One day some years ago my nephew, who is all grown up with a family of his own now, was telling his uncle the minister about his recent baptism into the Christian faith. You see, unlike our own Congregational tradition of baptizing children and adults with the sprinkling of water on the forehead, Josh grew up in a church that advocates a “believer’s baptism” by full immersion; and so, at the age of 11 or 12, he had just been baptized in the waters of the Aroostook River during the late spring, actually not long after the ice had gone out of that river! It had been, without a doubt, an important day for him, and when I spoke with him about it, I asked him, “How did it feel?” And without a beat – I’ll never forget it – he answered, “It was cold! And I got wet!”
Now, that wasn’t exactly the answer I was looking for, but considering that he was still a kid at the time, it was about as honest as it gets; and maybe even closer to the truth of it than he realized! Frederick Buechner – that wonderful writer and theologian – has actually written that whereas the technique of baptism (as he puts it, “getting dunked or sprinkled”) ultimately doesn’t matter that much, dunking is probably the better symbol; because going under the water represents the end of everything about your life, and “coming up again symbolizes the beginning in you of something strange and new and hopeful.” That’s a great analogy; and as over the years I’ve actually had the opportunity as a pastor a handful of times to perform the Sacrament of Baptism by immersion, I can tell you that the very first thing experienced by those being baptized in this way is being pulled up out of this water that has just wholly enveloped them, and then being dripping wet and feeling the environment around them in a new and sharply more profound fashion!
So it follows that since by definition in baptism we’re “immersed in Christ” it is to be an experience in which we are left “dripping wet” with Christ’s presence and power. It is meant to change our perception of the world around us – oftentimes radically so – which in turn affects a change not only in behavior, but also in outlook. It is no accident that those who come to faith will often experience a shift in their own ethical and moral standard. Granted, some of those changes happen overnight while others might unfold slowly and gradually; but the changes do come, for it is impossible to be “immersed” in Christ without taking on a “Christ-likeness.”
So what does it feel like to be baptized? Odds are that most of us in this room today don’t remember much about the sacrament itself, especially if we were baptized as infants or as young children; but that said, I suspect that most of us can say something about what that baptism represents for us. So let me ask this a different way: What’s it like for you to be immersed in Jesus Christ? What does it mean to have Christ’s presence and power in your life? How does it feel to be named and claimed as a Christian? And what difference does that make in your life and living; how does that affect your relationships with your family, your friends and the people you encounter from day to day; hey, how does your baptism inform your conversation with the cranky check-out person at the supermarket, or in dealing with your average “customer service representative?” The question is, what is it like for you to be truly “Christ-like” in a world that more often than not is anything but?
That’s actually the very question that Paul addresses in our text for this morning, a rapid-fire admonition to the Christians at Rome as to the marks of a true Christian and the supremacy of Christ’s love in all that we do. I have to tell you I’ve always had a particular fondness for piece of scripture; not only for what Paul has to say, but also for the context in which he says it. You see, the Epistle of Romans is arguably one of the most “theological” works of the New Testament; by that I mean that this is the place where we encounter the fundamental truths that make up the very foundation of our Christian faith: things like sin and salvation; the sovereignty and righteousness of God, and the sure and certain promise that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:39) Paul’s words in this Epistle have long been considered perhaps the clearest and most systematic presentation of Christian doctrine in all the Scriptures; which makes it all the more interesting that just about the time we reach the 12th chapter, its whole focus seems to change!
Let me explain this: you see, up till now, Paul’s been dealing with some rather heavy truths regarding the sinful nature of all humanity in the eyes of God, justification by faith, freedom from sin, and victory in Christ; but now, and fairly abruptly I might add, Paul starts talking to the Romans need to present themselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God,” (12:1) about them not being “conformed to this world,” but focused instead on “what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2) And from there, and this is where we picked up the reading this morning, Paul goes on to list some 30 (!) imperatives for the Christian life, beginning with “let love be genuine,” and ending with the admonition to “not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Now, some biblical scholars have wondered if, as is often the case in Paul’s letters, there was some conflict or division amongst the believers in Rome that might have prompted this kind of exhortation; but in fact, if anything, Paul might well have been “preaching to the choir,” so to speak as the Romans were already growing swiftly in their faith in Christ. No, this is a passage that presents a much bigger picture: it’s what it means to live life after that of the crucified and risen Christ; it’s the practice of what it is we believe (or as we were taught it in seminary, from the latin, it is the praxis of our theology). What we’re talking about here is our new life in Christ, and the down-to-earth realities of our living a life that’s tethered to heaven!
In truth, it’s pretty practical advice for, as we sang earlier, “the living of these days.” It’s about rejoicing in hope and being patient in suffering; giving of yourself freely and abundantly to others, especially to those in need, and not getting too puffed up about it when you do. It’s about how, “if it is possible, so far as it depends on you, liv[ing] peaceably with all,” and it’s about giving food and drink even to those who are your enemies, for by doing so (and this, I must confess, is my favorite part!) “you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (You know, when I was in seminary, I actually asked one of my professors – my Old Testament professor, for some reason – what that verse really means; and he answered me in his rich Hungarian voice in a way I’ll never forget: “It means, Meester Lowry, that you keel them with kindness!”) Truly, the mark of a true Christian is living in such a way that you “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
It is, once again, to be Christ-like in a world that is anything but! It’s our being immersed in Christ, and dripping with his power and presence when most of the people around us don’t know or care; and yes, it’s about how we relate to the people who do know, and who tend to belittle us for caring ourselves: as Paul says it, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” And yes, it’s about morality and ethics, but as William Willimon has put it, “not ethics like we usually do ethics. Here is an ethic based not upon moralizing lists of do’s and don’ts, [nor] the carping advice of the ethically presumptuous. Here is an ethic based upon who we really are and are meant to be” by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.
In that regard, it’s no accident that Paul begins this “ethical mission statement,” if you will, with the admonition to “let love be genuine,” or, as its translated elsewhere, “sincere,” or “without hypocrisy.” (Or, if you want to get to the heart of matter, as The Message puts it, “Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it.”) Because love – as it’s given to us in Jesus Christ and as it is meant to be shared by us – is the starting place for everything else. Everything we are and everything we see to be as persons baptized in Christ Jesus proceeds from love: from hating what is evil and holding fast to what is good; to living in harmony with one another and also“ [taking] thought for what is noble in the sight of all” even as it applies to those who have hurt you. Because it’s that kind of love that says everything about who – and whose – you truly are!
While I was in high school we had this Sunday School teacher who used to absolutely love asking us very deep and profound questions of faith; like, “Is there a Christian way to go to McDonald’s?” Believe it or not, that was a hot topic of conversation amongst our little band of 10th graders! And quite honestly, beyond maybe saying a little prayer over a Big Mac and an order of fries, we really weren’t all that sure that our believing in God and Jesus mattered much in a place like that! I mean, it’s fast food… it’s hanging out with our friends… it’s not religious; or like going to church, or like anybody even knows who we are there or what we believe!
Well, I found myself thinking about that Sunday School teacher’s question all day yesterday; as I joined with a dozen other members of this congregation as paid volunteer “guest screeners” out at the raceway, checking coolers and bags for glass containers and other various and sundry items that are prohibited from being brought into the Grandstand area. We literally saw hundreds of people over the course of those 11 hours; and the truth is the vast majority of those people had absolutely no idea we were from a church; and in fact, based on a couple of conversations I had throughout the course of the day, if they’d had some inkling that we were church people or that I was a minister they might have actually been a little embarrassed (or maybe not!). But that wasn’t why we were there; this wasn’t a mission outreach for us, or any kind of evangelical crusade; who we are as members of East Congregational United Church of Christ really didn’t enter into our tasks as “Race Day” workers, not at all!
…I can’t help but think that who we are as Christians made a difference: in the smiles and laughter that was shared with all those people who came through the lines all day; in the help, understanding and patience that was offered to those who really weren’t all that sure where they were supposed to be; in the “soft answer that turneth away wrath” amongst those who had their fill of understanding and patience; and in some little conversations here and there in which people were heard and listened to, supported in the midst of whatever was for them the challenge and struggle of that day, and maybe even reminded for just a moment they needed it most that there are good people in this world who do care.
Did “Team East Church” change the world for the sake of Jesus Christ yesterday? Probably not… but then again, who’s to say that someone in that huge mix of people yesterday wasn’t moved or even inspired by the effort that was made just because of who we are and what we believe? Just sayin’ (!)
Turns out that there is a “Christian way of going to McDonald’s…” just as there is a Christian way of being at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, just as there is a Christian way of dealing with friends, neighbors, colleagues, enemies and everyone else in the larger circle of your world; and it begins with letting the presence and power of Jesus Christ in your life shine through.
It’s true, you know, what they say: that you and I might well be the only Bible some people will ever read. How we live and how we love does tend to teach others more about God and Christ and faith than all the words we speak and the claims we make. If we want our children, our neighbors and our world to understand what it feels like to be followers of Christ and to live as the people of God, it starts by the way we live; you and me, ever and always tethered to heaven while sharing that love to everyone in our reach here on earth.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry