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January 10, 2021

“Grace”

By Rev. Katrina Pekich-Bundy

Genesis 1.1-5

Acts 19.1-7

January 10, 2021

What is membership? Is it association with a group? Is it showing up to meetings? Is it connection to certain people? Do you have to believe everything that group believes?

I want us to think a little bit about church membership. I’ve thought about this on and off for a few years. A group of pastors were gathered and talked about how membership to institutions just isn’t what it used to be, and we thought out loud about what membership would look like in the church if we reframed it.

So, instead of a process of going through confirmation or membership classes, maybe membership would look more like participation. We all know we can have members of an organization who never attend or participate, and have vote, and those who are not official members but carry the bulk of the work. What if we defined membership by belonging? How do we insist people belong rather than check the boxes we have insisted they check?

In the Presbyterian Church USA membership is done by confession of faith. You do have to answer certain questions a certain way – of which you will hear later today as we install elders. These are questions asked at membership, at ordination, and at installation.

These are important questions – and they are also somewhat vague questions. If Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior is a definite yes or no. All of them are yes or no. But when we say that we will follow the essential tenets of the church, what are those tenets? Who made them up?

You can dig around in our polity and confessions and pull some out but no church will agree on what the essential tenets are – perhaps that reflects the beauty of diversity within the church, but also is frustrating as we try to unite for common good.

We have a variety of ways of being members in the church – baptized members who have been baptized but not confirmed, members who have gone through confirmation and given a statement of faith, affiliate members who are members of another church but attend regularly, and then we have friends of the church who are perhaps more of the “belonging” aspect.

Today is the Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when we remember and celebrate the baptism of Jesus and also our own baptism. Baptism is important in our faith life because it is a sign of God’s love and grace. It is a reminder that even before we could speak, before we could think, before we could move, God loved us and accepted us as children.

We did nothing – and the baptism is really an outward sign of an inward grace. This is a phrase theologians love to use, meaning we do this practice as a way of taking time and space to acknowledge God’s work in our lives, and to remind us of the importance of God’s actions in our lives.

In the words of Henri Nouwen: “God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen us to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life.”[1]

 

Baptism is not magic. It is a symbol of what God has already done, accepting us into the fold. So, if we are all accepted by God, and if we all have been chosen by God, wouldn’t that mean we were all members of that body, even if we aren’t baptized? What about people of other faiths?

Those questions might seem difficult to answer, but I think what we are really faced with this week is a more challenging question. If we are welcomed into the community of faith by God before baptism, and at baptism, and as we confirm our faith with words, how do we reconcile those who were waving Christian flags at the Capitol building this Wednesday?

Are those who carry crosses that say “Jesus Saves” as they violently storm the Capitol and break windows, members of the same church? Are they baptized into the same body of Christ?

I have wondered this week as many people have made a connection between Wednesday’s domestic terrorism being a similar feeling to the events on September 11. I agree that it is the same feeling of communal trauma in some manner, but for me these are very different events.

Yet, it planted this question in my head. I wondered – if so many Christians looked at Muslims after 9/11 and condemned Islam because of a few extremists, what do Buddhists and Muslims and Jews think as they look at people who appeared to be Christian storming the Capitol building on Epiphany?

What is membership, and do we get to say “these people aren’t members”? I think that we have to be incredibly clear about what the Gospel is and what it isn’t. After events on Wednesday a colleague of mine from seminary posted about this in his blog.

He wrote: “For too long, there have been those around us who have been captivated by a false gospel…

They have listened to words that tickle their ears rather than challenged their hearts…They have lost sight of what it means to follow the One who showed us that the greatest strength is in weakness and in love.

And they have done this; because, we have failed them.

There is nothing lacking in our message…But we have somehow failed to communicate that message to those who have been tempted by words of conspiracy, of falsehood, and of hatred. We have not spoken nor lived in a way that convinces them that the Gospel is not hidden in the anonymous postings on the internet or in the words of those, like Herod, who would command violence rather than concede power.”[2]

I think we can easily condemn the actions of the people who stormed the Capitol building – and we should seek justice and encourage non-violence. I also think that we cannot assume that our job is done.

As so many have pointed out, the extremists do not speak for our entire country or for our church – but they represent a portion of what is happening in our world, and must be faced. One of the biggest struggles our country faces right now is how to heal the wounds that have been present for much longer than we realized.

Inaccurate information brings about the conversation we read in Acts between these disciples and Paul. Prior to this passage Apollos had been going around baptizing in the baptism of John, speaking nothing of the Spirit. Priscilla and Aquila straighten him out and they think everything is fine. Until Paul comes across these people who have never heard of the Holy Spirit! There is no need to worry, though, because Paul is authorized to preach and baptize and he does both.

I do think it is important to discuss both baptisms present in the scripture. John the Baptist did a baptism of repentance in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. Jesus entered the scene with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Both were necessary.To prepare for Jesus, John taught the power of repentance, the power of self-introspection, of making right the wrongs. Then, one’s heart was prepared. This might be perhaps why non-Reformed traditions insist that the person being baptized must make a request to be baptized.

For us, we believe that God claims us – no matter what – which is reassuring and frightening all at the same time. Yet, repentance is not a precursor, but always available, always an option to help turn our lives around – because God is gracious.Repentance is needed to turn away from sin. The baptism of the Spirit reminds us that it is the gift of the Holy Spirit that inspires us, that moves us, that pushes us and encourages us. The Holy Spirit is the One who keeps us using our gifts in a hurting world. The Spirit urges us to serve God.Later we will install two new ruling elders in the church to serve on session. The Spirit has urged them to do this. I remind you that just because you aren’t on session doesn’t mean the Spirit lets you off the hook. The Spirit is always pushing us all, challenging us all – we just need to discern where that challenge is and how to move forward.

We are all created in God’s image – something hard to remember when we see how broken humanity is and how scarred creation is. I believe this is another piece of theology we have easily forgotten in our world.We forget that men and women were created in God’s image. We forget that people who are transgendered were created in God’s image. We forget that Black Indigenous People of Color were created in God’s image. When we see each other as being made in the image of God, being claimed by God, we respect each other and treat each other with dignity.

The Genesis passage just touches on the first day of the first creation story, but what a first day it was. I love the reminder that God created out of nothing – absolutely nothing. I love that the Hebrew actually says: “In a beginning.” This is one of the numerous beginnings God created – that God is still creating. That we are at a beginning – a new year, a new way forward, a new everything. And, most importantly, God creates out of chaos. Absolute chaos.

 

I leave you with the words of President Abraham Lincoln: “With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.” We have a lot of bandaging to do, a lot of repentance, and a lot of work that the Spirit will push us to do – and we will see how God turns this chaos into a new beginning. Amen.

 

[1] Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus. (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1989), 30.

[2] Jonathan Bennett, “On the Day After” in Published With Thanksgiving, January 7, 2021.