How very good and pleasant it is when the kindred dwell together in unity.   (Psalm 133:1)

Since this is hopefully the beginning of a little online community, I could think of no better topic to begin with than community itself.  It’s a big subject, and a controversial one.  If you’re reading this post, there’s a pretty good shot that you belong to a different denomination than me, if not a different belief system altogether.  What I hope to offer to the conversation about  unity is not a pie in the sky hope of perfect unity and love amongst the Bride of Christ.  I’m not John the Baptist, cleverly disguised as Rodney King, crying “Can’t we all just get along?” out here in the post-evangelical desert.  We could talk about the Acts 2 church, and how they shared goods and meals and worshiped together, and say their church members were ideally committed to providing for each others’ needs, but we would only end up with an argument over whether they met in a house or at the temple, so I’m not taking that path.  We could talk about the blood and the body, but we Christians can’t even agree on the purpose and power of these.

Instead, I wanted to take a stab at defining some marks that we as believers should hold to that bind us together as community.  Again, it’s a big topic.  There’s already been about 2000 years worth of discussion on the things that bind us together, and those things that divide us.  Unfortunately, the things that divide us are the ones that seem to draw the most attention, and the things we believers focus on the most.  We’re going to avoid all the theological arguments about justification, methods of baptism, and spiritual gifts, and look at the things that should glue us all hopelessly together.

Being a complete liturgical, historical Christianity nerd, I went straight back in time to find some practices that imply that we are bound to one another;  that we are responsible for each others’ well-being;  that we’re in this boat together.  I came up with three ideas that I wanted to explore, three things that I believe define us as a community of believers when we participate actively in them:

1)  We are a people of Baptism

2)  We are a people of  Communion.

3)  We are a people of Creed.

Let’s start today with baptism.

Many churches are more concerned with the method of baptism than the meaning.  When we focus on the method, we lose the part of baptism that makes us a part of a greater community.  In many evangelical churches, the focus of baptism is on “personal salvation”, and participants are called upon to “give their testimony”.  This is invariably a remarkable, miraculous story of how one was lost, and now they are found;  how they were blind, but now they see;  how Jesus has changed their lives;  how Jesus fulfills them like no other addiction or fantasy or fixation ever could; how they were in a mess, but Jesus fixed it for them.  After testimony, they are lowered into the water with the words, “Death to the old man, raised to the newness of life.”

It’s a beautiful moment, no doubt.  Sometimes forgotten in the transaction, though, is the covenant nature of baptismal waters.   In the water, whether you’re sprinkled, dunked, or showered,  there are promises made.  A covenant is a transaction made between entities, an agreement where parties pledge to fulfill certain promises.  In the sacrament of baptism, God has made promises to us:  Mark 1:4 calls the ritual “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”;  Ezekiel 36:25 states ”I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.”

God promises to forgive our sins, and clean us, and then we make some promises.  In our baptismal liturgies, questions are asked of  the individual receiving the sacrament:  

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world?”

“Do you accept the freedom from God to resist evil, injustice, and oppression?”

“Do you confess Jesus as Savior?”

Even though it isn’t as formally done as in the liturgies of churches that hold the sacramental view, many evangelical pastors will ask similar questions to the individual being baptized.

The problem with the typical method of evangelical baptism is that it sometimes appears on the surface to be a solo, self-centered venture.  Sure, Jesus is involved, but it’s a “just me and Jesus” mindset that accompanies the celebration.   Taken for granted is the fact that one’s problems aren’t over just because they responded to an altar call and got dunked.  Temptation and troubles will come again.  The old man doesn’t completely disappear.  He waits underneath the surface of the water, and he wants your temporal flesh to die the death your spiritual flesh has already experienced.  When you go for a swim with the old man all by yourself,  he’ll lure you out farther and farther from the safety of the shore, until you’re in so deep you don’t even want to go back, for fear of shame and disappointing the folks that heard your miracle story.  It’s hard to save yourself from being drowned, even harder to cry for help when your baptism is an individual affair.

So if  God made us a promise to forgive and clean, and we make him several promises as a response, what else is left?  What makes baptism a corporate affair that surrounds someone with a protecting, loving community?  What is it about baptism that makes you a part of something bigger than just yourself?

Baptismal liturgies are unique in that the sacrament isn’t just a transaction between the person being baptized and God.  The congregation is a part of this covenant, as well.  In Anglican and Methodist traditions, after questions have been asked to the individual being baptized, questions are then put to the congregation:

“Do you, as Christ’s body, the church, reaffirm your rejection of sin, and your commitment to Christ?”  And, “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?” The congregation then responds…

We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God, and be found faithful in their service to others, we will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.”

Our final question: What does it mean to “surround someone with a community of love?”

1)   We do our best to avoid hurting each other.  I have to admit, I have a bad habit of critiquing church services, because I know how I like for them to be done.  It’s fine for me to do this in the car with my wife, but not so good if I start infecting people in the church with bad feelings about how worship is going.  It’s easy to get caught up in that kind of conversation, especially in this day and age, when many churches are offering different types of worship services.  If I had my way in my church, we would be a lot more liturgical, no matter what type of music was being played.  But, I’m not going to say discouraging things to people on the worship committee because things aren’t being done to suit my preferences.  Sunday morning worship isn’t about my satisfaction.  I am not the audience during worship, and if your church leadership thinks you are, pandering to the whims and likes of the culture instead of striving to be pleasing to God,  then they are way off base.

We’re all children of God.  If I discourage or hurt a child of God, then I could cause them to stumble in their faith, or even to sin.  Matthew 18:7 is generally used in the context of harming children, as defined according to age.  God doesn’t define his children by age.  The verse says that if I  “cause a little one to stumble (or to sin), it would be better that a millstone be hung around my neck and be drowned in the depth of the sea”. 

Don’t discourage each other, don’t cause each other to sin.  And as far as worship styles go, be glad I’m not your pastor.  There would be all kinds of candles and smoke and bells and incense going on in during worship, and most of the service would probably be in Latin.  Just because that’s what I like.  And we would have electric guitars.  Twin leads.  Just so I could make somebody mad.

Whatever our differences may be, though, whichever side of the aisle we sit on, whether it’s about music, building programs, pastors, or whatever us Christians typically disagree about, we are committed through baptism to do each other no harm.

 Surrounding someone with a community of love…” also means:

2)  We love and serve each other, even if we have differences.  In John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times, ”Do you love me?”  Peter responds, “Yes”.    Jesus replies, “Feed my sheep.”  Jesus is saying, “If you love me, then be a servant and care for the people who I gave my life for.”  Love each other and serve each other.

I Corinthians 12 talks about how we are one body, with many members; how we all have gifts to give, and each member’s gift is needed.  When a new person is baptized into the body, each member enters into an agreement to help supply what that individual needs to grow in their spiritual journey.  I am who I am today because people like Lucille Smith, Alice Epps, and my mom entered into a covenant agreement with God and me, then were willing to teach my  Sunday School classes; I am who I am today because my parents, then Rayford and Shirley Gentry, and finally Evelyn Wages made covenant promises with God and myself, and were willing to devote their energies to leading youth groups.  Because people loved and served me, when I was just a kid, a kid that had nothing to offer in return, but they gave anyway.  Those names may not be meaningful to you or be in the Hebrews Hall of Fame, but each of us has our own “communion of saints” that we can look back on and say, “That person is a big part of my spiritual journey.  God used them to shape me into who I am in Christ.”

Loving and serving each other means we help each other grow; we share each other’s grief and joy; and we carry each others’ burdens (Galatians 6:2).  We all know John 3:16, but we ought to know I John 3:16 just as well:

”This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?  Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth”

In doing I John 3:16, in living as what we claim to be, a Christian community, bound together in covenant relationship, we become living, breathing testimonies to God’s presence in the world.  The liturgies used for baptism are often looked at as old and worn-out, even insincere, because they aren’t “spirit-led” and spontaneous.  They are old, but they are far from worn-out.  There are serious agreements to consider when participating in a baptismal liturgy, for God, for the baptized person, and for the community pledging to uphold and support the individual.  We make these vows to each other, and to God.  Like a wedding vow, they are covenant in nature, and should be taken seriously!  Baptism makes us a part of a family, bound together with the DNA that courses in the veins of Christ Himself.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen

(Recommended Reading/Source Material:  “The Sacramental Life” by David DeSilva; The Book of Common Prayer)

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