I don’t know who he was speaking to, but Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “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.” (Sorry, don’t have the reference).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s. He was one of the lone voices in the German church who spoke out against the rise of Hitler and the persecution of the Jews, helped found the Confessing Church and an underground seminary which resisted Nazi rule in the name of Christ; was 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, living in Christ and following Christ, add up to something so totally new and revolutionary that 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 Emma Patty, 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 pleasure to meet with Emma a couple times in the last weeks and talk about her decision to be baptized and the significance of this act. One of the things we talked about was how baptism is both a really big deal, and not a big deal. How it is this public sign of who we already are as beloved children of God, making commitments that will shape the rest of our life – that’s the big deal part. Something Bonhoeffer and the early Anabaptists and Jesus knew well. And, how this is just one part of the journey. A journey that began when she was welcomed into the world by loving parents, continued as she was brought up in a caring congregation, and a journey that will continue as she goes to college and continues to mature into the person she is becoming.
Another of the things we talked about are these vows that we make at baptism, like wedding vows, when we say “I do” to these revolutionary ideas that Bonhoeffer talked about. Though we understand very little of what we’re getting ourselves into – at the wedding, at the baptism – we know enough to know that we’re willing to go for it. As Rachel Smith said last year, to join the Tryer’s Club.
For us, the baptismal vows are these four sets of questions that we’ve included as an insert in the bulletins. As so, as we anticipate the 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 repent of sin, renounce the evil powers of this world, and turn to Christ as your savior? Do you 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 repent and accept forgiving grace…?” Yes, I do. “Do you believe…?” I do. “Do you commit…?” I do. “Are you willing…?” Yes, I am.
This first vow, 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” brings in another dimension – these bigger forces at work that we can so easily get caught up in. 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 New 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, terrorism, materialism, individualism. Where do they come from? They are very real, but can’t be fought with material weapons. 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 learn that the bank which holds your credit card has been responsible for financing 80% of mountaintop removal to mine coal in Appalachia. Renouncing the evil powers gets complicated, especially when you’re used to getting 1% back for purchases at Amazon.com.
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 how Reality really is, 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 somewhat famously written that as soon as it turns out that 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. Releasing our grip on our own power to control and restrict the Divine, or any claim to ever fully know it. This involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.
When Emma and I were talking about the Holy Spirit, she mentioned how when she was in Catholic school that she heard it spoken of as the Holy Ghost, which, in the imagination of a young girl, can present some slightly confusing images. We talked about how for the Hebrews and Greeks Spirit is the same word as breath and wind, this invisible, unseen force, and how a word that we use now that might have an equivalent meaning would be energy. I believe in the Holy Energy, the giver of life. Yes, she said, not only did this make more sense, but she has experienced the Holy Energy at different times in her life, including here at worship on Sunday mornings, when something greater than any collection of individuals shows up and presents itself to us, comes between us, and animates us in a Holy way.
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. 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. The 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, silence. These are some of the ways that we encounter the Christ whose presence we could not perceive outside of these practices. We’re just not tuned in enough. 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.
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 you to call on the church to live up to its highest calling. Whenever the church falls short, or gets too comfortable, or loses its pioneering spirit, no longer out ahead, leading the way, 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.