“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.”
I don’t know how many of you were following the news out of Central Florida’s Episcopal Diocese this past week. The story broke pretty much while we were in church last Sunday. On Saturday, a new father had posted on facebook the sad story of how his son’s baptism had been called off at the eleventh hour because some in their adopted congregation did not want to adopt them back. By Sunday, the story was being shared all over the internet, the Dean of the cathedral – which was the parish church involved – and the bishop were issuing holding statements, and a petition was being organized. A lot of words were exchanged, not all of them offered in the spirit of Christian kindness. On Thursday, the bishop met with the family, and by Friday, separate statements had been issued affirming that baby Jack will be baptized at a date to be announced, at the cathedral church, where a lot of healing has still to be done.
Last week, we read the story of the Ethiopian bigwig on the road back to the royal palace, who on hearing the good news of Jesus Christ stopped his chariots and ran to the river saying, “Here is water! What is to prevent me being baptized?” And Philip offered no argument, but baptized him, and he went on his way rejoicing. In this week’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is having a small argument with those who consider that Gentiles are not sufficiently clean to be baptized. The Spirit of truth has her way, astonishing the crowd by blessing even these, and they, too, are washed in the water.
And why does this matter to us? I have a comforting level of confidence that if Jack and his two fathers had arrived at this church looking for a spiritual home and a font to mark the foundation of their son’s Christian life, they would have been welcomed with open arms. I know that if they’d gone to our cathedral church, they’d have found the same welcome. But I’m not comfortable with sitting back and patting ourselves on the back. As long as Jack is being turned away, for however long or short a time, anywhere, our joy is not complete, and our work is not done.
God help us, so far, Cleveland has avoided the fires and frenzy of Ferguson and Baltimore, in the face of some fierce provocation. But even if we are able to receive the verdicts in the Brelo case with grace and calm, and however far into the future the Tamir Rice investigation, too; even so, we know full well that our joy is not complete here, either.
And when our dreaming sports teams still treat domestic violence as a joke suitable for showing on the big screen to gin up energy between plays, our work is so not done.
While death stalks every disagreement, our joy cannot be complete.
The idea that anyone need be clean to be baptized is a bit of a reversal, I think. The conservative blogger who suggested that Jack’s parents should separate themselves from their sin and from one another, breaking up the family to bring the baby to baptism, forgot that (a) no one separates themselves from their sin, but it is through the water and the blood of Christ and the anointing of the Holy Spirit that any of us is able to stand before God with integrity; and that (b) the only sin baby Jack carries so far is the sin he has inherited from the sinful systems around him, the ones that exclude instead of embracing, belittle instead of loving. The kind of systems that cause unrest in hearts, souls, and cities. Only by the grace of God and the water and blood of Christ and the anointing of the Holy Spirit can Jack hope to live out of these systems into something better, and to deny him the sacramental means to do so is, to my mind, straight up sin itself.
It is the besetting sin, that we set ourselves up as gateways to God’s grace. But, says 1 John, it is not the water only that we need, nor even the water and oil, but the water and the blood of Christ and the anointing of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit is indiscriminate in where she falls, including Gentiles with observant Jews, outcasts and outlaws with the inner circle, people of all kinds of nations and backgrounds and families.
It is the besetting sin, that we deny the means of grace to baby Jack and his fathers. It is the besetting sin, that we deny the means of grace to the young black men of this country, incarcerating instead of embracing them, in numbers that are hard to believe: almost one in every ten young black men between the ages of 25 and 34 is in prison, according to Bureau of Justice statistics. In Ferguson, a Forbes report found that there were two African American women in that age range for every one African American man. “Half of Ferguson’s Young African-American Men are Missing,” ran the headline.
And it matters to us because whenever we hear these stories of exclusion, we have a responsibility to wonder where our blind spots are, to wonder whom we are excluding, to examine our own besetting sin, and to repent of it.
I know this is uncomfortable. But we have a responsibility to face the discomfort and embrace the call to love through it.
Because it is the besetting sin that we deny the means of grace to those we do not like, those of whom we do not approve, those whom we fear, those who are different to those among whom we grew up and feel comfortable. It is the besetting sin that even when we might invite them to baptism, we draw the line at sharing the sacrament of coffee with them after the service.
Jesus, at table with his disciples, men and probably women too, on the last day of his freedom, before his arrest, trial, and execution, told them that they had not chosen him; he had chosen them. He had called them out of their lives of safety and comfort to follow him to Jerusalem, to dangerous confrontation with the authorities. He had called them to witness his death and his resurrection, to spread the gospel to all who would listen, to watch for where the Spirit might fall, indiscriminately, and regardless of background, family or status, bring that one to baptism, into the fold of the church, where all was shared and all equally embraced.
You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, says Jesus, to love one another, so that your joy may be complete.
Jesus chose us for joy. And Jesus chose not us only, but all whom God loves. Jesus is not our choice; we are his. And it is not our choice to turn away anyone whom Jesus has chosen for himself. We are called only to love.
Julia Ward Howe, who wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, a crusader for the abolition of slavery and for peace, offered this call to love on the occasion of the first Mothers Day in 1870:
Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.
In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.
Let them solemnly take counsel as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after her own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God, the mark of the cross indelibly inked by oil and the Holy Spirit at baptism, offered to all, indiscriminately, and with as much love as we can muster.