Texts: Romans 8:22-27; Acts 2:1-8
The records don’t show who he was speaking to, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said this: “You are being baptized today as a Christian. All those great and ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be pronounced over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out, without your understanding any of it. But we too are being thrown back all the way to the beginnings of our understanding. What reconciliation and redemption mean, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, cross and resurrection, what it means to live in Christ and follow Christ; all that is so difficult and remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore. In these words and actions handed down to us we sense something totally new and revolutionary, but we cannot yet grasp it and express it.” (Written while imprisoned in Tegel, 1944).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. He was one of the few voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the persecution of the Jews. He helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; He was eventually forbidden to print or publish, was arrested, and in 1945, was executed, only a month before Germany surrendered to Ally forces.
In other words, he had a strong sense of what he was talking about when he said that these Christian ideas of reconciliation and redemption, rebirth and Holy Spirit, love for one’s enemies, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary they lead us to the edge of our understanding. He knew these things were so difficult and seemingly remote that we hardly dare speak of it anymore.
But there he was, daring to speak.
And here we are, daring to once again enact this ancient rite of Christian baptism.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Bill P, even as we remember our own baptism and how it continues to shape us. Or, if you have not been baptized, ponder whether baptism might be a part of your faith identity in the future. Because Hey, after hearing a martyr story – that this decision could cost you everything – who wouldn’t want to join up?!
It’s been a good to meet with Bill and his sponsor Jeff L over the last weeks. It was Bill who made the connection between these baptismal vows and wedding vows. Like, you’re pretty sure you want to be the kind of person the vows describe, but you actually have no idea what you’re getting yourself into. But you know enough to take the step. One of the effects of a good wedding is not just getting a couple married, but reminding everyone who witnesses it of their own deepest commitments.
For us, the baptismal vows are these four sets of questions that we’ve included in the bulletin at the end of the worship liturgy. They are based on traditional vows and come from the Mennonite Minister’s Manual – which is the secret society book you get when you graduate seminary, also available on Amazon.com. Some of the language of these vows has been slightly altered to better fit the faith expression of this congregation. And so, as we anticipate baptism, as we remember our baptism, I’d like to walk through each of these vows and say a little bit about how each one speaks to a baptismal identity that we carry throughout our lives.
Do you renounce the evil powers of this world, and accept the forgiving grace and steadfast love of God as the guiding power in your life?
Baptism is a public way of saying Yes: Yes to God, to the church, to life. It’s a lot to say Yes to. Each of these four baptismal questions that will be asked today are answered in the affirmative. “Do you accept forgiving grace…?” Yes, I do. “Do you believe…?” I do. “Do you commit…?” I do. “Are you willing…?” Yes, I am.
This first one, however, highlights that in saying Yes to these things, we are also saying No to other things. What we say No to, what we renounce, is what Christian tradition calls “the evil powers of this world,” or, more simply “sin.”
Sin certainly has a personal dimension to it. I think the Call to Worship put it beautifully: “For all that we have done, and left undone, all those we have left behind, and left unloved.” For this there is overwhelming, renewing grace and forgiveness. Forgiveness from God, and also forgiveness that we extend to one another.
Mentioning “The evil powers of this world” widens the scope to bigger forces at work. The book of Ephesians has some important things to say about these powers. “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
The enemy, this and other parts of the Christian Testament emphasizes, is not flesh and blood. Another way of saying this is that ‘if it bleeds, it’s not the enemy.’ We all get caught up in these forces and powers to some degree, but people themselves are never the enemy. Thus the radical call to love your human enemy. In our time we have named many of these forces as the “isms.” Racism, sexism and heterosexism, materialism, militarism, nationalism, individualism. Bonhoeffer’s struggle was ultimately not against Nazis, but the Nazism that had consumed his people.
Where do these isms come from? They are very real, but can’t be fought with material weapons alone. Only the spiritual weapons of truth and peace and wholeness/salvation that Ephesians goes on to mention will overcome them.
It’s abstract, perhaps, but this vow starts to mess with you when, for example, you do an audit of your personal library and confirm that 90% of the books you’ve read in the last decade and a half were written by white authors, most of those straight men. And you realize you need to repent of seeing the world through such a narrow lens. Not that this has anything to do with anything I did a couple years ago. Just a random, hypothetical example.
Do you believe in God, maker of heaven and earth; in Jesus Christ, who showed us the way of peace; and in the Holy Spirit, the giver of life?
Genesis 1:27 says that humankind, male and female, were created in the image of God. It’s been said that very soon after, humanity returned the favor and created god in our image.
As soon as we start talking about God, or saying that we believe in God, we are instantly in danger of reducing God to our own limited imagination. Even to speak the name, to try and contain the ultimate within the confines of language, is itself a dangerous act. It is far too easy to turn God into an extension of our own ego, our own small wishes about Reality, rather than submitting our wishes to what is ultimately Real.
This is why the medieval mystic, Meister Eckhart writes, “I pray God to free me from God.”
Anne Lamott has written that as soon as it turns out God dislikes all the same people that you dislike, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve created God in your own image.
And so, to say “I believe in God,” rather than being an act of grasping on to certainty, is an act of letting go. I believe in that which cannot be named or contained. This involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.
Part of the discussion with Bill and Jeff centered on what we say about Jesus – the one “who showed us the way of peace.” The language of “personal Lord and Savior” is not in these baptismal vows, partly because it’s nowhere to be found in the Bible. When the early Christians used the language of Lord and Savior for Jesus, they were appropriating it from Caesar, who was hailed as both Lord and Savior of the world. To claim the Jesus way is to claim the one who showed us the way of peace. An entirely different way of being Lord and Savior of the world. A different kind of power.
Mention of the Holy Spirit identifies us with the same life and power that birthed the early church in Acts chapter two.
Do you commit to a life of spiritual growth; studying the Scriptures, prayer, loving your enemies, and listening for God?
One of the things we’re now aware of is that we can only see a small percentage of light waves. We are constantly bombarded with waves of light like radio waves and ultraviolet waves, but we have only developed the kinds of bodily sensitivities to perceive that little range of light in the visible spectrum.
It’s a good analogy for the life of the spirit. To be committed to a life of spiritual growth is to have faith that, as poet Gerald Manly Hopkins put it, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” Yet we perceive so little of it, allow such a small percentage of it into our consciousness. The prophet Elijah, on top of Mt. Horeb, experienced this range of the previously unknown utterances of God as the still small voice or, as one translation puts it, the sound of sheer silence.
How does that register? Can we hear that?
The Gospel stories of the many healings of the deaf and the blind speak not only to physical healing, but to spiritual perception that Jesus brought to those around him.
And so, in order to see and hear, we have what we refer to as spiritual disciplines. Habits and practices which attune our spirits to the Spirit of God. This question mentions a few of these: Prayer, studying the Scriptures, loving your enemies, and listening for God. To these we could also add serving the poor, practicing hospitality, visiting the sick and those who are in prison, shared meals, loving your neighbor, loving God with all your mind, practicing silence. These are some of the ways that we encounter the Christ whose presence we could not perceive outside of these practices. Like the walkers to Emmaus, Christ by their side the whole time, but unrecognized until they extended the act of hospitality, the shared meal, the breaking of the bread. So we can commit to a life of spiritual growth, and in doing so, fling our senses wide open to all of the undiscovered wavelengths of God’s presence among us.
Are you willing to give and receive counsel in the congregation? Are you ready to participate in the mission of the church, that God’s beloved community of healing and justice come on earth as it is in heaven?
The spiritual life, living in a baptismal identity, is not meant to be done in isolation. You are a part of community. Not only this local expression of the church. The worldwide fellowship of sisters and brothers which transcends national boundaries. And not only extending out spatially around the globe in this way, but extending through time. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, the communion of the saints. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meister Eckhart, Mary Magdalene, Sara and Abraham. Anne Lamott – who would laugh to hear her name included, which is exactly what qualifies her.
Your gifts are valuable. We need your gifts. The world needs your gifts, your love, your devotion to doing justice. Dare we even say that God needs your life to carry out whatever larger purpose there is in store for you.
And a baptismal identity calls on one to call on the church to live up to its highest calling. Whenever the church falls short, or gets too comfortable, or loses its pilgrimage spirit, then you will become disappointed and perhaps even disillusioned. And when this happens, remember your baptism, remember who you are, remember who we have all been called to be, and help lead the way. Help us remember what we’ve forgotten, and to see when we’ve become blind.