In the beginning, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters and brought forth life. Likewise in baptism, the Spirit of God hovers over humanity and brings forth the church. Creation, newness, and life are gifts of a God who loves to bring something out of nothing.
However, the great heresy of American popular religion is the assertion that “religion is a private affair.”
Over the last decade, the pollsters have been telling us in spite of falling off worship attendance in many quarters, and contrary to what many might think; Americans are “religious.” More than 90 percent of the Americans polled say they believe in God. But only about half of those polled say they are active in any organized religious group. As both Gallop Pew studies show, “Americans are more religious than ever. They just don’t care much for churches and religious organizations. They’re believers but not joiners.” And, when they join they attend less frequently than in years past.
Granted, Americans may be “religious” – if religion is loosely defined as some vague personal sentiment toward some god with nondescript characteristics. While it is uncertain what those believers who are not joiners believe in, it is most certain that they do not believe in historic Christianity.
Let it be known that our Christian faith is more than a set of lofty ideals and noble propositions; it is also much more than a system of ethics and guides for behavior. Our, Christian faith is a corporate endeavor; a way of life lived out together.
Do you know that Jesus not only preached, taught, healed, and acted, he formed a community, gathered disciples, brought together the most unlikely of people, made them a family? As Paul said to the faction-ridden church at Corinth, the church is Christ’s body, his visible presence here on earth, for better or worse, the only form which he has chosen to take in this world. Therefore, one cannot claim to be “in Christ” without being in the “body of Christ.” There are no solitary Christians, no way of doing the faith by a home correspondence or online course in salvation. Nor can we do the faith in the cozy comfort of our homes watching an evangelist do the faith on television. I dare say, those who do not know the church do not know its Lord, and do not know God with baptism being the door.
And over against this heresy of religion being a private affair, and the blasphemy of the “self-made man or woman,” baptism reminds us that from beginning to end, our salvation (our deliverance from sin and all its consequences) and therefore our identity are corporate products, corporate gifts (that which we are able to accomplish collectively together) from start to finish.
Church is not a club of the like-minded and the similarly disposed. The church is not the chummy togetherness of people who are socio-economically alike or persons who nurture one another’s self-interest in a cozy “support group.” The church is held together by something more substantial than an anything goes theological “pluralism,” or some innocuous assertion that “it doesn’t really matter what we believe as long as we’re sincere.” The church is not what we bring to it or what we make out of it, but rather what God, in baptism and through the church brings and makes out of us together.
Paul told the bickering Corinthians, “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Cor 12:13) and proclaimed to the Ephesians: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:4-6a).
Can’t you see – the church’s unity is a gift – not an achievement? What explanation is there for so diverse a people as you and I coming together, except that our togetherness is grace?
To be in the church is to be together in God’s family, a strange clan begotten by “water and the Word.” And, like any family, one cannot really join the family of God. One must be adopted. Joining the church and becoming a disciple is not simply a matter of joining a voluntary society of religiously inclined people. We do not join the church so much as we are joined into it. Nobody chooses his or her parents. The parents produce, procreate, and in some cases predetermine the child. The same can be said for us, the children of mother church.
And, from the earliest days, Christians spoke of their deliverance, liberation, and pardon in terms of “adoption.” Baptism, as initiation into the church and into the name of Christ, was compared to adoption, being made a child, an “heir” of God Almighty. “See what love the Father has given us that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are” (1 Jn 3:1).
In baptism, once God has adopted us as his own, God does not kick us out, even when we disobey. God reaches out. God searches until God finds. God heals our brokenness. Once God has called us in our baptism, once we are adopted, God does not let us go easily.
Individuals do not bear the responsibility to go out and find Jesus. The church bears the burden and the command to baptize. We are the ones who are to go “make disciples.” The baptizers (the church) bear the burden of proclaiming God’s love for the world – a blessed burden that calls forth the best we have. What great confidence God has shown in us to give us the mandate to “make disciples.” We in the church are simply the gifted ones who, in turn, share God’s gift with others. Baptism not only incorporates us into the church but also reminds the church, again and again, of whom we are and what we are supposed to be doing. You see- Families (church families that is), which are genuinely stable and secure within themselves, do more than spiritually nourish their own members – they build a Christ-like loving world where persons can be nourished, where they grow, where they are equipped with resources to cope and manage in this world we live in that is far from perfect that’s in need of our care, concern, and justice conviction.
And thus, all of our Christian education, opportunities to gather, and our involvements in variety of ministries are all part of the church’s continuing baptismal work. These are all part of the church’s gift. That is why folks of every age must be fully included, fully present, full participants in all of the church’s life. How do we learn what it means to be a part of any human family and to bear its name? How do we learn what it means to support and to be supported by the family? We learn by being given responsibility in the family, by eating together at the family table, by loving and being loved. So too, in the family of God, we grow by participation and experience.
A story is told about a preacher who had to baptize two people. One was a man about 30 years old. He had been converted to the faith a short time before and was now being baptized. The other was a three-month-old baby girl, the child of parents who were active in the church
First the old preacher baptized the baby. After he baptized her, he took her in his arms and said to her, “Monica, we have baptized you and have received you into the church. God loves you and has great plans for your life. But you will need the rest of us to tell you the story and, from time to time, to remind you who you are, and to keep you in God’s family. We are going to specially appoint some of our members to guide you and watch over you as you grow in faith. And all of us promise to adopt you as a sister in Christ.”
Then the preacher baptized the man. After he baptized him, he had him stand before the church and said to him, “John, we have baptized you and have received you into the church. God loves you and has great plans for your life. But you will need the rest of us to tell you the story and, from time to time, to remind you who you are, and to keep you in God’s family. We are going to specially appoint some of our members to guide you and watch over you as you grow in faith. And all of us promise to adopt you as a brother in Christ.”
The promises of baptism, the burdens placed upon them, the evangelistic word of grace, the loving action of God, the demand for lifelong response are the same for all – no matter what the age. So, at whatever age we enter those graceful waters, we emerge rising from darkness to light, from loneliness to community, as fragile and dependent as a newborn baby, needing the love and warmth of God’s human family.
The question then becomes as we experience the warmth and love of family, “how are we responding to it and to one another?” If we’re honest our response is probably like the boy who fell out of bed. When his mom asked him what happened, he answered, “I don’t know. I guess I stayed too close to where I got in.”
It is so easy to do the same with our faith. It’s tempting to just stay where we got in and never move. Let me ask you a few questions:
- Have you moved over from where you got in – in your prayer life?
- Have you moved over in your giving?
- Have you moved over in your church loyalty?
- Have you moved over in your study of the scriptures?
- Have you moved over in your concern for one another?
- Have you moved over in the commandment to make other disciples?
- Have you moved over in your stewardship of this world and its affairs?
Let us not stay to close to where we got in, for it is really risky resting on the edge.
In his letter to the Ephesians (1:17-18) the apostle Paul prays that the Christians of Ephesus might be given a spirit of “revelation” – not so as to see the future, but rather “so that with the eyes of (their) hearts enlightened,” they might be able to truly see one another and thus come to see how valuable is this, the fellowship of the Christian church. What might our vision be like if through the Holy Spirit the eyes of our hearts could become enlightened? What might the quality of our fellowship be like here in this church, and the marvelous things we could do in creating a better and more just world if we truly understood how precious is this thing we dare to call our “church family”?
The critical importance of such a vision is made clear in the engaging little story that was a favorite of the late Anthony de Mello. Let me conclude by telling a version of it for you now.
A certain spiritual teacher once asked his disciples, “How can you tell when the night has ended and the day has begun?”
One said, “When you see an animal in the distance and tell if it is a cow or a horse.”
“No,” said the teacher.
A second disciple entered into the discussion, saying, “When you see an evergreen tree in the distance and can tell whether it is a pine or fir.”
“No again,” said the teacher.
“Well then, how can one tell?” asked the disciples.
“It is when you look into the face of any man and recognizes in him the face of your brother, or when you look into to the face of any woman and see in her the face of your sister. And, I might add if you look in the face of any child, and see in them someone who could be your child. And, if you cannot do this, no matter what time it is by the sun, it is still night.”
May the eyes of all our hearts be enlightened! May we see in one another this day and all days a sister, a brother, a daughter, a son, a mother, a father! Instead of rushing out of here on Sundays and other occasions take time and make time to get to know one another; figure out ways to help our family became more faithful, and more fruitful in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!