Thursday, September 13, 2012

September 16, Proper 19, The Brand of the Cross, for the baptism of Gretta

(by Sir Stanley Spencer)

Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116:1-8, James 3:1-12, Mark 8:27-38

So Peter had come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah. Not just a prophet, like Elijah, but also royalty, of the line of David, and thus the long-expected King of the Jews who would achieve the final golden age. And Peter expected this Messiah to be a great success. With all his power and authority — if he could cast out demons, casting out the Romans should be easy. God was on his side and heaven was behind him. There was no reason for defeat, nor for suffering or death.

That would be the Muslim view as well. Muslims honor Jesus highly as a prophet. They believe in his Virgin Birth, and that he will come again, but they won’t believe that Jesus died nor that he could suffer the shame of death on a cross. Such shame is not the lot of the righteous one. If you are righteous, you should not surrender to the unrighteous ones. You must not take up a cross. If God is with you, it’s your enemies who should lose their lives for the sake of the truth. That’s the understanding of Simon Peter and Islam, and of American civil religion, both liberal and Religious Right, not to mention of Benjamin Netanyahu and of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah.

Simon Peter represents common sense, of course, but more than that, he represents religion, normal religion, civilized religion, which is so normal and so natural it must have strongly tempted Jesus, which is why he addresses Peter as a “satan”, that is, the tempting voice of reason, the voice of political science and natural morality.

So Jesus has to get that behind him to clear the way in front of him, but he graciously invites the tempter to get behind him too, to keep up with him and go down with him and on that night to fully experience and confront his denial of his dear Messiah, and in grief and shame and loss of himself to be converted, and be saved.

One of my attractions to Islam is the elegant simplicity of its rituals. It has no sacraments. You can think of Islam as essentially the sanctification of secular life. So if you convert to Islam, the ritual is simply to stand before your fellow worshipers in the mosque at the Friday prayers and repeat in your own voice the simple Muslim creed, “La ilaha illa I-Lah, Muhammadur rasulu I-Lah.” That’s it. That’s all. You are not joining a congregation or a communion or a chosen people, you are just acknowledging the banner of proper humanity within the world.

So they don’t have anything like baptism. But it is lovely what they do for infants. As soon as possible after the child is born, whether at home or in the hospital, the imam comes to whisper in the baby’s ear. He whispers verses from the Holy Koran, so that the words of the prophet are the first words that the baby listens to. Now you listen again to the prophet Isaiah: “God wakens my ear to listen. . . . The Lord God has opened my ear.”

Christians believe that too, that God speaks to little children, we believe that God uses the verses and stories of the Bible to talk directly to our children. This conviction is the foundation of our Children in Worship program that we are starting up again today.

But Christians take it long step further (thanks to the wonderful mystery of the Holy Trinity). We believe that God enters the little children, shamelessly so, in the person of the Holy Spirit. We baptize children to claim that the Holy Spirit enters their souls already in their infancy, to quicken and inspire them. We believe that God establishes an intimate and personal relationship with children before they are aware of it and long before they have the words for it.

Already God has fellowship with them, already they can worship God. That is why we have the Young Children in Worship upstairs right now. That’s why we bless your children at Holy Communion. It’s not so much what we do as what God does, to which we’re only giving our words and our expression. We make visible the invisible mystery of God-with-them already.

We claim these convictions as promises whenever we celebrate a baptism. And we will claim that again today for Gretta Adams. This is the positive significance of baptism, the warmth and loveliness of it. But we also have to face the negative significance in it, the sign of the cross we put upon her, the suggestion of her suffering and the designation of her death. The water we put on Gretta signifies the Flood from the story of Noah’s ark, which was a deadly flood, and it signifies the Red Sea, which drowned the Pharaoh of Egypt and his cavalry. And yes, the negative is purgative, it cleanses and it purifies, but it is still a negative.

The mystery in this negative is that the negative sign is put upon the innocent, just as Jesus himself was innocent. It was the innocent who bore the penalty for the guilty, the righteous one of the unrighteous one. Which means that the cross is for you to take upon yourself, and not for you to hang your enemy upon. The judgment is not revenge because your enemy is you.

And this is not what Simon Peter wanted, nor what King David had done, nor what was taught by the prophet Mohammed, nor is it the expectation of civil religion and political science, nor the strategy of the Religious Right, nor even of common sense, but the baptism today will remind you that you do believe it, you recognize that it is true, which is why you are, you believe that this impossible is possible, that to lose your life is actually to gain your life, to lose your self-control, your self-defense, your self-determination, your dignity, your destiny, to surrender all this actually to gain the world.

You recognize it as the gospel, as good news, but it’s news you need to hear again each week to clear away the louder voices that fill the air. You have confessed this news last week, but it is so counter-valent that you need remind yourself again. And you are here because the Holy Spirit moved you here. The Holy Spirit within you has inspired you to believe this negative as a positive and show you the joy in the sign of the cross and the life revealed in Jesus’ death and the hope revealed in Jesus’ suffering. The Holy Spirit gives you this hope and life and joy.

Today we visibly will signify what the Holy Spirit does invisibly in Gretta. We will claim the business that God does with her on God’s own without our aid. It does not depend upon our faith, but yet we have a part to play. It’s for this congregation to represent a community who believe that this impossible news is true, and thereby to encourage her. It’s for this congregation to teach her the stories of scripture which show her how it works, which is why our Sunday School teachers all deserve your support and gratitude. It’s for Wayne and Beth to be the church for her within her infant life, to whisper in her ears the words which the Holy Spirit uses to develop faith in her. It’s for Jeff and Tristan to show her they believe this too, that this cross of Jesus is the way of life for individuals and the path of peace for the nations and the hope of healing for the planet. It’s for us, by our words and example and encouragement, to give her all the categories she will need to be able to say, with Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, and further, the categories she will need to be able to get behind this Jesus and follow him through life and death to life.

But the greater part in this is for God, whose Spirit resides in her and applies to her the benefit of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When she can lose her life with him, it’s because God is already raising her new life in her. The positive precedes the negative. God is in, with, and behind her, and God wants her to live, because God loves her. She belongs to God, she is branded with the mark of God. The promise is for you as well. Let the truth of your own baptism remind you that you belong to God, and claim that promise that God wants you to live, because God loves you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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