I closed out our summer series through Ephesians by preaching on Paul’s epilogue in the epistle, 6.10-20.
Dear Aaron, Ryan, and Maddie,
There have been a lot of funerals in the news this week. In all the coverage of the funerals of the Maverick McCain and the Queen of Soul, I don’t want the news of your deaths to get missed. You heard that right. Mark this day down, kids. Sunday, September 2, 2018.
This is the day you died.
Hold up, kids.
You’re probably thinking that writing and reading a letter is an odd way to deliver a sermon. Well, back in the day, believe it or not, this white boy was the teaching assistant for the professor of black preaching at Princeton, Dr. Cleophus Larue.
And one of Dr. Larue’s maxims was that in biblical preaching the form of the scripture text should determine the form of the sermon. So, if the text is a poem, the sermon should be poetic. If the passage is prophetic then the sermon could be prophetic, and if the scripture was a letter then the sermon could be epistolary.
Today’s passage is a bit of a letter, about baptism.
So I’ve written you a letter about your own baptisms.
Aaron, you’re the only one your parents burdened with a biblical name so I’m going to pick on you a bit here.
The story that is your namesake, Aaron, isn’t nearly as sweet as the song we sang at your baptism, “God Claims You.” The story that is your namesake, Aaron— the story of the Exodus and the Red Sea— is either grim news or good news depending on your perspective. The God of the Exodus, the God who conscripts Aaron into his service, is a God who delivers and drowns. God, Aaron learns along with his brother and sister on the shore of the Red Sea, is a God whose deliverance comes by drowning.
God works likewise with us, kids. Deliverance by drowning. Killing to make alive.
Which is to say, I’m not the one who baptized you, kids. Nor is the Church who baptized you. God baptized you, kids.
God baptized you.
That’s why it doesn’t matter if you can’t remember it years from now when you feel as though you had no say in the matter. Your cooperation with it matters not at all because God was the one who baptized you.
You kids at your baptism were no different than the rest of us grown-ups in that the only thing you contribute God’s salvation of you is your sin. And your resistance.
God baptized you today. The Church was just the beach from which we stood and watched as bystanders, like the original Aaron and his siblings, and then dragged you ashore after the drowning deliverance was all over.
Actually, Aaron, your name is perfect for a baptism, for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns.”
Maddie, Ryan- take your brother’s name as your clue, for the life of the baptized Christian is not about growing towards glory. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation.
With water, today, God delivered you by drowning you.
And with the promises we make to you, we commit you to a life that is nothing less than daily, often painful, unending death.
When your parents were married, the pastor likely began the ceremony by telling both Joe and Caroline to remember their baptisms. Marriage, the wedding liturgy implies, flows from your baptism, which makes death and drowning a sort of synonym for the married life. Trust me, when you’re married yourselves one day, kids, that won’t strike you as odd as it does today.
What we do to you with water, kids, St. Paul says, it is itself a betrothal.
In baptism, St. Paul says, through our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, our old self is not only drowned and killed but we also are clothed with Jesus.
By the water of baptism, whether our faith is as mighty as a mountain or as meager as a mustard seed, we wear Jesus Christ himself. Just as Reverend Peter prayed over the water, in baptism you are now clothed with Christ.
In the New Testament, the language of clothing is always the language of baptism.
At the end of Ephesians, the Apostle Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God; that is, to clothe ourselves in faith and truth and righteousness. To a mostly Gentile audience, St. Paul is simply alluding here to the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, who promised that the Messiah would come forth from the root of Jesse.
This Christ, Isaiah prophesied, would kill with the truth of his word.
This Christ, Isaiah foreshadowed: would be girded with righteousness and faith.
And remember, kids, though “put on the armor of God” sounds like something we do (have more faith, speak more truthfully, live a more righteous life, put on that armor) every Roman citizen among Paul’s listeners would known what we so often miss about this passage.
A Roman soldier’s armor was not something the solider could put on by himself.
It was too heavy. The armor had to be put on you by another. The helmet laid on your head by another. The belt cinched tight behind you by another.
The armor of God isn’t about something you do.
The armor of God is about something done to you.
The armor of God (faith, truth, righteousness) is none other than Jesus Christ. To put on the armor of God is to clothe yourself with Christ. To put on the armor of God is to be baptized. To be baptized is to have God outfit you with Christ’s faith and righteousness.
You are dressed, in other words, kids, in Christ’s perfect score. That’s what that word ‘righteous’ means. You have been clothed in Christ’s perfect score. His faith has reckoned to you as your own faith.
You got that?
No amount of prodigal living can undo it.
You might keep your mom and dad awake at night in high school, Ryan, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God has done to you with water and his word.
Maddie, you are now clothed with the armor that is Christ himself, and, as such, you will always forever be regarded by God as though you were Christ.
Pay attention kids-
By your baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin, all of it). And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it).
That might not sound like a big deal to you now, kids. Wait until you’ve lived some and have sinned alot (against the people you love the most) and you’ll find out it’s exactly what the Church has always called it. It’s good news.
Because of your baptism, kids, you have an answer for anyone who ever asks you that terrible question: “If you died tomorrow, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” You can just tell them you’ve been baptized; therefore, you’ve already died the only death that matters.
You see, kids, Christianity isn’t about moralism (though that’s the impression you’ll get a lot of time in a lot of churches).
Christianity isn’t about moralism.
Christianity is about mortalism.
By dying with Christ in baptism, you never have to worry about how much faith or how little faith you have because by water you permanently possess the only faith God will ever count.
You have Christ.
You’ve been clothed with it.
Despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, kids, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered, self-serious pious types, religious folks who get nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives us.
Well, truthfully, I think they’re nervous about the freedom the Gospel gives to other people.
“For freedom Christ has set you free,” the Bible declares. But what you’ll hear instead, Aaron (most often, I should point out, in the Church) is that the freedom of the Gospel is really the freedom for you to be good and just and obedient. If you ever take a pyschology class in college you’ll learn the ‘freedom to be obedient’ that’s called cognitive dissonance.
You’ll hear these pious types too say things like “Yes, grace is amazing but we mustn’t take advantage of it.” Or else…they seldom finish that sentence but they make sure you catch their drift. They’ll imply as well that God’s forgiveness is conditioned upon the character of your life henceforth.
Aaron, Ryan, Maddie-
Laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.
The Gospel of total, unconditional, irrevocable freedom and forgiveness may be a crazy way to save the world, but the add-ons and alternatives you’ll often hear are not only nonsense, they’re the biggest bad news there is.
We like to quote Jesus’ brother, James, and say that “faith without works is dead” but seldom do we stop to notice that just before that verse James also reminds us that if we have failed in any one part of the Law we are held accountable for all of it (and thus, before the Law, we stand condemned, dead in our sins). Under those conditions, faith with works required doesn’t sound like such good news, does it?
Christ is the end of the Law. Only that grace, given to us by baptism, makes our works anything other than futile.
Hell yes, the wages of sin is death. But today, Sunday, September 2, 2018 in a grave of shallow water, you died. Thus, there are no wages left to be paid for any of your sins. As St. Paul says in Romans 8- the lynchpin, I think, of the entire Bible: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
And thus, no conditions.
Think of it this way, kids: all your sins from here on out are FREE.
All your sins are free.
There is no cost to any of your sins (other than what they cost your neighbor).
You can dishonor your father and your mother, if you like. You can forgive somewhere south of 70×7 times. You can begrudge a beggar your spare coin. You can cheat on your girlfriend or your boyfriend. You can persist in your prejudice. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.
No matter how you regard your life, it has no bearing on how God regards you because you’ve been buried with God-in-the-flesh, Jesus Christ, and you’ve been raised to newness in him.
Of course, the world will be a more beautiful place and your life will be a whole lot happier if you forgive those who trespass against you and give to the poor, if your love is patient and kind, un-angry and absent boasting. But God loves you not one jot or tittle less if you don’t do any of it.
“It rains on the righteous and the unrighteous alike,” Jesus teaches in the Gospels. And, imagining ourselves as the former instead of the latter, we always hear that teaching as the “offense” of grace. But turn the teaching around and you can hear the offense as Jesus intended it:
God will bless you even if you’re bad.
The god who dies in Christ’s grave never to return is the angry god conjured by our angry hearts and wounded, anxious imaginations
I thought it important to write to you, kids, because Pat Vaughn keeps saying I’m not going to last long here, and as you grow up you’re bound to run into all sorts of quasi-Christians inoculated with just enough of the Gospel to be immune to it, and I don’t want them to infect you with their immunity.
They’re easy to identify, kids.
Just look for the people who seem bound and determined to fill Christ’s empty tomb with rules and regulations. Such inoculated quasi-Christians come in all shapes and sizes and colors, but they’re not difficult to spot.
They’re the ones who make Christianity all about behavior modification, either of the sexual kind (on the right) or the social justice kind (on the left), making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to do better, to be a better you or to build a better world.
Our building a better world or becoming a better self is all well and good, but that’s not the good news God attaches to water or wine or bread.
Someone named Aaron should know better.
St. Paul says in Ephesians 5 that the Devil gets at us primarily through deceit. Piggy backing on Paul, Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to deceive us that this sin we’ve committed- or are committing- that sin out in the world that we’re just too busy to combat- disqualifies us from God’s unqualified grace.
If Luther’s right then the Devil is no place more active than in Christ’s Body, the Church, and the Devil’s primary mode of attack comes at us through other believers, through those freedom-allergic believers who take our sins to be more consequential than Christ’s triumph over them.
In the face of such attacks and second-guessing of our sins, Luther admonished us to remember our baptism.
You’ve already been paid the wages of your sins. You’ve already been given the gift of Christ’s righteousness. There is therefore now or ever any condemnation for you. All your sins are free.
Aaron, Ryan, Maddie-
To those inoculated Christians I warned you about, this sort of freedom will sound like nihilism. They’ll fret: If you don’t have to worry about incurring God’s wrath and punishment by your unfaithfulness, then you’ll have no motivation to be faithful, to love God and their neighbor.
Without the stick, the carrot of grace will just permit people to do whatever they want, to live prodigally without the need to ever come home from the far country.
As easily as we swallow such objections, I don’t buy it.
For one thing, scripture itself testifies that the Law is powerless to produce what it commands (Romans 7); in fact, all the oughts of the Law only elicit the opposite of their intent. Exhorting another to be more compassionate, for example, will only make them less compassionate.
I guarrantee you, kids, your parents know this to be true.
Telling kids what to do is a good way to make kids not want to do it.
The mistake we grown-ups make in Church is in thinking we’re any different than children when it comes to what the Law tells us to do.
The oughts of the Law only elicit the opposite of their intent. Only grace- only free, unconditional, for always, grace can create what the Law the compels. The hilarity of the Gospel, kids, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. That’s why the Church can never afford to assume the Gospel and preach the Law instead. That’s why the Church gathers every week to hear the Gospel over and over again- because the news that all your sins are free is the only thing powerful enough to set you free from sinning.
Take, as Exhibit A, Jesus Christ: the only guy ever on record convinced to his marrow of the Father’s unconditional love. And his being convinced that God had no damns to give led him to what? To live a sinless life.
Still not buying it?
Your dad is a chef and your mom a musician. Both of them work with scales and measures, kids, so let’s put a number on it. Make it concrete. Let’s say you had one thousand free sins to sin without fear of condemnation. What would you do?
Would you hop from bedroom to brothel, like a prodigal son or a certain president? Maybe.
What’s more likely is that if you had a thousand free sins all your own then you’d stop being so concerned about the sins of others. You’d stop seeing sin everywhere you looked. You’d stop drawing lines between us versus them. You’d stop pretending, and you’d take off the masks that bind you to roles that kill the freedom Christ gives you.
You’d take off the masks you think you need to wear.
I mean, you’re already wearing armor. Adding anything else onto you just sounds…heavy, a burden.
Such a scenario, kids, 1K free sins- it isn’t the stuff of a hypothetical life. It’s the baptism we invite you to live into.
All your sins are free.
Don’t get me wrong, kids.
It’s not that the good works you do for the poor and oppressed don’t matter.
Rather, it’s that even the best good works of a Mother Theresa are a trifling pittance compared to the work of Christ gifted to you by water and the Word.
And even the poor and oppressed need this work of Christ gifted to them by water and the Word more than they need the good works of a Mother Theresa.
Look kids, brass tacks time:
Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (I’m not even that nice) telling nice people like you that God calls them to do the nice things they were already going to do apart from God or the Church. If it’s just about the Golden Rule go join the Rotary Club, it’ll cost you less.
Christianity isn’t about nice people doing the nice things they were already going to do apart from God. Someone this week asked me why I keep repeating that message in sermon after sermon, and I replied: “I’ll stop preaching it just as soon as you actually start believing it.”
Your Mom is in the Navy, she knows: the world is a wicked and hard place.
And, in it, you will fail as many times as not.
You need only read the story that is your namesake, Aaron, to know that the world needs stronger medicine than our niceness and good works, particularly when our supposed goodness is a big part of the problem.
Your baptism, therefore, is not like soap.
It doesn’t make you nice and clean.
It makes you new.
After first making you dead.
As you grow up, Aaron, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name, the Exodus story. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really drown all those people in the Red Sea long ago?”
And you, Aaron, and your brother and sister, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly: “God kills with water all the time.”