Monday, January 14, 2013

All Wet

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

The saying, 'you're all wet', has an uncertain origin but has come to mean "mistaken" or "wrong" such as, "If you think you will hit the lottery by buying more tickets, you're 'all wet'".  We might believe buying more tickets increases our odds of winning which would be statistically correct, but it still ignores the fact that nothing we do will affect how the numbers roll out, whether it's buying more tickets or rubbing a lucky rabbit's foot.

By the same token, if we think getting baptized makes us Christians, well, this also makes us - literally and figuratively - 'all wet'.  This is not to say baptism does not matter (it does) or will make no difference in our spiritual life (it will), but baptism as a practice and as a doctrine of the Church does speak to general beliefs about baptism, sacraments, discipleship, and church membership; in other words, what it truly means to be connected to and follow our Lord.

If baptism does not matter one way or the other, Jesus surely would not have bothered because I think we can see that when it came to religious practices, Jesus made no time for what He considered to be nonsense.  If anything, He would have stopped on the bank of the river and hollered out, "SNAKE!"  Some of you water-hole-swimmin' country boys know perfectly well this warning will not only clear a water hole but has also been known to cause some to walk on water!

But why does baptism matter?  Is the act in and of itself the "end"?  Or is the act a "means" to an end, much like any other practice we observe in the Church, those "means of grace" by which we encounter the Holy (sacramental)?  And if a "means", to what "end"?  Heaven?  That's too obscure, too abstract though worthy of our attention and awe!  For many, however, such obscurity can actually blind us to a greater reality so much so that we lose sight of baptism's meaning for us and for the Church.  And I think we may be, to a large degree, at that point of spiritual blindness, especially when we come to believe it necessary to repeat a baptism for ANY reason.  When we do this, we make baptism the "end" rather than a "means to an end".

That we get baptized only because Jesus did is a good start (but ONLY a start) to a much more profound and fulfilling conversation, but that conversation must take place not to state opinions and pretend these opinions are biblical facts but, rather, to explore and understand that what actually begins at baptism transcends and overwhelms that single moment.  We must think bigger and more broadly because what we seek - and what our Lord seeks from us - is much bigger and broader than this single moment or any other moment in our lives.  We think of our Journey of Discipleship not as a series of "events" but as moving from one transitional phase to the inevitable next.

Most of us are probably familiar with a general definition of "disciple" as being that of a "student or a follower", but general notions of "discipline" (both from the same Latin root) are probably more negative and reactive rather than positive and proactive.  In our Wesleyan Methodist tradition, we think of baptism within a disciplined (that is, an "ordered") environment to be that of "preparation"; that is, "proactive" rather than "reactive".  We don't have religious instruction to prepare for baptism; we use baptism and religious instruction as preparation for discipleship.  And it seems to me that Jesus' own time of preparation also began with His baptism.  THEN He went into the "wilderness" to commune with YHWH through prayer and fasting.  We are shown these "means of grace" as necessary for a successful confrontation with "temptation", the same temptations you and I endure every single day of our lives - incidentally, from the same source.

So it is the discipline (the practices, the habits) of the Church that structures this intentional, purposeful growth as "means of grace" to a glorious end; not to "keep people in line" but to nurture, aid, and sustain.  Discipline takes nothing for granted and assumes nothing.  It is the Word that reminds us we are not alone, it is the Spirit that teaches us by and through this same Word, and it is the discipline - the ordered structure of discipleship, our practices, our habits, our "means of grace" - that keeps us focused on the Holy Word in our holy deeds on our common, Holy Journey.  Just like Jesus in the wilderness.  It is the Path we are called to follow.

It is the discipline of the Church which reminds us that bumper stickers and Facebook postings do not in themselves constitute discipleship.  I hate to be the one to break it to you, but discipleship is much more challenging than that - AND - much more fulfilling!  There are no "magic spells" in discipleship.  Genuine disciples pursue much more than slogans, symbols, and clever sayings, such as "If God leads you to it, He will lead you through it".  This common saying dances around a biblical theme and has a nice ring to it, but it also leaves much unsaid.  The discipline of the Church gives us ordered - but not rigid - steps to help us endure, to help us get "through it" - but also challenges us to determine that where we are is not necessarily where we were supposed to be in the first place!  In order to get "through it", however, there must be a beginning.  That beginning is, of course, baptism.

The saving grace of baptism by the Lord's hand - before we've "done" anything of ourselves! - is expressed by UM pastor D. Stephen Long in his book, "Keeping Faith: an ecumenical commentary on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith in the Wesleyan Tradition" as a "mini-exodus in which we are called to leave the 'Egypt' that is our slavery to sin, pass through the waters, and then journey with" the Lord toward the Promised Land.  This doctrinal concept by which the practice of infant baptism is retained in our tradition includes our children regardless of age and speaks of parental and community responsibility toward our children.  The Exodus story does not tell us of Israelites who left their young children behind simply because the children could not make up their own minds about whether to stay or to go.

We should not get too caught up in baptismal prescriptions; but making a conscious decision NOT to receive the sacrament of baptism or deny our children this evidence of our Lord's "prevenient grace" (that is, HIS work before our conscious awareness) must be made in good conscience according to a sound knowledge of the Holy Scriptures and the Church's discipline and doctrines (structured journey) and not according to loosely translated man-made traditions (remember the "THREE KINGS" from the "ORIENT" that actually are not, according to Scripture??).  It is that "structured journey" by which we express our knowledge that just as there is only One true and living God, there can be only One Faith, One Word, One Baptism, One Cup of Salvation ... One Journey.  And it is the Journey we understand we must endure together.

None of this has anything to do with religious dogma, but it has everything to do with what we understand of our Holy Father's saving grace expressed through our centuries-old doctrines!  This divine, eternal grace exists in the Exodus, and it certainly exists at Calvary.  Late 19th-century theologian Karl Barth, when asked when he was "saved", was fond of saying, "33AD".  So he understood everything AFTER "33AD" to be his response to that "prevenient" grace, a lifetime journey of gratitude, awe, discovery, spiritual growth, and reverence to grace imparted - before he was ever aware; grace which exists whether we choose to partake of that grace or not.  And a decision to "NOT at this time" is in itself a decision, yes?

A study of the sacraments of the Church and their corresponding doctrines is an exhaustive endeavor that cannot be completely covered in a single sermon.  Suffice it to say that the practices of the Church have come from centuries of tradition tried and tested in accordance with a substantial knowledge of what is written in the Scriptures and not in what we simply make up as we go and as we please.  All is a devout effort to "pass through the waters" without being "all wet".  And this we do earnestly, faithfully, and in community with one another.

Let us begin again in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

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