The church is facing enormous challenges
as we move forward into an uncertain future.
These challenges are perplexing and complicated
and perhaps unprecedented in the history of the church.
They are, in fact, life-threatening to church as we know it.
Now . . . I don’t know which direction your mind goes
when you hear me make such dire sweeping statements.
I can think of several different directions your mind could have gone.
You might have thought
about the graying of Western Christianity,
that younger adults are not showing as much interest in church,
that the average age of church-goers keeps getting older,
and we might be a generation or two from extinction.
You might have thought about the threat posed
by a secular and individualistic and consumeristic society.
That our culture can’t stand any limits to personal freedom—
like mutual submission, or communal accountability—
values that church and Christian community require.
You might have thought about the current conflict in the church
the tension and polarization over changing views
on marriage and sexual ethics,
and changing views
on our interpretation of scripture, or its authority.
You might be worried the church is going to split,
and implode upon itself.
You might have thought about changes in charitable giving,
and how denominations and institutions and congregations,
all seem to have ever-shrinking budgets and programs.
You might have thought about a general moral decline in the church,
that we look more like our secular and hedonistic culture
than we ever have—
obsessed with pleasure, wealth, and power.
You might have thought about the fact that Christendom
is all but dead in the West.
There are pockets where Christendom is still alive and kicking,
but it’s on its way out.
By “Christendom,” I mean the so-called
Golden Age of Christianity,
when the church, its leaders, and all things Christian,
held a central place in society,
and provided a common moral language,
and nearly everyone knew that language.
The church was known, respected, and influential.
Today, for the average citizen in developed Western society,
the church is hardly a blip on the radar,
it’s leaders are tolerated, at best,
more likely ignored, maybe even ridiculed and reviled.
Church is an interesting cultural relic from the past,
but mostly irrelevant for today.
Well. Any of those different ways of describing the challenge
are valid, and worth talking about.
But to me, that last one is the most interesting, and most hopeful.
The slow death of Christendom may, in fact,
turn out to be one of the greatest gifts
the world has ever given the church of Jesus Christ.
Because when the church is at the center of society,
and is busy propping up the status quo and blessing the powers,
instead of confronting them with the radical gospel,
it has just lost its God-given identity.
I actually do not despair about the future of the church.
Yes, we are facing huge challenges.
But I don’t believe this is the beginning of the end.
In fact, to me, it’s the best of times to throw your lot in
with Christ’s church.
Thank God we’re not stuck in that soul-sucking
age of the church that we called Christendom.
The church today is ripe for renewal.
That is exactly the reason I planned this worship series.
Because I believe church matters.
Church matters to God.
Church matters to God’s reign and rule in the world.
God has invested God’s future in the church.
But I don’t believe that any one singular form of the church
is what God is invested in.
God has not put the future of the Kingdom on the shoulders of
Mennonite Church USA, thankfully.
Nor on Virginia Mennonite Conference.
Nor on Park View Mennonite Church.
These are all forms, frail forms at that,
it’s just us fumbling around trying to be faithful
as far as we know, as far as we can see.
But the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than all of these,
and perhaps, smaller than all of these forms.
I believe the church that matters most to God
is any peoplehood of believers, large or small,
who make a covenant together
to seek God’s word and will together—
continually, not once and for all—
continually seeking as a community,
open to the Holy Spirit,
gathered around the scriptures
with a spirit of expectancy and yieldedness,
ready to be transformed, and changed . . . together.
People who are fully open and hospitable and attentive
to the world around them,
who engage the brokenness of the world
with the gospel of love and mercy,
who invite any and all into God’s household with them,
to be transformed with them.
Yes, the church of Christendom did lose sight of its God-given identity.
But we can reclaim our identity.
We can once again be the church
that God dreams of having in the world.
Our new identity won’t emerge from something brand new we invent.
Renewal won’t come through some new gimmick.
No, it will come through the old, time-tested practices of the church.
These are the practices engaged in
by Jesus himself with his disciples,
who themselves were continuing the practices of
God’s people since Abraham,
practices that were kept alive
throughout the long history of the church,
from the early church, through the Middle Ages,
into and beyond the Reformation.
The vitality of the church will be recovered
not because of some shiny new idea nobody thought of before.
But because the church had the good sense
to hold lightly its present cultural forms,
and to hold on for dear life, to its real treasures.
Its treasures are the practices that shape it for life as God’s people.
Thus, the title of this series,
“Church matters: Practices for the body of Christ after Christendom.”
Sorry I don’t have the schedule in your bulletin today,
but from now until the beginning of Lent,
we will look at the practice of
Baptizing, Engaging scripture, Fasting & feasting,
Bearing witness, Reconciling, Worshiping,
Communing, Discerning & guiding
And I have an overflow list, of a half-dozen more practices,
that I hope to make into a part two series, later on.
But now, having taken this time for a longer introduction,
I’m going to be concise and condensed about baptism,
so hang on.
Stay with me, because this may be the most important practice
of them all.
Don’t be deceived by how many minutes I have to talk about it.
Baptism is far more meaningful than we think.
Oh, we often make a big deal about our baptism day,
but afterward it’s put on the back burner.
But, you know, it doesn’t even matter
how meaningful your baptism day was.
It doesn’t matter one bit.
Some go all out to make their baptism meaningful and memorable.
We want to be baptized in a place that’s special to us.
We want certain special persons to be there.
We want our favorite songs to be sung.
We want perfect weather.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
Don’t misunderstand me.
But in the long run,
it doesn’t matter at all what you remember about that day,
the water, the weather, the well-wishers.
So take heart, those of you who had a ho-hum baptism,
or maybe barely remember anything at all about it.
None of that matters.
It doesn’t matter if you were immersed in the Jordan River,
or had some water poured on you with a Dixie Cup.
It only matters what that practice really means, in actuality,
and whether you seek to live into that meaning today.
Same with weddings.
It doesn’t matter one whit how meaningful your wedding day was,
or how well you remember that song, or that kiss . . .
or even if you remember
the exact wording of the vows you exchanged.
You can forget almost every detail of your wedding,
and it won’t matter.
What matters, is only that you know what that promise means, now,
in your ordinary, day-to-day living out your relationship.
So, to understand baptism more deeply,
let’s look at Jesus’ baptism.
We heard the story today from Matthew 3.
We should think of it as a model for us.
Not in every respect, of course, but in the main respect.
Why was Jesus baptized, anyway?
I’ve heard many people ask the question.
But I’ve never heard anyone suggest he was baptized
to wash away his sins . . . or
to be cleansed and forgiven of his awful wretchedness.
No, it was the day he took on a new name.
Maybe he didn’t know it completely that day by the river.
But that’s what it was.
At the moment Jesus said, “yes” to the beckoning of the Spirit,
the moment he threw in his lot
with his God and God’s people and God’s purposes,
at that moment, Jesus was re-christened, re-named.
A voice from heaven pronounced his new name:
“You are my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
The God who gave Jesus life made a pronouncement
that began with the words “You are...!”
A declaration of identity.
Not “you should” or “you oughtta” or “you will.”
Not words of duty, but words of identity.
That is what baptism means. Period.
Jesus’ baptism is a prototype for ours.
At the heart of all our baptisms is that we are named,
christened by God.
“You are loved. You are mine.
You are worthy, because I have made you worthy.
And I have an intention for you.”
In his baptism,
Jesus came to understand, in a deeper way than before,
who he was, and who he was called to be, and to become.
He was not first given a to-do list, he was first given a name.
It’s not that doing doesn’t matter.
No, it matters a lot.
It’s just not the place to start.
We start by hearing the words, “You are . . .”
Then once we hear and accept those defining words, “You are...”
we have a basis on which we act, and do, and behave.
We have a foundation for ethics,
for deciding between a right and wrong course for our lives.
Our doing has integrity when it’s grounded in our being.
The reason we have such ethical confusion in our culture,
is because we’re missing that essential grounding,
hearing and accepting those defining words from our Creator,
“You are... You are my son, my daughter.
I have given life to you.
You belong to me, and I love you with an everlasting love.”
Our society suffers from identity confusion.
So many other things shape our identity—
our body image,
our sexual persona.
And all these identities are reinforced by our consumer society,
and by products being foisted on us,
that promise to give us these cultural markers of success.
When these smaller identities become the basis for life choices
rather than our God-given identity as a beloved child of God,
then we are living less than the life we were created for.
The practice of baptism,
and the practice of frequent public rituals
remembering our baptism,
help ground us in this primary identity,
help shape us for life in the body of Christ.
I was reading an essay by David Lose,
preaching professor at Luther Seminary in Minnesota.
He sees the practice of baptism,
and the practice of remembering baptism,
as deeply formative for our Christian identity.
He is writing to us preachers when he says,
we ought to preach on baptism much more often than we do.
And we ought to frequently reinforce it in other ways.
“Confession of sin is a time to remember baptism.
Communion is an extension of the baptismal promise.
The dismissal is the time to send us forth
to live out our baptism
in our various roles and vocations in the world.
[In one-on-one pastoral care] there are manifold opportunities
to remind people of God’s promises to us in Baptism.”
Further, he writes,
“Sometimes I wonder if amid all of our customary focus
on baptism as washing away sin,
we have missed the profound words of empowering grace
that are spoken here to Jesus and also to us.
For we, too, are God’s beloved children,
those with whom God is well pleased.
This message . . . has never been more timely.
We live in a culture that promises acceptance only if we are . . .
skinny enough, strong enough, successful enough,
rich enough . . . beautiful enough, young enough, and so on.
Which means that the message of baptism—
that God has declared that we are enough,
that God accepts us just as we are,
and that God desires to do wonderful things
for and through us—
may be just what our people desperately need to hear.”
This is urgent, he says, because
“Never before have so many
been willing to offer our people an identity,
most often linked to a product being sold.
And whether you are young or old, rich or poor,
steeped in the faith or relatively new,
we all crave a sense of identity
and so are all too susceptible to such false promises.
For this reason, there is no better time than the present
to hear the word and promise that
Jesus was born, ministered, lived, died, and was raised again
to demonstrate in word and deed
just how much God loves and accepts us.”
I agree with him. Completely.
I may not agree with what he probably believes
about the sacramental nature of the baptism rite itself.
But I couldn’t agree more about the shaping power
of the practice of regularly remembering our baptism,
and the gracious promise and word of God
contained in this symbol.
And it need not always happen here in the large gathered assembly.
It can be wherever you are doing and being church.
Does your small group, or Sunday School class,
ever have a prayer when you dismiss?
Does that prayer include a reminder of our baptismal identity?
Does it remind us of God’s gracious words to us,
“You are . . . enough. I love you, and you are mine”?
Or is it only a “let’s-go-and-do-better” kind of prayer?
How often do we renew our baptismal vows together?
And remember God’s gracious affirmation?
I really am not making this entirely about the ritual of baptism,
in and of itself.
Some of you have not yet been baptized.
This sermon was still for you.
Maybe you’re looking forward to baptism.
Maybe you’re questioning it.
That’s fine. Keep searching.
That doesn’t mean you are not yet named by God. You are.
God has given life to you, too.
And God loves and longs for you, too.
Claim that reality, and live into it.
What baptism does is give each of us, and the church,
a regular opportunity to public affirm our identity in Christ.
It is to commit ourselves to journey with a people
who have the same name, and know it.
Who are committed, together,
to live into our baptismal identity.
It is to claim, to name for ourselves
the name God has already given us, “My beloved child.”
It is to hear God’s voice saying, “I love you as you are.”
And to respond to that voice, “Take me, as I am.”
As John Bell wrote in the simple song we’re about to sing,
and repeat several times.
“Take, O take me as I am;
summon out what I shall be;
set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”
May this be our prayer today,
and every time we gather as the body of Christ.
—Phil Kniss, January 12, 2014
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