1 Peter 3:18-22
Recently when cleaning I came accross an old airline boarding pass stub on the back it said "get the 411 on your 737". At first I thought nothing of it. I knew more or less what it was saying, though I did not know how one was supposed to get the information on the airplane. but then I was struck at how strange this sentence was: being told to get a large number on a much larger number" What would four hundred and eleven have to do with seven hundred and thirty seven. If I didn't know the context that one dials 411 to get informatin and thus the number four hundred and eleven especially if one says "four, one one" communicates "information" and that the number seven hundred and Thirtyseven again when said as "seven, thirtyseven" indicates a type of aircraft, then the message on the back of the boarding pass is either nonsense or cryptic. If for some reason this stub of a boarding pass was passed down from generatin to generation until a time when airplanes and telephone service as we know it had faded completely from memory, the sense of this message that I redily understood would be lost and seen as either non-sense or perhaps some mysterious message in which 411 and 737 would have some mystical meaning. In a sense they do. Only the initiated into phone service and airplanes attach any particular singinficance to those numbers beyond numerical value such that they make sense of the above sentence. When it comes to Lent and Baptism, the liturgy, sacraments in general we as Protestants are often like those in my thought experiment to whom this boarding pass stub has been passed down but for whom the necesary assumptions and context have been lost. For me the work of ecumenism and the vision of this ecumenical congregation is to regain the context of the entire faith of the church. Thus the conjunction today of passages on baptism with the first Sunday in Lent may seem unintelgible to many of us.
On this the first Sunday in Lent we have very similar texts to the Baptism of the Lord. We return to Jesus' Baptism. But now we follow Jesus into the desert and then on to Jesus' proclamation to repent and believe the good-news of the fulfillment and the presence of the Kingdom of God. Peter talks of a baptism that now saves us prefigured by the flood, and we read that God made a Covenant not to destroy the earth in a flood again. Reflecting on baptism at the beginig of Lent places Baptism as a key to the life of discipleship. This suggests that Baptism is a place of beginning of faith. Yet, this is a difficult thing to assert here at Reconciler we have differing emphases on baptism and differing experiences. Some of us have been simply baptized as infants, others as children or adolescents, others as adults. Some of us have not been baptized at all coming from traditions that emphasize the interior experience of faith in Christ over the external sacramental sign. Some of us have been baptized several times. In the season after Epiphany as began our reflections on discipleship I attempted to talk about baptism and its place in Christian faith. We are here again and I feel the need to both assert the centrality of baptism and admit this is adifficult thing to assert in our context. We have a variety of approaches and various understandings of baptism in part are due to perceived and real abuses and misunderstandings concerning baptism and its spiritual reality. Christians have often made the sacraments a magical rite. For Protestants this misunderstanding was often attributed to accretions to the basics of the faith and so Protestants attempted to scrape away the unduly mysterious elements, and at times to the point of finding little or no meaning in the rites, rituals and sacraments of the Church. These external things may be nice but they do not make us Christians, so those who have come before us have said with differing emphases. However, Baptism, the liturgy, communion, Lent, spiritual disciplines are not and were never intended to be things to mark off that one has done to assure one has got the spiritual life under ones own control, rather the forgotten meaning is that all offer us the support of grace and produce in us an openness to God being at work in our lives. They are to use the theological terminology "means of Grace". We are physical creatures what supports our spiritual life is aspects of our physical world infused with spiritual power truth and meaning. This is why Baptism is central to the life of discipleship according to the catholic faith of the Church.
The story of the flood causes us difficulty. We have difficulty assimilating its message. On the face of it God in furry unleashes a great and worldwide devastation. All life except what life can fit on the ark, is destroyed, and then God promises not to do that again. Yet, the story can be read as being about the human capacity to ignore God and life, and the consequences of this and God, seeking to both bring an end to violence and evil and to preserve life. I see such a reading as fitting into our current debate about Global warming. We have an awareness of pollution and debates over how we raise our food, and I think can appreciate that human actions and carelessness can have physical destructive consequences that effect more than just those most directly responsible. However, the overall story of the flood is also about how God has held back the full consequences of humanities collective actions, by preserving a few. Also God puts a reminder in the physical cosmos not only to us but to God's self regarding God's promise not to bring such destruction upon the whole earth. Peter also points out that from the point of view after Jesus Christ we see that God has moved from simply holding back the ultimately destructive consequences of our fallenness and propensity to be forgetful and careless and has offered a solution, and we enter into that solution in faith and Baptism.
So, Peter says that Baptism now saves. Does this not sound strange to us? Have we not lost the ability to hear Peter on this point. I know that I am prone to read that and say Peter didn't really mean what is plainly there before us. And it is easy to do so because Peter does not dwell on this for long the original readers shared Peter's assumptions. Though he does need to explain that "baptism now saves" Peter does need to offer a a corrective: this is not merely an external act of bathing, but of something deeper, and bringing us in connection with the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul in a few of the epistles speaks of it more deliberately and clearly, saying that in baptism we are buried with Christ and raised with him. We are identified with the one who from his own Baptism he was sent into the desert for 40 days to struggle with the devil. so this Baptism is also a place from which we are sent by the Spirit, who is given to us in Baptism, who descends upon us like Jesus Christ. While Baptism is to be something that happens to us once, we are to our remember and return to our baptism recalling its grace and power our entire lives. Once we are Baptized it is a great spiritual resource for us. Baptism is our salvation because it is the vehicle through wihc God unites us with Christ. Due to the presence of the Spirit in the waters of baptism and that through the Spirit we are identified with Christ out of baptism we live out the life of discipleship.
Faith alone is not enough! My faith, all by itself, in as much as it comes from me is weak. My own ability to trust God is poor. Thankfully God does not expect us to drum up continually faith in God and Jesus Christ, rather through the Church we have been given supports of our faith, reminders, spiritual resources of Grace. Holy Communion is where we receive the body and blood of Christ as the spiritual food and the medicine of immortality that gives us the strength to live out the calling of our discipleship and the medicine that heals us of the wound of sin, and thus give us life. Baptism does not replace faith but is the source and foundation of faith. Baptism is the support of faith because it is that which unwaveringly connects us to the objects of our faith, the life death and resurrection of Christ. In baptism we are fully brought into the solution God has provided for human tendency towards destructiveness. In baptism we are made one with Christ and thus can hear the voice that speaks of our deep and abiding connection with God. In baptism the recreation of the world begins, not through destruction, but through rebirth. All that we have in faith in Christ, begins and is grounded in baptism and is gift as the Spirit marks us as Christ's own. And so the waters of baptism now save us.
Lent recalls to us the full impact and reality of our faith, those parts of the faith we individually or corporately have forgotten. In response to this confrontation we can try to focus on the externals, or we can try to force ourselves to be conformed to the image of Christ. We can see Lent as a time of wilderness where we on our own power imitate Christ. And certainly Christians at times have chosen to so see Lent as such: a time to get themselves cleaned up for God. Ironically those who rejected these outward and purely fleshly interpretations of religious observance and sacraments, rejected baptism or that baptism was anything more than a thing we did in obedience to Christ. In rejecting this outward form of faith and the place of physicality as a site of the Grace we failed to see that faith, at least Christian faith, is faith in the creator of all things seen and unseen, material and immaterial, physical and spiritual, and thus we are not caleld to live beyond the physical. Being the creator of the physical world God never intended faith to be internal and "purely spiritual". God never intended that we reject the salvific path found in the stuff of the earth. God puts a visible physical reminder in the sky, not only to remind humans but to remind God's self. God is not disconnected from Creation, never was, and certainly is not now after the coming of the Son in human flesh in Jesus Christ. Our Protestant forbearers were right if our faith is merely external and we think that walking through the correct rituals, saying the right things, getting doused with water, smeared in ash, lighting enough incense, and eating or not eating the right foods means God must accept us, then our faith is empty and idolatrous. However, what many of our protestant forbears failed to realize is that our faith is equally powerless if we turn our struggle into a merely internal and disembodied one. If we make our faith and belief into the key without any physical expression or support then we lock ourselves into the grand swings of faith and doubt, and a life unremitting and merciless self-examination. In such a state for most of us then the freedom and joy of the faith is rarely ours. My sisters and brothers the catholic faith of the Church has always been that mere faith that refuses the physical world is without power and trust in the mere externals of religious ritual is foolishness and an empty shell. The catholic faith has always affirmed that true faith begins in acknowledging that God is creator of all, and as creator brings about our salvation through physical things and by becoming eternaly connected with the physical in joining divinity and humanity in the person and body of Jesus Christ. Baptism and communion, incense and fasting, are not just nice things they are the way God gives us God's grace and the way we remove ourselves from having to do it ourselves. In partaking in the rites, sacraments and spiritual disciplines we allow God to transform us. This is the meaning of these things we Christians often forget and we Protestants especially. Faith is not something we drum up in ourselves or something that comes divorced from our bodies and our physicality. Such a divorced faith has little staying power in the face of doubts, and only in the most fastidious produces a righteousness able to counter sin. However, we in water, in eating blessed bread and wine, in being anointed with holy oil, in hearing words spoken of forgiveness receive from God the gift our our selves being renewed in a world being reborn.
This Lent, remember none of what we do is about getting cleaned up. We can't clean ourselves up. We can't make ourselves right. We cannot image Christ by our own effort. There is no work or ritual any of us can perform no word I can say based in my own wisdom that will cause you and us to reflect Christ and be Christ to the world. But God in baptism makes us new, upholds our faith and gives us Grace. We come to Lent to remind ourselves that we can't do it by our own striving. In whatever we do in Lent, in fasting, in giving alms in returning, to disciplines we let drop, in taking up new ones, we remind ourselves that we are weak and in need of God at all times and in all ways and that without God's grace our own efforts amount to nothing. So, I encourage you if you still have questions about your baptism whether you were baptized as an infant or baptized more than once or never been baptized, maybe this Lent and Easter is time to accept the gift of grace in baptism and find yourself afloat in the waters of new birth. After all we are on the journey to Easter. Perhaps this year Easter will not be about believing in the Risen one but about the Risen one bearing you up and transfiguring you with the uncreated light of God. And may we all remember that what we do, we do so that we may be born up in our life of discipleship by the grace of God offered to us in and through our physicality. Amen