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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Spitting it Out
January 17, 2013

Last week we were reminded that the baptism of Jesus testifies that before we make any act of dedication to the Lord, God has already made a claim on us. It is only because God has first called us – You are my child! You are my delight! – that we are in a position to offer ourselves back to God for divine service.

From its earliest generations, the Christian church specified a set of required baptismal responses to God’s claim upon us. They came to be known as our baptismal “promises” or “vows” – that is an appropriate way to describe these responses, so long as we remember that the first and most important baptismal promise is God’s promise to us. Every subsequent promise we make in our life of discipleship – including our ordination vows – is but an extension of the fundamental promises we make in baptism.

For early Christians, the first baptismal declaration was to renounce evil. That is still the first word of the person being baptized in many baptismal liturgies today, including the primary baptismal liturgy in our own Book of Common Worship. Only after renouncing evil does the baptismal candidate profess faith in Jesus as Savior, proclaiming him as Lord and promising to live as his disciple.

In some traditions, the baptizand (yes, that is a word!) was required to face the West, the symbolic direction of evil, and literally to spit westward upon saying “I renounce evil, and all powers in the world that defy God’s righteousness and love.” Only after having spit out his or her rejection of evil did the baptizand profess, “Jesus is my Lord and Savior.”

So, what evil are the baptized called to spit at in our own place and time? One place to begin asking that question is in the context of the very first biblical story of humanity encountering evil, namely the serpent’s tempting invitation to become like God, knowing good from evil. From the beginning of time, humankind’s darkest temptation has been to arrogate to ourselves what belongs to God alone, namely the capacity and right to separate good from evil. (Genesis 3:4)

I heard recently a most insightful sermon in which the preacher contended that the essence of worldliness is to measure things by dividing them, by separating them into what is acceptable and what is not. Adam and Eve sought the capacity to do just that at the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Perhaps one place to start our renunciation of evil is to spit at the all-too-human urge to divide our world in two – insiders and outsiders, good and evil – that is, to take upon ourselves judgments that belong to God alone.

When we choose to separate ourselves from others, we are making a judgment that we no longer need them. Indeed, we’re saying we’re better off apart from them. We know well from Paul that we cannot say that we have no need of another member of Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:21), so the decision to break fellowship with another is a judgment that the one from whom I am breaking fellowship is not really a member of Christ’s body at all – otherwise it is impossible for me to say I have no need of that one.

But here we reach a terrible conundrum, for who am I to say that someone is or is not truly claimed by God as one of God’s Elect? John Calvin highlights, as do our Confessions, the word of Scripture that only “the Lord knows those who are his” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.1.2; Romans 11:34; 2 Timothy 2:19; Second Helvetic Confession 5.055, etc.). Such knowledge belongs to God, not to us. Both Calvin and our Confessions urge us therefore always to treat our neighbor as though they do indeed belong to the household of God.

To determine whom to include in and whom to exclude from my circle of fellowship is to indulge in Eden’s temptation to be like God. So, dear friends, let us forsake this evil, even spit in its face:  We will not engage in making such judgments, even toward those whom we believe to have made such judgments against us. My first solemn promise, in response to God’s claim on me, is to spit on my propensity to seek to be like God in judging who is in and who is out, and in determining whom I need and whom I don’t.

Renouncing evil,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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