A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
God’s Amazing Welcome
January 10, 2019
The 2000 movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” includes one of the most remarkable baptismal scenes in the film catalog. While the faithful throng to the river to be baptized, they sing an old American spiritual, “Down to the River to Pray,” raising an old song from relative obscurity to broad subsequent popularity.
The Bible’s first recorded instance of a baptismal service features crowds flocking down to the Jordan River to pray in response to the fiery revivalist John the Baptist. After proclaiming their need to repent, he marched them into the river and baptized them. Cleansing from the stain of particular sins in a mikvah, a ritual bath, was stipulated in ancient Levitical law. (e.g., Leviticus 15:1-30) That eventually led to a more general practice of washing converts in moving water.
What makes the story of John’s baptismal crusade extraordinary is that Jesus got baptized. When they penned the story of Jesus’ baptism, the Gospel writers knew well that Christians confessed him to be sinless. So why would Jesus get baptized if he had no sin to wash away?
Something extraordinary and unprecedented happens at the moment of Jesus’ baptism. A voice from heaven announces God’s claim on Jesus as “my Son, the Beloved.” (Luke 3:22) For Jesus, baptism was about God making a public claim on him, rather than about him getting right with God.
The early church tied Christian baptism to repentance, as Peter’s Pentecost sermon indicates, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.” (Acts 2:38) Yet Christian baptism was more than a sign of washing from sin; it was also understood as a sign of God’s public claim on believers. Paul likens Christian baptism to the ancient rite of circumcision, a visible sign of God’s claim on individuals administered in infancy, long before they could repent from their sin. (Colossians 2:11-14) For Paul, this means that Christian baptism is more about God’s agency than about our own.
This coming Sunday Christians around the world celebrate the Baptism of our Lord. In so doing, we remind ourselves that all who are baptized in his name are, like Jesus, thereby claimed by God as God’s own. We belong to God not because of what we have done to reach out to God, but because of God reaching out to us.
Baptism is the beginning of our lifelong journey to become who we already are – saints of God, chosen by God out of God’s boundless love lavished on us in and through Jesus, God’s Beloved Son. Those who are baptized still have plenty of repenting to do, and will do so for the remainder of their days on earth. Only in our death is our baptism made complete.
Many believers across the centuries have been vexed with the question, “How can I know for sure that I belong to God’s chosen family?” Our sins are ever before us, and we worry that a righteous God must thereby consider us infidels. Our lives are marred by a series of broken promises to God, like a series of broken New Year’s resolutions. Every effort we make to amend ourselves falls short.
Yet those who have been grafted into Christ, witnessed by the sign of baptism, are thereby forever claimed by God as God’s own, just as surely as Jesus was. Our hope rests not on how good our repentance may be, but on how good God is to us.
I invite us to consider not only what this means for our own selves, but also for others who have been baptized. If God has claimed them, just as God has claimed us, we necessarily belong to each other. Every act of rejection of a fellow-believer is an act of rejecting God’s claim on them. It is in this light that Paul entreats believers, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you.” (Romans 15:7) Your welcome and mine are rooted in the same divine promises, the same baptism, the same work of the same Savior. By welcoming you without condition, I express my confidence that God has done the same for me.
You are welcome! I am welcome! Thanks be to God!
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
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