Initiation into Jesus’ Community

At the beginning of our year long Confirmation program, I ask confirmands and their mentors to think about their baptisms. With rare exception, none of them were old enough to recall any details of that day. They’ll have seen the pictures, of course. They might know if they slept through it all, our screamed their heads off. They likely know who was there—beloved relatives and godparents. I ask them to think about how they might tell the story of their baptisms if they were reporting it. And then we hear some of those stories. Like the gowns that have been passed down, or how they got baptized with a sibling, or how it took place at the Easter Vigil or on All Saints’ Day.

And then I ask them less about the particulars of their individual baptisms and more about the rite itself. What does it mean? Why do we do it? What does it signify? What’s the point? I lead them to the fine print found in our Book of Common Prayer on the page preceding the liturgy for Baptism, which says: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”  Full initiation into Christ’s Body the Church with a bond that is not dissoluble.

What sorts of initiation rites have participated in during your life? Sometimes it’s for an honor society, or a civic group, or an athletic team or a club. Some have them clandestinely—they don’t want the non-initiated to know what it involves—others are out in the open with much pomp and circumstance. In each case, it signifies the starting of a commitment to a community of people who have come together for a specific purpose or goal. People who previously did not belong, now suddenly do.

When we last encountered John the Baptizer he was still in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, and he kicked her hard when Mary’s greeting came. John was filled with the Holy Spirit even back then. And this distant relative of Jesus became Jesus’ forerunner, the one proclaiming Jesus’ arrival. John does this by the River Jordan, announcing that one more powerful than him was on the way, and that the best way to prepare was to repent and be baptized. As minister Ismael Ruiz-Millán describes it, John offers the ones coming to him an opportunity to belong. In this case, it is belonging to “a particular community and way of life.” He writes, “John’s audience is expecting a Messiah, but what they do not know yet is that they are becoming the messianic community—the body of Christ on earth.” They will become messianic community of Jesus, embodying the way he taught, and then going out to find others to share this good news with.

Let’s face it, we long for community. We long for places to be known as we truly are. We desire to find connection, acceptance, love, and grace. What’s been most horrific about this pandemic is the ways in which it has isolated us. We have been forced to spend time alone and apart from those outside of our most immediate circles, and we’ve been unable to mark significant events in our lives as we might have liked. Our kids have had sporting events, concerts, trips, and the like modified, or canceled. Loved ones have died, and funerals have been indefinitely postponed or canceled. Grandparents have not had visits with grandchildren as they may have liked. Beyond all that, having regular community—like coffee hour here at church, or a potluck dinner—has become hard to impossible. 

And in the midst of this, the need for community in our wider world has grown. Our disconnection from others has increased—especially along, political, racial, and economic lines. Whether we want to admit it or not, sadly, church has become one of the last places that many people expect to find that connection. Because in our society, “church attenders” has become nearly synonymous with “people who are judgmental,” who do not love, who are not accepting. This even happens among people who attend church: I’ve had parishioners going through a tough time who have taken a break from church attendance because they do not want to be deemed “less than perfect” in the eyes of others in the pews. This is a sad commentary all around. And while we may disagree with it—while we may not think of ourselves among those who might be judgmental—it is the perception out there. 

So how do we move from being seen in that way to truly embodying the messianic community of Jesus? I think a part of the answer lies in the baptismal covenant. When we baptize someone—no matter how young or old—we affirm our tenets of faith through the Apostles’ Creed—the particulars about God, Jesus and his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and our understanding of the Spirit. And then we articulate the what the way of Jesus looks like for us in the form of questions.

First we are asked, “Will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?” That is, will you live a life grounded in keeping regular faith practices? Will you nurture your spiritual life? Recognizing that the only way to participate in the messianic community is through consistent and ongoing engagement with spiritual practices that draw us closer to God through prayer, reading scripture, and participating in the Eucharist.

Next, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” We will all mess up, miss the mark, and do things that are not in alignment with the way of Jesus. We are human. And the way to respond is not through dodging or denying, but in owning up, and making amends both with God and those we wronged and repenting.

Third, “Will you proclaim by word and example, the Good News of God in Christ?” It’s not just what you say, but how you live. And it’s not just how you live, but what you say. We have been equipped to proclaim the gospel—the good news—about Jesus, and we need to boldly do so in order that others may hear the story of Jesus’ love.

Fourth, “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” Can you see the face of Jesus in the face of every single person you encounter? And, if you see the face of Jesus in them, how might you treat them if you were in fact encountering Jesus? Looking for Jesus in each person, and then responding to them in a way that befits Jesus would make a tremendous impact in our world.

Fifth, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” Can we commit to working toward the goal that all people will experience justice in our community, in our country, and in our world, choosing to seek the way of peace rather than the way of aggression? Can we truly respect the dignity of everyone since we all bear the very image of God? And can we allow other people the freedom to determine if they feel that they are experiencing these things, rather than deciding for them? Can we allow them to tell their own stories?

And finally, one added two years ago at our General Convention: “Will you cherish the wondrous works of God, and protect and restore the beauty and integrity of all creation?” This one speaks to the reality that our world has been significantly impacted by climate change because of humanity. Not a day goes by when there is not at least a single article in the paper—if not more—about global warming and its impact. It will take all of us  working together to protect and restore all of creation—we cannot put it off any longer—and in doing so we show our love both to the Creator of the word, and to those come after us.

These six questions—asked and then responded to with the words, “I will with God’s help”—define what it means to be a part of the messianic community. They invite us, in the words of Donald Miller, to live a better story. Pastor Ismael Ruiz-Millán writes, “Christians today can be an exemplar of what it means to belong to a community on which people really care for one another and all humanity.” Friends, let us on this day remember that through our baptism we have been initiated into Christ’s Body the Church. Let us today recommit to engaging fully in that community, ordering and centering our lives around the way of Jesus through the faithful commitment to living our baptismal promises. Let us become those who exemplify the way of Jesus. And let us invite others to join us in this glorious, loving, and grace-filled community, proclaiming the Good News of the one who came bringing peace.

Photo by ChristinaZetterberg on Pixabay.

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