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2014 04 13 (8.0 MB)

2014 04 06


Baptism as Community Building and Belonging
Baptism as a rite of passage into the life of community – an act of belonging
Lent 5; April 6, 2014
For: First Mennonite Church, Denver
Copyright, Theda Good, 2014

Scripture reading – Galatians 3:26-29
For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Have you seen the commercial? A family moves to a new town and they need to open a new bank account. They take their teenage son along to the bank. Not how he wanted to spend his day.  As the parents sit down with the banker, the son slumps into a chair, trying to withdraw into his own little world. And, then he notices a photo on the banker’s desk. It’s a picture of the Junior High Laccrosse team. The son leans forward looking at the photo; his eyes fixate on the coach – who happens to be the banker at whose desk he is now sitting. The banker follows the gaze of the boy in front of him to the photo and then their eyes meet. The banker asks, “Do you play?” The son breaks a grin and says, “Yeah.” The next scene is the family driving off with the son sitting in the back seat, twirling his lacrosse stick and looking cheerfully out the window, as the mother sits in the front seat with her i-pad signing her son up for the lacrosse team – and yes, making an automatic payment from her new bank account.

This commercial, illustrates the difference between engagement and non-engagement as we enter new communities. This could be a sports team or a civic group, rotary club, a hiking or biking group, a church community or any other of the many, many organizations created to unite a group of people around a common purpose. What is the pathway for belonging to any group?

The expectations and requirements can be very different depending on where you want to belong. And there is the question of how involved do you want to be? Being part of a competitive art show or athletic team, requires full participation. You can’t expect to win the award if you have not given your best self to your water color or sculpture. The same goes for belonging here at First Mennonite. How much you want to belong depends on your level of engagement. If you show up on an occasional Sunday morning is that belonging? Anyone and everyone is welcome to come, come as you are, sit for a few weeks or months. But you are more welcome to get involved, be a full contributor in the life of this community. I would argue that if you want to gain the full benefit of this community, you need to engage. We tend to have a greater sense of belonging when we put some skin in the game. There are small groups to join, committees to serve on, work days around this property, many ways to volunteer.

In this season of Lent, we have been having a variety of messages around the theme of Baptism. I experience Baptism as a ritual for belonging as a statement indicating that I am choosing to follow Christ. Here at First Mennonite Church, baptism is often combined with becoming a member.

Our text today from Galatians describes Paul’s message to the Jews and Gentiles in Galatia and what he thought it meant to belong. Apparently there was a lot of conflict in these churches in this region. Paul does not begin this letter with his usual warm blessing and a greeting of thanksgiving. He gets right to the matter. There’s a conflict. The conflict had to do with what was going to be required of Gentile converts in order to belong to the NEW movement of Jesus followers.

Paul is writing to set the record straight, what does it mean for the Gentile Jesus-followers to belong? What do they have to do to join this community? Do the Gentiles have to follow the Jewish Law? There are people who believe and want to participate in this new growing community. The leader of the Jews in Jerusalem was James the brother of Jesus. James was advocating for adult circumcision for Gentiles. Paul a devout Jew was challenging this requirement. Paul was a self-proclaimed apostle of Jesus – He never met Jesus when Jesus was alive on the planet but rather had that experience of enlightenment on the road to Damascus.  The Jews in Jerusalem had hung out with Jesus during his ministry years and James grew up with him. Who has the final say on this important issue in the early church?

This sounds all too familiar in the Mennonite Church today. Is our 1995 Confession of Faith the last and final word of what Mennonites should teach and believe from now until the end of time? Mennonites do not hold to creeds but rather we articulate our theological understandings through Confessions of Faith. There have been at least five or six Confessions with the first one written in 1527. What I found most intriguing is a statement in the forward of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith, which reads,
“But in recent years there has been some conviction that it is imperative to draw up a new confession of faith, not to repudiate any earlier confession, but to restate the doctrinal position of the church in terms relevant to today’s issues…”

This was written over fifty years ago!

In our Mennonite Tradition, we do have a practice of updating and changing our Confession of Faith based upon new understandings and insights in our current times.

Paul, too, is an example of how understandings and traditions changed in the first century of the early church. Paul is saying if you are a follower of Jesus, you are a child of God through faith.  This is a change from belonging through following the laws of Moses. Paul is saying, because you have been baptized, you have shown yourself as a follower of the Way! There are no longer any distinctions among you which should separate, divide or distinguish you from anyone else. There is no distinction between Jews and Gentiles; there is no longer a distinction between slave or free; there is no longer male nor female; there is no longer straight or queer; there is no longer Japanese, Middle Eastern or South American. Everyone has the equal opportunity to belong.

Another interesting aspect of this story is that men have more at stake here than the women. I make a point of this since in our Mennonite History it has usually been about what women should or should not do such as wearing jewelry, make-up, coverings and pants. We won’t even talk about women in church leadership. Here the tension was whether or not Gentile men needed to follow the Jewish law of circumcision? And, did this Gentile community need to follow Jewish Dietary laws related to kosher foods? If they were not required to follow the Jewish law, this would be a serious diversion from the established rules of belonging.

Requiring circumcision and observance of Jewish law would perpetuate the division between Jew and Gentile and thus destroy the unity of life “in Christ.” For Jews they had an explicit prescribed way of living and rituals which defined who belonged and who did not.

Paul makes his argument clear in verse 29. He does not say, “if you are a member Abraham’s family, you are in Christ.” No, he says, “if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Paul’s message to these churches is to accept everyone who wants to be a Christ follower, belonging is NOT based on following the Hebrew law.

In one of my most difficult yet most rewarding classes in seminary called, Christian Tradition, I was intrigued with the practice of belonging in the early church. I’m talking about the 4th and 5th centuries a few hundred years after the story or Jesus. The early church had a four stage process to belonging. Everyone who was not a part of the Christian community was considered to be pagan in need of evangelization. Once you expressed interest in becoming a Christ-follower, you would apply for instruction. Leaders would examine you as a candidate and then give you approval for admittance into Stage 2. This sounds a lot like applying and hoping to get into a particular university. Stage 2, is the Catechumenate. This marks the commitment to the journey of conversion. One is no longer considered a conventional pagan. The teaching is focused on reshaping the behavior of the convert. Once behavior has been judged to have sufficiently changed then she or he was admitted into stage 3. Stage 3 is Enlightenment. The focus is on right belief. The concern is orthodox teaching so that all would believe the same thing. As we can see over time there is no longer one orthodox teaching in the Christian Church. Just look at all the different denominations and independent churches, not to mention the differences of belief within the Mennonite Church. Stage 3 was the stage of spiritual formation. The culminating ritual was baptism. At this point they experienced belonging.

A fourth stage was added in the 4th century to include Mystagogy. This was like our “Bearing Witness.” Each catechist in the week after Easter had to explain the meaning of the rites of baptism and Eucharist, the experience in which the new believers had just participated.

This is in contrast to what we practice here at First Mennonite. We do not have specific requirements in order to belong. However, we do encourage the ritual of baptism as a marker of one’s declaration that you are choosing to be a follower of Christ. We offer it as a sacred ritual for belonging to this people of faith who commit themselves to community, simplicity, peace and service in the Spirit of Christ. I believe it is important that belonging happen first, and then belief and behavior will follow.

With the current conflict in the Mennonite Church over licensing me as a minister, frequently Dawn or I will be asked the question, “How are you doing as the Mennonite Church debates the question of inclusion for all people?”  I often reply that we are living in eye of the storm. Right here, right now, life is good for us. We enjoy lots of sunshine and calm weather. For me this translates right into the work I do. I feel a strong sense of belonging as I work and minister among you. I am eager to assist and help others to find a place of belonging here too. There are many ways to be involved. Currently we are looking for people to serve on various roles on Leadership Council. Debb Reed and the outreach commission are looking for people to participate with Mennonite Outreach Weekend. Sign-ups are still happening at the Open Table in the Community Center. We are trying to find ways for people to plug into small groups throughout the year, not just once a year as we had been doing. I am always eager to add more people to the ministry of Care-Circles. This is my form of coaching a lacrosse team. Care-Circles are a specific group of people who agree to be in communication with a person in need who can no longer attend Sunday worship service regularly. What you agree to is to take a week of the month and either call or visit with the person whose Care-Circle you belong. There is that word again – belong! And we have many many small groups whose gatherings provide another place where we find a sense of belonging.

On Easter Sunday we plan to baptize anyone who wants to mark their intention to follow Christ and join this beloved community. Please talk to any of us pastors, Tory and I are available this morning. Vern will return from his time off later this week. May this be a place of belonging.  Amen               
Aslan, Reza, Zealot. Random House, NY. 2013
Borg, Marcus J., Evolution of the Word. Harper One, New York, NY. 2012
Kreider, Alan, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom. Trinity Press, Harrisburg, PA. 1999.
Wright, N.T., What Saint Paul Really Said. William B. Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapid, MI. 1997.

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