Well, this is a very special day. Our whole household has been looking forward to it. Early in the week I described to Eve and Lily what we were going to be doing today with the baptisms and they have been asking at different times with great anticipation how many more sleeps it is until we get to pour water on the heads of Elizabeth and Jake.
Along with this fascinating action of pouring water on heads inside the church building, the act of baptism signifies a life transition that mirrors a host of other transitions in the human life. It is an occasion of birth, a new creation. An occasion of death, the putting away of the old self, as the Apostle Paul writes. An occasion of resurrection. And an occasion closely resembling a marriage. When vows are made and a covenant affirmed between Creator and created. Baptism evokes all of these. It is a full, rich occasion, and there is indeed reason to celebrate and it’s good that we are each gathered here as witnesses. This is a chance to witness to this public act of faith, to remember your own baptism, or to consider if baptism is something in which you yourself wish to participate.
There’s a certain path to participation in the church that we’ve probably heard some version of, whether it be that it was taught to us outright or that we have just internalized it along the way by the signals that we’ve picked up. The path is that first we believe, then we behave, then we belong. First we come to some confession of faith, some recognition of our need for God and community and the significance of Jesus in our life. We believe. If we believe the right things, then that belief will start to form our behavior, our habits and our priorities and the way that we live our life will follow out of those beliefs. Our behavior is transformed. And then finally, as we get those things more in line, the beliefs and behavior, then we belong. Then we fit, have a place. We finally start to feel at home in the church. Maybe you’ve heard some version of that path. (I believe either Grace Davie or Charles Glock was the first to develop this three point framework. I don’t have a reference for it).
I would like to use those three movements to talk about the faith journey and life in the church, with a slight, but important shift. Because the truth of the matter is that we just about always experience these movements in the reverse order. We find our humanity, or, better yet, we are given our humanity, and our home in God, first by belonging, which then affects our behaving, then, over time, we are able to come to a more clear sense of what it is we actually believe.
So we’re going to do something really wild here. We’re going have a sermon with three points, and they’re going to be alliterated. Belonging, behaving, believing. And just getting things in this order is an important insight. The way that we walk through this, the way Jake and Elizabeth come about this decision, the way we all come about growth and identity and flourishing, starts with belonging and leads on from that point.
So let’s start there.
In the past year Logan W, Henry B, and Aven J have made their entrance into the world. Like every child deserves to experience, they have been welcomed into households where they are loved and held and treated as priceless gifts. Their parents carefully prepared for their arrival and have adjusted to different routines to accommodate the needs of the child. For these children, their introduction to life has been the experience of belonging.
When we are at our best, this is what we do in the church – whether it be for a newborn or an interested seeker or a longtime member. We provide a place where people belong. Where people are allowed to be themselves, to grow, to make mistakes, to find their identity as a child of God.
A key passage for this comes from Mark 1:9-11, the baptism of Jesus: “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
Jesus’ baptism was for him a profound experience of recognizing that he was, first and foremost, a beloved child of God. He belonged. He had a home in the universe and that home was the loving arms of God. That’s the voice that he hears. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It’s significant that this happens before Jesus begins his ministry. Before he calls his first disciples, before he gives his first teaching, before he heals anyone or casts out any evil spirits. Before he shows any signs of ‘success’ or demonstrates any semblance of what we typically associate with a value-added kind of life, he is affirmed in his being. His existence, the fact that he “is,” is a delight to God. This “status” of beloved, belonging to God, is the basis out of which his life then flows. What he has to offer the world starts from this given. Which is true for all of us, whether one is raised in the church or has never set foot in a church.
And so we say that baptism is not the way that we come to belong, as if one day we don’t belong and the next day we do. It’s not the ticket into belonging. Baptism is a way of affirming and publicly declaring what has been true all along, our whole lives: That we are, and always have been, beloved children of God. And there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s no way we, or anyone else can change that fundamental reality. There’s nothing to do about it. We can only accept it or deny it. We can choose to hear the voice spoken over us. “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”
When I was doing my ministry internship in my home congregation in Bellefontaine I filled in for our pastor one Sunday in his monthly visit to the juvenile detention center. And I talked with those youth about this passage of Jesus’ baptism. And I told them, ‘you are beloved children of God and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ And they didn’t quite know what to say. And then I didn’t quite know what to say, because that’s the main thing I wanted to say, and I’d already said it…. Then we did talk about it some, and it was a hard thing for them to accept. And I imagine they’re not alone.
But that’s where it all begins, and that’s what we in the church seek to live out. We welcome, we embrace one another, because the gift of belonging is the basis of our lives. And it’s not earned. It’s given.
As soon as we recognize that we have a home, that we belong, it shifts the way we go about life, the behaving piece. And there’s this paradoxical kind of thing that happens. There’s the gift, the grace, which comes to us through no effort of our own. And in receiving the gift, we are brought into a place where we start to see that this will require all of us, everything we have. It costs nothing. It costs everything.
And so our response to the gift of belonging becomes one of re-ordering our priorities around the demands of love. It begins to affect our personal relationships, our thoughts about social justice, the way we use our money, our sexuality, our vocation, the purpose that we want our life to serve. Pretty much everything.
A passage that speaks to this is 2 Corinthians 5: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away, see, everything has become new.” Everything is one of those all-inclusive words that gets a little scary if you take it seriously. “All of this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” I have no idea what God was thinking, but God has entrusted the message of reconciliation to us. It’s our responsibility, our duty, you could even say, to take on this work of reconciliation. And what is it we’re actually reconciling? Everything! There is nothing outside the scope of the work of reconciliation.
So that means when Jake is playing soccer and training and practicing and working with his teammates that that activity has something to do with the work of reconciliation. I can think of a few ways that sports don’t always bring out the best of our humanity, but they can also bring out wonderful aspects of our humanity.
And it means that when Elizabeth is caring for her animals and doing chores that that has something to do with the work of reconciliation. We are painfully aware of the need for reconciliation between people and the earth, people and the animal kingdom.
Our behavior starts to become an expression of this work that God is doing through us and it affects every aspect of our lives.
And in the church we learn from each other. Paul says, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” We become socialized into new ways of behaving. Faith is supposed to change us. And this is something that I think we Mennonites get pretty well. Not that we’re so much better behaved than others, but we recognize that our actions are a direct expression of our values, our faith, and we seek to learn to imitate Christ and grow, as we say, into communities of grace, joy, and peace, that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.
So now we get to believing.
Just a little over a year ago Ron H sent out an email to Christian Ed folks with a list of questions that he had compiled after working with the youth during Sunday school for a few months. The questions came from the youth, although Ron noted in the email that he, frankly, wouldn’t mind having some clear answers on these himself. Here are some of the questions:
Is there a God?
How do you know?
Is it okay to have doubts about God?
What is God?
What is this trinity thing – three Gods or one?
How can there be evil in a world in which God is all-knowing and all powerful?
Is there a heaven?
What is heaven?
Is there a hell?
What is hell?
Is there an afterlife?
What is a soul?
Does a soul make us different from animals?
Did people evolve from earlier forms of life?
At what point did humans get a soul?
What is uncompromiseable in our beliefs?
Does prayer work?
How should we use the Bible?
Did the human writers of the Bible write 100% inspired words or did they interpret?
Why do we not keep Old Testament laws?
Why are there so many different religions?
There were plenty more.
There’s a reason that Believing comes at the end here. It’s not because belief isn’t important, and it’s not because it’s impossible to come to some greater clarity on these questions. It’s just that so often belief follows, rather than precedes belonging and behaving.
The scripture for this that I’d like to bring in comes from Mark 9:24. It’s a time when a father shouts out to Jesus from a crowd that he has brought his son who is unable to speak and who goes into epileptic convulsions. The boy has been this way since childhood and Mark tells of the exchange like this: The father begs Jesus – “’if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able – All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief.’”
That’s the line. “I believe, help my unbelief.”
Faith is always some measure of believing and unbelieving, which is to say, that it’s faith. It’s the conviction that uncertainty about those big questions we pursue is not ultimately something to be feared. Not something to shy aware from. Not something that should sideline us from the journey.
I imagine none of us yet have all the answers to these questions. Faith is stepping forward with what you know, and being open to receiving what you don’t yet know.
In baptism, we affirm some core things that we believe, or even, that we want to believe, or hope to believe on our better days. And we entrust ourselves to the journey of faith, which takes faith, and takes the community of faith, to help us find our way. And sometimes the church believes for us when we are unable to believe.
I believe, help my unbelief.
I guess a fourth B would be baptism, which takes place along this path with the other B’s. We recognize that we don’t know everything, but we know enough to know that we want to say Yes to God, yes to the faith journey, yes to the church and the mission of God in the world. And that’s what we celebrate today. Today, we remember our own birth, death, and resurrection, our vows to God, and we joyfully welcome Elizabeth and Jake who have decided to enter into this same pattern of redemption