Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
Three years ago this month my husband Don and I traveled to Texas. A trip that was planned to help celebrate my father’s 80th birthday found a new and unexpected purpose: Don’s mother Agnes, who had languished in hospice care for three-and-a-half years in the grip of dementia, took a sudden turn for the worse, and died four days after we arrived in Texas.
Despite the fact that Don and I at that time had been together for more than 24 years, I had actually not spent much time with his family members. You see, they are mostly conservative evangelical Christians. And not just any conservative evangelicals—Don grew up in Waco, Texas, the epicenter of the Southern Baptist Convention, and most of his relatives are or were Southern Baptists. When Don and I met in 1990 there was simply no chance that they would understand or approve of our partnership. And so, as so often happened then, and still happens today, they were not part of our lives.
But these big moments often pull the best out of all of us, and we all became family in those days around Agnes’ deathbed—so much so that Don’s brother and sister asked me to officiate at their mother’s funeral. I was so touched that they turned to me to take this most sacred role not just because I am gay, but particularly because I am an Episcopalian! They knew almost nothing about our denomination, and yet they trusted me to send Agnes into the loving arms of God in a way that would be meaningful and authentic for all of us.
And of course, that was the rub. I immediately said to Don that I had no idea how to do a Baptist funeral. What would we do? And Don said, “We’ll do the Burial service from the Book of Common Prayer – we just won’t tell them that’s where it came from!” And so we did mostly, omitting a bit and restating some of it so that it might make more sense to them; and it was beautiful, as those words are so well-formed. Many of those present came to me and said how meaningful it was for them. But working out how to reconcile my own theology with theirs was no easy task. We are in different spiritual worlds.
This summer our Epistle readings are from Romans. This particular reading deals with baptism. It is nice to have an opportunity to think about baptism’s meaning for us outside of a specific moment of baptism. The Letter of Paul to the Romans was written about 58 C.E. (It is thought that the Christian church in Rome began by 50 C.E.) Some scholars assume this is the last letter we have that was actually written by Paul. (This follows the generally held assumption that only some of the letters attributed to Paul were actually written by him.)
The Book of Romans deals with the meaning of righteousness of God, of grace and sin, and of the meaning of Israel for Christians. There is a lot to contemplate in this book—and that’s why we will read it over many, many Sundays.
Baptists and similar denominations put a big emphasis on baptism – particularly on a believers’ baptism. The gift of salvation through faith, which is recognized with baptism, is paramount. Thus, almost any service in the Baptist church focuses on that salvation. And this passage certainly gives credence to this point of view.
This reading is about our sinful nature and about the nature of our baptism, and what we receive through baptism. This isn’t really a subject we like spending much time thinking about. One commentator has said are three good reasons for this: first, we are not really into sin language in the mainline protestant church; second, there is some post-enlightenment discomfort with the logic of the resurrection that makes us uneasy; and third, we are “distinctly non-eschatological,” which means that we don’t have any sense that God’s second coming is imminent.[i]
All of these understandings mean that we don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about the transformational meaning of baptism. I confess that my baptismal sermons often dwell on belonging to the church and on the claim of Christ on our lives, but not so much about redemption from sin; I find it hard to talk about too.
What’s going on in this passage? First, look at the opening question and answer: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” Through God’s grace our sins are forgiven, but that does not justify our sin. We should all strive to lead better lives, and no longer be enslaved to sin, out of gratitude for this gift. Paul wants us to avoid a misunderstanding of the relationship between sin and grace.
Second, Paul wants us to realize that, through baptism, we are given nothing less than a promise of a resurrection as spectacular as that of Christ’s! Now that is a claim, isn’t it?
Hear verse 8: “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” That is bold. I love the parallels with death and life called out in this passage. A little further along (verse 11), it says: “So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” I invite you to think a bit about that one—what it means to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
That same commentator says that “Paul’s remarks… remind us that baptism is more than simply a rite of passage. It is a radical change in identity, one that opens up new possibilities.”[ii] I think this relates to our Gospel passage this morning, one of the more difficult ones to unpack. Jesus, in what is called the Missionary Discourse of Matthew’s gospel, talks to the disciples about the work before them. And it is clear that they should understand that it will not easy. But what Jesus is doing here, I think, is helping create the church as it should be—as God envisions it. A place where none are more important than the next; where all are cherished; where the way of love is valued above all else.
But then Jesus says, “For I have come to set a man against his father… a daughter against her mother…” What does Jesus have against families? In a time when the family as we have known it seems to be under assault, this is harsh. We must remember that this gospel, like the others, was written for a specific community. Matthew’s community was in crisis. Scholars believe that this gospel was written between 80 and90 C.E., for Jewish Christians who were separated from Pharisee-led Judaism. There is also evidence that there were internal disagreements within that community.
In that context, the writer wanted to emphasize holding to the core of Jesus’ teaching, even if that led to disagreement with others in the community—even one’s own family. The way of love was understood to deserve our ultimate allegiance. Of course, seen in that light, the way of Christ is not easy. One commentator has said, “The demands of prince of peace may very well feel like a sword cutting through lesser loyalties and making quick work of our flabby, commonsense morality… Contrary to popular opinion and bestselling books, not everything the follower of Jesus needs to know can be learned in Kindergarten.”[iii]
So the gift of being a disciple of Christ is truly a two-edged sword: It gives us life and meaning, but it also calls on us to make love our beacon and our only shelter in the storm of life. Baptism not only changes our identity; it also means we must connect our faith with our actions. All the time. Even in the face of hard choices.
So this morning I leave you with these questions: How do you own this gift from God – this identity as a child of God and a follower of Jesus? How are you living into your baptism? Are you open to the possibility of God’s love transforming your life?
May God give us the wisdom to see the gift and the challenge; the courage to be transformed, even if means making hard choices; and the faith to stay the course. Amen.
[i] Monroe, Shawnthea. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. pp. 158, 160.
[ii] Ibid, p. 160.
[iii] Pape, Lance. Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 167.