Mark this day down- May 5, 2018.
This is the day you died.
The story that is your namesake, Noah, should’ve been my clue. The first Noah’s story isn’t all rainbows and two-by-two teddy bears. By so naming you, I should’ve known that one day, before you were old enough to protest or have any say in the matter for yourself, your doting parents would prove to be happy and willing accomplices to your death.
Your grandpa is obsessed with his Go-Pro so just check the pictures, Noah. Your parents stood right next to me, wearing grins, and acquiesced as we drowned you in water.
We destroyed you- well, not you but the Old Noah. We baptized you.
By ‘we,’ I mean the Church. No, that doesn’t get it right either.
God baptized you, Noah.
God baptized you.
That’s why it doesn’t matter you were still in diapers, still smelled like a baby, and couldn’t yet muster a single yay or nay for or against Jesus.
Your cooperation mattered not at all because God was the one who baptized you.
You in your bonnet and sucking on your fingers were no different than the rest of us grown ups in that the only thing we contribute God’s salvation of you is our sin.
And our resistance.
God baptized you Noah. The Church was just his ark from which we watched as bystanders and then dragged you on board after it was all over. Actually, Noah, your name is perfect for a baptism- it’s perfect for a Christian- for “the chief biblical analogy for baptism is not the water that washes but the flood that drowns (Willimon).”
Take your name as a clue, Noah, the life of the baptized Christian is not about turning over ever more new leaves in your life. Faith is more fitful and disorderly than gradual moral formation. What we’ve committed you to with water, by killing you and making you alive, is nothing less than daily, often painful, lifelong death.
Who knew your parents, the shy and awkward high school kids I met my first day here at Aldersgate, would one day make me an accomplice to something so macabre. That was so long ago, Noah, my wife still let me get away with wearing cargo shorts, and back then it was still funny to make fun of Dennis Perry’s age.
Back then, I often crossed lines and offended people. For instance, shortly after I arrived at Aldersgate the youth director asked me to come to your future parents’ youth group to talk about a Christian understanding of sex and sexuality.
Asking your pastor to come talk to teenagers about sex is about as enticing as inviting your plumber to a nude photo shoot so, wanting to puncture the awkwardness which overwhelmed the room, I resorted to a bit of wisdom from Woody Allen and I told them: “Don’t knock masturbation; it’s sex with someone I love.” You can ask your grandma to explain that to you sometime, Noah.
I like to think that wasn’t the only lesson on love and marriage your Mom and Dad gleaned from me and my beloved. When they college students, your parents traveled with Ali and me to Taize, a monastery in the French countryside. During the day we prayed and we played, and at night we camped out on the monastery grounds in tents.
Your Dad hid in one of those tents one night, specifically our tent, and scared the piss out of Ali. And from their (separate) tents your future Mom and Dad heard my wife in our tent foreshadow the married life with nuggets of advice such as: “Get that thing off of me (ie, my book)” and “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger; stay up and fight.”
Not long after, Noah, I married your Mom and Dad, which makes your baptism a fitting bookend to my time at Aldersgate. They were the first two people I met at Aldersgate. I celebrated their wedding, and now what we do to you with water, St. Paul says, is itself a betrothal. When you’re married one day, Noah, you’ll not think it odd that the two chief metaphors for baptism are death and marriage.
Ironically, the scripture passage from which I preached at your parents’ wedding was itself about baptism. 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 Christ’s perfect righteousness.
You are dressed, in other words, Noah, in Christ’s perfect score.
Permanently. No amount of prodigal living can undo it. You might keep your grandmothers awake at night in high school, Noah, but nothing you do henceforth can erase what God does here with water and his word. You are now clothed with Christ, and, as such, will always forever be regarded by God as Christ. The Son’s righteousness, not your own goodness, has betrothed you forever to the Father.
This is why St. Paul in his grand argument on the resurrection is so adamant about the absolute necessity of Christ’s empty grave otherwise, Paul insists, our faith is futile and our hope is pitiful.
Pay attention Noah-
If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness.
His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin.
And by your baptism, Noah, the Bible promises that you are in Christ.
You’ve not only been crucified with him in his death for sins- all sins, all sins, once and for all- you’ve been raised with him too. By 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).
What God does to you with water, killing and making alive, the Church has called it the great exchange, and it is great, good news. But despite how often we throw that word “Gospel” around, Noah, it’s a word that’s often misunderstood, intentionally I think, by tight-sphinctered pious types 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, Noah (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 obedient. If that strikes you as cognitive dissonance then your mother, a school psychologist, must’ve taught you a thing or two.
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 you feeling sorry for your sins and, even then, as my mother used to say, saying sorry doesn’t cut it, they’ll say. No.
Noah, laminate this and tack it to your wall if you must.
The Gospel of total, unconditional 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.
Christ died for all your sins. All of his perfect record has been reckoned as your own- all of it is yours.
Hell yes, the wages of sin is death.
But today, May 5, 2018 in 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.”
Think of it this way, Noah:
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. I personally wouldn’t commend such a life but such a life has no bearing on your eternal life.
Such a life 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 it as Jesus intended for the baptized to hear 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 anxious hearts and fearful imaginations
I thought it important to write to you, Noah, because soon I’ll be gone, 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, Noah. 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 or the social justice kind, making you mistakenly believe that God is waiting for you to shape up, to wake up, to be a better you and 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. Someone named Noah should know better.
Martin Luther wrote that the Devil’s chief work in the world is to convince us that this or that sin we’ve committed- or are committing- 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 no condemnation for you. All your sins are free.
Noah, 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.
Speaking just from my own experience, most of the damage I do to myself and to others isn’t because I’m convinced God doesn’t condemn me for my sins but because I fear- despite my faith, I still fear God will condemn me for my sins.
And so I do damage, making others the object of my anxious attempts to make myself look better and be better than I am, in other words, to justify myself. I think this explains why the people against whom we sin the most are the people we most love. They’re the ones we most want to impress so they become the ones against whom we most sin.
The hilarity of the Gospel, Noah, is that the news that all your sins are free actually frees you from sinning. Skeptical? 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.
That Jesus was without sin was the consequence not of his goodness and perfection but of Jesus’ perfect trust in the goodness of his Father.
Still not buying it?
Your Dad is an engineer, Noah, 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.
Your Mom the psychologist, though, would tell you it’s more likely 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 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.
Such a scenario, Noah, 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, Noah.
It’s not that the good works you do for God and for you neighbor 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.
Look kid, brass tacks time:
Christianity isn’t about a nice man like me (and 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.
The world is a wicked and hard place.
And, in it, sorry to disappoint, you will fail as many times as not.
You need only read the story that is your namesake, Noah, 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, Noah, you’ll discover people asking questions about that story whence comes your name. Usually in between what philosophers call the first and the second naiveté, they’ll wonder: “Did God really kill all those people in the flood long ago?”
And you, Noah, because of today, will be able to answer them rightly:
“God kills with water all the time.”