Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Under the Sign of the Dove

Luke 2:39-3:14; 3:21-22

How did you come to your faith?  Were you raised in the Christian church as I was?  Were you invited by a friend to some event?  Did you start going to church because that’s where the cute girls were—or boys?  Or did your questions about life draw you to seek answers; were you looking for meaning?  And when I ask about coming to faith, what does that even mean?  Is faith about believing and investing in ancient stories?  Is it about adhering to a system of rules and rites and rituals? Is faith about accepting what someone else says is true or is it about discovery?  Is faith an intellectual pursuit or a relationship, or perhaps both?  
I like Jesus’ coming of age story in Luke’s gospel. Like every teenager, Jesus has questions—big questions. He was raised in a religious tradition that encouraged memorization and Midrash, the tradition and practice of scriptural interrogation and interpretation.  We see Jesus engaging in serious conversations with his elders in the temple, asking good questions, posing thoughtful responses. But these are not philosophical questions, they are relational questions as Jesus makes clear when he tells his parents that they should have known that he had to be in his Father’s house. Jesus found the faith that would guide and sustain him in a relationship with God—not through observation of laws or rituals, as we will see throughout his ministry, but in a living relationship that required his thought and reason.  
The next time we see Jesus, he has sought out his relative John who has been baptizing in the desert. John should have followed in his father Zechariah’s footsteps to become a priest, but instead he protested against what he saw as the growing corruption of the temple, and began to preach in the wilderness. Baptism was a common rite offered to pilgrims who came to worship at the Temple, but needed to be cleansed because of their contact with people of other religions and cultures. To worship in the Temple, one had to be ritually clean.  Baths were constructed around the Temple for these ritual cleansings.  John took the ritual bath to the Jordan River where he proclaimed a radical new meaning to becoming clean and holy. It was not the water or the Temple that made one clean and holy, but the way you lived.  It was not identifying yourself with a people or religion that made you clean and holy, but your actions.  And he was specific about those actions: “sharing wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed.” John preached a gospel of repentance, turning around, rethinking everything, questioning your assumptions and even your thinking.   
Jesus found John’s movement compelling and came to be baptized in the protest movement in the desert. When Jesus came up out of the water, there was a sound that caused that caused people to look up and they saw what looked like a dove descending on Jesus and heard a voice saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The dove was a symbol of peace. These signs defined Jesus’ ministry, beloved child of God, man of peace.  
As followers of Jesus, we don’t observe the frequent ritual baths any longer, but we do claim one baptism. We wash once as a sign that we also choose to live lives of holy actions, identifying ourselves with Jesus, as beloved children of God, as people of peace.  
Unfortunately, baptism has come to be seen for many as a kind of insurance policy, a guarantee of heaven. That’s not how John or Jesus understood it.  Baptism was a symbol for sharing God’s love for all of creation by choosing to live in relationships that are mutually beneficial.  In our baptismal vows we renounce the evil powers of this world. We’re not talking about supernatural evil here, but the forces that are generated by greed and the desire for power in business and politics. We accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Far from a ticket to heaven, our baptismal vows are a call and response to the adventure of co-creating the Community of the Beloved. Our baptismal vows, like marriage vows, need constant tending and frequent renewal.  
John Wesley created a covenant renewal service that he observed at the beginning of every year. Methodists have kept that tradition over the years. The language has become a bit archaic, but the idea of radically belonging to God remains fresh. There may be parts that do not speak to you and parts that catch your breath. Let us remember our baptism and renew our covenant together using Wesley’s prayer. And may we, like Jesus, be people who live and work under the sign of the dove, beloved children of God, people of peace.

Covenant Prayer in the Wesley Tradition
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt,
   rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee
   or laid aside for thee,
   exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
   to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
   thou art mine, and I am thine.  So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,

   let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.  

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