It was such a joy to add to the Great Cloud of Witnesses this Sunday in a baptism. Baptism for many is the beginning of their spiritual walk with God. It is a not an individual walk but rather one we do together. The Church of England's "Book of Common Worship" states, Baptism marks the beginning of a journey with God which continues for the rest of our lives, the first step in response to God's love. For all involved, particularly the candidates but also parents, godparents and sponsors, it is a joyful moment when we rejoice in what God has done for us in Christ, making serious promises and declaring the faith. The wider community of the local church and friends welcome the new Christian, promising support and prayer for the future. Hearing and doing these things provides an opportunity to remember our own baptism and reflect on the progress made on that journey, which is now to be shared with this new member of the Church.
The service paints many vivid pictures of what happens on the Christian way. There is the sign of the cross, the badge of faith in the Christian journey, which reminds us of Christ's death for us. Our 'drowning' in the water of baptism, where we believe we die to sin and are raised to new life, unites us to Christ's dying and rising, a picture that can be brought home vividly by the way the baptism is administered. Water is also a sign of new life, as we are born again by water and the Spirit. This reminds us of Jesus' baptism. And as a sign of that new life, there may be a lighted candle, a picture of the light of Christ conquering the darkness of evil. Everyone who is baptized walks in that light for the rest of their lives.
As you pray for the candidates, picture them with yourself and the whole Church throughout the ages, journeying into the fullness of God's love.
What a wonderful picture this paints for all the newly baptized and those of us who are renewing our baptismal covenant. It is a moment when we communally focus on who we are and to whom we belong. We are anointed with oil and marked as Christ's own forever. Certainly we may wax and wane in our personal relationship with God but there is great comfort in knowing we always have a safe place to fall. God never stops loving us or wanting to be near to us. It is the only thing he really expects is that we will just show up, just as we are.
In the reading from I Thessalonians, Paul's love for the risen Christ is palpable in his letter to them. The great persecutor of Christ has an experience of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and in an instant his heart and mind are changed forever. His zeal for the Lord makes him an advocate for us all. Paul wants each and everyone of us to that the same experience. In baptism we are given the opportunity to declare we too want to know and love God deeply. It is a journey which never ends and one we share in together. Thanks be to God!
What about the cross?
What does the cross mean to you? I ask this in all sincerity. In many ways, we have taken the cross and trivialized it. For some it is a fashion statement-a bit of bling at an awards ceremony. For others it is a tattoo on their arm. It is strange to think about an instrument of death as a fashion statement. I mean would someone wear around their neck a sub machine gun as a fashion statement? Unless you are a rap star or a drug dealer I highly doubt you would. But we have come to see the cross as a shiny object to hang around the neck.
We have this week Peter admonishing Jesus for telling them he is going to suffer and die. Jesus in turn says get behind me Satan. In the Greek it is get behind me adversary. Adversary makes more sense in the reading. Once again Peter is trying to keep Jesus for himself or for the disciples. He did it at the Transfiguration and now in this passage he is trying to keep Jesus from doing what he was meant to do here on earth.
Now think back to last week when Jesus said Peter would be the rock on which the church would be built. Now Peter the Rock is Peter the Stumbling Block. He wants to trip Jesus up, get in his way, keep him from fulfilling his mission on earth. Even though just a few short verses ago Peter had great insight into who Jesus is, it is gone in a puff of smoke. Which of course shows Peter’s humanity-a messiah is a great thing in principle but brought face to face with the idea, not so much. Who here wants to think about someone they love and care for to suffer before she dies?
But in Peter’s defense, he lives and breathes the cross on a daily basis. In the book “The Gospel According to Jesus Christ” there is a scene where Joseph is crucified. As far as the eye can see are people who are hanging there. Some dead and rotting on the cross, others actively dying. Rome used crucifixion as a way to restore order when the people became unruly. The religious leaders for their part saw the cross as a way to remove those who posed a threat to their comfortable way of life. The horror of what awaits Jesus has to be in the forefront of Peter’s mind. For us crucifixion is only something we can try and imagine for Peter it is real and very frightening. So let us not be too harsh.
Jesus though takes this instrument of terror and shame to align himself with the despised and the powerless. His willful obedience to God demonstrates there is something more to live for than ourselves. Which brings us to the term salvation. Like the cross we toss that word around quite a bit. We speak of Jesus as our personal Lord and Saviour which is all good-but what does it really mean for us?
Salvation means to us when we die we are forgiven of all our sins and enter into heaven. But Jesus also came to shatter our notion of what salvation is. It is not security, self-fulfillment or pleasure but rather it is to be willing if need be to die as Jesus died. It is also to die to those notions of what makes a person successful-money, status. Salvation in terms of what Jesus sets out is for us to be willing to die for what we believe. Salvation is not some easy road to walk, it requires us to think about who we are and what we want our lives to stand for.
When Jesus tells the disciples those who lose their life will save it. He is telling them they will be mocked and despised just like he will be but they are not to lose hope. His words also put the authorities on notice that the pablum they are running around spouting are empty promises. Real redemption is when a person is able to walk away from what the world deems successful to embrace what God tells us is successful.
This past week we have been inundated with images of people clinging to cars, trees and rooftops. Hanging on for dear life as Harvey pummels them with water, wind, fatigue and cold. What are they waiting for but a savior. And all week long we have been inundated with images of those saviors coming in boats, jet skis, dinghies. The people who have walked away from a warm home and a soft bed to care for others have truly walked the way of the cross. As water streams down their collective faces, they bear witness to what Jesus is telling his disciples the empty promises given by the world are nothing. They are nothing in what we do for another.
I doubt any of the people who are rescuing others think of themselves as martyrs. What they see and know is walking the way of Jesus is not easy. It is cold, it is wet and it is frightening. In those moments, the rescuers don’t care how much money a person has or what color their skin is. They may not even be able to articulate why they are doing what they are doing other than they want to help. They are putting into the action the words of Paul, “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”
This is the way of the cross, not martyrdom but following the our Lord without thought of yourself. Of caring for another enough to be willing to stay out in the cold and the rain so no one is left behind. That is losing your life to save it. This is the Jesus walk.
Who do you say that I am?
When most people are asked who is their favorite disciple, the overwhelming response is Peter. Now in all fairness, he is the most "fleshed out" disciple. Most of us feel affection for him because Peter is so much like us. He says the wrong thing at the wrong time; blunders his way with Jesus and does the worst thing a friend can do to another friend which is abandon Jesus in his hour of need. But we love him anyway and I if we are honest with ourselves, there is a little Peter in all of us. Which makes the reading today so remarkable. Peter intuits just who Jesus is.
If you will recall John the Baptist had the same question about Jesus. As he waits in a cold, lonely jail cell for his impending death, John sends his followers to Jesus to ask the question, "Are you the One? Or are we to wait for another?" Jesus tells John's disciples to report back that the blind see and the lame walk. Peter though knows who Jesus is. Imagine Jesus then putting his hands on Peter's shoulders, staring him in the eyes with a piercing gaze and saying, "Well done!" Peter in turn stands a little straighter and has just a touch more confidence than he had previously.
Each of us in our way longs for someone to put his hands on our shoulder and say "Well done!" For many of us they are words not often heard. We don't often speak them to ourselves. Isn't much of the talk you say negative? Don't you long for someone to say they have confidence in you? Well each of us has that someone. Jesus is the someone. Jesus is the one who is standing next to you, cheering you on and saying he has the utmost trust in you. Are you willing to pay attention and listen?
Here is an exercise to try on your own. The next time you are met with an important decision, stop, pause and imagine Jesus standing in front of you. He has put his hands on your shoulders and looking deep into your eyes, he tells you how important you are to him. He goes on further to say he trusts you will make the right decision and he is there with you every step of the journey. See if you don't feel immediate peace and confidence in yourself. He is there waiting to guide each and every one of us. All we have to do is ask.