It’s raining. No, not raining, it’s thundering and rumbling, grumbling and raining. It’s dark out, like the day wasn’t sure it should start or not. It’s as if the storm had center stage and the sun waits in the wings for its cue to come and shine and chase away the gloom. We woke to rumbles and though now is somewhat brighter, it still thunders in the distance, like a child muttering under its breath on the way to their room for time out. And the rain continues to fall.
Not an atmosphere conducive to creativity, or to exhortation. It’s more like a day to curl up around a cup of coffee and remember better days. Or maybe that’s the re-entry from vacation mode to work mode. Not that I’m not glad to be back preparing to preach to my congregation. It is good to be back. There is good news to celebrate, there is fellowship to share, there is a mission to perform. There is worship. And there is a task to complete.
I’ve been dealing with questions, with inquiries that came from the congregation at the prompting of a survey I presented after Easter this year. There were more questions than we could deal with, and we need to move on to other things. But I saved two questions for this the final week of the Ask the Pastor series. The first question was one I have had many times and the second was so beautifully written that it just captured me and I knew I had to deal with it. So, then I thought again and decided that they were in fact the same question. Though it doesn’t seem that way at first. See what you think.
The first question, the usual one that comes from time to time in a variety of settings, including the preaching courses that I sometimes teach, is “why do we baptize infants?” There is a line that divides the body of Christ. Well, let’s be honest there are many lines that divide us. Despite His prayer that we might be one, we manage to find things with which we can disagree, find things that put some on this side and some on that. And then we debate which side is right, who is good, the position that only the holy would hold. Lots of lines are drawn. But this one is about the nature of baptism. Not the method one, that’s a subtly different issue. But the nature one. There are those who baptize infants; it’s a celebration of new life, a welcome into the family of God. The subject of the event is oblivious to all that is going on., It’s not the infant who asks for baptism, it is the family. And even they sometimes struggle with the what and the why, but it is what we do. So they do it. And then there are those who say this is only meaningful if the subject, the wet one, chooses it, asks for it, turns around to receive it. Believer’s baptism they call it, though what exactly we are believing in is a little more elusive. Believing in Jesus, certainly, but what does it mean? Do we believe the water is magic? But only if the incantation is done right? “Wingardium le-vi-OH-sah not levi-oh-SAH” says Hermoine to the hapless Ron. Get it right.
That’s the first question. The second is like it. At least I think so. “How in the world are we supposed to love our neighbors who we don’t even like?” You’ve heard that one before, I know. If not out loud, if not voiced in a conversation or theological debate, then you’ve heard it whispering in the back of your soul, rattling around in the hollowness of your heart that you have claimed to give to Christ to do with as He will, but you know it is still clutched in your own hands, your fingers too clenched to let it go. How in the world? That’s our question too. How do we love? There is too much risk in loving. There is too much vulnerability in loving. How in the world?
So, there you have it. The two questions. Or, rather, one question in two forms. Don’t you think? Well, I do anyway. And Peter does. At least it sounds like he does.
1 Peter 3:13-22 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God's will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you-- not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.
You see it, don’t you? The correlation, the blending of the two questions. The admission of the helplessness, of the need for a savior. It’s there. Always there in Peter’s writing. Peter’s longing. He’s the one who turned his back to save his skin. He’s the one who thought “how in the world can I love my neighbor, love my enemies, when I’m so afraid of them?”
Ok, full disclosure. Most scholars don’t believe that the letters here tucked away in the back of the New Testament were actually written by the Apostle Peter. Their reasons are many and convincing. They are probably right, that the words that we have here are removed from the person of Peter. And yet, when I read them, I can’t help but hear the hurt that must have been on his heart, even as he was filled with life and with light. I hear a longing to undo his greatest failure. “Who will harm you if you do good?” Who’s he trying to convince with that line? Us? Or himself? Who will harm you if you stand with the Savior? Well, he says, even if you’re harmed, even if you suffer, what’s so bad about that? Suffering is temporary, intimidation is temporary, being maligned is temporary. Even if it becomes your whole existence for a time. And it does, doesn’t it? When we hurt, when we’re attacked, when we’re threatened, that’s our whole world.
So, the solution to being swallowed up in suffering is to hold on to the hope. Always be prepared to give account for the hope that is in your heart. To any, to all. To yourself. Yes, this is a call to share the good news. This is an invitation to be ready to share, to invite to include. (Spoiler alert: our next series is about this very thing. Making disciples - being willing to give an account. Stay tuned.) But it is also a call to hold on to hope. To claim the hope in your heart. A hope you didn’t put there.
Peter wrestles with suffering, and the dangers of living a life of faith. And then he compares it to the life Christ lived on our behalf. And the lengths He was willing to go to invite and include and receive this hope as a gift. And that this has been the plan from the very beginning. And ancient history blends with recent events so that everyone can hear that hope in the One who lives again. And our history is washed away in the waters of baptism, however long or short that history is, because this isn’t really about us. It is about Him. About the One who lives. About the Christ who offers hope for every heart. Baptism, Peter says, is not about our dirt, but about God’s consciousness living in us. Christ’s love working through us. About the Christ who is up there among angels and authorities and powers is also within us, as close as the beating of our hearts, as close as the breath that fills our lungs, the spirit we breathe in and out.
Which finally brings us to the answer to our questions. An answer that is simple and yet impossible. No, not impossible, but it takes a lifetime of surrender in order to claim, to accept, to understand. Why do we baptize infants? Because baptism isn’t about us. It’s about God and the hope that lives within us. And who’s to say an infant understands less than we do about that hope? Jesus said these children are of the Kingdom. We, on the other hand, resist it. We fight it. We deny it and run away from it to save our own skin. When what we need to do is love. How in the world are we supposed to love our neighbors who we don’t even like? Because it isn’t our love. We don’t generate this love. We just release it. At our best, we let Christ’s love radiate from us. It is His love that works in and through us. We are merely vessels. Vessels of Hope. Thanks be to God.