or the Protestant Reformers or modern evangelicals, we are all complicit – the church lost the political nature of baptism. It became a private transaction between God and the individual and not a matter of calling and forming a distinctive people. But once when people came to the water, once they were required to relinquish old loyalties and accept the new political realities of the people of God. Once, in the 3rd-century, the politics of baptism were clear. Once the presbyter Hippolytus could write:

2If someone is a pimp who supports prostitutes, he shall cease or shall be rejected. 3If someone is a sculptor or a painter, let them be taught not to make idols. Either let them cease or let them be rejected. 4If someone is an actor or does shows in the theater, either he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 5If someone teaches children (worldly knowledge), it is good that he cease. But if he has no (other) trade, let him be permitted. 6A charioteer, likewise, or one who takes part in the games, or one who goes to the games, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 7If someone is a gladiator, or one who teaches those among the gladiators how to fight, or a hunter who is in the wild beast shows in the arena, or a public official who is concerned with gladiator shows, either he shall cease, or he shall be rejected. 8If someone is a priest of idols, or an attendant of idols, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 9A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. 10If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. 11The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God. 12The prostitute, the wanton man, the one who castrates himself, or one who does that which may not be mentioned, are to be rejected, for they are impure. 13A magus shall not even be brought forward for consideration. 14An enchanter, or astrologer, or diviner, or interpreter of dreams, or a charlatan, or one who makes amulets, either they shall cease or they shall be rejected. 15If someone's concubine is a slave, as long as she has raised her children and has clung only to him, let her hear. Otherwise, she shall be rejected. 16The man who has a concubine must cease and take a wife according to the law. If he will not, he shall be rejected.[2]

Hippolytus knew – following Jesus and Paul – that human existence is inherently political, that we are always being formed into a people, always developing and exercising loyalties. The only question is, Which politics will govern? We find the answer in the waters of baptism.


[1] William Willimon, Peculiar Speech (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992) p. 7.
[2] Hippolytus, The Apostolic Tradition, 16:2-16.

No comments: