I have used the Revised Common Lectionary (aka RCL) for preaching since I started almost 30 years ago. A lectionary is a collection of readings from Scripture that help pastors and churches in the proclamation of God’s word. The three-year cycle of the RCL covers all the books of the Bible – at least in part – and all the necessary and important themes. Interestingly, while lectionaries have been in use since the fourth century, the RCL was first published in 1992 – the same year I was ordained. It’s as if it was ordained (no pun intended) that I preach from the RCL.
Most of you know that I use the lectionary because it “forces” me to preach on Biblical texts that I might otherwise avoid if I chose to preach only from my favorite Bible books or passages. I say it “forces” me, but it is an obligation I choose willingly since it has always been important to me to show that God’s saving story; His purpose and plan is found from Genesis to Revelation. And 95% of the time this works out fine.
You see, the RCL is, logically so, based around the Church calendar. This means that “secular” holidays are not taken into account. Nor can it possibly cover current events. These facts mean that on a few occasions I have had to abandon the lectionary because no amount of study, prayer and/or “tweaking” will make the scheduled Scriptures fit the situation. For example, I clearly remember that the RCL for the Sunday following 9/11 – September 16th – didn’t have anything helpful. I looked it up this week and confirmed that recollection. The Old Testament lessons were the story of the golden calf from Exodus and a reading from Jeremiah about a wind of judgment from the Lord, “The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely. Therefore, the earth will mourn and the heavens above grow dark, because I have spoken and will not relent, I have decided and will not turn back.” The Psalm reading was verses from Psalm 51 which is also the Psalm reading on Ash Wednesday. And the Gospel was the Parable of the Lost Sheep from Luke 15. Undoubtedly there were some ultra-conservative churches who used these readings as they saw that tragic event as a judgment from God. Most, like myself, used something more comforting.
There have been far more times where God has opened my eyes spiritually and shown me how the lectionary readings can address a recent event even when it hasn’t been obvious to me. And then there have been those God Moments when an event occurs or is planned and the lectionary reading, established many years ago, fits perfectly. Today, is one of those God Moments.
Tara and Josh approached me after worship a while back and asked about arranging the baptism of their son, Teagan. I told them I was excited to be part of the event and that 1) it couldn’t be the next Sunday and 2) I would like a little advanced notice. Then, on Thursday, July 22, Josh called me and said they had a date. I replied that that was great but it couldn’t be the coming Sunday. Josh laughed and asked, “How about the next Sunday?” That evening, as I was beginning bulletin preparation for today, I looked again at the readings for August 1 and, as you’ve just heard, found Ephesians 4:1-16; or, more precisely, Ephesians 4:1-6 – the most quoted Biblical passage for baptism. God Moment!
Before I go any further, however, and since most everyone present here has been baptized, perhaps as infants or as adults, let me ask you a question, what does baptism mean to you? An interesting question, to be sure; and likely one with almost as many answers as there are folks in attendance this morning.
The simplest answer one may come up is to say that Baptism is an option available to us to shed our sinful nature and be born again as a new person in Christ. Though correct in principle, it cannot be the complete answer. Just consider the fact that Jesus, God the Son without any sin, Himself was baptized before He began His ministry on this earth; the parallel to that in our lives is the fact that many of us were baptized when we were just infants, the only sinless state in human progression in life, in the arms of our parents – just as Teagan will be in a little while.
For Jesus it was an act of Obedience and a public declaration of His absolute faith and commitment to God the Father. Therefore, by His baptism, Jesus had set an example for us to lead a life of faith and obedience to the commands of Christ and publicly declare that we are followers of Jesus Christ. For infants, it is no different, except that the parents make a public commitment to bring up the child in obedience and commitment to the teachings of Jesus Christ. And we, the church, make a commitment to aid them in this goal. A child may re-affirm this commitment on confirmation at an appropriate age when he or she has the beginnings of spiritual understanding.
This brings us to this morning’s passage from Ephesians 4. Paul could not have been more explicit in proclaiming the monotheism, the belief in the existence of a single God, while at the same time implying God’s Triune nature, as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. My take on Paul’s line of thinking is that he emphasized a bottom-up approach to build his assertions about a single God. Look again at Ephesians 4:4-6 “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” At the bottom of the pyramid, Paul places all the believers in Christ, baptized in the Spirit. Moving upward the pyramid we see the baptized believers in unity forming a body mass which is the Church whose Lord and head is Christ and at the very top, we have the Creator and Sustainer of everything the one God. If we look at the pyramid from the top downwards, we find Paul arguing from the doctrine of the one true God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — down to the unity in faith and hope of the believers.
‘There is one body,” says Paul. He is, of course, not speaking of our physical body. This body is the universal Body of Christ, the union of believers or in short, the Church. Unity does not just happen; we have to work at it. Often differences among people can lead to division, but this should not be true in the Church of Christ or Body communal of Christ. It’s, nonetheless, much easier said than done. We all have a tendency to think we know best, to insist on our own way, to be intolerant of others’ quirks and weaknesses. Yet in the church we are called to be unified as one body.
Instead of concentrating on what divides us, we should remember what unites us: one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God! In the light of this, it is important for us to understand that all members of the Body of Christ are not identical or equally enabled. So, have we learned to appreciate people who are different from us? Can we see how their differing gifts, or the lack of it and differing viewpoints can help the Church as it does the work of God? Learn to enjoy the way we, the members of Christ’s body, complement one another. Paul puts it very well in 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized in one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
What keeps the faithful united is the hope in the promise of an eternal existence in Christ’s New Creation. Jesus said, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9). I want to argue that the path to that gate one passes through is the sacrament of baptism.
Coming to the question about Baptism, Paul wrote in Colossians 2:12-14, “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” That may sound a bit complicated, but the point is that we are already redeemed by Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross. Baptism, therefore, is a symbol of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection; our entrance into the water during baptism identifies us with Christ’s death on the cross, His burial in the tomb, and His resurrection from the dead.
If we take a view of baptism based on Christ’s teachings, we find that the basis of salvation is found in Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross; as every Christian should understand. He rises on our behalf to redeem us. In the cross of Jesus, we also should die and be raised with Him. We then would possess His grace through faith. This is the very essence of Christian belief. This theology has driven us to recognize the essential need for personal conversion. It is a great work of God’s power changing the human heart and infuse life into our dead spirits. That explains what Paul wrote to the believers in Ephesus about “one baptism,” he was reminding them that, regardless of their background or nationality; regardless of how wonderful – or not so wonderful – they had been before, they all served the same Lord, shared the same faith, and had experienced the same baptism. This sacrament is available to the entire humanity, the Jews and the Gentiles alike, as the Bible tells us. We have no right to choose who should receive the Baptism of the Spirit.
We disciples have our strengths and our struggles, but by accepting one another (warts and all) and being willing to listen and learn from one another, we can be one body. God has chosen us to be Christ’s representatives on earth in the light of this truth, and Paul challenges us to live lives worthy of the calling we have received – the awesome privilege of being called Christ’s very own. This includes being humble, loving, gentle, patient, understanding, and peaceful. People are watching your life; and the question before us is can they see Christ in us? How well are we doing as His representatives?