May 13, 2012
Gospel: John 15:9-17
1st Reading: Acts 10:44-48
2nd Reading: 1 John 5:1-6
“Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?” This is basically the same question we had in last week’s lesson when the Ethiopian Eunuch asks, “Here is some water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The answer to these questions might not be so obvious. “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing?” The answer to the question in the early Christian church would have been yes. And to the question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the answer might well be, “Everything!”
There was a debate going on at the time about whether you had to follow the Jewish laws to be Christian or whether Gentiles could be Christian, too. So far the Christian church had been made up of all Jewish people. To follow Jesus, you had to be circumcised, follow the dietary laws, follow all the holiness laws about washing and sacrificing, etc. So as Christianity was forming, it was thought by many that you’d need to follow all the Jewish laws, too. Jesus, himself, said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill the law.”
So for Gentiles to try to sign on and be baptized, it would have been out of the question for most. And for an Ethiopian Eunuch to ask to be baptized and what could possibly prevent that, early Christians would have said that many things prevented it including his race, his damaged state as a Eunuch, his lack of understanding of scripture, and his lack of community to share in his faith.
And I don’t know if we are any better about this today. Certainly we don’t ask people whether they are circumcised before agreeing to baptize them, or if they eat pork or made a sacrifice or anything. But I fear what we do with baptism in the Christian church. We make it too easy and we make it too hard. We turn it into an initiation ritual into our church rather than the blessing and empowerment from God that it was intended to be. On the one hand we don’t want to make it a burden to be a Christian—to have rules and expectations that are too steep to even attempt so people give up in despair. On the other hand we don’t want to follow the cheap grace road that it is meaningless and doesn’t mean your life is changed in any way.
Recently a young woman asked me if we do private baptism. She does not go to church. But she believes it would be a meaningful thing for her young son. It is difficult to respond. On the one hand, here is some water, what is to prevent that child from being baptized? Who am I to stand in the way of that? Would Jesus really tell her no? I don’t think he would. He didn’t line up a bunch of rules that people have to follow before talking to them or welcoming them. He accepted them where they are at.
On the other hand, baptism is done in community. It isn’t something done away from other people. It isn’t a “me and God” moment. It takes God working through other people to help raise a kid to know about how much God loves them and to help show them how to love other people and have compassion. After Jesus talked to the woman at the well and after he healed the paralyzed man, he said, “Go and sin no more.” There is an expected life change that happens after an encounter with Jesus. There is something different.
And it isn’t just about baptism, but it is about how we live our lives as Christians. We can’t over-burden ourselves or other people. And yet the life of a Christian ought to be weighty. It ought to be meaningful and life-changing. We don’t expect anyone to give their last dime to the church or to give so much they can’t support themselves, and yet we ought to tithe enough so that we feel it. We don’t expect anyone to make themselves sick in service to the poor, volunteering so much their family life goes down the tubes. And yet we want people to stretch themselves beyond their comfort level, to do more than what is simple and easy.
In the end, each person has to decide for themselves what their level of giving or service will be and what will be their level of church attendance and devotion. I can help guide as a pastor and challenge and help remind people to also practice self-care. I can try to be an example of a good balance. Maybe I can be an example of how that struggle plays out. Sometimes I am overtired and other times maybe I play a little too much. I have tended to work too hard, I think, and am working to move a little more toward spending time with my family. I need to be sure to raise a son who also knows what it means to be balanced and healthy as well as giving.
As Christians we are freed in Christ. In the second reading for today it says we are children of God if we obey his commandments. That is a poor translation. It really says if we do his commandments and keep his commandments. We are freed because of our relationship to God and God’s forgiveness and love. Because of that relationship we are freed to be ourselves and freed to be who God made us. And because of that relationship we have responsibility to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, helping our neighbor and trying to live in a way that brings God’s Kingdom to those on the fringes. It is a kind of both/and, the freedom and the responsibility. But what a blessing that we don’t have to do anything out of guilt or obligation, but we do what we can because God has loved us and freed and empowered us to love.
So I walked that line about the baptism. I asked if they intended when the child was able, to bring him to services in God’s house, since that is one of the promises in the baptismal service. I, of all people, know how difficult it is to mess with a baby’s sleep schedule and that this kind of service doesn’t work for a baby who naps anywhere between 9 and 11:30, which I have to believe is most babies. I told them that we don’t do private baptisms, but that a baptism doesn’t necessarily have to happen at church. We could do a baptism somewhere else. If you don’t go to church, you might feel hypocritical or awkward having it at church. And we need to surround this child with Christian community in whatever form. Family and friends can be invited. But someone needs to be that community surrounding that child and teaching him and loving him with a love that comes from God, is God’s.
To tell someone “no” that we won’t baptize because they don’t meet the norm, is not going to help. But to find a way for God’s love to be known, for God’s love to be a “yes” in their lives is what God asks us to do. That family may never come to church, but you never know if someday in that child’s life, maybe even after they grow up, they remember they are loved and claimed and connected by a power greater than themselves who empowers them to live and love more fully. And because of that, even when churches are no longer, the love of God will remain and grow and touch countless lives.