Friday, July 24, 2009

Sermon: 8 Pentecost (26 July 2009)

Sermon: 8 Pentecost (26 July 2009)
(2 Samuel 11:1-15/Psalm 14/Ephesians 3:14-21/John 6:1-21)
Being-In and In-Being

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be His Kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

John Wesley, the father of Methodism, once remarked that if he were not run out of town after preaching, he reckoned it was not the gospel he had preached. He believed – and his life bore ample witness – that the gospel of Jesus Christ is so scandalous, so offensive, that a straightforward proclamation of it will almost certainly provoke hostility and persecution.

Saint Paul writes the letter to the churches in western Asia Minor – the letter we call Ephesians – while imprisoned in Rome, ca. 61-63. For a quarter of a century since his dramatic conversion Paul has proclaimed the gospel and for a quarter of a century he has suffered hostility and persecution: pursuit from town to town, arrest, beatings with rods and whips, stoning, and now imprisonment – all for the sake of the scandalous, offensive good news of Jesus Christ. To the Jews who await a mighty savior, a liberator, Paul proclaims Jesus as Messiah – Jesus the suffering servant, crucified, dead, and buried. To the Sadducees who put all their hope in this world, this life, and dismiss hope for any other, Paul proclaims Jesus risen the third day, Jesus trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. To the Romans who hail Caesar as their god and Rome as the empire of their god, Paul proclaims Jesus as the one true Lord of lords and King of kings, the true Lord who has begun his reign in the Kingdom of God – the true Lord before whom every knee must bow and whose name every tongue must confess. Scandal and offense, and yet Paul attributes his current imprisonment not to these offenses, but to another aspect of the gospel, to the mystery of the gospel unique to his calling and mission.

1 For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles— 2 if indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you, 3 how that by revelation He made known to me the mystery (as I have briefly written already, 4 by which, when you read, you may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ), 5 which in other ages was not made known to the sons of men, as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets: 6 that the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ through the gospel (Eph 3:1-6, NKJV).

The great offense for which God appointed Paul herald, the great scandal for which Paul now finds himself imprisoned is this: the Gentiles have now become fellow-heirs with Israel, members of the same body, sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. This proclamation has provoked the indignation of Israel – of scribe, Pharisee, and Sadducee alike – and the violent response of Rome’s minor functionaries and has landed Paul in a Roman prison awaiting trial before Caesar himself. And so Paul reckons – in light of “being run out of town,” in light of all his suffering – that it must be the gospel – the offensive, scandalous gospel – that he has preached, and in that he glories. “I pray therefore that you may not lose heart over my sufferings for you,” Paul writes from his confinement; “they are your glory” (Eph 3:13). Paul’s sufferings bear witness to his faithfulness to God’s calling and to the truth of his proclamation.

For this reason – for the good news that the Gentiles are fellow-heirs with Israel through faith in Jesus Christ – for this reason I am in prison, Paul writes. And for this reason, “I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from whom the whole family in heaven and on earth is named,” (Eph 3:14-15, NKJV) – the whole family, for there is only one family in Christ: one body and one Spirit, one hope and calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all (cf Eph 4:3-6). Yes, Paul is in prison for the sake of this good news. The Jews, before whom he would not bow, are convinced that he effectively has been silenced by his imprisonment. The Romans, before whom he would not bow, believe he effectively has been quarantined by his imprisonment. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, before whom Paul does bow, is not silenced, is not quarantined. This God to whom Paul bows his knees is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or imagine according to the power that works in us (cf Eph 3:20), the power which raised Jesus from the dead and which will also raise us with him. Does this bowing of the knees, this prayer of a Roman prisoner really matter? Some three decades later another Roman prisoner, Saint John the Theologian, exiled on Patmos is caught up in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day as he bows the knees; he is caught up in the Spirit and granted a vision of heaven; he who prays is granted a vision of prayer.

1 When He [the Lamb of God] opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour. 2 And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. 3 Then another angel, having a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. 4 And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God from the angel’s hand. 5 Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth. And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake.6 So the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to sound (Rev 8:1-6, NKJV).

The prayers of the saints are never exiled, never imprisoned. They ascend before God who stills all of heaven to listen. They ascend before God in great clouds of sweet smelling incense. They ascend before God not feeble and alone, but powerfully united with the prayers of all the saints, all the Church. They ascend before God where they are answered and returned to earth with God’s earth-shaking power, with noise and thunder and lightning and earthquake. Beware scribe and Pharisee and Sadducee. Tremble Caesar and all the powers of Rome. A prisoner is praying. When Paul bows his knees he transcends all limitations of circumstance and space and time, and boldly approaches the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ through the way Christ himself has opened. When Paul prays he contends against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (cf Eph 6:12). So, too, when you pray, when the Church prays to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine.

What is Paul’s prayer? He prays above all that the Gentiles’ new status of life will be reflected in and matched by a new reality of life; that they will not only be in the family of God through Jesus, but that the family of God through Jesus will be in them.

Once, many came to John the Baptizer to confess their sins and to be baptized in the Jordan – all Jews, all in the family of God.

7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (Mt 3:7-10, NKJV).

Being in Abraham was not enough; Abraham was not in them. They did not bear the fruit of faith and righteousness that Abraham had borne. The reality of life did not match the status and thus baptism would avail them nothing.

A certain man had two sons.

12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. 13 And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living. 14 But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. 15 Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything (Luke 15:12-16, NKJV).

This young man was still his father’s beloved son, still a member of the family. But, being in the family availed him nothing because the family was not in him. The reality of his life did not match the status of his life.

Parables abound. A king compelled the poor and the maimed, the lame and the blind to attend the wedding banquet of his son – gave them the status of honored guests, but cast out the one who refused to don the wedding garment. Ten virgins took lamps and went to meet the bridegroom; they were in the wedding party. Five had ample oil; five did not. Five lamps burned brightly; five guttered out. Five virgins escorted the bridegroom into the wedding; five did not.

Being chosen to be in God’s family, in God’s life, is an inestimable blessing; Paul cannot emphasize this enough to the Gentiles. Yet, unless the reality of in-being matches the status of being-in, one is an unrepentant son of Abraham, a prodigal son, an underdressed wedding guest, a wedding attendant left outside in the dark. As wondrous as it is to be in Christ, Christ must also be in us for reality to match status.

There are questions which haunt all those Christians who are even remotely awake and aware. Why does the church seemingly make so little difference in the world – so little difference that Europe is now increasingly described as post-Christian? Why are so many individual Christians seemingly indistinguishable from their pagan neighbors? Why am I no better than I am? Part of the answer – just part, but an important part – lies in these parables of Jesus and in the prayer of Paul: we have contented ourselves with status and have neglected reality; we have gloried in being in Christ without pressing onward until Christ is in us. This state is the sad result of an errant theology that equates salvation with status only and not with reality, with one-time event only and not with life-long process. It is marvelous to say, “We have confessed Christ; we have been baptized; we have received the status ‘in-Christ’.” But it is not enough unless we can also say, “We are confessing Christ; we are living the baptismal life; we are receiving the reality of ‘Christ-in-us’.” It is not enough to say “I have been saved;” we must also say, “I am being saved.”

And so Paul bows his knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ and prays for these Gentile Christians that the reality of their lives might match their new status; that as they are in Christ, Christ might also be in them. He prays that the Spirit may dwell in the depths of their being – in the inner man. He prays that Christ may dwell in their hearts through faith. He prays that they may be filled with all the fullness of God.

14 For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, 16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man, 17 that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height— 19 to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph 3:14-19, NKJV).

Paul prays beyond status to reality, beyond designation to transformation. The beginning of our salvation is to be declared “in-Christ” by the grace of God; the end (telos) – the goal of our salvation – is to be filled with all the fullness of God, to be transformed into the likeness of Christ Jesus, and truly to be partakers of the divine nature.

The Father in us names us as His own. The Spirit in us strengthens us for the struggle toward righteousness. Christ in us roots us and grounds us in love, a love which passes knowledge, a love which fills us with the fullness of God. In the power of our God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – we are to work diligently to make reality match status. Not Paul only, but Peter also teaches this.

5 But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, 6 to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, 7 to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. 8 For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins. 10 Therefore, brethren, be even more diligent to make your call and election sure, for if you do these things you will never stumble; 11 for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:5-11, NKJV).

Without these hard-won virtues and disciplines – gained through full immersion in the life of the Church – we are Christians in name and status, but we have not made the name and status established reality.

Following Paul’s prayer, his appeal to God on behalf of the Gentiles, Paul appeals to the Gentiles on behalf of God.

1 I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called (Eph 4:1, NKJV).

Walk worthy of your calling. Live the reality of your status. This is Paul’s appeal to the Gentiles. This is God’s appeal, through Paul, to us.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

Sermon: 7 Pentecost 2009

Sermon: 7 Pentecost (19 July 2009)
(2 Sam 7:1-14a/Ps 89:20-37/Eph 1:3-14, 2:11-22/Mark 6:30-34, 53-56)
Being “In”

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

Being “in” makes all the difference. We are in America, not in Iraq or Iran or North Korea or Haiti, and that simple geographical fact has immense religious, political, and economic implications. While I am often ambivalent about our government and its policies, I am never ambivalent about being in the United States; it is blessing upon blessing. As in local real estate, so too with geopolitical: it’s location, location, location that truly matters.

Being “in” makes all the difference: in this family – my family – and not some other. Mine is an unspectacular genealogy: Appalachian sharecroppers, a moonshiner or two, railroad men, and flint-hard women who worked harder than any of them. Unspectacular, perhaps, but their lives and choices and stories have formed me – for better and for worse – and I would not trade being in this family, and its present incarnation in my wife and daughter, for being in any other. And I suspect that most of those other families feel the same.

Being “in” makes all the difference: in this school, in this profession, in this state of health or stage of life. We can multiply examples almost without number, but it is clear enough isn’t it? Being “in” makes all the difference.

Being “in” is often more a matter of being chosen than of choosing. Somewhere and somewhen along the way my ancestors made their way to a new land called America. Perhaps they were driven out of their native land by religious persecution, or famine, or for being horse thieves. Perhaps they were drawn here by the promise – or at the least the hope – of opportunity and prosperity. I don’t know and it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is this: their relocation chose for me the identity American. I did not choose it; I was chosen to be in America. Being “in” is often more a matter of being chosen than of choosing: “being” at all is that way. Haven’t we all – in the petulant way of American teenagers – hurled in our parents’ faces that most obvious truth: I didn’t ask to be born, you know? Well, of course you didn’t; your birth – your being in the world – was chosen for you by your parents or by human biology or by God. Being in the world, being in this family: these were chosen for you. Your school was chosen for you either by local zoning laws or by concerned parents who paid large sums of money to opt out of those laws. Your profession – not completely, but to some large extent – was chosen for you by a mysterious synergy of aptitude, interest, and opportunity. As a demotivational poster from reminds us: Not everyone gets to be an astronaut when they grow up. You may choose to be an astronaut, but it is not going to happen unless you’ve been chosen by aptitude, interest, and opportunity.

Exactly where being chosen ends and choosing begins in something as complex as a human life is impossible to say. But this is clear: much of our identity – which means much of our lives – is chosen for us. Being in is often more a matter of being chosen than of choosing. Or perhaps it would be better to say it this way: the secondary act of choosing depends on the primary act of being chosen. At the risk of being thought sexist, I offer this example, only half-humorously. A man may choose to propose to a woman, but if she has not already chosen to accept, no marriage will happen. You may argue that the woman chooses to accept the proposal once it’s made, but I won’t be persuaded. I suspect – women being demonstrably much smarter than men in such matters – that a man generally proposes only when a woman has already decided to marry him and has set up the conditions conducive to his proposal. A man chooses a woman only because he has been chosen by the woman to do so. I say this not cynically, but thankfully.

It is true that our lives are determined by being “in” and that being “in” is very often a matter, not first of choosing, but of being chosen.

But what if you are not in? What if you are on the outside, looking in, longing to be in, but not chosen? Life provides many painful examples and reminders: not being chosen for any side during games at recess, or being chosen last every time; not being chosen for cheerleader or chorus or band or a host of other school activities; not being chosen by the “in group” at school and so having to sit at that table during lunch with those bunch of losers – you know what and who I mean; not being chosen to receive admission to the school of your dreams or to receive the scholarship that would make the school a financial possibility; not receiving the job offer you hoped for or maybe any job offer at all; not getting the promotion you so obviously deserved; not getting the girl or the guy – not being chosen, not being in. We all know how it feels to be on the outside looking in because we have not been chosen.

“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe,” wrote Carl Sagan in Cosmos. Likewise, if you want to understand all this talk of being in and being chosen, you must first hear the Story: the Story of God choosing to create the universe from scratch – good and very good; the Story of God choosing to make man – male and female – in his own image and to place man in God’s creation with a vocation to bear that image and to steward that creation; the Story of man choosing to rebel against his Creator, to reject his vocation, and to be in creation on his own terms; the Story of the fall, of the image of God in man disfigured, of man subjected to death, and of all of creation subjected to futility, spiraling downward toward nonbeing. But you must also hear the Story of redemption – of God choosing to be in the world to put that world to rights, to restore his image in man, and to free creation from its bondage. You must hear the Story of Abram – of God choosing one man and creating, through him, one people, one nation, to receive blessing and to be blessing to all people, to all nations. You must hear the Story of that people, Israel – blessed by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with covenant, law, land, word – the Story of Israel chosen by God to be the instrument through whom he would destroy sin and curse and restore righteousness and blessing to all creation, the Story of God’s single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world (N. T. Wright, Justification). And you must hear the Story of Israel’s faithlessness to that plan; of Israel choosing to hoard for itself the covenant, law, land, and word; of Israel reveling in being “in” rather than revealing God to those who were outside.

Our ancestors were those who were outside, those who were not yet chosen, those called the gentiles, the nations, by the one nation chosen by God; those called the uncircumcision by the Jews who counted circumcision as the badge of identity, the physical sign of being in the covenant and purpose of God.

11 Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh—who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands— 12 that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:11-12, NKJV).

There was a wall in the Temple complex to separate our ancestors the gentiles from Israel: this far you may come, but no farther. Trespassers were subject to death. Beyond the wall lie the covenant and the blessings; beyond the wall lie promise and hope; beyond the wall lies God. This physical wall was merely the incarnation of a spiritual wall, the Law – the commandments and ordinances of Moses – that served to mark out the Jews as God’s chosen and to separate them from the nations.

And so, our ancestors found themselves on the outside of the covenants looking in on all that really matters: hope, promise, salvation, life, God – outside due not to the will and plan of God but to the faithlessness of those chosen to bless all the nations of the world, outside and separated by the Law, separated as if by a wall. In the midst of this desperate state of exclusion comes good news, the good news: “But now in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:13, NKJV). Jesus Christ is the end (telos) of the Law with its wall of separation, the end of faithlessness to the ancient covenants. In short, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s plan to use one chosen people – one chosen Person we now see – to bless all nations and to bring all these nations together into one new people: the Body of Christ, the church.

19 Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Eph 2:19-22, NKJV).

For Paul this meant that all the distinctions that used to matter, all the distinctions that kept some in and others out, all the distinctions that separated Jews and gentiles, mattered no longer.

26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:26-29, NKJV).

This was at the heart of Paul’s understanding of the gospel: the creation of one holy people of God in Christ, through the faithfulness of Christ to the covenant – a holy people marked out in the present not by circumcision or by the keeping of the Law, but by faith in Jesus Christ and by the seal of the Holy Spirit.

Much of the New Testament – Acts and the Pauline epistles especially – is focused on this issue of gentile inclusion and the difficulties inherent in it: Peter and Cornelius, Paul’s appointment as apostle to the gentiles, the Jerusalem Council, the conflict between Peter and Paul in Antioch, the Judaizers’ infiltration into the churches in Galatia; stories of conflict abound throughout the apostolic era. But, the church debates over gentile inclusion, which occupied so much of Paul’s thought and energy in the middle of the first century, were largely settled by the end of that century with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D. and the consequent shift in locus of church identity from Jew to gentile and from Hebrew to Greek thought. Do these ancient debates still have anything important to offer us? Are the hard-won truths that emerged from them still important? Yes, in many ways.

First, these truths remind us that our lives are determined by being “in” and that being “in” is very often a matter, not first of choosing, but of being chosen. These truths liberate us from the despair of the outsider on one hand – We are in! – and from the arrogance of entitlement on the other hand – We are in because we have been chosen! These truths remind us never to take our chosenness for granted, but rather, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, to press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (cf Phil 3:13-14). Being in is not static; it is dynamic, ever moving either inward toward the center or outward toward the periphery.

Second, these truths remind us of the unimaginable, eternal blessings of being chosen to be in, blessings predestined/planned for us – Jew and gentile alike – from before the foundations of the world, blessings initiated solely by the will of God. (As you hear, or read, Paul’s introductory doxology in his letter to the Ephesians, note the initiative of God – He chooses and we respond – and the blessings that accrue to us, the chosen.)

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, 4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, 5 having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, 6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He made us accepted in the Beloved. 7 In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace 8 which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence, 9 having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself, 10 that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth—in Him. 11 In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, 12 that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory. 13 In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory (Eph 1:3-14, NKJV).

We have been accepted, redeemed, forgiven, adopted, sealed by the Holy Spirit, blessed now with all spiritual blessings, guaranteed a future inheritance, called to holiness – and all because God has chosen us to be in.

Third, these truths remind us that many are still on the outside looking in; though they have been chosen by God, they have not yet responded to his initiative. Some have not heard the good news of their chosenness. Some have heard, but the love of the world or the things of the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of this life (cf 1 John 2:15-16) – keep them chained and bound on the outside, subject to the ruler of this present dark age. Some have heard and have embraced their chosenness only to reject it later in the face of hardship or persecution (cf Mt 13:18-23). These truths remind us to proclaim the good news – in season and out of season – to convince, rebuke, exhort (2 Tim 4:2), to pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory may give to all the spirit of wisdom and of revelation that they may perceive the hope of his calling, the riches of His inheritance in the saints, and the exceeding greatness of His power toward those who believe in Christ Jesus (cf Eph 1:15-23).

Being in, being chosen makes all the difference. To the One who chose us, to the One who made us one with all the saints, to the One who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or imagine, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (cf Eph 3:20-21).

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sermon: 5 Pentecost (5 July 2009)

Sermon: 5 Pentecost (5 July 2009)
(Isaiah 12/Psalm 1/Romans 6:1-11/John 4:1-26)
Coming Naked To The Water

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

On rare occasions –generally when events in the life of the congregation or the world prompt me – I depart from the lectionary. This is one such occasion. In their confirmation class, our young people have recently been challenged to explore more deeply the meaning of their baptism. That, in conjunction with a book on the Rwandan genocide that I recently finished
reading, led me into deeper reflection on the meaning of baptism in the life of
the church. What follows are some reflections – as in a mirror – on Christian baptism.


I would like to tell you something of my baptism. After the fashion of the Christian Church in which I was raised, my baptism was a simple ceremony. One Sunday morning I joined the minister in the baptistery – filled with very cold water as I still recall. He asked me to repeat after him the confession “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God” – not unlike the earliest confession/creed of the church, Jesus is Lord – and I responded. He looked at me – whether he called me by name I do not now remember – and he invoked over me the ancient, Trinitarian baptismal formula: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. With those words he immersed me in that cold, life-giving water and raised me up, a new creation. However simple the ceremony – bare bones, really – it “took:” forty-six years later I still believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and, sometimes with greater and sometimes with lesser faithfulness, I have lived my life in and through him, in accordance with that confession.

Many baptismal liturgies are more elaborate that the one I described – perhaps yours was – with exorcisms, vows, multiple immersions, chrismation. We will look at one of these more developed liturgies in moment, one from the third century. But simple or elaborate, every baptism is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace (BCP 1979, p. 857). All the outward ritual and ceremony of baptism – whether simple or elaborate – is a sign not that something has already taken place, but that something is taking place. A sacrament, like baptism, does not merely symbolize a real event, a real change; rather, a sacrament is the means by which and through which the real event, the real change occurs.

The difference between symbol and sacrament is vital. A familiar, though not perfect, example will perhaps make the difference clear: a wedding. A wedding is a vast constellation of outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace of marriage. Some signs are incidental and dispensable: flowers and cake; music and candles. Other signs are essential: the mutual making of vows before witnesses and the pronouncement “husband and wife” by one duly authorized by church and state to preside. No white roses, Wedding March, and cake: no problem. No vows, no witnesses, no pronouncement of husband and wife: no marriage. The vows and the witnesses and the pronouncement are “sacramental” in this sense: they are outward and visible signs that do not merely signify that a marriage has occurred; they are the means through which and by which the marriage actually takes place.

Baptism is not flowers and music and cake; it is vows and witnesses and pronouncement. It not only signifies union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit (BCP 1979, p. 858); it is the means through which and by which this saving work of God takes place. In the “ordinary” economy of God – and I do not question that God can and almost certainly does work in extraordinary ways – but, in the ordinary economy of God, if there is no water, if there is no invocation of Father and Son and Holy Spirit – in short, if there is no baptism – there is no union with Christ, no forgiveness of sin, no new life in the Spirit.

All this lead to the main thesis of this sermon, the one idea which above all I wish you to remember: That which is not baptized is not redeemed. If that seems a trivial statement, we will see in a moment the life-shattering consequences of ignoring it. But first, let’s turn to the third century baptismal liturgy recorded by Hippolytus in his work On The Apostolic Tradition.

Whether this liturgy was typical of most or even many third century churches we do not know, but it does provide us a window into the primitive, apostolic church and it has formed the basis for subsequent baptismal liturgies in both East and West. Though the full liturgy deserves a careful reading, we will consider just a portion of it.

Now at the time when the cock crows they shall first pray over the water.
The water should be flowing into the tank or be poured down into it. It
should be so if there is no necessity, but if there is continuous and sudden
necessity use any water you can find. And they should take off their
clothes. You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are
able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot
speak for themselves their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family,
should speak. Then baptize the grown men and finally the women, after they
have let down their hair and laid down the gold and silver ornaments which they
have on them. Nobody should take any alien object down into the
water. And at the time determined for baptism the bishop shall give thanks
over the oil and put it into a vessel and call it the oil of thanksgiving.
And he shall take other oil and perform the exorcism over it and call it the oil
of exorcism.

And a deacon brings the oil of exorcism and places himself on the left hand of the presbyter, and another deacon takes the oil of thanksgiving and stands on the right hand of the presbyter. And when the presbyter takes hold of each of those who are to be baptized he should bid him renounce saying: “I renounce you Satan, and all your service and all your works.”

And when he has renounced all this he should anoint him with the oil of exorcism saying to him: “Let all evil spirits depart far from you.”

Then he should hand him over to the bishop or the presbyter who stands at the water to baptize; and they should stand in the water naked. And a deacon likewise should go down with him into the water.

When the one being baptized goes down into the waters the one who baptizes, placing a hand on him, should say thus: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

And he who is being baptized should reply: “I believe.”

Let him baptize him once immediately, having his hand placed upon his head. And after this he should say: “Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and Mary the virgin and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was dead [and buried] and rose on the third day alive from the dead and ascended in the heavens and sits at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead?”

And when he has said, “I believe,” he is baptized again.

And again he should say: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy church and the resurrection of the flesh?”

And he who is being baptized should say: “I believe.” And he should be baptized a third time.

And afterwards, when he has come up from the water, he is anointed by the presbyter with that sanctified oil, saying: “I anoint you with holy oil in the name
of Jesus Christ.”

And afterwards, each drying himself, they shall dress themselves, and afterwards let them go into the church (Hippolytus. On The Apostolic Tradition. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2001.).

An epiclesis – and invocation of the Holy Spirit – follows with chrismation (anointing), and the baptism transitions into the Eucharist.

Parts of this liturgy are more symbolic than sacramental; you need the water and the words, but the nakedness is optional – at least we deem it so today. Still, it is a powerful symbol; all candidates entered the water naked and women, in particular, loosed their hair and laid aside any ornamentation – gold or silver jewelry. The meaning of the symbol is clear, isn’t it? Nothing of the old life – nothing alien, Hippolytus writes – can be taken into the water and retained. In baptism you are born anew; you are given a new identity in Christ. All the former things have passed away; behold, all things are made new. Nothing of the old life can be taken into the water and retained.

But this symbolic nakedness and divestiture begs a question: What did the women do – and here I must single them out because the liturgy does so – what did the women do with their hair and their jewelry when they emerged from the water? Did they leave their hair down or at some point fashion it up again? Did they leave their gold and silver on the floor and walk away or did they at some point pick it up and put it on again? Of course I don’t know, but I suspect many of them retained these vestiges of former life. And that concerns me; that is a potential, serious problem with the symbol, especially if my thesis is correct: That which is not baptized is not redeemed. Surely, our relationship with fashion, our obsession with fashion and appearance – for women and men alike – must be redeemed. It must go into the water to die and be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. Surely, our relationship with gold and silver, not jewelry only, but our economic obsession, must be redeemed. It must go into the water to die and be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. With great respect for the tradition of the church, I nevertheless think it would be more fitting for the baptismal candidate to enter the water fully clothed, along with his/her family, friends, employer, checkbook and credit cards, house and car titles, television remote and season football tickets, Republican or Democratic party membership card, NRA or ACLU bumper sticker, everything that defines the old life. Surely, all these must be redeemed. Surely, all these must go into the water to die and be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. Some of these may be brought up out of the water. Some must remain floating there like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwrecked life. But one thing seems certain to me: That which is not baptized is not redeemed.

Is this so much silliness, just a novel idea for a sermon? Well, let me tell you a story – a true and disturbing story – and then you can decide. In 1994 the world witnessed genocide in the small, African nation of Rwanda.

The slaughter that lasted for a hundred days in the spring of 1994 began on April 7, the Thursday of Easter week. In a country that was over eighty-five percent Christian, almost everyone gathered on Easter Sunday to remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just a week before the genocide began, Rwandans celebrated Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin maundatum, which means “command.” On the Thursday before Jesus was crucified, Christians remember how he gathered with his
disciples in the upper room, washed their feet, shared a meal, and gave them a
“new command.” Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

This is the new commandment Christians remember on Maundy Thursday – the command to love one another, even to the point of laying down our own lives. But one week later in 1994, Christians in Rwanda took up machetes, looked fellow church members in the face, and hacked their body to pieces (Emmanuel Katongole. Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda. Zondervan. 2009.).

In these hundred days, with the world watching, 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children were murdered – most of them brutally hacked to death with machetes – by their Hutu neighbors, Christians murdering Christians. Churches were turned into killing fields with priests and pastors complicit in and sometimes presiding over the slaughter – priests and pastors turning over parishioners to be slaughtered.

How do you explain this in a predominantly Christian country, in a country held up by the Western world as the model of successful evangelism? Cardinal Etchegaray, representative of Pope John Paul II, asked this question in the aftermath of the genocide.

Cardinal Etchegaray was the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice
and Peace from 1984 to 1998. When he visited Rwanda on behalf of the
pope in 1994, he asked the assembled church leaders, “Are you saying that
the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?” One leader answered,
“Yes, it is,” (Katongole).

There is the answer that was offered: Rwandan tribalism runs deeper than the waters of baptism. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of the man who spoke those words and I have no right to speak to it. But we can and must speak to his flawed theology: nothing – absolutely nothing – runs deeper than the waters of baptism. But here we come round again to the
main thesis: That which is not baptized is not redeemed. It is not that tribalism runs deeper than the waters of baptism. The tribal identities of the Hutu and Tutsi were never taken into the water. They were laid aside like so much gold or silver jewelry and picked up again on the
way out of the water, unbaptized and unredeemed. Would that the tribal identification cards carried by the Rwandan Christians had been taken into the water and left floating there, never to be taken up and carried again. How to do that now is the challenge facing the Rwandan church.

So we are left with this two-fold notion: While nothing runs deeper than the water of baptism, only that which is baptized is redeemed. We must not go naked to the water. We must lay nothing aside. Instead, we must bring all that we are and all that we have to the water so that what can be redeemed may be redeemed and what cannot be redeemed may be drowned there.

Emmanuel Katongole titled his book on the spiritual implications of the Rwandan genocide Mirror to the Church. He writes,

As we look into the events that led to this tragedy and the reasons that made it
possible, Rwanda becomes a mirror that reflects the deep brokenness of the
church – not simply in Africa but in the West as well. Rwanda brings us to
a deep place of lament as we see the formations that have made tribalism in its
many forms an essential, unquestioned feature of Christianity.

He calls the Western church to examine its own reflection in the mirror of Rwanda, to examine itself for traces of tribalism. Any loyalty held higher than Christ is tribalism. Any ideology prized more highly than the faith is tribalism. Any policy not motivated by and blessed by the Holy Spirit is tribalism. And any tribalism places the Western church on the road to

But Rwanda poses other questions – more personal – nearer the thesis of this sermon: What did you lay aside before coming to the water of baptism? What is yet unredeemed? What did you pick up and retain when you emerged from the water? Is it yet possible to baptize these elements of our lives and identities? In another context Jesus spoke these words of hope and promise to a Samaritan woman by a well in Sychar – a woman who had much in her life that needed the water of baptism: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14b, NRSV). The water of baptism is a spring welling up within you to wash and redeem or to wash away whatever you bring to it – a fountain of eternal life. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is deeper than the water of baptism: no sin or shame, no success or failure, no relationship or loyalty, no loss or gain, no self-image or self-interest. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is deeper than the water of baptism which wells up within you as a fountain of life. All that remains is to come to the water – again and again – bringing everything you are and everything you have.