Guilt, Shame, and the Holy Spirit.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of teaching a man, about my own age, who had been serving as a Pentecostal preacher since the age of 16.  His inquiring mind, his love of scripture, and his yearning to be united to the Body of Christ across time and space led him to Anglicanism, and he was being trained to serve as a US Army chaplain.  One morning at chapel we had heard Acts 19 read, as we have here this morning.  On the walk across campus to breakfast, he ran to catch up. 

“Padre”, he called out, “I got it figured out”. 
“Oh, what have you got figured out now?”.
“I figured out why so many good, church-going folks know all the right answers, know how to pray, know how to read their Bibles, but can’t bring themselves to just trust it, to just live by it, you know?”

“Padre, sure they were baptized, but they were like those disciples in Ephesus.  You can ask them anything, they can tell you the Creed, they can tell you what Jesus taught about forgiveness and sacrifice, but you ask them “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, and they’re gonna answer just like those disciples: “no sir, we have no even heard that there is a Holy Spirit to be received”.

I think he was on to something.

I am a child of God.

We’ve been speaking about what it means to be a child of God, that glorious truth that, though we aren’t born God’s children by nature, we’re all invited to become God’s children by adoption. 

Last time we spoke about what that means: that when God adopts us out of the broken system of this fallen world, he wants to re-shape us as we patiently (and sometimes painfully) unlearn the self-preservation and defensiveness we’ve picked up along the way; we picked them up as coping mechanisms, but all they accomplish is to cut us off, to drive us further and further away from others, and deeper and deeper into our own little world, where all we can see are the walls we have built with our own pain and pride.  The deepest desire of our loving, perfect Heavenly Father is for us to learn what it means to be his child, to learn to be held, to learn to speak the truth, giving praise to the one to whom it’s due, and being quick to repent when we miss the mark, and to finally learn what it is to be loved, not because of what you do or what you’ve accomplished or what you’ve done, but simply because of who you’ve become: a child of God through faith in Jesus.

And, of course, the way that adoption is done, the outward sign of the spiritual grace of that is given, is baptism, which takes us to our lessons today.

Water and the Holy Spirit

Now it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t invent the general idea of baptism, a ritual washing to mark a turning from sin and a fresh start.  No, after all, it’s one of those perfectly natural signs: water washes away dirt, so it’s the perfect symbol for washing away the dirt we cannot see.

That’s the idea of a ritual bath found across religions and cultures, and it’s also the idea of ritual cleansing in the Old Testament, and the baptism of repentance that John the Baptist preached.  And don’t get me wrong, repentance and the decision to start fresh is definitely a good thing.

But there’s a problem: unless we accept the gift of the Holy Spirit, unless we allow God the Spirit to take up residence in us, to make us His temple, to guide and direct us as we trust – one day at a time, one step at a time – that we can put down our defenses and our instincts, that we can stop clinging to pride and pain, that we can let go of the things that define us and learn to answer instead to the new name we received at our adoption; unless we’re willing to do that, unless we’re willing to accept that new identity, all the ritual washing in the world has one fatal flaw: if we’re trusting in ourselves, then when we come up out of the water, we’re trusting in the same one who failed before.  You can do it a hundred times, you could do it every day, but what changes, if we refuse to let go of the pain, pride, and self-preservation that defines the children of this broken world?

And that’s where Christian baptism changes everything.

“Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”, Paul asked?
“No, we didn’t even know that there is a Holy Spirit!”.

And that changes everything.

Guilt or Shame?

We drag a lot of dead weight around with us, so much that the world convinces us that it’s a good thing: we’ll call it ‘experience’ or ‘lessons learned’, as we drag a lifetime of pain, guilt, and shame around, weighing down each new opportunity or new relationship with all the “lessons” of the past, and then wondering why we’re so tired, why new opportunities and new beginnings turn out the same way the last ones did.

And I think here is the time to make an important distinction: we’re not just carrying the pain of the past; we’re not just carrying the guilt for what we’ve done or left undone; there’s another heavier load, much harder to shake: shame.

The good news of the Gospel makes it very clear that guilt and shame aren’t the same thing.  They’re very different loads, and unless we’re willing to lay them both down, we’re choosing to go it on our own rather than living into the new identity we have as a new creation, forgiven and loved in spite of our past failings, in spite of our current struggles; forgiven and loved not because of what I’ve accomplished, but because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and Christ in me is the hope of glory. 

Let’s be clear: as Christians, we believe guilt is a gift.  Yes, you heard that right.  Guilt, the knowledge or understanding that a thought, a word, an action, or silence, or inaction fell short of what was expected as those who love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and who love your neighbour as yourself, is indeed a gift.  Guilt is that understanding, that acknowledgement that “yeah, I missed the mark there.”  Guilt tells us that we need to repent and be forgiven, to hear the message “your sins have been taken away; go and sin no more”, that next time we’re in that situation, now we know we ought to act differently.

Guilt, in that sense, is wonderfully productive.  It gives us our bearings as we learn patiently to model our lives after Christ, and when we fail – and we will – to repent and return to God.

But, in our everyday speech, we confuse guilt and shame – and it’s deadly.

Shame is a lie.  Shame is deception, leading us further from the truth.  And it sounds like this: shame tells us not to focus on the thing we did or said or didn’t do; no, shame tells us to focus on the one who failed.  Guilt says “you lashed out in anger, you need to apologize”.  Shame says, “what sort of person can’t even control their own emotions?”  Shame says, “you’re a hypocrite”.  Shame says, “what sort of a sister are you?  Why even bother, you failed before, you’ll fail again”.

It’s familiar, but it’s an ancient lie.  God says ‘I love you and I want to be with you, I’ve given you these boundaries for your protection’, and right off the bat the serpent says, ‘huh, I think he’s holding something back, don’t you?’.  And there, right in the first pages of scripture, yes there’s guilt – no question, Adam and Eve did the one thing they were told not to do, there’s guilt and there’s consequences.  But then what happens?  Do they repent, do they return to the Lord humbly and admit their failing?

No – it’s the start of the pattern that plagues us all to this day. What’d they do?  They ran and hid.  And how did they feel?  For the first time, they felt ashamed.  And that shame caused them to try and put up a wall, to clothe themselves with something to cover their true identity; the shame caused them to run from the one who loved them and who would continue to love them and continue to provide for them and who promised to save them from their sin, all because the shame told them the lie that they needed to run and hide rather than repent and return.

Shame is always destructive.  And it’s what makes this broken world go around.  In every generation, we learn shame from our parents, as we learn not just to obey, but to fear hearing that we’re a disappointment.  In school, at work, shame is the quickest and easiest way to put someone in their place and keep them there.  Shame is so darn effective precisely because it takes the focus off of what we’ve done, and shifts the spotlight instead on who we are: “what kind of person, sister, brother, son, daughter would fail like you’ve failed?”  Shame says your worth is defined by your failings.

Have you received The Holy Spirit?

And this is where Paul’s question to those disciples, those students of Jesus, is so important.

We’re all called to repent, to acknowledge our faults and confess them to God and to one another.  And that’s hard enough – shame makes us wants to hide and put on another layer to cover it up.  But, if we confess that failing, shame is there once more, that annoying voice in the back of your mind: “hmm, you’ve confessed that one before, haven’t you?  Didn’t work last time.  Won’t work this time; you’re a failure.”

And, you know what?  If we’re being honest, if we’re talking about our own identity as a person bounced around in a broken world, maybe the shame’s right.

Except, in Christ, we are a new creation.  We are given a new name, a new identity, we’ve been made children of God by adoption.  That Father lovingly and patiently reaches out – but it’s up to us if we’ll finally accept our new home, our new family, or if, in spite of being adopted, in spite of all the love and hope and encouragement given to us, we’ll stubbornly continue to bear the weight, the bumps and bruises and scars, of who we used to be, back when self-preservation and pride were the layers we put on to hide our shame.

But the great solution to shame is found right there in the baptismal promises.  Think about it: will you repent and return?  Will you love your neighbour as yourself?  Will you trust in God?  What’s the response?  Not “I will”.  No.  The whole point is that I’m no longer on my own, I’m learning to be loved and to trust in one who won’t let me down.  What’s the response?  I will, with God’s help.

In baptism we don’t just symbolically wash away our failings.  No, we are a new creation, made a son or daughter of God, and God the Holy Spirit comes to dwell with and in us. 

Whatever we’ve done, whatever our struggles, whatever the real hurt or pain or scars that we bear, the same God who wanted to be present with Adam and Eve at creation comes to be present with us, making us, even our crippled and wrinkled bodies a temple of the Holy Spirit. 

Does it change our guilt when we fail?  No – in fact, it should make us all the more aware, urging us towards love of God and neighbour.  But, if we can just accept that gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, the lie of shame begins to melt away.

Shame says “What kind of a person would do that”.  The Spirit says you are a child of God, that even while we were yet sinners, Christ died to save you from your sin.

Shame says, “you’re a failure”.  The Spirit says to rejoice even in our failings, because Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and God the Father will work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

Shame says, “who do you think you are?  You deserve the pain”.  The Spirit says you are loved; Christ calls out “come to me all who are weak and heavy laden, and I will give you rest”.  And deep within our broken, bruised, and scarred bodies, the Spirit cries out – ‘God is faithful!  You are a temple of the Holy Spirit!  You are a child of God.  What we shall be has not yet been revealed, but what we do know is that, by God’s grace, we shall be like Christ, and we shall see him as he is.  (1 John 3:1-2).

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?

God is faithful – He’s sent us his free gift.  Our task is just to accept it, and begin, perhaps for the first time, listening to that voice of truth. 

To God be the glory, now and forever more.

As useless as a box of rocks…

A sermon on cement and sticking together.

1 Peter 2:2-10.

Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.  Amen.

As we continue through the letter of Peter to the Church on this Mothers’ Day, we’re given a glimpse of the vision that God has for His spiritual family, not just our earthly parents and siblings, but the family, the household of faith, made up of everyone who sincerely calls God “Our Father”.  It’s a family in which all of us are adopted by faith, a family in which each adopted brother and sister is equally dependant on God’s mercy – fully dependent on the goodness and willingness of God to welcome us in, in spite of whatever we’ve done.  A family that, like any other, is called to honour our parents – to bring honour and glory to God our Father as we live together as his people in the world.

So far in our walk through 1st Peter, we’ve heard that our Father’s will is that we would live on earth as we will in Heaven.  We’ve heard that, “thy will be done” isn’t wishful thinking or a desperate prayer, but is an instruction for the Church: God’s will isn’t a mystery; He tells us how we ought to live, and our job is to do it; and in doing so, we bring His will to bear in the world around us, as we strive to be holy, as God is holy.

And then, last week, we heard the clear call of how we ought to live in the sight of the world.  Regardless of our opinions, our preferences, our politics, as members together of God’s family, we’re to live so that, when the world wants to insult us, they have nothing to go on – nothing to say except to name our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.

Just imagine what our world would be like, if every time someone drove by this building dedicated and consecrated to the glory of God, if every time someone met a member of this church, if every time someone saw “St. John’s Anglican Church” on Facebook, all they could say was “wow…”, and “see how they love one another”, and then, even if they don’t know it, they’re giving God the glory for the works done through us, His hands, feet, and voice. 

Those have been great instructions these past two weeks for what we should do.

But today, rather than focusing on what we do, St. Peter digs in and casts a vision for what we should be.  He’s laying a foundation for who we are, as we are built together in the household of faith.

Peter writes: Come to Christ, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

A living stone. 

We’re to be living stones.

Now, right off the bat, this is a weird sort of phrase.  I mean, really, if you had to pick a word to describe a rock, I’m guessing “living” is the exact opposite of what you’d say.

I mean, yes, it could be a compliment if you say someone is ‘a rock’.

But, a “living stone”?  It’s a weird phrase.  Honestly, we’re more likely to think of someone as being “stone deaf”, or, if we’re being honest, I’ll admit there have been times – not my proudest moments – when I’ve thought someone was about as useless as a box of rocks. 

What does that mean, living stones?

What if we looked at this phrase this way: living stones are stones that have life.  Living stones are stones that have purpose.  And, like all things that are alive, living stones are connected, even dependant on one another to sustain that life.

We, being built up on Christ, who is the cornerstone, are no longer mere stones scattered across the ground, lifeless, but are joined together into something with purpose, to build a house that can be filled with life, and warmth, and joy.

Yes, God’s vision for us who become members of his family is that those scattered and loose stones, as numerous as the sand of the sea, are gathered together and built into something with purpose.

And, if we stop to think about it, that’s really remarkable news.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel pretty insignificant.  It happens to all of us, but sometimes we get “low minded”, all we can focus on is how small we are.

And, while we’re being honest, I think many of us have times when we feel about as useless as a box of rocks.  One of the effects of this pandemic is that, for a lot of us, people who woke up every morning with a routine, with things to do; people who were involved in their communities, visiting those who can’t get out and about; people who were involved in church and many groups in our communities now have moments when we just feel useless, like we just don’t know what we should be doing. 

And, of course, left to our own devices, one of the great temptations in the world around us is to get weighed down by those feelings, to dwell on our own smallness, and, sadly, many then begin to question their own worth – they feel as insignificant as a piece of crushed stone spread on the ground.

But here’s the good news that Peter is bringing to the Church:

Because we’ve been made part of God’s Family, Our Father wants to build us together into something with purpose, a household full of life.

Yes, sometimes we feel as insignificant as a piece of gravel, and yes, in the grand scheme of human history, each of us alone is pretty small.  But, in the hands of a master builder, building on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ our Lord, even the smallest stone becomes part of something much bigger.

And the glory comes not in what the stones are by themselves, but in what they are made together.

Think about it: if you wanted to build a mighty fortress; if you wanted to build a temple for the presence of God; if you wanted to build a heavenly kingdom, little pieces of crushed stone is hardly what comes to mind as your building material. 

But what happens if, once the foundation is firmly laid, those crushed stones are bound together, and moulded – formed – as they come to follow the pattern laid for them. 

You take those tiny stones, mix them together until they are bound to one another with cement, pour them into the mould to matches the plan of the builder, and suddenly those stones are no longer weak, small, or insignificant.  No, being cemented together, those stones can reach to amazing heights; they become a structure that can withstand waves and storms; a fortress that can withstand any attack; they can even become the grand palace of the King, with dwelling places prepared for all the King’s sons and daughters.

That insignificant piece of gravel, when infused with purpose, and bound together with love, and strengthened from within by the power of the Holy Spirit, is built into a great spiritual house that, because of it’s firm foundation, can withstand whatever comes its way.

Those insignificant stones, strewn along the ground and trampled under foot, become together something much larger – something not trampled down; no, suddenly we’re joined with Christ, the stone that must be noticed, a stumbling block, that will trip up those who are walking down the path of life without a lamp. We become stones infused with life and purpose, bound together in love and built into a dwelling place fit for no less than the very presence of God Himself, as the Church – all of us cemented together – becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit, and all for the sake of the world around us.

Built into something great.

This is the message to the Church. 

If we say God is “our Father”, we must mean it; and, as with our earthly parents, we honour our father by doing his will.

And, by grace, God takes each of us – tiny as we are – and gives us life and purpose, not that we should stand alone or in a heap of gravel, but that we should be bound together, the greatest and the least, the first and the last, the strong and the weak all built up together into a spiritual house, a home filled with the light and life of God Himself; a house built high on a hill, shining it’s light out into the darkness, inviting all who would see it to follow the way, the truth, and the life, and being made new with the life of God, we find our purpose, we find our calling, not in who we were, not in what we’ve done, but in who we have become as members, joined together as the Body of Christ, living not for our own glory, but to the glory of God.

But, Peter says, even in this great building project, we have a part to play.

Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house…”  We have to be willing to be built up, to be incorporated into what the Lord is doing in our midst.

To do that we have to be holy, as God our Father is holy. 

…to do that, we must work to do his will… in Fort Smith, as it is in Heaven.  Amen.

The God who saves through water

Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Now, let it be so; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, 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, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17

The Baptism of Jesus

This week the Christian Calendar used by the Church around the world brings us to the celebration of Jesus’ baptism.  We began in Advent with the promises that the Anointed One – that God’s Son – would come into the world, we celebrate that first coming at Christmas, and then last week, with Epiphany we celebrated God’s revealing of himself not just to the Jewish nation, but to the world.

Now, today, we fast forward some 30 years to the start of Our Lord’s public ministry, where he’s revealed not just to prophets and scholars, to his parents and shepherds, but is revealed publicly to all who were there to hear “This is my beloved Son” echoing through the clouds.

And, of course, it’s a significant day for us, too.  After all, baptism is our entry into the Body of Christ; it’s the sacrament that sets us apart and identifies us as Christians – together with a life that cooperates with the Holy Spirit to live a Christ-like life, asking for forgiveness when we mess up.

But, if we stop to think about it, the baptism of Jesus raises some questions.

Baptism for Repentance of Sin

John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin on Mary’s side, was a very strange man by any account.  He lived in the desert wearing a cloak of camel skin and eating only grasshoppers and wild honey: I’m thinking he’s the kind of guy who turned heads and probably left a bit of a stench when he walked by.

Now, he started his ministry a couple years before Jesus, announcing that he was preparing the way for the Lord, the Anointed One of God.  And, with that, he called people to confess their sins and to be baptized – to be washed – in the waters of the Jordan River.

And, the bulk of his message as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel is that it simply isn’t enough to claim to belong to God’s family without living a life that is in accordance with God’s will.

So, one day, Jesus comes to be baptized.

But wait a second.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Jesus, scripture assures us, is like us in every way except for sin.  If there’s one person ever who didn’t need baptism, wouldn’t that be Jesus?  In our Gospel lesson today, even John the Baptist is confused: it says, “John tried to deter him, saying, ‘No, it is I who need to be baptized by you; why are you coming to me?”

To find the answer, I want to suggest that maybe there’s more to baptism than meets the eye.

Saving through water: not just a New Testament idea.

You see, if we study the whole story of God’s salvation as one continuous action, rather than picking and choosing what we read, we find that this isn’t the first time God uses water to save his people. 

As we said last week, our God is in the business of revealing himself those who seek him – that’s something he’s done throughout history, and it’s something he wants to use you and me to do even today.  (Which reminds me: how have you done being an Epiphany, a revelation of God to someone who is searching this past week?)

But, together with God showing himself to those who seek him, from the beginning, he’s in the business of offering himself to be in relationship with his creation.  He does that, we’re told, in covenants – in promises made – in which the Almighty God of heaven and earth offers us his boundless blessing and mercy in exchange for our recognition that he is Lord; in exchange for our trust and loyalty, but more importantly, our acknowledgement that when we don’t trust him, when we forget that he’s Lord, we’re in the wrong, and we need to ask for forgiveness.

We see this even from the very beginning.

On the very first page of our Bibles, in just the second sentence, we see God the Holy Spirit working through water.  God, wanting to make a creature in his Image, a creature capable of true love and sacrifice, a creature capable of choosing good over selfishness, created a home for us, a home – even the most worldly of scientists would tell us – is special, not because of rock, or an atmosphere, but because it has been shaped by the water that sustains life as we know it.

From the beginning, God is at work, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters”, to create a home for us to live in relationship with Him.  And, from the beginning, he reveals himself to those first people, and offers himself to them, reaches out to them, inviting them into a covenant: ‘you can live in this paradise if you trust me as God, and you’ll show your trust by not touching that one tree – the rest is yours.’ 

Of course, we know how that chapter ends: we’re not happy with the 99.9% we were given, but broke that one simple rule, even though we knew that choosing to live apart from God would cost us dearly.

Time goes on, as some choose to live for the one true God who revealed himself in creation, while most others choose to live for themselves.  Then, God reveals himself and offers himself in relationship to us in a man called Noah, and his family.

Humanity, we’re told, had become murderous, obsessed with killing for power.  God offers himself to Noah, and tells him, and his sons, and their wives to be fruitful and multiply and fill the land, on the condition that they remember that each life is made in God’s image, and therefore no person should kill another.[1]

And how did God enact that covenant?  How did God offer salvation to Noah, and bring he and his family to their promised land?  He saved them through water; mighty waters of death that destroyed all in their path – except, for those whom God had called and carried through, those same waters became a fresh start, a new life, a new chance to live according to God’s will.

Time goes on, thousands of years pass, and God has chosen Abraham and his descendants to be the chosen people through whom he will reveal himself to the world.  This chosen family find themselves in Egypt where, over generations, they become enslaved. 

Again, God reveals himself – this time to Moses – and God offers himself to be in relationship with them; offering freedom and blessing and mercy in exchange for their trust and loyalty.  The people set off on their journey of trusting God, and find themselves trapped, with the sea on one side and an angry army on the other.  And, once again, God uses water to save his people: his chosen people are those who walked through the sea on dry land, while the army is drowned as the tide washes over them.

Of course, we know how this chapter goes – those chosen people saved from slavery were particularly bad at keeping the “trust and loyalty” part of their covenant.  In the desert they were afraid that they would starve, even though God provided food and water for them, and then they had the gall to complain about the food they were given!

God promised them a land overflowing with crops and cattle and milk and honey, but they hadn’t trusted; after 40 years, God raised up Joshua to take Moses’ place and lead his people to the promised land.  But there was a problem; the river – the Jordan River – was in their way. 

This, we read in Joshua 3[2] was an opportunity: an opportunity for God’s people to consecrate themselves, to make a fresh start in choosing to live according to God’s will for their lives, to live as his chosen people.  And, once again, God is saving his people through water.  They consecrate themselves in accordance with the Law, the priests enter into the flowing water and stand there, as the water dries up as everyone – toddlers, old men and old ladies – crosses the river without harm, arriving in the promised land.

Our own Baptism

God works through water.  And, in Jesus, we’re all invited into those waters of baptism.

But, what is offered is no mere bath, nor a simple “symbol” for a fresh start, nor even just the washing away of sin, of which Jesus had no need.

Our God, the one in the business of revealing himself, calls people made in his Image to enter into covenant with him; the covenant in which we receive his blessing and mercy in exchange for our trusting him as our Lord, and repenting when we live as though we’re lord of our own lives.

Jesus had no sins for which to be forgiven.  But, as he responded to John’s objection, his baptism is necessary, not for Jesus’ sake, but for ours – to fulfill all righteousness, as he shares our humanity.

As Jesus rises from the waters, he is revealed as God’s Son, as the perfect Son of Man, the one who succeeds in keeping God’s Law where all others have failed, the one who death cannot hold, and whose destruction of the gates of death opens the path of life; and he invites us not to a mere symbolic bath, but to enter into covenant with him, to enter into covenant with the God who, from the beginning, saves through water.

In baptism we are buried with Christ and raised to share in his resurrected life; in baptism the bonds that hold us to the fallen world are cut free and we are given a fresh start – just as with Noah, and Moses, and Joshua. 

But, it isn’t magic.  It’s a covenant.  And covenants, like any relationship, have expectations.  Blessing and mercy – boundless, unending mercy from Christ’s sacrifice of himself – offered in exchange for our trust and loyalty – a trust that knows that, when we’ve broken that loyalty, we need only to ask for forgiveness to receive his grace.

Christ’s baptism, paving the way for our baptism, joins us to God’s covenant people, the Church, the Body of Christ.

…And, maybe, in the years since your baptism, you, like the people of Israel, have lost that trust, or at times forgotten that God is to be Lord in your life.  The good news, though, is that God is unchanging – he’s the same yesterday, today, and forever – and even if we let down our end of the deal, even if we forgot our promises made at baptism, even if our parents or godparents broke their promises made on our behalf, God is still keeping his: he’s standing, arms wide open, waiting to receive back the one who turns to him for mercy.

God saves through water.  You’ve been washed, made a new creation in Jesus.   God stands ready to keep his end of the bargain, to forgive and bless and call you a son or daughter of his kingdom – all that’s left is for us to really, truly, confess our sins, and live for our Lord.

[1] Genesis 9

[2] Joshua 3

Cover image: Baptism of Christ by Daniel Bonnell

The Clothes Make the Man (or Woman)

Colossians 3:1-11

When I was a boy in Sunday School, there was a song that we would often sing.  It goes like this:

            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            Oh, be careful little eyes what you see;
            For the Father up above is looking down in love,
            So be careful little eyes what you see.

Maybe you’ve heard it.  The other verses go on to warn little ears to be careful what they hear, little hands to be careful what they do, little feet to be careful where they go, little minds to be careful what they think, and little hearts to be careful who they trust.

It’s a simple song, but in spite of it’s childlike simplicity, it shares much in common with what we read in the scriptures today. 

In Colossians, we are told that we are a new creation, remade as those baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and, St. Paul goes on to teach us, as those who now share in the life of Christ, we are to put off the thoughts and actions that define our world full of pain, grief, and shame. It’s a list of vices that isn’t news to any of us: sexual immorality, lust, evil desires, greed, anger, rage, slander, filthy language, lying to get ahead, and creating divisions amongst ourselves.

To borrow the extended image used by St. Paul, these are things that worldly people carry around with them, wearing these thoughts and actions as a garment, as clothes as they walk about.  And, to some extent, whether we like it or not, the old saying holds true: the clothes make the man.  Our identity is shaped by the image that we project to our friends and neighbours, and that image then shapes our attitudes, our thoughts, and our actions.  It’s like the kid who knows she has the coolest clothes, and allows that to become who she is, and shape how she treats other people.

Today’s lesson tells us to strip off that worldly clothes; to strip off that impurity, greed, anger, those lies and divisions, and instead to clothe ourselves with thoughts and actions that imitate Christ.

The implication, of course, being that we aren’t stuck in those sins as though they define us.  As comfortable as we get in well-worn clothes, and as much as wearing that favourite old shirt becomes a habit, if we choose, we can change them, and put on the garments of righteousness given to us at baptism.

Now this list, sexual immorality, greed, anger, filthy language, there are no surprises there, this is nothing new.  These are all things that, at some point, our parents, other family members, our clergy, and our teachers taught us, even if, in some cases, they didn’t practice what they preached.

A stumbling block

Yet, it’s this same list that becomes a stumbling block for so many who have left the church.  We’ve all heard it, I’d say especially from men who have wandered away from the church: “The church is full of hypocrites.  He’s selfish, she’s a gossip.  That one’s as greedy as you can imagine, and if that other one has a drink, you’d never believe the words that come out of their mouth.  Christians?  If that’s a Christian, I want nothing to do with it.”

All of us, as children, were taught to keep away from these worldly desires; all of us, one way or another, were warned to be careful of what we see, do, or say with our little eyes, hands, and mouths, often with the stern message that “God is watching”.

Many of us, for better or worse, were taught that purity – right actions, proper gratitude, good manners – would buy us favour with God.  Many of us were taught that it’s as though God was keeping a tally, like an eternal, heavenly “swear jar”, where we have to throw in a quarter for every curse word that crosses our lips, or do a good deed to make up for our failings.

And, if that’s the case, then those outside the church are right – the church is full of hypocrites.

Because the truth is, once we strip away the glossy exterior, every man, woman, and child alive continues to struggle with impurity and greed, with anger and rage, with filthy language, dishonesty, gossip, and divisions.

The reason for purity.

Oh, be careful little eyes what you see.

The problem, though, with that Sunday School song is that it has the message backwards.

So many, both inside and outside the church, think that the Gospel message is that we are to do good, live the best life you can live, and earn heaven as the reward.  So many think that living a “Christian life”, living a pure and righteous life buys us eternal life.

But that’s to have the message bottom up.

Yes, and it’s so important that the scriptures tell us in multiple places, we’re to avoid immorality and adultery, impurity, and greed.  Yes, we’re to avoid divisions and lewd speech and drunkenness.  Yes, we’re to refrain from anger and dishonesty.

But we don’t do that to earn our place in the church or in the family of God.  And, our place in the family of God doesn’t depend on some heavenly tally, whereby any one of us could pat ourselves on the back and say, “wow, aren’t I a good Christian”.

No.  We do our best to live in imitation of Christ because all of us – no matter what we’ve done, or whether our struggles are invisible or open for all to see – all of us have been invited to take off our worn-out earthly clothes and instead clothe ourselves with the grace of Christ.

I don’t try to live a pure life to earn heaven.  It’s the opposite.  Because Jesus loves me, I will live my life in a way that honours him. 

And if our neighbour’s struggles are more public than our own, we reach out to them in love, knowing that it’s only by the grace of God that we haven’t found ourselves in their situation in this broken and messy world.

Indeed, the Church – our church – is not called to be a museum for saints.  The church is a hospital for sinners, a home for the beloved children of God who have accepted the invitation into God’s family.

Yes, be careful little eyes what you see; and be careful little ears what you hear. 

But remember, it’s our Lord himself who says that it isn’t what goes into a person that makes them unclean; it’s what comes out of a person that makes us unclean.

It’s our Lord himself who raises the bar, saying that even just looking at another person with lust in your heart is to commit adultery.

And by the same token, if we pat ourselves on the back for our clean living, what have we done but allow pride to puff us up, allowing us to see ourselves as better than a brother or sister struggling with sex or drugs or drink or gossip or gambling.

We choose to take off those worldly habits because we love God, not to earn God’s love.

God is Watching… but that’s not a threat.

We have to remember, too, that God is watching.

But, even there, I fear sometimes we’ve got the message bottom-up.

For the Father up above is looking down… in what?

Too often, “God is watching” has been used as a threat.  But that goes back to that whole mistaken understanding of God as the great tally-keeper of good and evil.

As we heard in the Old Testament, yes, God is always watching.  But he watches as a loving Father; he waits patiently like a parent ready and willing to welcome a child back with open arms, no matter the mess we’re in – ready to take off the dirty, stained clothes we’re wearing and clothe us in his love.

Yes, God is watching, but he’s looking down in love, calling us to put off the ways of the world.  Not because our impurity makes him love us less, but as any loving and patient parent, he wants to spare the wayward child from learning lessons the hard way.

Being a disciple means to be one who is studying a discipline.  The scriptures use the image of a runner training for a race; no athlete who wants to win the race sits around eating donuts when they should be training on the track.

A disciple of Christ is one who is learning, studying, training to be like Christ.  And while no amount of failure can change the fact that he loves us and that he sees our value and our worth, it’s hard to say you’re training for the Olympics if you never go to the gym.  If we’re disciples, if we’re studying the way of God, that means we have to learn to love what he loves and to hate what he hates.  It means we live lives that keep things in perspective, not allowing our desires or pleasure to become the driving force in our lives.

Our Witness in the World

Be careful little eyes what you see?

Yes.  Because, at the end of the day, it’s not just about you.

God’s plan for every church is that it is not just the place where people gather to praise and be fed and to fellowship and to have their wounds healed.  It’s the place from which we, you and me, are sent out to share that healing, that belonging, that love with people who are desperate to hear it, who are desperate to be invited to belong, and to be told that they are loved. 

There are people – even our own neighbours – who are desperate to take off their worn-out, dirty clothes, and to put on the garment of God’s love and forgiveness as they accept their place in his family – this family.

But, for better or worse, in the eyes of the world, the clothes make the man or woman

If we’re to do that work God has given us, to be his messengers, his hands and feet in our community, we have to live lives that reflect his forgiveness, that reflect that, every time we mess up, he stands ready to re-clothe us as we commit once more to be his disciple.  

We’re to live lives not to show how pure or righteous we are, but to show how good God is, as we live for him instead of for ourselves.  The worn-out clothes of self-righteousness won’t get us far.  But, by the grace of God, with minds set on things above, clothed in forgiveness, and following the way of Christ, our lives themselves will preach the Gospel to a world that is desperate to hear it.

May God give us grace to live as his disciples.  Amen.

The Head of the Body

Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42

Christ is the head of the body; in him all things hold together.

Our lessons today point to Christ as the head of the body, as the cornerstone and foundation on which the Church is built. 

Our reading from Colossians really takes a big-picture, cosmic view: Jesus Christ, the second person of the eternal Trinity, is the one in whom all things were created.  Here St. Paul is speaking of Jesus as the Word of God spoken at creation – that Word that was made flesh and dwelt among us – as the very means by which the Creator called everything visible and invisible into being.

And, it’s worth noting, that St. Paul in this first part of Colossians makes some very big, and very serious claims.

All Things

While it’s one thing to say that Jesus is the head of the Christian Church, the scriptures actually make a claim much bolder than that.  As we proclaim today, he’s not just the head of the Church, but he himself is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning of all things, as the word that echoed through the universe and brought forth everything that is.  That’s what we proclaim when St. Paul says “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together”. 

And that’s a bold claim:

Not all “churchy” things, not all Christian things.  Not even all loving or lovely things.  But, in him, all things hold together.

That’s probably not the kind of deep theology that we spend much of our time thinking about. 

But, when we stop and think about what it is that we believe, there’s great comfort to be found in acknowledging Christ not just as my lord, or as a great teacher of Christianity, but in bowing the head and bending the knee to acknowledge Christ as lord of all creation.

And this bold claim is also a big part of understanding our faith.

One of the deep truths that we often hear repeated, especially in times of trouble, is that, in spite of whatever we’re facing, God works all things together for good for those who serve him.  But, if we stop and think, how could that be if the Lord is only lord of those who choose him, or is only one lord among many?

Those promises that we hold so dear – that the prayers of the righteous are effective, that the Lord will be with us and never forsake us, that the Risen Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us to live with him eternally – they only make sense, they only work, if Jesus Christ is not just my saviour or your saviour, but is indeed the Lord of all creation: the way, the truth, and the life for everything that is, the one by whom even that fallen angel, the devil himself, is destined to die, as Christ already conquered hell and the power of the grave, reconciling all things in heaven and on earth to himself in the offering of his sinless blood on the cross.

Of course, this is nothing new; this is the classic faith of the Church that we learned in Confirmation Class.  But, and I think we’ll agree, the world, and our communities have changed much in recent years.

There was a time, not that long ago, when the expectation, for better or worse, was that everyone belonged to a Church; that every child was brought before the congregation and baptized, in many cases, regardless of their parents’ intention to keep the solemn promises that were being made. 

There was also a time, not long ago, when the expectation was that every couple would receive the sacrament of holy matrimony in a consecrated church, regardless of whether or not they were actually inviting God into their relationship, and in some cases, regardless of whether or not they were actually intending to keep the vows made before God and his Church.

Today, by and large, that pressure to affiliate with a church is gone, and as Canadians, we do enjoy freedom to practice the religion of our choosing. 

But, the absolutely crucial point for the Church to remember is that, while it isn’t politically correct, and it certainly won’t make you popular, our steadfast belief is that Christ is Lord of All – Lord of every creature under heaven, and Lord of the living and the dead.  Our message – the message of hope and forgiveness and mercy through the offering of God’s own Son to redeem the world – only works if Jesus is indeed the way, the truth, and the life.

The moment we reduce Jesus to be a holy man and a good teacher, we’ve lost that firm foundation, that cornerstone, that solid rock on which we stand.

The moment we think of Christ as one option among many, we’ve lost the glorious truth of the Gospel – that, from the very foundation of the world, before time itself, the gracious Creator desired us to be in relationship with Him, and knowing that we mortal creatures could never earn immortality, would allow his only Son to take on human flesh, joining divinity and humanity together to break the grip of death, and paving the way for us to share in eternal life. 

That’s either universally true, in which case it is of the utmost importance and worth laying down your life for; or else, if it isn’t, then it is of no importance whatsoever; our great Gospel, the message that there is hope and mercy and forgiveness in Jesus, is a bold message that simply doesn’t work if it’s only half-way true.

Membership in the Body

And, this is where Christ as the “head of the body” really comes in.

Yes, Christ is Lord of all.  He’s Lord of all the living and the dead.

But, there are two ways we go about living into that.

It goes without saying that the head is the part that makes the body effective; if every body part were free to go its own way – think of someone having a seizure – it’s actually quite destructive; or, by the same token, if a body part won’t listen to the head – like a joint seized up with arthritis – then it makes life much more difficult.

It’s the head that makes the movements of the body effective.

And, if we think about it, it’s also the head that takes responsibility for the actions of the body.  If a kid steals some candy on the way out of the store, it’s not like he can stand there and say “well, my hand just did it”.  It doesn’t work that way: the head directs the body.

And from the beginning of the human race, our merciful, loving, and patient God has revealed himself to every people, language, and nation: first in the covenant of Creation, where, as scripture says, nature itself proclaims the goodness of the Creator; then in the law given to Moses, finally in the offering of Jesus Christ to reconcile God and humankind.

And in that, every person ever living has been given the choice: to live as though they’re the head of the body, as though they’re the lord and master of their own life; or to accept God as the head, and live according to his direction.

And as with human bodies, the head of the spiritual body both directs the actions of its members, and also takes responsibility for the actions of its members.

When we choose to live as though we’re in charge of our own lives, sure, it may appear as greater freedom: we can live as we want, spend our money on what we want, choose to love or hate our neighbour, choose to hold grudges, choose to seek revenge or hold on to past hurts, or gossip or steal or cheat.

But, if we live as lord of our own lives – a choice we’re free to make – then, when we stand before the throne of God above, we, as the head of our own body, will be held to account for our actions.

And, to be fair, that’s the standard operating procedure for many world religions: you have to do your very best, because they believe something will judge you based on the good you’ve done.

But, our Christian faith is very different.  Because, when we say, “Yes, I am a member of the body of Christ by baptism, with Christ as the head of the Church”, we’re saying “Yes, I agree to do all in my power to live by the example set by Jesus”.

But, we’re also saying, that Christ, the Risen Son of God, is our advocate; that we allow him to stand in our place before the throne, where he stands as our great high priest, pleading mercy on our behalf.

When we acknowledge Christ as head of the body, it means that, while we mourn our sin and strive to live rightly, when we look up, we see Christ offering himself for us, bearing our sins and our failings for us, so that we are counted free.

We proclaim, “no, I’m not the lord of my life”, and in doing so, accept the greatest freedom that comes from knowing that you don’t have to earn your reward, you just have to accept it, as it’s been freely given.

A Decision to Make

When you were baptized, either you or your parents and godparents proclaimed on your behalf your belief in the holy Catholic Church in the Apostles’ Creed.  That same church, which in our catechism is described as the body of Christ, and stands for all time and for all people living and dead, yesterday, today and forever.

The question now is whether you’ve chosen to live as a member of that body, with Christ at the head, or whether you’ve chosen to try your best and depend on your own strength.

Or, to put it in the words of today’s Gospel, are you living as Martha, rushing around, distracted, trying to do the right thing, when Jesus is calling you to be like Mary, who sat at his feet and listened to his Word.

The good news – the great news – is that it’s never too late.  While we can never do enough to pay off the wrong we do to others and our disobedience to God, Christ, the solid rock on which we stand, is ready to lift the burden of trying to please God and others, and to give us the grace to stand firm in his risen life.

He is ready to stand before God in your place, and take the responsibility for you, out of his great love. 

That’s what it means to say that you’re a part of the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head.

To him be the glory now and forevermore.  Amen.