No Matter What--You Are a Child of God
No Matter What—You Are a Child of God
January 8, 2017
No matter what—you are a child of God, precious and beloved. No matter how high you climb in life, no matter how many degrees you may get or how many people may serve and respect you, you will never achieve a title higher than you received at your baptism: child of God, precious and beloved. And no matter how low your heart may sink, no matter what is done to you or how you may disappoint yourself, baptism never rubs off. No matter what--you are a child of God, precious and beloved.
Baptism has many different meanings and associations. The word ‘baptize’ means literally to dip or to wash, so baptism represents the washing away of sin and the cleansing of our souls. Baptism also symbolizes dying and rising to new life. In immersion, when we go under the water it is like dying to our old life, and when we come back up, breathless and gasping, it is rising to the new life God makes for us in Jesus Christ. Baptism is also a sacrament, the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace; or in John Wesley’s term it is a ‘means of grace,’ that is, God is present to us in all sorts of ways and places, but there are certain places where God has promised to be, where God’s grace is reliably present, and baptism is one of those places.
So baptism has many meanings and associations, but two above all stand out in today’s gospel reading. First, solidarity. On the day when Jesus came to be baptized by John, as Barbara Taylor imagines it, "the place was teeming with sinners—faulty, sorry, guilty human beings—who hoped against hope that John could clean them up and turn their lives around." Probably most of them hadn't done horrible things, but if not, they may havehad horrible things done to them, or experienced the horrible side of life. They were troubled and weary, ashamed and wounded, and they were coming for baptism so they could feel clean again.
And then Jesus showed up and got in line with them.1 John tried to talk Jesus out of it: “No, no, I need you to baptize me, not the other way around.” But Jesus insisted. You see, Jesus didn’t only come to give his life for us. He didn’t stand up front and lecture us or shout encouragement from afar. He came to be with us, to be one of us, to stand in solidarity with us in all our trouble and weariness, in all our shame and woundedness. We have baptism in common not only with one another and all other Christians, we have baptism in common with Jesus himself. He comes and gets in line with us; we are in this life together, Jesus and us. Baptism is about solidarity.
But here’s the rest of the story: Baptism bestows on us an identity. As Jesus came up out of the water, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” So important are these words, that they are repeated verbatim at the Transfiguration. Jesus becomes dazzling white as his disciples look again and again the voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And one assumes that in less public ways, God was always whispering these words to Jesus. When Jesus was tempted by the devil, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved. When the Pharisees criticized him and the disciples failed to understand, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved. And when he wrestled in Gethsemane with the prospect of dying, he needed to remember who he was—the Son of God, precious and beloved.
Baptism bestows on us an identity, one we need to remember all of our lives. No matter what, it says, you are a child of God, precious and beloved. Peter Storey, the former Methodist bishop in South Africa, a white man who opposed apartheid, tells of a party at which he and Desmond Tutu were the honored guests. A group of black South Africans asked Peter and Desmond if they understood why they were throwing a party for them. “Because we were with you in the struggle against apartheid?” Their hosts replied, “No, because you baptized us; you told us who we were and remembered it even when no one else did.”2 Baptism bestows on us an identity, one we need to know and remember all our lives.
This is a kind of high theology of baptism, that baptism has the power to change us from one thing to another. Thomas Lynch tells of his grandmother who was raised a Methodist but married into an Irish Catholic family. Tongue in cheek she would explain to people how she converted to Catholicism. She would say, “Ah, the priest splashed a little water on me and said, ‘Geraldine, you were born a Methodist, raised a Methodist. Thanks be to God, now you’re a Catholic. Amen.” And that was that.
One evening Geraldine was grilling some steaks on a Friday in Lent when some church officials showed up to enforce the ban on eating meat on Friday during Lent. Geraldine calmly splashed some water on the grill and said, ‘You were born a cow, and raised a cow. Thanks be to God, now you are fish!” Baptism changes our identity! But always she’d end her story with this summary: ‘Surely we’re all children of God, the same but different.’3 Do I hear an ‘Amen?’
Baptism makes us something new, something we weren’t before. Now don’t misunderstand me. Baptism isn’t magic. God loves unbaptized people just as much as baptized people. God doesn’t need baptism; we need baptism. And we all know that some people struggle to live out the new identity baptism has given them. But what baptism gives us, ideally, in a way that we can take hold of and understand, is what Rowan Williams calls “the restoration of what it is to be truly human. To be baptized is to recover the humanity that God first intended.”4
One problem is, some of us get to thinking that we are somehow more than just children of God. We get to thinking that we don’t have to get in line with all the other poor sinners—with poor people or foreigners, with the uncouth or the unemployed. We get to thinking that unlike run-of-the-mill children of God, we deserve a special status amongst God’s people, what with our years of faithful service, our generous giving, our demonstrated good taste and common sense. Surely there’s a special line for those of us entitled to such respect, and we know who we are? But baptism’s answer is: “Well, no, actually. There’s only the one line, the same line Jesus went and got in. And there is no higher title anywhere in heaven or earth than “child of God, precious and beloved.”
There are more of us, however, who get to thinking that we are somehow less than children of God. We may have felt the power of that identity at some point, but life has a way of wearing us down. Years of hard work tires us out, relentless criticism wearies our spirits, family stress takes its toll, our own foolishness and negativity bring us down. Sure, sometimes we just get worn down. But here’s what baptism says: No matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.
Sometimes the church itself, through its doctrine or a lack of love, causes someone to feel less than a child of God. Marilyn Alexander remembers, “On a crisp Dakota Sunday morning, tightly wrapped against the November cold, I was carried off to the town’s Methodist church to be the delight of the baptizing family of God. . . Thirty-two years later,” she says, “I remember my baptism. The church does not.” The church, she says, has denied the identity bestowed on me at my baptism because of my sexual orientation. Sometimes, tragically, churches get it wrong; but God does not. No matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.
After the choir sings, we will say together the liturgy of remembering and reaffirming our baptism. If you’ve not been baptized, there is nothing standing in your way. Just come to me and state your intention, and we can make it happen today. And if today isn’t the day, that’s okay. Anticipate your baptism here today and know deep in your heart that no matter what, you are a child of God, precious and beloved.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The River of Life,” Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), 33-34.
2 In Stanley Hauerwas, “Transfigured,” Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church (New York: Seabury Books, 2013), 85.
3 Thomas Lynch, The Christian Century (February 22, 2011), 27.
4 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publis