What’s It All For?

Acts 18:1-4  1 Corinthians 1:10-18 April 24, 2016

You can listen to the sermon at this spot here:

Once upon a time, I was a young girl when the Sengeotenolith family came to Barnesville, Minnesota. Our church was helping to bring this family to the states I suppose along with other Lutheran agencies. They were a Laotian family coming from Laos, a country in Southeast Asia. They had been displaced and on the run from the Viet Nam war and now would call Minnesota their new home. They had a bunch of kids, so I was really excited. The local paper ran a story about the family and much to my shock, I learned that their youngest, a toddler, had fallen down a well and died. I still remember sitting in the living room of our home and asking my mom, “what happened to that little boy? Did he go to hell?” To which my mom said, “Oh honey, God loves that little boy. He’s with God now. God would not forget him.” That did it. Right there, that moment. It messed with my lines about who God loves, and how God loves. It’s made me think about baptism backwards and upside down. It pushed on my already-formed categories of insiders and outsiders. It challenged the lines I already had drawn as a little kid. Thank you, mom!

Baptism is one of 2 sacraments in the Lutheran church. Sacrament is a fancy word for outward, visible, tangible signs of stuff that’s not visible. Like the concept of grace. So baptism and communion are the 2 outward signs of grace in the Lutheran church. We’re given bread and wine and water to hang onto, to touch and feel, to experience, to eat.  Because grace is a weird enough concept that if you leave it to your brain and exclude it from your heart, your senses, your life – well, it’s easy to miss. It’s easy to explain your way out of. It’s easy to get caught up in drawing lines around who grace is for or to make up rules on how to get it.

When someone comes to me about baptizing their child, I like to ask a few questions: “what does this mean to you? for your life?” And it’s not to put them on the spot or make them feel embarrassed or to trigger guilt or shame about a lack of faith or knowledge of the Bible. I just want to know why it’s important to them, because, especially when babies are involved, the step their parents take on behalf of their child is about their own baptismal life. It’s about what faith means to them and how it will shape how they raise their child. It’s not about catechism memorization or creeds or dogma. It’s certainly not about perfection or holiness. It’s about a life with faith and the endless forms it takes.

So, if we’re going to claim that baptism is integral to our Christian life together, then we gotta throw some water around. We’ve got see it and touch it and feel it on our skin. This plain old ordinary water and God’s word of promise turn this water into a visible promise that proclaims us and claims us as the Children of God that we already are. It is the very place and act that reminds us that our sin, the stuff that kills us day in and day out, drowns in this water and we are raised to new life. We get to start again and again, day after day, not by our own effort but by God’s doing through Jesus Christ and the powerful Holy Spirit of God.

It’s why, as often as I can, I invite the kids of this congregation up to the fount to plunge their hands into this water and to take out drops of water to then give to you. Many of you are collecting little piles of them on your desks at work, on your dressers at home, in your car, in your purse, perhaps in the dryer at home. It’s to remind you: you belong to Christ in whom you have been baptized. It is Christ who defines who you are. It is Christ who claims you. You belong to Christ through baptism.

Today, Paul is addressing the lines people are drawing around and through baptism. Now, if you’re unfamiliar with Paul, he used to persecute Christians and then had a moment of conversion and became an itinerant preacher, converting people to Christ and starting churches. We get just a glimpse of his background today from the book of Acts, where we see that he has befriended Aquila and Priscilla, fellow makers of tents, Paul’s day job. Priscilla and Aquilla had been kicked out of Rome by the emperor for their belief in Jesus. It is with them that the church in Corinth is started.

And, much to his chagrin, Paul hears that the church in Corinth is fighting. He implores them to be of the same mind and the same purpose and then he addresses the line drawing, the jockeying for position by repeating to them what they’ve been saying to each other. “I belong to Apollos” says one. “Yah, well I belong to Cephas.” “Yah, well I belong to Paul.” One-upping each other with the status of the baptizer, signaling how important they are in the body of Christ. And then, having a little fun, he says, Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

And, as if to underscore their crazy thinking, Paul asks them “has Christ been divided?” And it’s this question, centered on Jesus, that underscores what’s actually at stake. What’s at stake is the very nature of the church: Who is this for, this church, this Jesus? What’s it all for?

You see, they were using the very thing – baptism – that unites each of them to Christ and to one another to cause division, separation, brokenness. They were using the unifying thing as something to divide them. This church is like 5 minutes old – humans are so good at figuring out how to create problems.

Paul has a little more fun with them in the letter, telling them what good that jockeying for position will do: nothing. He basically says to them, “thank God I only baptized a few of you – oh and the Anderson family – but beyond that, I can’t keep track!” It’s not about the messenger – because the messenger will forget you. Paul has already forgotten. But that’s not the point. It’s about the love of God through Jesus Christ. Christ has not forgotten you. Christ will not ever forget you.

Being the church – the actual physical body of people gathering to worship and then be sent out to serve – well, it’s been a mess since the beginning. The church hadn’t been around for more than a handful of years and people were trying to figure out who is in and who is out; whose church history is longer or better than another’s by comparing baptizers.

Christians come from a long line of in-fighting. It’s like we’re trying to get the best of Jesus by drawing lines to exclude others and claim the best for us and ours. The bar is set pretty low for us folks: Christians have been defined by their in-house fights and hatred or exclusion of people based on social status, health, marriage, gender and sexual orientation since the beginning.

Chances are, some of you have found your way to River of Hope because of a church vote that made it impossible for you to stay at your former church. I know that some of you are here because you were asked to not take communion at another place or because of who you love or because you were somehow excluded from a former community either intentionally or unintentionally. Some of you have wandered without a church home for a long, long time and now here you are.

Many of you who are here are worshiping with a faith community regularly for the first time in your life. Or talking about God or belonging to a church community for the first time in your lives. I know some of you have been teased by friends, wondering about this new Sunday-go-to-meetin’ habit you’ve picked up. You are not here out of duty or because it is a social expectation for you to be seen—those days of church are gone. There is something that is happening when we gather together for worship here as River of Hope, and it is not dependent upon this baptizer but the wily and creative work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul ends today’s reading by saying this: For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Paul wanted to make something clear that might be lost on our ears today. To the ancient Greeks, to the readers of this original letter, wisdom meant knowledge of the world as a perfect system of cause and effect. To be wise in the 1st century was to know that everything happens for a reason and everything is just as it should be. To think otherwise insults the great cause of all things God. This thinking preserved social order – of who was better than who.

If Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God, however, then the force that holds the universe together is not the rule of superiors over inferiors but the love that joyfully bears the burdens of others. Seeing God in Christ crucified means we can no longer use God to justify hierarchy and oppression.[1]

To use the wisdom of the world to talk about God is utter foolishness. It empties the cross of its power. To draw lines, to create hierarchies – that is the way of the world. The world God loves, by the way.

So, if Paul or I would stand up and preach Christ crucified by the world’s standards? I would need flow charts clearly defining who is in charge and I’d need an attendance roster and I’d need to see that each person who is here is somehow deserving of being here, maybe creating a report of whose sin is greater than another’s and then you’d sit according to that sin. Hash mark by hash mark, it empties the cross of its power and church begins to look and feel awfully familiar – a little too much like the ways you face judgment in your life outside of worship. Outside of church.

Church today, especially being part of a church that is still so young and new, can feel like utter foolishness and can look it from the outside and the inside. These past 5 almost 6 years we have been living into who God is calling us to be, so of course that’s one hot mess, right? We’ve simply had to ask the question “what’s church for” again and again which has caused us to fling wide the doors and shout “ya’ll come!” And then, with the doors wide open, we’re sent out. And that means this community of River of Hope is continually growing and changing with each new person, each new family who shows up and throws in with us. No wonder it’s a mess.

It’s not about how long you’ve been here, it’s that you are here. And Paul reminds us that our same mind is on Christ and Christ is not divided. He does not have favorites or choose sides, although I dare say whenever we draw a line, Jesus is on the other side of it. But just like baptism didn’t separate that little boy from God, neither does baptism or anything else get to separate us. Because at its heart, baptism is the proclamation that we are united in Christ.

And if you’ve not been baptized, I invite you to this life-changing sacrament. River of Hope would like nothing better than to celebrate with you God’s love for you. Because of course that is true now – this water has not excluded you, just as God didn’t forget the little boy who died in the well. God loves you now and God has not and will not forget any of you. Ever.

So let us continue on, being River of Hope, watching us grow and change through all the people the Holy Spirit is stirring up to be part of this community. And together we will be of the same mind in Christ and the same purpose: we go out to transform lives through Jesus Christ. Amen.

[1] p. 1877 Lutheran Study Bible