Monday, January 13, 2014

The First Step

Isaiah 42:1-9
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Last week I shared that it is time for the Church to "come out of the closet".  We must reinvigorate ourselves in the Holy Spirit because we cannot do this alone, renew or begin anew our commitment to discipleship because it is our God-given, Christ-commanded mission from which no one has been exempted, and reinvest ourselves in mission as the Body of Christ because we need one another.  I proposed to you no one is going to follow a God whose own followers are more devoted to their own interests and in following some pop-culture icon; and that when we withhold any portion of ourselves, our witness and our testimony and perhaps even our salvation all become lies.

It is true that the salvation of all is the goal and mission of the Church as the will of our Holy Father, but we too often stop short of helping others (and ourselves) to understand WHY we are justified before the Lord and why sanctification (becoming more and more Christ-like) is so important and must never be taken for granted as a "given" just because we think we are "good people".  These are not multiple choice issues; they are two sides of the same coin in the fullness of life.

By the same token we emphasize the necessity of baptism as initiation into the Covenant and the Church, but we lose our way when we get hung up on the "how" in exactly what must be done or in defending our own superstitions.  Thus we miss altogether the "why" of what baptism is about.  So rather than devote ourselves to exploring the fullest meaning of baptism, we get stuck in needless disputes about the method of baptism.  This helps no one.

The method is probably the biggest hang-up for many, beginning at the River's bank.  Is it possible the Baptizer was fully immersing those who came to him?  Of course it is.  Is it also possible John was scooping water with his hands and pouring it over their heads?  Of course it is.  We cannot know which way it was being done because it is not written for us to know; we can only speculate.  So I would suggest that because there is no precise written prescription we must follow, we should pay more attention to what is written for us to know.

The word "baptism" in the Greek can mean to "immerse" or "to dip", but it can also mean simply "to wash".  In the Gospel accounts we are reading a "record" of what happened at the River and clearly not a "prescription" as to how baptism must be done simply because it is not told or even inferred. 

So when we read about John's baptism of repentance, we must remember John did not fall from Elizabeth's womb onto the river's bank.  Like the rest of us, John had a background that informed this practice he was offering; and what we are reading in Matthew's gospel has a much broader context than these few words written on a page.

It is believed, for instance, that John came from the Qumran community where an ascetic Jewish sect called "Essenes" lived (like our idea of the Amish); a people who chose to remove themselves from what had been deemed a "godless" urban culture under pagan (the Romans) rule.  Qumran is near caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947 (perhaps buried there for safe-keeping in AD68 when Roman invasion was imminent?). 

Within these scrolls was found a Manual of Discipline, or the "community rule".  Like our own United Methodist Book of Discipline, it may not have been considered scriptural since as Jews, they had the Tanakh (First Testament) as their scriptures.  Rather, this Manual, like our own Discipline, served as their community covenant in how they would live and work and worship together as a community of faith.  Religion was not incidental to their being and their living.

This manual, then, stated that a person could not become clean if one failed to obey the Lord's commandments.  The manual states, "It is through the spirit of God's true counsel concerning the ways of man that all his sins be expiated (atoned for); and when his flesh is sprinkled (emphasis mine) with purifying water, it shall be made clean by the humble submission of his soul to all the precepts of God."

Baptism by "purifying water" was the point of interest rather than the method itself.  Even as the Manual John may have been familiar with seems to stipulate "sprinkling", we would still miss the entire point of baptism if we allow ourselves to get hung up on a single word rather than appreciate the much broader context.   The method of delivery of that water does not seem to be emphasized as much as the water itself - AND THEN - what must necessarily follow.  It clearly does not end at baptism; for baptism is only the beginning of a whole new life.

This is the context of John's baptism of repentance.  His discourse beginning in verse 7 (Mt 3) in calling people to "bear fruit worthy of repentance" seems to come from the community whose standards he embraced for himself; that baptism can cleanse us from past sins, but it cannot save us from ourselves if we have no intent to commit.  "Bearing fruit worthy of repentance" to prove our commitment is very much a part of a much broader and more all-encompassing context. 

The Essenes also shared an apocalyptic vision of the future which looked to the coming of Messiah as the Manual also requires: "[those wishing to enter the Qumran community] shall go into the wilderness to prepare the way of Him, as it is written, 'Prepare in the wilderness the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a path for our God'." 

This seems to be what John was doing; not establishing a new "Christian practice" with no instructions but rather practicing what had long been established.  And since Jesus Himself refers to John as the "greatest", we have to more seriously consider what John was saying and not getting hung up on what we can only guess he may have been doing.  Perhaps more importantly, we should more seriously consider why Jesus found it necessary to go to John.

Commitment is key, I think, to a fuller understanding of baptism as the beginning rather than as a singular event; whether we are talking about the commitment of the Church, the parents, and the godparents at the baptism of an infant in preparing that child for life and service in the Church; or the commitment of a new believer, sponsors, and the Church in preparing that person for life in the Church, the issue is the same because if there is no commitment, no discipline, no accountability, no instruction, no follow through, and no intent to follow through, people just get wet.  And when vows are spoken and then disregarded, there is blasphemy.

Although there is no definitive interdenominational consensus, the one dominant opinion for Jesus' baptism that is consistent with His life, His ministry, His love for all of humanity, and that "fulfills all righteousness" is His willingness to identify with sinful humanity and take upon Himself the sins of the world - as St. Paul describes it to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:21): "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God." 

To "fulfill all righteousness".  That is Messiah's commitment to the Holy Father AND to us.  Shall our commitment be any less to Him who "became sin for us"?

So our "first step" out of the closet this New Year as disciples of Christ is to reconnect and recommit ourselves to our Lord.  Put aside the superstitions and remember the only thing required is commitment to a life beyond oneself and toward the fullness of life in Christ Jesus.

Let the Holy Name be glorified in your life, in my life, and in the life of the United Methodist Church!  In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  

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