ekklesia

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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A Truthsayer’s Respite

We’ve heard two stories about the Prophet Elijah, both making clear the tremendous power God showed through this truthsayer. At a word, Elijah could make it rain or not rain. With an intense prayer, he could save the life of a young boy. The prophet even could call down fire from the sky, vanquishing enemy priests in the process.

In 1 Kings 19:1-15, we see the difficult side of engaging with God in such direct ways. We are reminded how human even the most faithful of us are, and how patient God is. Take time to read the story, please, before you go further.

So, what happened to Elijah? How can a man working so confidently on God’s behalf suddenly collapse into a catatonic mess?

We get no explanation from the story, or at least no direct answer. Jezebel threatened Elijah’s life—old news, really—and suddenly he was full of fear and fleeing into the wilderness. I think the answer is simple however, and familiar to anyone who has ever tried to do the Lord’s work.

Elijah simply was tired. Dog tired. Worn out. Driven by love for God and his people, the prophet had pushed himself to a physical and emotional breaking point, and then he broke. He needed a rest. Win or lose, battling evil is exhausting.

The beauty in the story is how God, through his angels, met Elijah in his need. There is a sense of urgency that the prophet “get back in the game,” so to speak, but God also had a deep desire to care for this man who had given so much. The food Elijah initially received was enough to propel him 40 days deeper into the wilderness.

To go on with his calling, the now-complaining Elijah had to encounter God directly. Not only that, he had to still himself, center himself, and calm himself enough to remember that God only occasionally chooses to speak through fire falling from the sky. God’s usual way of communicating is still and soft. You have to wait for his voice, even strain to hear it.

Are you starting to hear the lesson? All of us who take on Christian identity will find ourselves called to serve the kingdom in some particular way. Let me go ahead and tell you the tough news now. Life won’t get easier when you try to do God’s work. Life will get harder.

Evil will threaten you and try to deter you. And yes, you will get tired.

There is heavenly food and water galore, however. Don’t struggle and strain and then nearly die of spiritual starvation before consuming it.

There is God’s word. You know whether you’re in the Bible. I know whether I’m in it. Get in it. Get in it in Sunday school. Get in it in a small group in someone’s home. Dig into it in your private time. Devour it. Let God’s revelation of his truth lift you up and carry you along.

There is prayer. You don’t have to rattle on all day, working your way through mental lists of people and situations. It is good and important to pray for others, but I’m talking about developing the kind of prayer time where you connect, the kind where you breathe so God’s whispered response moves to the depth of your soul.

There is the ekklesia, the gathering of believers, the church. Perhaps Elijah’s greatest problem was loneliness. As he complained, he kept going back to that theme: I alone am left, I alone am left. You are not alone, not ever, for Christ has come and left us with his Holy Spirit to gather us, bind us, and help us work together as a church.

Lord, grant us great strength and energy as we work in your name. Elijah moved his people toward renewed holiness and understanding of God. Help us to do the same as we join in your renewing work made possible by Jesus Christ. May we complete with joy the journey to the great city, the eternal life you have promised your followers.


The featured image is “Elijah and the Angel,” 1898, Providence Lithograph Company.