Together

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.’ Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

I often hear James Earl Jones booming voice or Morgan Freeman’s distinctive voice when I read that part.  Jesus’ baptism ushers in a new baptism. Not just with voice and the dove.  Christian baptism is not just a washing away of sin as John’s baptism was; but it is the baptism that brings the power of the Holy Spirit and a special relationship with God.  The Gospel writers all 4 tell the story of Jesus’ baptism. As usual John has his own way of saying things, Matthew adds the part about John the Baptist preventing him and then questioning his validity to baptize Jesus, Luke cuts to the chase and has the shortest account, but Mark’s Gospel is different.  Unlike Matthew and Luke, where it says the heavens are opened, Mark writes that as Jesus “was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and a dove descending.”  His word for ‘torn apart’ is schizo, and it means “to cleave, to cleave asunder, to rend.” It’s a strangely violent word to describe such a happy occasion.  The way we tend to talk about baptism, it would have made more sense if Mark had talked about the dove, gently cooing, or perhaps fluttering over the surface of the water. But that is not how he talks about it.

Instead, Mark talks about the heavens, schizotorn apart. It’s the word Matthew, Mark and Luke all use to describe that moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple is torn in two. It’s the word John uses when the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross determine not to tear Jesus’ garment and divide it between them, but to cast lots for it, instead. It’s a word with resonances in the prophecies of Isaiah, also, particularly when Isaiah says to God, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” (Isaiah 63:19).

Mark understands very clearly that in Jesus, this is exactly what has happened. God has torn open the heavens and come down.  It is in the waters of baptism that the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven claims Jesus as God’s son. Although we rarely think of it as having such a dramatic flourish, baptism today still serves as a time when we recognize our being claimed as children of God.  And this is why, in the Gospel writers’ judgment, the baptism of Jesus is a radical act. In Jesus, God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world, and they want the world to know.

Sometimes, I wish it were harder to join the church, to come to communion, to be baptized.  I mean, honestly, sometimes I think it’s harder to get a membership to Sam’s Club than it is to become a Christian.

Sometimes we cheapen grace.  It’s like the membership vows of the church are in the fine print or it feels like a medical commercial saying, you’ll feel better if you do this whole Jesus thing, you’ll be happier, while the people on the screen are running through a field of flowers or jumping on a trampoline or flying a kite with what seems to be a bright, smiling, happy family.  They’re still showing the pictures of all the smiling people and let’s throw in a pet for good measure, as they read quick like the micro machine man the hazards.  Baptism is terrific but please plan on attending worship, Bible studies, service projects, fellowship events, and don’t forget covenant discipleship groups.  Christmas and Easter only come once a year, but Narcie throws in enough grace to last all year round.  She may make you experience some discomfort and conviction, but that’s at minimum only once or twice a sermon. Following Jesus may cost you.  Putting his teachings into practice may turn your life upside down……

Who can blame people for just tuning that part out?  And not understanding what following Jesus means?  What a big, awesome commitment that is?

We’re involved in a bait and switch.  You may, say hold on a second, I do no such thing.  I would challenge that back to you.  Can those around you, tell you are a Christian?  What makes you different from all of the other do gooders?  What makes this different than any other civic organization?

Peter Rollins, Northern Ireland writer, speaker, philosopher, and theologian writes, “Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However, there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.”

If you want to actively follow Christ.  It’s going to be hard.  It’s going to be the greatest joy and sacrifice of your life.  Don’t merely get baptized for fire insurance, because you want to flee the wrath of hell, but because you want your life transformed, you want to do more than honor Jesus’ sacrifice.  You seek to live as a changed person walking the way of life, trying to grow more like Jesus every day, and when you mess up, as you inevitably will, God gives you God’s abundant grace, God’s sanctifying grace.  God doesn’t leave us on our own in the mire and the muck.  God begins the mighty work of transforming us.

We’re not going to change overnight into the perfect Christian.  We need to hone our spiritual disciplines:  prayer, scripture reading, daily times alone with God, discerning God’s will for our lives, and not just things we  do alone.  Tenth Avenue North sings in the song No Man is Island,“We’re not meant to live this life alone.”  We are stronger together.  Iron sharpens iron after all.  The kids asked to watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on Friday’s Family Movie Night.  Mike says I should use “spoiler alert” even the book came out more than 5 years ago.  At the end of the movie, Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, dies and it looks like darkness has won.  He was Harry’s protector and the only one Voldemort was afraid of.  When he dies, the students and staff are mourning him and it seems like all hope is lost, Madame Pomfrey holds her wand in the air, Professor McGonagall joins her, and the students and faculty do the same.  When they do that together, it lights up the night sky.  Together in their sorrow.  Together in their hope that the light will pierce the darkness.  Mike told Enoch and Evy, the darkness doesn’t win and I joined him in saying, when all hope seems lost, even if it looks like the darkness has won, the light will always, always, always eventually conquer the dark.  I want them to be prepared to fight for the light in their choices and to continue fighting even when it feels like it’s not making a difference, even when it seems they are fighting an uphill battle, even in the darkest night of their souls.  Good will triumph.  Spoiler Alert.  The grave didn’t hold him down.

See baptism is an individual sacrament, but it’s also a communal one also.  Whole families were baptized in the New Testament.  The church agrees to love, support, grow and strengthen those baptized persons.  Dietrich Bonheoffer, German Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, believed that a community of love is one which focuses its attention on Jesus and then expects everything else to fall into place. When the people of God come together to share their lives openly and freely, accepting each other with a kind of unconditional positive regard, there is a sort of social-spiritual “chemistry” that emerges, and those who come together experience a delightful cohesion and sense of belonging.  Bonhoeffer’s central idea is that the Church as the fellowship of Christ centers on Christ rather than being a mere association of people with a common purpose. Human love and actions are related to a desire for human community. Christian love, spiritual love, comes from Christ and goes out to the other person, not directly, but through Christ. Christ “stands between me and others”. The most direct way to another is found in prayer to Christ whose influence is greater.  The unity of the community is in Christ, “Through him alone do we have access to one another, joy in one another, and fellowship with one another.”

The Book of Mormon Broadway Musical has a song called Mostly Me.  In it the missionary says he’s doing all of this “good” stuff altruistically, but he’s actually doing it for himself.  This is not just a “but mostly me” but something that if we are to survive, if we are to be a stronger, healthier, more grounded body – we’ve got to be supporters, advocates, confidants, friends to each other.  Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship writes, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”  We have to trust each other enough to share our lives together, with no fear of judgment, that’s the only way we get to the Light of Christ.

How do we push through the fear, the doubt, the awkwardness, the ego, and move towards real community?  We have to really love each other, pray for each other, root for one another, weep one another, encourage one another, be CHURCH with each other.  As Hebrews 10:24-25 says, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”  I want us to be a deep, Christ-centered community whether it be as Friday morning Men’s Group, an adult Sunday School Class, the Choir, the Thursday morning Women’s Bible Study, the Somerby Bible Study or one of the other communities we will create this year.  I want us to make as our theme this year to Love God and Love Neighbor.  I want us to make the main thing, the main thing.  Our focus shall be to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in Park West, in North Mount Pleasant and across the Earth.   We can only legitimately do that if we abide in Christ and seek his leading for our lives, for the call he has put on our lives, for the call he has put on this church to be the hands and feet of Christ at this time and in this place and if we look to Christ – boy, what could happen?  Could you imagine?

People should be able to see Christ in us, just as the song says, “They will know we are Christians by our love.”  Wesley’s General Rules provide an extensive list of the marks of the Christian life that could be summarized by do no harm, do good, and attend upon all the ordinances of God or as Wesley said,

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

These rules take into account and respond to the great command to love God and neighbor. In our baptism, similar things happen to us as happened to Jesus when he was baptized: 1) The Spirit of God comes into us and remains in us. 2) We are declared to be a child of God. 3) We hear that God is well pleased with us. God’s grace washes away our sin and angst and doubt and we are made clean in the waters of baptism.  We’ve been washed by the water and are set free to live an abundant, thriving life.  Jesus doesn’t say it will be easy, but as Paul writes in Philippians 4, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.”  The Spirit of God opens up the Heavens to give us a taste of the Living God, Emmanuel, one with us, Jesus who was, is, and is to come.  As we journey with our stars and seek God’s personal will for our lives and as we journey as a church to know God’s communal will for this body of Christ and the part God wants each of us to play in that, God’s wonders and mercies are new every day and at every step of the Christian journey, God will be faithful.

I’ll ask you to come to the baptismal waters as you reaffirm your baptism, as you reaffirm that you are a new creation, as you reaffirm your commitment to this body of Christ, to walk with each other in love and grace, spurring each other on to right action and to seek the will of God.

“We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand
And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
They will know we are Christians by our love.”

 

REAFFIRMATION OF BAPTISM         

 The Lord be with you.

and also with you.

Let us pray.

Eternal God: When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the dark waters and brought forth light. In the days of Noah you saved those on the ark through water. After the flood you set in the clouds a rainbow. When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt, you led them to freedom through the sea. Their children you brought through the Jordan to the land which you promised.

Sing to the Lord, all the earth. Tell of God’s mercy each day.

In the fullness of time you sent Jesus, nurtured in the water of a womb. He was baptized by John and anointed by your Spirit. He called his disciples to share in the baptism of his death and resurrection and to make disciples of all nations.

 Declare Christ’s works to the nations, his glory among all the people.

 Pour out your Holy Spirit, and by this gift of water call to our remembrance the grace declared to us in our baptism. For you have washed away our sins, and you clothe us with righteousness throughout our lives, that dying and rising with Christ we may share in his final victory.

All praise to you, Eternal God, through your Son Jesus Christ, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever. Amen.

Come as you feel led to the baptismal waters as we reaffirm our baptisms.  As you come forward and touch the water, I will say, “Remember your baptism and be thankful” and you respond “Amen.”  You can touch the water and make a sign of the cross on your forehead or you can scoop the water and let fall back into the bowl.

Remember your baptism and be thankful. Amen.

Prayer reaffirming the Baptismal Covenant:

The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born through water and the Spirit, you may live as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

 

Chosen to love the world.

1 John 3:16-24

16We know love by this that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. 23And this is his commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

We are Chosen to love the world.

Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s what God said to Moses and the people of Israel.

As far as formulas go, it’s great.  The golden rule.  I was telling Enoch yesterday, treat people like you like to be treated.

There’s nothing secret about this formula. Even Jesus endorsed it when in Matthew 22 he made it a part of his great commandment. “Love the Lord your God,” said Jesus, and “love your neighbor as yourself.”

But surprisingly, in the first of his New Testament letters, the apostle John offers a new recipe: “this is [God’s] commandment that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (v. 23).

Believe in Jesus. Love one another.

Not the same old formula.

In recent years, companies have learned how dangerous it is to change the ingredients of a successful brand. A little over 30 years ago, in April, 1985, Coca-Cola changed its formula and introduced a product called “New Coke.” The response was overwhelmingly negative, and within three months the original formula was back on the market.

Just how bad was it? The company hotline received 1,500 calls a day, almost four times what they usually logged. Psychiatrists listened in on calls and heard people talking as though they were grieving the death of a family member.

Southerners saw the change through the lens of the Civil War, describing it as yet another surrender to the Yankees. Even Fidel Castro despised New Coke, reportedly calling it “a sign of American capitalist decadence.”

Bottom line: Be careful when you change a successful formula.

So what is the apostle John up to? For starters, he wants to put a human face on the commandment to love one another — the face of Jesus Christ. Verse 16 says, “We know love by this,” he says to his brothers and sisters in Christ, “that he laid down his life for us.” John knows that the problem with the love commandment is that it can easily become sacrinny sweet like sweet and low, with people enjoying the pleasant taste of warm, fuzzy emotions and charitable thoughts. So he changes the formula to include the bitter sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

• Most of us find it easier to formulate our arguments in our head without real dialogue, real conversation, so much so that we demonize the other “side” than to love them.  1 John 4:7-10 says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  Mother Teresa who becomes a Saint today says much about love. “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can only live your life radiating that love.”  “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

• Most of us find it so much simpler to define our Christianity in terms of attending church, rather than doing the complicated and challenging work of feeding the hungry, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned.  As Billy Sunday said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile.”

  • Most of us find it easier to point out the splinter in another’s eye, while we live with the plank in our own. For example, if you don’t want to gossip or cut down or talk trash or judge harshly or go on a road that’s a dark and twisty path to the dark side, BE THE CHANGE. Be the change, not just wish for it, BE the change – even the slightest movement, if you are resting in God’s love, puts more love in the universe.

    Such a change of ingredients can actually change our behavior. “We ought to lay down our lives for one another,” insists John, following the example of Jesus (v. 16). Under this new formula, sacrificial living becomes a central part of the Christian life, one that simply cannot be denied. John asks his followers, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (v. 17).

    Love is seen in action, not in words.  The greatest poet ever known can wax eloquent about love, but it is all flowery speech and frills, if it is not backed up.

    John summarizes his new formula with the words “Believe in the name of [God’s] Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (v. 23). He links belief in Jesus with love for one another, knowing that the clearest example of love is the sacrificial life and death of Christ. The result of this new formula is a close connection to God, one in which “all who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them” (v. 24). John says that we’ll know that God lives in us “by the Spirit that he has given us” (v. 24).

    The new link between belief and love can and will create a new kind of life for us.

    Throughout the gospel of John, we hear the promise of life. In fact, the gospel was written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life” (John 20:31). The gospel begins with the Word of God taking the human form of Jesus, and we’re promised that “what has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4).

    Belief. Life. Light. Put these ingredients together, and you can see that a new formula is beginning to emerge.  John goes on to tell us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

    So now love is in the mix. As well a kind of life that extends beyond the grave — eternal life.

    Describing himself, Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

    – Life in Jesus.

    – Eternal life.

    – The light of life.

    – Abundant life.

    – The way, the truth and the life.

    – Life, life, life.

    Christ Life — not the same old formula. It’s a new one based on believing in Jesus and loving one another.

Clarence Jordan captured the concreteness of this everyday love and compassionate assistance when he translated in his Cotton Patch Version of 1 John 3:18 back in 1973: “My little ones, let’s not talk about love. Let’s not sing about love. Let’s put love into action and make it real.”

Our world is in desperate need of a church that puts love into action and makes it real. Like customers looking for a good, cheap haircut or a calculator for their big test, there are people all around us who are searching desperately for a community that actually practices what it preaches. Over 100 years ago, the Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard made the point that Jesus was looking for followers, not admirers — he wanted people who would walk with him, do his work, and serve in his name.

One of Kierkegaard’s own parables told of a man who was walking down a city street when he saw a big sign in a window that said, “Pants pressed here.” Delighted to see the sign, he went home and gathered up all of his wrinkled laundry. He carried it into the shop and put it on the counter.

“What are you doing?” the shopkeeper demanded.

“I brought my clothes here to be pressed,” said the man, “just like your sign said.”

“Oh, you’ve got it all wrong,” the owner said. “We don’t actually do that here. We’re in the business of making signs.” We don’t do these things, he was saying. We’re in the business of talking about them.

And that, said Søren Kierkegaard, is often the problem in the church. We advertise ourselves as a place that is showing Christ’s love and doing Christ’s work. But when people show up looking for real love and real Christian action, they don’t see it. “Oh, no, we don’t love people here. We just talk about loving people here.”

When Christ is our life, we live and move and breathe in the Spirit and we do what Jesus wants us to do.  This means helping a brother or sister in need, and loving one another in truth and in action. It means focusing on activities that really show the love of God to people who might be feeling quite unloved and unlovable. That also means BOLDNESS.  We boldly approach the throne of grace with confidence.  Not just giving people fake, plastered on smiles, but telling them about Christ.  Showing with our lives the greatest show and tell in the world.  We need signs that God is LIVING in us!  I love the tv show Friday Night Lights, maybe because I went to High School in two big football towns – Cheraw and Rock Hill.  The team’s motto, “Clear Eyes.  Full Hearts.  Can’t Lose.” Clear Eyes on the cross, focused on Jesus’ sacrifice for each of us.  Full hearts of the love of God for the world.  The unconditional, agape love of God in ACTION in and through us.  Can’t lose.  We are more than conquerors through him who first loved us and nothing in all of creation will make us lose that, not even the monster in the Upside Down, nothing.

For those who dare to sip this new flavor, abundant life awaits. Believing in Jesus and loving one another draws us closer to God and one another, and allows us actually to abide in God. To abide is to live or to dwell in something — to accept, observe and follow a particular path. So when we believe in Jesus and love one another, we abide in God and God abides in us. “And by this we know that he abides in us,” says John, “by the Spirit that he has given us” (v. 24).

So give it a try. As missionary, Jim Elliot says, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” You have nothing to lose, but a new life – transformed – to gain.