What Kind of Christian?
Passage: Mark 1:4-11
Date: January 08, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Wasn't Jonah Garrett's baptism wonderful? To proclaim Christ's gift of love to a child, to declare that he is a child of God, simply because of how we know God in Christ Jesus-how great! By the way, did you notice that same grace in the scripture reading? Jesus is baptized, he sees the heavens ripped open, senses a numinous presence-something holy, and hears, "You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well-pleased." This is before any preaching, any miracles, any teaching. No earning here, only announcement, only affirmation. How appropriate this day, two days after the wisemen arrived at the home where Jesus was, how appropriate that we jump decades into his life and remember God's revelation at his baptism. How fitting that we pause to remember our own commitments to this Beloved One.
Normally, I do not quote someone at length, but an essay by L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke Divinity School, grabbed, challenged, and troubled me. He traveled recently to Rwanda, and spent some time learning about the killing and violence between Hutus and Tutsis in 1994, which left 800,000 dead. In 1990, Rwanda was described as a Christian nation, with 90% of the people identifying themselves as Christians. Jones told of a trip to a small Muslim community:
Our host said, "This is the only area in Rwanda that did not experience the genocide at all." "Why is that?" a student asked.
"Because their identity as Muslims is so fundamental, so important to them, that they could not envision killing one another. Their commitment to Allah created their fundamental identity, more important than any tribal or national identity."
[As Christians,] we felt ashamed.... We visited churches that were the sites of massacres (sometimes with the complicity of pastors and priests), and learned that more people were killed in churches than anywhere else. Yes, we also learned of heroic actions by some pastors, priests and laypeople.... Even so, we could not shake the memory of the visit to..the Muslim community.
[Why were the Muslims able to do what the Christians so often failed to do? Part of the answer is sociological: a minority group is more likely to have a stronger self-understanding than a majority group. And, their tightly knit neighborhood reinforced that sense of identification.]
[Then, Jones asked himself: How had the church failed to teach] Christian believers so that they would have recognized that their identity as Christians-their baptism in Christ-had fundamentally altered their identity. They should no longer have been primarily Hutu or Tutsi, for they had become united in Christ Jesus. Or had they?
[He continues:] What would it mean for Christians, in Rwanda or in the United States or anywhere else, to take our identity in Christ as the primary defining character for our lives-relativizing all other loyalties? What if, for example, we adopted the Mennonite Central Committee's Modest Proposal for Peace: "Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other." How would we then envision our identities, our lives, our relationships and commitments? (Christian Century, 12/13/05, p. 45)
What kind of Christian am I? Jones forces the question on me. "You are my Son, the Beloved," forces the question on me. Every morning in the shower, I repeat, "I am baptized in the name of the Lord, and I belong to Jesus for evermore." I want to believe that with my whole being. I want to live into its implications for my life, for our life together. I cannot imagine anything more exciting, or more important.
Before the Berlin Wall came down, in Communist East Germany, Christians, some, brought their children to receive the sacrament of baptism. Yes, there were both sentiment and tradition attached. Yet, there was also a cost to that faith proclamation, to that identification with Christ and his community. Children baptized into the Christian faith would not be allowed entrance into college. "I am baptized, and I belong to Jesus for evermore." But, at the cost of my children's college educations?
My parents began to learn to dance together in college. It was the era of the Big Bands. Like those of you who danced out at Jansen Beach, or whose parents did, mom and dad enjoyed being together with friends, accompanied by Tommy Dorsey and others. During the more than 55 years of their marriage, they continued to dance when they could. Nothing fancy, but so smooth. Their 50th anniversary included a dinner and dance, with people they loved. As we watched them delight in each other and in their life together, I do not remember seeing any misstep, as they glided around the dance floor. Through decades of practice, they became increasingly sensitive to slight hand pressures, to subtle shifts of feet and body, to communicating with their eyes. On his apartment wall, my father has a service club award for excellence, with a photograph. You guessed it. It is of the two of them, dancing.
What kind of Christian am I? In the sacrament of baptism, we identify our life's partner, both of our choosing and of being chosen. "Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior." This partner names us with the most honored name we can ever receive: Child of God. And for all of our remaining years, this partner wants nothing more than to teach us the dance of life, God's life. If that weren't enough good news, there is so much more. These are not private lessons! It is more like Suzuki violin: group lessons and group performances, sometimes with solo lines. We are given each other, Christ's community which spans ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, economic status, ability. We are given nearly 4,000 years of history, of other people's experiences dancing with this God. And, we are given the Holy Spirit, to guide our steps and light our paths, to encourage and correct, to heal and to empower us in this amazing dance of faith.
Ours, ours is to learn the steps while trusting the Teacher. Ours is to learn to become sensitive to holy nudges, to quiet voices and forceful shoves. Ours is to grow in appreciation for the tunes of justice and love that God plays, and to move in them.
The challenge is that our post-Christian culture, and even at times our loved ones, entice us to dance to other bands, to learn steps not in keeping with our primary Partner. Were alternatives not tempting, there would be no dangers for us. The problem is that the changes in dance steps are subtle, appear attractive, beneficial, enjoyable, even right. Often we are not sensitive to them and to what is happening to us and through us because of them. So, we pause on a day like this one. We pause as people together in Christ. We pause to hear again the radical announcement: "You are my Son, the Beloved." We stop in the face of that person, to consider again our commitments to life in him, to partnership in God's holy dance.
What kind of Christian am I? Lord Jesus, lead us, lead me. Teach me your steps through the dance of life. And thank you for such an astounding privilege. Amen.