One Baptism: seeing Beloved-ness amid our differences

My Brother John is much quieter than I am. John has been known to “that growing up with me it was hard to get in a word edgewise”. John is thinner,  rides his bicycle religiously (one year over 5000 miles), played the bassoon in college, and earned a doctorate in Multi-ethnic Ministry from Wesley. I am a bit thicker, swim around 100 miles each year, and may relax best to the hum of the tractor on our family farm.  We all are different. How boring a world would it be if every restaurant shared one culture, one cuisine, and one menu? We are enriched by foods, music and insights from all around the world. Yet, often our culture over- accentuates our differences.  When introducing my brother, why do I focus on our differences? We shared the same parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, coaches, childhood diet, church upbringing, hometown, high school, and university.  Growing up Southern Baptist we are both now United Methodist pastors. So why would I focus on our differences? Last summer, John and his wife Becky joined my family for our first family vacation as adults. We tent camped and cooked on a camp-stove for 4 nights, in 3 tents, all sharing one massive SUV. The grocery run was the most stressful part of vacation for me: 1 vegan,1 broken foot, 1 gluten-free, and 1 lactose intolerant, and 7 adult opinions about meals.  I learned that tofu hotdogs easily fall off a roasting skewer but are delicious after a 7 mile hike. I feel sure that the grizzly who meandered across the trail less than 50 feet away lumped us together in the same annoying human family. Thankfully, the bear went back to their breakfast of trailside berries.  In Ephesians 3, Paul rejoices in the “many different varieties of God’s wisdom”! Why do we have a hard time seeing the humanity of those who see the world differently?  

Paul reminds us that “there is one body, one spirit, one God, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one Creator of us all” (Ephesians 4) but so often we focus more on our differences than what we share. We are a divided nation, culture, and denomination, focused more on our likes, wants, and theologies than Jesus, God’s call, or the needs of our neighbors. In 1517, the western church desperately needed reform, but along with much slow-coming good, like the ordination of women and wider sense of inclusion, the Protestant Reformation over emphasized personalized faith, localized Christianity, and our differing theologies. There are some 45,000 denominations in the world. That number does not include the growing trend of local non-denominational or community churches that are denominations unto themselves. Focusing on ourselves we have schism-ed and splintered away from Jesus’ prayer for the church in John 17: “that we might be one. So that the world might believe that God really sent Jesus”.  Our love of holding power, besting theological opponents, removing dissent, and guarding the current orthodoxy turns us away from Christ and one another. We lack Christ’s wide open heart. We lack the peace-giving knowledge that Jesus alone will judge us. (Matthew 7)  The American Church seems more worried about who’s right than who is hungry, dying, without hope, or left out. 

Even in regards to the mechanics of our initiating sacrament, baptism, our churches tend to emphasize our differences: How much water to use, when to baptize, can we baptize more than once, and who can officiate a baptism? These differences seem to capture our energy and imagination more than the joy of celebrating lives transformed by our Creator, Christ our Savior, and the Holy Spirit who guides and comforts everyone.  We are a bit like wedding guests fussing over beads on the brides’ dresses, one missed note, or bland punch and we miss the joy and beauty of two souls inviting God into the very center of their lives together. Let me be clear that I think the UMC has the best theology of baptism,  but If the mechanics of baptism deeply mattered, why did Jesus not bother to leave behind a prescribed ritual?  God’s promise to be with us matters more than our mechanics! Infant or deathbed, fully immersed or baptized with a teardrop, God is faithful and can get us where we need to be.  (Romans 14) Let us rejoice in Christ’s presence in baptism, believing that God is faithful and will show up in the lives of the baptized!  

I love that our United Methodist Baptismal Ritual announces; that baptism is not about any one of us but about God.

Siblings in Christ: through the Sacrament of Baptism

we are initiated into Christ’s holy church.

  We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation

and given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

In our lectionary passage, Jesus comes to the Jordan River where John was preaching and baptizing people. As Jesus drew near, John, acting as priest, tried to stop Jesus from being baptized.  Linger in that. John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?”

“I need to be baptized by you, yet you come to me?” I love that. What if we all honored each other so deeply? What if we cultivated an awareness of God’s image in everyone who stands before us?  We might push back and argue that we would all so honor Jesus- but Jesus reminds us that whenever we feed, clothe, liberate or baptize anyone, God is standing right there before us! (Matthew 25) How differently might we treat others if we focused on the belovedness of everyone we encounter? “Open your home to strangers, for who knows you might host an angel unaware! ( Hebrews 13) What if we all stepped back from the Judge’s bench and humbly asked ourselves “how can you come to me, who am I to exercise religious authority over you, don’t I need to be baptized by you?”  

Jesus answered, “Allow me to be baptized now. This is necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”  Jesus does not launch into an elaborate theological explanation or cite any church rules. Jesus sees no need to defend his messianic position. Instead, Jesus articulates his own need asking “allow me to be baptized.”  John agrees to baptize Jesus without further questions or interrogation. (John will later send disciples to check Jesus out- so at some level John is operating from a place of trust.) 

“When Jesus was baptized, Christ immediately came up out of the water. Heaven was opened and Jesus saw the Spirit of God coming down like a dove and resting on him.” (The Gospels do not make clear what the crowd heard and saw.) “A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find delight in him.”   When have you deeply felt God’s deep acceptance?  As a child, I was blessed to feel beloved at home and in the warm teachers who led Sunday School.  I have felt the Divine Acceptance in prayer, kneeling in communion, singing hymns, reading Scripture, in all kinds of poetry and music, in friend’s laughter and in hiking with my brother.  Where have you felt God’s deep love for you?  

Jesus felt it important to share his holy moment of divine acceptance with the disciples; of naming aloud “you are beloved”. In the toughest moments of Jesus’ life this deep moment of divine acceptance helped Jesus power through.  (John 8, 15, Luke 10)  So today as we remember our baptism, let each of us rejoice for in the moments we have felt our belovedness, those passing moments when the clouds seem to part and we hear God whisper our names. And  then let us move out into the deeper end and rejoice that “God so loves the whole world…” ( John 3)  We do not need to be the same or believe the same theologies to share the same Belovedness. If you have felt Christ’s deep love, how do you share the message “you are beloved” with our neighbors who are longing for faith, hope and love? 

Baptism celebrates God’s presence and love for and with us all…

Siblings in Christ: through the Sacrament of Baptism,

We are all initiated into Christ’s holy church.

  into God’s mighty acts of salvation

and given new birth through water and the Spirit.

All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.

Baptism is not about our earned religious status, our deep knowledge of theology, or even our goodness. Baptism is about God’s great gift: Jesus the Word made flesh to be with us. We like siblings reflecting on their childhoods, we do not all see Jesus in the same way. That is okay. We who read four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John should know that our differing perspectives and understandings are okay. Indeed, John closed his Jesus’ story writing “Jesus did many other things as well. If all of them were recorded, I imagine the world itself wouldn’t have enough room for the scrolls that would be written.” ( John 21) I imagine John thinking that he had just given a little snapshot of the working of Christ and trusted that God would write new stories in the lives of each reader. What story of belovedness is Christ writing in your life? When we realize our belovedness we will not need to judge anyone else to feel loved, but instead we will be able to delight in those who stand before us. Wrapped in Love we might even ask  “who am I that you, a beloved child of God, come to me?”  Amen. 

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