church

Solidarity

Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”


Just like John the Baptist, we can resist the idea of Jesus undergoing baptism. When we consider his divine perfection—his sinlessness—a baptism of repentance is difficult to comprehend.

We need to see Jesus’ submission to baptism as a gift, however.

Let’s consider all this from the perspective of people who want to belong to a group. If you’ve never wanted to belong to a group, you are an unusual person, a true lone wolf. For most of us, finding some sort of group identity can be critically important to achieving worldly success and happiness.

My mind goes to the high school and young adult years, that decade or so when we make an intense exploration of who we are. As we reject some groups and pursue membership in others, our identities begin to take shape. We continue to repeat these processes our entire lives, but the teen and young-adult years are called “formative” for a reason.

You all know how this works. Once you’ve identified a group you want to enter, you have to figure out who the gatekeepers of the group are, and what they require for admission. You begin working on your application. It’s probably not on paper, but you’re going through an application process, nonetheless.

This process can be very healthy; well-run sports teams or academic clubs with principled leaders are good examples. This process also can be very unhealthy. Think of street gangs, where people who see limited prospects band together for survival, or ethically challenged business efforts, where profits supersede normal rules of behavior and concern for others.

Jesus, of course, is the gatekeeper for Christianity. But as he did so often in ministry, he turned the role upside-down.

Instead of us going to him for admission to the kingdom, he first comes to us. It is as if the coolest kid in school showed up at your door one day and said, “You’re going to run with me and my crew.”

Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity with humanity. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths. It also was in many ways his first step toward the cross.

Jesus also was saying he would handle the admission requirements for us. Only someone holy and pure could pass the test, and we didn’t stand a chance.

It is only because of Jesus’ work that we can undergo baptism ourselves to establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into membership in the kingdom of heaven.

And of course, like any group we desire to join, there are benefits. It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather to worship the one who saves us, remember who we are, and then behave accordingly.

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Clinging to the Gunwales

Matthew 14:22-33

We should read the story of Jesus walking on the water as a real miracle, of course, but this story also has long served Christians as allegory. The sea stands for the world; the boat is Christ’s church.

Having accomplished his miracle of feeding the multitudes, Jesus told his disciples to take a boat across the Sea of Galilee to Gennesaret. He stayed behind to send the crowds home. Scottish theologian William Barclay notes that a parallel story in John 6:1-15 indicates the crowd wanted to take Jesus by force and make him king. Barclay speculates Jesus sent the disciples away because they were not yet spiritually mature enough to handle the tense situation.

Whatever the reason, once the disciples had departed and the crowds were gone, Jesus finally was able to go up the mountain and find the solitude he had sought since learning of John the Baptist’s brutal, senseless execution.

Try to see the ensuing hours like contrasting scenes swapping back and forth in a movie. Jesus was in prayer, presumably at peace. At the same time, the disciples were tossed to and fro in one of those violent windstorms known to arise on the Sea of Galilee. As Jesus sank deeper into an understanding of his father’s will, the boat sank lower in the water, leaving the disciples clinging to the gunwales, the highest planks of the boat.

In the early hours before sunrise, the scenes began to merge. Jesus made his way across the sea on foot toward his frightened followers. When he drew near, there must have been at least some dim beginnings of morning twilight. The disciples made out a shape approaching and assumed, “It is a ghost!”

Jesus assured them with, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In the Greek manuscripts, Jesus literally says, “I am,” echoing the name of God revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14.

This is where Peter—bold, rash Peter, the one who would soon be called the foundational rock of the church—wanted to walk on the water with Jesus, if Jesus would command him to do so. Jesus did, and Peter let go of the gunwales, stepped out and walked on the water, briefly, until the turmoil of the sea caused him to take his eyes off Jesus.

“You of little faith, why did you doubt?” Jesus asked, plucking the sinking future leader of the church from the water and putting him into the boat. At this point, the disciples worshiped Jesus on the suddenly calm sea, acknowledging their master as the great I Am.

In Luminary UMC’s sanctuary, we have a particular stained-glass window depicting the disciples’ plight. One is bailing, trying to keep everyone afloat. I’m glad the image is there. Every church should have a depiction of this story hanging somewhere.

In particular, we need it so we have something on which we can meditate in difficult times, either individually or as a church. Remembering again that the sea stands for the world and the boat stands for the church, the story raises some questions we need to ask ourselves.

Do you believe, really believe, that Jesus as the Son of God is in full control? Do you believe he’s resurrected, in heaven as part of the Trinity, at peace with all things as he was on the mountain, despite the turmoil below? Basically, I’m asking you if you’ve fully absorbed what it means to call yourself “Christian.”

Do you believe he knows and cares when the turmoil of the world tosses his church about? And that he’ll come for us when we need him, even when we may not see him clearly at first?

What’s the solution when our boat is flooding? Does clinging to the gunwales really help? When times are tough, I suppose it’s important not to fall out of the boat completely, but does your clinging improve the long-term situation?

I think Peter gets too much criticism from preachers for his role in this story. Hey, he saw Jesus, and he got out of the boat. If only briefly, the turmoil suddenly wasn’t a problem, for as long as he kept his eyes on Christ.

What does it mean to get out of the boat? Ah, that puts you out in the world, out in the turmoil, doesn’t it. Now see if you can keep your eyes on Jesus!

Why does the boat even exist? It is important to pause together in worship, particularly when we see evidence of Christ’s presence in our lives. We are strengthened as disciples when that perfect peace of Christ settles on us for awhile. But ultimately, the boat should take us other places in the world as we go where Christ sends us. Jesus and the disciples finally disembarked in Gennesaret, where a mighty healing was needed.

As we go about doing Jesus’ work, storms will come, I promise you. Keep your eyes on the horizon, searching for Christ; keep your eyes on Christ when you see him.

Permeable People

Jesus had followers throughout his ministry, and after witnessing part or all of his torture, death and resurrection, some continued to follow him in a mixed state of wonder and confusion over the miracle they were seeing.

These people were the hard-core believers. They still did not constitute a church, however, at least not in the proper sense of the word. Something was lacking, something Jesus had promised would come.

Pentecost Sunday marks the arrival of that something, which is, of course, the Holy Spirit. The life force had arrived; the church was born. And we are forced to consider our relationship with God in a whole new way.

God the Father is a revelation of God outside all things, over all things. God the Son, Jesus, is God voluntarily reducing himself to experience human flesh, standing before us, alongside us, in solidarity with us. Those both are wonderful revelations of the One True God.

God the Holy Spirit, however, is God working within us. And that is what makes this expression of God the most mysterious and sometimes the most frightening. God the Father and God the Son can be kept at arm’s length, treated as historical evidence of God’s existence. It’s possible to talk about those two revelations all day, even lifting up praise for them, and never really have to encounter them.

The Holy Spirit, however, is more intense than God in your face. He is God in your gut, eyeball to eyeball with your soul.

Not that God is rude. He will examine you from the inside out and challenge what he finds there, but only if you let him. He’ll even remake what he finds there, but again, only if you let him. And letting him in does require a willful act or two.

"Pentecost," Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, circa 1750, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“Pentecost,” Josef Ignaz Mildorfer, circa 1750, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Look at the story of Pentecost, in Acts 2:1-21. In fact, go back just a little earlier, to Acts 1:13-14. What were the believers doing before the Spirit arrived? Well, they were doing the work of the church, even though they were not yet fully a church. Before ascending into heaven, Jesus told them to go into Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Clearly, the followers didn’t see waiting as a passive activity. They prayed intently. They searched what we now think of as the Old Testament for evidence of how to organize, and they treated what they found there as truth.

In other words, they made themselves permeable people, ready to soak up the Spirit when he arrived, surrendering themselves fully to the work God wanted to do in them.

It was a mighty change. Any confusion or dull-mindedness about the resurrection vanished; 120 people were of one mind, declaring Jesus the Christ and the availability of salvation to all. Language was no barrier. Peter delivered one incredible sermon, so powerful that the church’s numbers on its first day swelled to more than 3,000 before the sun set.

Long before he went to the cross, Jesus said such incredible availability of the Spirit would happen. In John 7:37-39, Jesus invited those who believe in him to “drink,” and be filled in a way that “rivers of living water” will flow out of them. The author of this gospel made clear Jesus was referring to the work of the Spirit.

It is an image that stirs my soul. God has promised that if we let him in—if we drink him in by opening our mouths in prayer and our minds to God’s word—his Spirit will overwhelm us and then pour out on those around us.

God, help us with our impermeability. We stand in the flow of your Spirit, but so often we behave more like rocks than sponges, your Spirit flowing around us rather than through us.

Drive away fear of change, Lord. Make us certain that the new shape you give us as you cleanse us and fill us is more pleasing and joyous than what we were before.

And may we become your reservoirs of living water, Lord, available to all who need to know you. May we speak your truth and draw others to Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.