Sermon: Not Nice Words

Preaching Text: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

Let’s face it. The Bible is full of nasty words. Especially when seen through the lens of our modern therapeutic culture that’s main interest is in making us feel good, in lifting up our self-esteem, all in an attempt to make us “happy.” (That this project is doomed to failure is somehow beside the point.)

But getting back to those not so nice words, here they are:

In Acts, Peter use the words “repent…so that your sins may be forgiven,” and, “save yourself from this corrupt generation.” Eugene Peterson’s The Message even rewrites this last sentence to read: “Get out while you can, get out of this sick and stupid culture.” Such words are hardly warm and fuzzy. And they certainly do not have the immediate effect of making me feel any better!

Maybe the reading from 1 Peter will improve my mood. There Peter refers to God as “the one who judges.” Oops. He then goes on to tell his hearers to “live in reverent fear.” I’m not sure I like the sound of that! He then admonishes us to be “obedient to the truth,” and to be “born anew.” What’s going on here?!

Well at least we can count on Jesus to set things straight, right? But in our reading from Luke, he, of “meek and mild” fame, asks this very un-Oprah-like question to the disheartened disciples on the road to Emmaus, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah must suffer…?” Quick. Get me a copy of The Be-Happy Attitudes! Stat!

Today, altogether by chance, we celebrated the baptism of little Corwin and, lo and behold, the reading from Acts (and by inference the others) have to do with baptism!

But what is baptism? Many think it merely a rite of passage, as something our culture tells us to do. It’s as if the baby is not quite “official” until he or she is splashed with a bit of holy water.

But, in fact, baptism is the beginning of a wholly new life, which brings us back to our readings for today.

Peter tells his hearers to repent as a preamble to baptism. But what is repentance? And why do we recoil from its use? Peterson has Peter say, referring to repentance, “Change your life.” That’s really what the word means, to “turn around” or “change one’s mind,” or, indeed, “to change one’s life.” The negative associations we carry around assume repentance is more akin to a jail sentence. It’s about punishment and condemnation.

In reality it’s all about a new life, and freedom from that which limits us and deprives us of genuine happiness. It involves giving up a way of life that’s discordant, that goes against the grain of God’s created order. To not repent, therefore, is to live in darkness and futility. (Now that’s depressing.)

Repentance also, as Peter suggests, leads to forgiveness. To name one’s shortcomings and failings may seem negative, but the promise is that in doing so we are truly freed from our past, and able to begin life anew. This means saving ourselves from the darkness that otherwise robs us of the joy God created us to know.

In 1 Peter, the word judgment also plays an important role within this new life. For one thing, as I’ve said many times, we would never want to worship a God who is blind or indifferent to human injustice, for it is injustice that causes us, God’s children, to suffer. In point of fact, we don’t want a God who turns away from sin and refuses to care about the hurt we experience.

And sin is this: the state of being separated from God. For the Judeo-Christian tradition is entirely about relationships – with our Maker and with all creation. It is not a list of arbitrary rules God imposes on us for some sadistic reason. By eliminating sin, or the relational distance we’ve created between ourselves and God, we are freed to embrace the divine glory that is God.

The fear to which Peter refers has also been translated as “awe.” But personally I’m ok with “fear.” For it is the fear that naturally arises when we stand in the presence of perfection. And it is this fear that humbles us and prods us toward obedience (another unsettling word). It is this obedience to God’s truth that, paradoxically, sets us free and serves as the very prerequisite to joy!

It also means giving up our attachment to our corrupt generation, or, in Peterson’s words, “this sick and stupid culture.”

Now, as I’m sure you’ll agree, Peter (and by extension, Peterson) have truly gone off the deep end here. We’re Congregationalists, after all. Our churches are right smack dab in the middle of virtually every New England town. We run the show, in other words. And, as such, the culture properly reflects our goodly values and norms.

Yet is this so? If we’re honest, we have to admit it’s not. For while we might have been able to convince ourselves of this in the past, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make this same argument, with a straight face at least.

No, the new life offered in Christ is one that directs us to God and away from our ‘cultural captivity”, recognizing that God’s ways are not our ways.

And the only path toward knowing God’s ways is through baptism.

For baptism is, properly, the beginning of our Christian journey. It’s like being matriculated into elementary school. In other words, we don’t become enlightened Christians simply by being baptized. It is a process, a journey, a lifelong venture, one at which we never fully arrive (in this life at least).

It is, furthermore, our entry into the community of the faithful, those who are in the process of becoming more Christ-like. By being a part of this community, even as infants, we are surrounded by the sights and sounds born of the Spirit.

Thus faith is not purely, or even primarily, as we often assume, an intellectual exercise. It engages all our senses. When I was a child, I couldn’t have told you what my parents believed or what the family ethos was. But I was living it, existentially, day in and day out.

When I got older, of course, I developed the capacity to name what my parents believed – intellectually. But that was after years of spending time in church, where I was inhabiting the ways of that particular community. It was different, I knew, from the culture around me.

I don’t expect Corwin therefore to be able to tell me about Christianity now that he’s baptized. But as he grows up with us, he will be changed in ways none of us can predict. And one day, he will be able to define and articulate intellectually, at least in some fashion, his Christian beliefs.

In the end, baptism can mean everything or nothing at all. It’s what you do with it. If you pursue its incipient promise, your faith will grow. If you walk away from it, or ignore it, it will have had, alas, very little effect. Amen.