A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Getting Wet with Jesus
January 10, 2013
This week the church’s liturgical calendar calls us to remember the baptism of our Lord, and believers are encouraged in so doing to remember their own baptism also. Martin Luther was reputed to be heard sometimes shouting in his inner chambers, “I am baptized!” Asked about those outbursts, he replied that he was combatting the doubts of his salvation that were assailing him. He was in effect saying, “It may be open to debate whether my heart is fully right before God, and it may be open to debate whether I am worthy of God’s mercy. But one thing is not debatable – I did get wet in the waters of baptism! And in that I rest my hope.”
No less for us than for Luther, baptism is a tangible sign and seal that our place in God’s household is assured first of all, not by the level of our commitment to God, but because of God having made a claim on us. My place at the Lord’s Table is set by God’s initiative, not mine.
John preaches the preparatory sermon, but the only words at the baptism itself come from heaven – “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) By appointing baptism as the sign of our entry into the household of faith, Jesus underscores that – just as for himself at his baptism – our place in God’s family is something declared to us by God, rather than something we choose or achieve. The baptismal promises we make are not the basis of our baptism, but simply our faith response to God’s promises. That’s not to say they don’t matter; they do, but only secondarily.
I grew up in a tradition that understood baptism as primarily our action. We considered baptism primarily an act of human obedience to the Lord’s command. When we slipped off the straight and narrow, a look to our baptism only reminded us that our standing before God depended on our obedience, so we had better get our act together, or else!
The story of Jesus’ baptism suggests a very different paradigm. As Jesus gets wet, heaven opens and God declares, “This one belongs to me. He makes me swell with delight!” The same is true for all of us who have been baptized in his name. It is indubitable that we got wet, and we confess it to be equally certain that God spoke over us also, “This one belongs to me, and brings me great delight!”
Sometimes Paul’s words in Philippians 3 are recalled at the start of a New Year: “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead…” (Philippians 3:13) And rightly so. We would do well to let the turn of the New Year remind us that God calls us always to set our face steadfastly forward, expecting new and better things in the days ahead. The backward look that ruefully compares where we are today with where we used to be offers no help to us in the journey God has appointed for us. Look forward, look further forward, and then look forward still. Great advice, Brother Paul!
But notice that Paul bases his posture of always straining forward on a prior condition: he is able to persist forward toward his God-given destiny because he knows himself to be divinely chosen to be part of the race in the first place. “I press on to make it my own, because Christ has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12) Whatever we aspire to achieve, it is possible only because God has already made us to be something beyond anything we could achieve, or even imagine on our own.
One of the ways this all comes home to us is in our temptation to think that our place in God’s household – that is, in the church – is ours to choose. We can choose to affiliate here or there, depending on our preference or conviction. That’s the American way; it’s the way of our culture, the way of those who think we are free to make ourselves whatever we want and do with ourselves whatever we please. But does it accurately reflect God’s way with us? What would the church look like if our circle of fellowship and shared mission were grounded in a firm conviction that we are who we are where we are doing what we are, not by virtue of our own choice, but by virtue of God’s claim on us?
That’s what our sharing in Christ’s baptism teaches us. Thankfully, God’s embrace of us depends not on our own efforts or merits, but on the One who speaks over all of us who have gotten wet with Jesus, “This is my beloved Child, with whom I am well pleased.” As we press forward into the New Year, let us do so with the firm assurance that God in Christ has made us his own – and that means the future is more wonderful for us than we can possibly imagine!
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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