Citizens of God’s World
I, like many of you, I suspect, have been at a loss when trying to process the events at the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, when a mass of people broke into the building to interrupt the certification by Congress of the Electoral College, which made official President-Elect Joe Biden’s election. Typically, after national world events like that - the kind that really shake us, I try to post something on facebook, some reflection, some words - maybe not of wisdom, but of encouragement, of hope, of helping people to process what’s happened. But I’ve been coming up empty. I’m not sure what to think, or what to do.
It’s not that what happened at the Capitol was so shocking. After all, the escalating language since the election and well before has suggested that the way our US American culture has been functioning is unsustainable. But I’ve felt as if this past week has been a taking of all the brokenness we’ve been accumulating and putting it on garish, painful display, where we can’t ignore it or hide it or suppress it, and I don’t know what to do.
I don’t know what to do when it feels like the meaning of words has become so fluid. What I think are “facts” and “truth” don’t line up with what others say. If I point to news accounts to support my claim, someone else can just call that fake news, and produce an entirely different account from an entirely different news source. What seems to me to be a clear act of racism, others insist is not, while labeling things that I see as anti-racist as racist. What I see as a peaceful protest, others insist is a call to violence, and what seems to me a violent insurrection, others describe as a protest, exercising first amendment rights. And I see my points of view as a reflection of my faith - grounded in my faith in God and my commitment to following Jesus. But I see others claiming to be on the side of Jesus, doing God’s work, who have come not to just different conclusions than I have, but opposite conclusions. Irreconcilable conclusions. Conclusions that make me wonder how I can be in relationship with people who don’t just have different opinions than me, but who seem to see the world in a way that is on a repeated collision course with the way I understand the world. Am I right? Are they wrong? Is there even such a thing as right and wrong?
And so even though I think I know what’s right, that I think I hear God’s call - I’ve been a little quiet. I’ve felt like my words are useless - they’ll resonate with people who already think like I do, and be ignored by people who already think the opposite of what I do, and I will be like what the apostle Paul described - “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” He didn’t mean that as a complement. Yet, I can still only try to follow Jesus as best as I possibly can, and although he certainly took time for reflection, for prayer, for rest, he never gave himself an “out” from the most difficult conversations and conflicts. In fact, much of the gospel narratives are spent recounting Jesus saying to folks, “You have heard that it is said … but I tell you.” It seems really different understandings of the truth are not so new.
So - as people of faith, I think we’re called to take a stand, to speak up, to offer more than “thoughts and prayers” when crisis unfolds around us. Not instead of thoughts and prayers - but the ways of being and acting in the world that unfold because of what our thoughts and prayers reveal to us about God’s call. But how are we called? What do we do?
Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. It’s the day on the liturgical calendar when we remember the baptism of Jesus, an event recorded in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John’s gospel takes up similar themes, and Paul’s writings frequently discuss baptism in the name of Jesus, baptism by the Holy Spirit. In the Acts of the Apostles, baptism is again and again the act that joins new followers of Jesus to the community. Baptism is the marker of Christian identity. Baptism is the outward sign, the celebration of our becoming God’s family. It is God’s invitation of grace, and our response, our commitment, our vow to live in response to God’s grace a life of love in the ways of Jesus Christ. We “put on” Christ in baptism, clothe ourselves in Jesus, meaning to be as Jesus-like as we can be.
In worship, it is common to renew our baptismal vows on this Sunday. We renew our baptismal covenant not because God ever rescinds God’s invitation of grace, but because sometimes it seems like we’ve left the party. Sometimes, we’ve forgotten our vows. God is faithful, but we are caught up in sin. We need a reminder, and a chance to recommit, to remember that we said “yes” to God’s invitation. As I was preparing for today’s service, I found a liturgy for the Reaffirmation of Baptism that was used “by the Worship and Spiritual Renewal Committee of the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in San Jose, California.” I found the prayer of confession in the liturgy moving. I want to share parts of it with you:
Through our baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom, and freed from the bondage of sin.
In baptism you joined us to Christ in his death that we might be raised with Christ in new life; but we cherish old ways and fail to embrace the risen life of righteousness, justice, and love.
In baptism you united us with all the baptized who confess your name; but we foster division in the church. We refuse to live as one people, and so fail to witness to your reconciling love before the world.
In baptism you call us to ministry in all realms of life, but we refuse the struggle to know your will; we do not nurture the ways of peace; we allow enmity and hatred to grow among us, putting neighbor against neighbor, and nation against nation. We abuse the earth you entrust to our care, and live in discord with all you have made.
In baptism you sent us to serve with compassion all for whom Christ died; but we ignore the suffering of the oppressed and the plight of the poor. We take bread from the hungry, and will not listen to cries for justice.
In baptism you gave us the Holy Spirit to teach and guide us, but we rely on ourselves, and refuse to trust your direction. We spurn your eternal wisdom, preferring the luring ways of the world.
Remember the promises you made to us in our baptism, forgive our sinful ways and heal our brokenness. Set us free from all that enslaves us, and raise us to new life in Jesus Christ, that we may be your faithful servants, showing forth your healing love to the world, to the glory of your holy name. Amen.
And the affirmation, the reconciliation: Hear the good news! In baptism you were buried with Christ. In baptism also you were raised to life with him, through faith in the power of God who raised Christ from the dead. (1)
I keep coming back to that first statement: “Through our baptism we were made citizens of God’s kingdom, and freed from the bondage of sin.” We’re meant to be citizens of God’s reign on earth and in eternity. Our citizenship with God isn’t just one of our many identities. It is meant to be our primary identity. Not America First, or Democrats First or Republicans. Not Trump First or Joe Biden First. Our citizenship, our primary identity, the only one that matters eternally: we belong to God. That’s what we celebrate in baptism, and reaffirm today. We belong to God, and we want to follow God’s rule, and affirm God’s values, and live in God’s reign, and imitate God’s love.
Pastor Brett Younger picks up the theme, exploring what this means more fully. He writes, ““The children of God tell the truth in a world that lies, give in a world that takes, love in a world that lusts, make peace in a world that fights, serve in a world that wants to be served, pray in a world that waits to be entertained, and take chances in a world that worships safety. The baptized are citizens of an eccentric community where financial success is not the goal, security is not the highest good, and sacrifice is a daily event. Baptism is our ordination to ministry, our vow to live with more concern for the hurting than for our own comfort . . . Baptism is the commitment to share our time with the poor and listen to the lonely.”
If we’ve been baptized, we’ve vowed - on our own, or through others who have loved and nurtured and spoken for us - we’ve vowed to be citizens of God’s reign. We belong to God. As God says to Jesus, “You are my child, beloved. I am well-pleased with you,” so God claims us, too. Citizenship in God’s reign means God first, our neighbor first, and in case we get confused about who our neighbor is, Jesus gives us lots of examples. Citizenship in God’s reign means God is in charge, and God’s will shall be done, not our own, not our President’s, not our governor’s, not our political party’s will. Citizenship in God’s reign means serving rather than being served. It means giving up rather than taking up power. It means that sacrifice is costly to us, rather than sacrifice that seems to cost others. Citizenship in God’s reign means, in words drawn from our baptismal vows, resisting evil, injustice, and oppression however they show up. It means rejecting evil. It means repenting - turning away from sin and back toward God when we’ve gone too long in the wrong direction. My allegiance is to God’s reign on earth and in eternity. In baptism, I celebrated my citizenship in God’s reign. And today I want to remember that it is God’s values I want to uphold, and God’s call to truth, to justice, to compassion, to love, to self-sacrificing service that I want to emulate. Knowing we are invited to be citizens of God’s reign won’t make things clear and easy. But, just like Jesus is reminded in his baptism of who he is, remembering we belong to God will give us strength to persevere as disciples of Christ, striving to put God first in everything.
Remember, God, the promises you made to us in our baptism. Forgive our sinful ways and heal our brokenness. Set us free from all that enslaves us, and raise us to new life in Jesus Christ, that we may be your faithful servants, showing forth your healing love to the world, to the glory of your holy name. Amen. (1)
Adapted from “Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant”: “This liturgy for the Reaffirmation of Baptism, including the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, was used by the Worship and Spiritual Renewal Committee of the 218th General Assembly (2008) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), in San Jose, California. This was the committee that discussed and approved the overture for solemn assemblies.” https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/theologyandworship/pdfs/reaffirmation-baptismal-covenant.pdf
Brett Younger, as quoted on https://reverendjoanmkistler.blog/2020/01/12/sharing-christs-baptism/