Sermon: The Water That Divides (Luke 12:49-56)

Audio is available here: The Water That Divides

Jesus has a rather off-putting way of spoiling a party, doesn’t he? I mean, here we are with a church full of visitors. Here we are celebrating with Gen and Matthew and their family and friends the baptism of their son, Johnathan. And we are looking for Jesus to say something nice to the kids. We want him to say something commendable to the parents to the parents bringing Johnathan to the font, to the family and church family who will promise to uphold Gen and Matthew in their promise to raise Johnathan in Christian faith. But instead, we hear about fire—a symbol of judgment and purification—and division—of the most intimate bonds of family being ruptured—and, we hear about baptism. And that means that, however much Jesus may have spoiled things for us this morning we have to do business with him. For he speaks of baptism, a baptism in some way related to Johnathan’s baptism which will take place in just a few moments.

As much as that link might not be clear to us, it would have been obvious to the first followers of Jesus. For Christians in the first centuries baptism was, as David Bentley Hart put it, “nothing less than a total transformation of the person who submitted to it. . . . To become a Christians was to renounce a very great deal of what one had known and been to that point, in order to be joined to a new reality . . . it was to depart from one world, with an irrevocable finality, and to enter another.”

It was, moreover, to have spent a great deal of time perhaps even years—learning about just what those new and old realities were. The old reality was described as being enslaved to the unholy trinity of sin, death, and the devil. The student preparing for baptism—the catechumen—was taught to see him or herself as languishing under the dominion of principalities and powers and spiritual wickedness and that the political forces that shaped their lives were the physical expressions of these satanic realities. The new world, on the other hand was one in inaugurated by Christ, who by his death and resurrection, had overthrown these powers, broken their chains, and rescued their captives. In Christ’s rising a new, freed humanity had been created. To quote Bentley Hart again, “free from the rule of death, [a new humanity] into which one could be admitted by dying and rising again with Christ in baptism.”Satan/Christ; Old world/New world; Death/Life. Baptism set before the first followers of Jesus a set of irreconcilable binaries.

As a result, for Christians in the ancient world, baptism was a threshold experience, a liminal event. The catechumens would have crossed the threshold by stripping nude, stepping down into the font, and being immersed three times by the bishop—in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit—then, upon stepping up out of the waters, theywould have been clothed with new white garments and sealed with oil, to symbolize the reception of the Holy Spirit. Everything about the event was intended to express a movement, a transition, a crossing over. A division.

Echoes of that radical transition can be found in our own liturgy of baptism—if we have the ears to hear them. In just a few moments, Gen and Matthew, and their sponsors Joey and Jody will answer these three questions: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” Then, these three: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to obey him as your Lord?”

In ancient liturgies of baptism, when these questions were asked, the candidates would begin by facing westward, toward the setting sun, toward the darkness, toward death. And they would speak to the darkness, speak to death, their answers to the first three questions: “I renounce them. I renounce them. I renounce them.”  Then they turned to the East, to the rising sun, to the resurrection, to Life—putting a physical action to their spiritual renunciation—to hear the second trio of questions, and to offer their answers, to pledge their loyalty to this Christ who had descended into the waters of chaos, into the grave, into hell and rescued them. “I do. I do. I do.” In baptism, our ancestors in faith entrusted themselves to “the invincible conqueror who had defeated death, despoiled hell of its hostages . . . and been raised up the Lord of history.”

So it is that, if they were confronted by the Gospel lesson that is ours this week, they would have grasped it deep in their bones. They would have known the fire of judgment and purification that Jesus had kindled with his coming. They would have seen in their own baptisms a linkage to the baptism Jesus speaks of here—his own impending death. And they would have known that they may well follow him into a physical death at the hands of the powers they renounced in their baptisms. They would have known what Jesus meant when he spoke of being squeezed (the verb translated as “under stress) as his “baptism,” his death drew near. And they would have known about division. Division that sometimes sundered the most intimate of family bonds: “father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother. . . .”

The water of baptism was for our ancestors, a water that divides.

And it still is.

The waster of baptism may not now, in our culture, divide parents from children as much as it once did—and for that we should be thankful. We are wise to remember that it was not always this way, that in many parts of the world it is still not always this way, and that there is no guarantee that it will  always be this way. For the division that the water brings is part and parcel of the rite. Even here, with parents and extended family and friends looking on, the water of baptism is still about renouncing sin, death and the devil and turning to Christ as Savior and Lord. It is still about being rescued from one master by being claimed by another. It is still about leaving one way of life behind and embracing a radically different way of being in the world. It is still about dividing.

What are we to do with the water that divides? With this Lord who, through the waters of baptism, may well set father against son? With this faith that seems to unsettle our most comforted and comforting notions about family, friends, and kinship?

The first thing believers might do is, simply, say that. Entering into the community grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ will, invariably, provoke, challenge, unsettle and, yes, even divide. Being a disciple of Jesus is not about having our deepest loved confirmed, but it is to take the risk that those loves are in fact rivals to this Lord who has the audacity to claim us as his own.  Rivals who may at some point be challenged not because they are wrong in and of themselves (though they may be) but because we have accorded them a place in our hearts to which this One, the One who has, in our baptisms, tied us to himself, claims the exclusive right.

The second thing is, simply, live it. Not in the sense that believers are called to perpetual consternation, and to make such discomfort visible. Rather, to live it in the sense that we must continually open ourselves up to the likelihood that following Jesus may require difficult decisions for us in our conduct. It will certainly challenge the common assumption among many Christians that the terms “good Canadian” and “good Christian” are synonymous. We thank God for the many ways—and there are many—in which they are. But this is a matter of lived history not logical necessity. And there are times when we are asked to choose between the two.

In fact, we are on the threshold of one of those times. For Johnathan’s baptism is not simply about Johnathan or his parents or his sponsors or their families and friends. It is about all of us who will in just a few moments, renew our baptismal covenant.

“Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” This is a fancy way of asking whether you will publicly associate with this group of people in a regular way. Will you come to the place where the Scriptures are read and proclaimed? Will you come to the place where the people of God gather? Will you enter into their worship? Will you—here is the hard one—recognize the bonds of baptismal water are thicker even than the bonds established by blood? We are supposed to answer “I will, with God’s help.” I don’t know about you, but there are days when I’m not at all sure that that would be my honest answer. Behind the flowery words is a fundamental and hard question final priorities.

“Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” Here we get to breathe a little easier. For in this question, the Church acknowledges that we won’t live the answer to the previous question fully or consistently. And the Church acknowledges that she is a refuge for sinners—for people like me who don’t get it right all too often. The Lord of the Gospel in the waters of baptism sets an impossibly high standard by which we are to live. And then says to us, “I have already lived that life for you. Now trust and live in me.”

“Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?” Being a “good Canadian”—much like being a good Roman citizen in the ancient world—has lots of room for people believing what they want in the privacy of their own homes, provided such beliefs make no public difference and fail to disturb the vast machinery that keeps our country going. This question, however, challenges that notion by asking us to proclaim. And proclaiming is a public act. Indeed, it is the public and even revolutionary nature of Christian commitment that has provoked the most opposition from the Roman intellectual Celsus, writing in the second century, to the late Christopher Hitchens today. Again, the proper answer is “I will with God’s help.” And again, as I think about those words, I am very clear on just how much I need God’s help to live this life to which I have been called. And I am cast back on the grace embedded in the second question—the grace that says that life has already been lived and is now freely offered to me, to be lived through me.

“Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” It’s that little word, all that causes trouble doesn’t it? And if we don’t get the scope of that little word, that all, it is repeated for us in the next question—“Will you strive for justice and peace among all people . . .”—and then reiterated “and respect the dignity of every human being?” All. Every. Even—Jesus says—your enemies. Have you not found it striking that Jesus takes enmity for granted? You will have enemies. Being serious follower of Jesus, our Gospel for today seems to add, ensures that you will have enemies. Now, love them. Strive for justice for them. Strive for peace with them. Respect their dignity. And once again, I am thrown back to the grace of the second question. I don’t get this right very often. And I need the grace and help of God to pursue this standard.

What on earth am I doing here? That’s not a question in our baptismal liturgy. I do hope though it’s a question that some of you are beginning to ask. For that is the most natural and honest response to the Gospel for this morning and to the sacramental act that is about to take place. So, what on earth are you doing here? What on earth am I?

It’s not unlike a question many grooms ask themselves just before l lead them into this nave on their wedding days. Well, I asked it when I was a groom. I decided, however, that the risk was worth it. And no groom since the beginning of my ministry here has bolted. Deep down, they believed the risks entailed in getting married, risks enumerated in the vows—poverty, sickness, and finally death, was worth walking down the aisle to meet their bride. We face the same question when we hear the hard words of Jesus today in the Gospel. We face the same question when we come again to this water, this water that divides. Is baptism worth the risk? Are the divisions enumerated by Jesus in the Gospel today, are the risks enumerated in the baptismal vows and covenant questions that we will recite today, worth embracing as we walk with Christ into this water that divides? Are we willing to risk that this walk into death is, after all, the road to resurrection?

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