Saturday, January 9, 2010

Family Matters: Sermon on the Baptism of our Lord

Baptism of the Lord: 10 January 2010
(Isaiah 43:1-7/Psalm 29/Acts 8:14-17/Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)
Family Matters

The Lord has shown forth his glory:
Come let us adore him.

Sunday last I attended evening Divine Liturgy at a local Oriental Orthodox parish – one of a handful of places in this world I know myself truly loved in Christ. This congregation conducts a vibrant and challenging outreach ministry to the Knoxville inner-city homeless population; several dozen men and women receive physical and spiritual nourishment from the church each week.

Sunday was cold – brutally so – and several “children of the streets” sought the warmth of the church during service. One sat behind me, a chronically homeless man who has made some considerable progress in the years I’ve known him; he is now more often clean and sober than in the past. Pray God to have mercy on him. He commented – good-naturedly – on the late arrival of a homeless friend, “God, they’ll let anyone in here.” I looked around and thought, “God, he’s right. They will.” Quite a spectrum of people crowded the small church that night: politically, from far left to far right; economically, from middle class to homeless; intellectually, from sophisticated to simple and even damaged; spiritually – well, who am I to judge that? I know there were saints there, and I know there was at least one sinner, so the spectrum was represented. My friend was right: God – in God’s name – they’ll let anyone in here.

And no distinctions were made among them; there were no acts of favoritism as condemned by James:

1 My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. 2 For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, 3 and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” 4 have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts (James 2:1-4, NKJV)?

No, there was none of this, no distinctions made on a worldly basis: no distinctions at all, until time came for the Eucharist. When a stranger walked forward to receive the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, the priest paused to ask, “You are baptized, aren’t you?” And there it is, the one distinction made: they’ll let anyone in here, but they will not let just anyone share the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. For that you must be baptized. Why? In large part because the Kingdom Banquet of the Eucharist is the family meal of Christ, and baptism is the sacrament that constitutes us as family.

Of course, baptism has individual and personal implications: cleansing from sin, reconciliation with God, and more. We often focus on these, as we should. But I’m not convinced that we often enough consider the corporate implications of baptism – baptism as the sacrament of adoption into God’s new family, the church. Don’t we often marvel at the solidarity of the “Pentecostal” church family in Acts 2?

41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. 42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:41-47, NKJV).

The real wonder is not that our fathers and mothers in the faith lived this way, but that we, their spiritual offspring, so often do not. Really, what could be more natural? They received the word and were baptized, and in so doing were made brothers and sisters in a new family – in a new family whose loyalties supercede all others. As families do – at least, as families did in the Mediterranean/Middle Eastern world of that day – they shared their lives in common: they worshiped together; they ate together; they prayed together; they wounded and forgave together; they fought and reconciled together. And, when any member of this new family of God had need, those spiritual brothers and sisters with means met that need. How could family do otherwise? Again, James comes to mind.

15 If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the things which are needed for the body, what does it profit? 17 Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:15-17, NKJV).

Notice James’ familial terms “brother” and “sister;” clearly he considers the church as God’s new family in Christ and cannot conceive of a family that would let any of its members go naked or hungry. There is no faith in such a family. It is – at best – a dysfunctional family and a dysfunctional church.

That Paul also considers the church as the believers’ new family – to which is due the highest of loyalties – is clearly evident in 1 Corinthians. There Paul condemns specific behaviors because they are harmful to one’s brothers.

1 Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unrighteous, and not before the saints? 6 But brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers!7 Now therefore, it is already an utter failure for you that you go to law against one another. Why do you not rather accept wrong? Why do you not rather let yourselves be cheated? 8 No, you yourselves do wrong and cheat, and you do these things to your brethren! 9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, 10 nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:1, 7-11, NKJV).

What Paul doesn’t add but clearly had in mind is this: You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified, your were made family in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God. And what could “washed” mean but baptism? Baptism is the sacrament that constitutes us as God’s new family in Christ, a family whose loyalties supercede all others.

And in a similar passage on the matter of eating meat offered to idols, Paul’s language is – if possible – even stronger.

12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (I Cor 8:12-13, NKJV).

A sin against a member of the family is a sin against the head of the family, Christ himself. What is more unthinkable than this?

So, as we consider the baptism of our Lord – and our own baptism – we cannot neglect the corporate aspects of the sacrament. Christ was baptized, in part, to create a new family of God with himself as head. We are baptized as a sacrament of adoption into that family. Thus, every baptized believer is our brother or sister and has claim to our loyalty, a claim which supercedes every earthly loyalty. It may be that we need to recapture the biblical language and the biblical worldview inherent in our baptism.

We speak of ourselves and consider ourselves as “members of the church” and think of this as not different in kind than being members of the PTSO or the Rotary Club. But the differences are vast. Clubs and civic organizations are formed by people sharing common interests and common goals. But the church, as the family of God, is formed by Christ and is entered through baptism; it is made of all those people who share in the Spirit. Membership in clubs and civic organizations is optional; if interests or attitudes change, membership can be dropped. Cut up the membership card, stop attending meetings, forego paying dues. But membership in the church is essential; there is no provision for solo, churchless Christianity. To be in Christ is to be in the church. To separate oneself from the church is to separate oneself from Christ. The loyalties in clubs and civic organizations are toward the common goal. But the loyalties in the church – in the family of God – are toward one’s brothers and sisters. It’s probably time to stop thinking of the church as an organization and time to recapture the biblical vision of church as the family of God. It’s probably time to stop viewing ourselves as members of an organization and time to recapture the biblical vision of ourselves as members of one another, as brothers and sisters in the family of God. This is really demanded by a right understanding of the baptism of our Lord and of our baptism.

If we take these corporate implications of baptism seriously -- baptism as the sacrament that constitutes us as God’s new family in Christ, a family whose loyalties supercede all others – how might that affect our relationship with and in the church?

We certainly will find our priorities and loyalties challenged. During his ministry Jesus was uncompromising in demanding from would-be followers top priority and chief allegiance to himself and to the family of God he was forming.

21 Then another of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead (Mt 8:21-22, NKJV).”

This saying is hard and scandalous – then and now. Your old family – those who will not follow me – is dead to you. You have a new family – my followers – who now claim your loyalty. And what Jesus said about the natural family he could have said about every other group that lays claim to our loyalties: political party, profession, nation, ethnic group, and any other group that names you and claims you. When the demands of these groups conflict with loyalty to the family of God in Christ Jesus – the church – the church must be given priority.

We also will be required to adopt a global perspective, to take a much broader view of the church. The church exists not just on a local level – this congregation – or even a national level – the church in the United States. The church exists globally, and those who have been baptized into Christ in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan; in Syria, Gaza, and Israel; in China, North Korea, and Viet Nam; in Sudan, Nigeria, and Ghana; in Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Russia are family – as much as those who sit beside us in this place. And, as family, they lay rightful claim on us: on our love, on our prayers, on our resources. We cannot ignore the legitimate needs of our brothers and sisters around the world. And we must understand how difficult this is; it is not simply a matter of praying for the global church once in awhile or even of writing checks. It’s also a matter of re-evaluating the way we relate to those institutions closest to us. Can we support government policies or actions which will disadvantage or harm our Christian brothers and sisters in the third world even in the name of free trade or national security? Can we support businesses whose labor practices abuse our brothers and sisters even when such support is profitable for us? I could go on, but it’s clear that a global perspective on the church raises very difficult questions in economic, governmental, and social arenas. The family of God doesn’t really acknowledge separation of church and state.

And, on a more local level, we will be required to care for one another better than we have in the recent past. No Christian’s medical welfare should hinge upon health insurance legislation, for example – not as long are there are Christian physicians in the church or money in the coffers. No Christian who can live with other people – and there are those who cannot or will not – should find himself homeless due to the financial crisis. No Christian child in the church should do without basic necessities while any Christian child in the church has luxuries. I could go on, but this is challenging enough.

Taking the baptism of our Lord seriously forces us to take our own baptism seriously, and that confronts us with both the challenges and the blessings of the family of God created by baptism. Peter understood the challenges and Jesus promised him the blessings.

28 Then Peter began to say to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You.” 29 So Jesus answered and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, 30 who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time—houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life (Mk 10:28-30, NKJV).

Whatever old loyalties were strained to the breaking point by baptism will be renewed in the family of God formed by baptism; whatever was lost will be restored in the family of God formed by baptism; whatever died will be born again in the family of God formed by baptism.

The baptism of the Lord is a theophany – a shining forth, a revelation of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Son enters the water. God the Father speaks. God the Holy Spirit descends. And in this moment a new family is created.

21 When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. 22 And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22, NKJV).

The words of God here at the baptism of the Lord are family words: “You are my Beloved Son.” And these are the same words He speaks to all of us at our baptisms – to all His beloved sons and daughters – as he makes us part of the family. As we embrace the reality of church as the family of God – as we commit ourselves to the material, emotional, and spiritual welfare of our Christian brother and sister above all other earthly loyalties – we will become a theophany, a revelation to the world of the glory of God.


(For a excellent treatment of the church as the family of God -- and the implications of family in a strong-group society -- I recommend When the Church Was a Family, by Joseph H. Hellerman, copyright 2009, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, TN.)

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