Sermon for Sunday, January 10, 2021 || Epiphany 1B || Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
I was in the middle of exercising late Wednesday afternoon when I received panicked texts from a friend and from my mother at the same time. Do you see what’s going on at the Capitol right now? We are very shaken. Are you all okay? I immediately switched over from YouTube to live coverage on CBS and left it on until well past sundown, unable to tear my eyes away from the ugly spectacle. In one way, the events of Wednesday were shocking: after all, a hostile force has not breached the Capitol since the War of 1812. But in all other ways, Wednesday was the natural outcome of years of lies, incitement, manipulation, demagoguery, and (most pertinent for this sermon) heresy. That’s not a word I use very often, but it is important, especially in tumultuous times like these, to use the right words for things. I’ve been thinking and praying for three days about how to address the events of Wednesday in this sermon, and the only way I can wrap my head around them after so little time is to begin with the heresy on display this week and then counter it with Gospel.
Among the vast array of despicable actions by the rioters was the invocation of the name of Jesus in their pursuit of Christian nationalism and its fraternal twin white supremacy. The president harnessed the heretical sect of Christian nationalism,* taking its long standing desire for power over everyone perceived as different and using that desire to build an army of fanatics. The fanaticism predates the president, but he stoked the extremism when his well-documented narcissism gave him license to become the new messiah for this heretical group. I’m sure you’ve seen the disgusting images of the president standing in for Jesus on the cross. I’m sure you’ve seen the shirts worn by rioters that glorify the Holocaust. I’m sure you’ve heard the rhetoric of violence spoken by people holding signs that say “Jesus saves.” Christian nationalism is only concerned with one thing, and that thing is power. True Christianity is concerned with power’s opposite: humility, service, and self-sacrificing love.
In times like these, I am so thankful that we listened to the story of Jesus’ baptism today. The baptismal life orients away from the heresy of power-seeking. The baptismal life is a life of patterning ourselves after the words and witness of Jesus (not the mutated, mutilated form worshiped by Christian nationalist), but the Jesus of the Gospel. And the baptismal life begins when we begin to believe in our weary bones that what God says to Jesus, God also says to us and to all people – that we too are the Beloved of God.
I’d like to talk about the patterning of baptismal life this morning because it serves as a necessary corrective to the corrosive witness of Christian nationalism and all the cancerous emanations that have metastasized from power-seeking. The baptismal life is the life of following Jesus through our death to the world’s priorities of power and into the new life of God’s priorities of love and justice: a life of community over competition, a life of compassion over coercion, a life of courage over complacency.
But before I talk about these priorities, first a necessary reminder. There is no way to be a perfect follower of Jesus, nor the best follower of Jesus. One person is not three steps behind Jesus while another is fifteen steps behind him. Each and everyone of us who follow Jesus, follow one step behind him – not because we are good followers, but because in his love for us Jesus would not consider being anywhere but right before each of us. Close enough to touch. To hold hands. To listen to his whispered voice pointing out the path ahead. We can take an active role in deepening our walks with Jesus, but that doesn’t make us better than someone just starting out. Setting up a hierarchy of closeness to Jesus sets us on the path to desiring power, which again, is the opposite of what we’re going for. Jesus does not force us to score a hundred on some test of faith. Following Jesus is not a test, but a life – the baptismal life that sets us on the path one step behind Jesus. Jesus invites us to follow him and to embrace the patterns and priorities of his Way.**
So, we embrace community over competition. When the twelve disciples are arguing which of them is the greatest, Jesus cuts through their competitiveness and speaks about serving one another. When all are dedicated to serving each other, then there are no longer servants and masters, no longer those with power and those without. There is only the mutual support of the community, which ensures that all have what each needs to thrive. Communal interest includes self interest if we understand that what is good for the group is also good for us. When we pattern our lives on beloved community, the result is a society where all people’s needs are met fairly. Reaching such a lofty goal means learning to be quick to be generous and to serve, which rids us of our knee jerk desire to compete, to seek power. Generosity and service: these form the baptismal life, a life of following Jesus.
We also embrace compassion over coercion. When Jesus tells the rich young man to sell all that he has, Jesus first looks at him and loves him. Jesus does not bully him into a better life. Jesus does not give him an ultimatum, but an invitation. And then Jesus loves him even though he runs away. Coercion is manipulative and violent. Coercive behavior never leads to deep relationships. But compassion always deepens relationships because compassion’s goal is not to get something but to be with someone. To share their suffering. To love long and hard enough to risk being changed by the relationship. What we wanted coercively might even end up happening because of our compassion. But the want is not the prize. The relationship is. That is the baptismal life, a life of following Jesus.
Finally, in our very limited list of C-words, we embrace courage over complacency. Jesus could have remained in Galilee working as a mason like his dad Joseph. Certainly that was the safer option. But the complacent life was not for him. Jesus struck out on his ministry, courageously challenging the unjust structures of his day and at the same time meeting people one-on-one, loving them into the people he knew they could be. This twin compulsion of love and justice drew people to him. Drew friend. Drew foe. And still draws us to him. It is all too easy to trick ourselves into making our own comfort our highest good. But Jesus taught us courage so we would be equipped to challenge our own complacency. We look out at a world racked by plagues of disease and racism and environmental degradation, and they overwhelm us into inaction. But the courage of Jesus, who (remember) is one step before us, leads us not to comfort but to the cross – the cross – the fulcrum of existence where the love of God bends creation away from annihilation. Courage keeps us from stasis. Courage helps us to be compassionate. And courage helps us build beloved community. The baptismal life is a courageous life, a life of following Jesus.
The events of Wednesday threatened to send me into hibernation because they revealed to me how weary I feel. I’d wager you feel it, too, because a riot at the Capitol, fomented by so-called Christians, is just one horrific item in a long list of horrific items. But when I get weary like I am now, I imagine myself standing on the edge of the River Jordan. I was there in 2019, and Bishop Laura blessed me in its waters. In my imagination, Bishop Laura is Jesus dunking me in the murky flow. I come up out of the water and hear God’s voice in Laura’s voice. I hear God say I am God’s beloved. And my response to this truth of belovedness is to follow Jesus: to be courageous, to be compassionate, to build beloved community.
Imagine yourself now standing waist deep in a river’s flow. Whose voice do you hear being God’s voice and speaking the truth of your belovedness? How do you respond to this truth by living your baptismal life? As you pray with these questions, allow Jesus to carry your weariness for a while. After all, you are only one step behind Jesus because he can’t bear to be any farther than that from you.
*Christian nationalism is just the most obvious modern example of Christians not living the Way of Jesus. Mainline denominations continue to be infected with racism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and colonial and imperial mindsets. The baptismal life envisioned in this sermon counters these, as well.
**The first draft of this sermon was way too long. The next few paragraphs ended up on the cutting room floor, but I thought I’d share them here.
I mention this because of the wonderful reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning. Paul stumbles across a dozen disciples in Ephesus. He asks them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
Do you see the incredible truth in these few lines? These dozen people have not heard of all the elements of this new faith that Paul is teaching, and yet they are still named disciples and believers. If there were a test for believing, they would have missed the Holy Spirit question. But that does not stop them from being followers.
And that’s because following Jesus is not built on tests concerning doctrinal purity or theories of the atonement or the inner workings of the Holy Trinity. Wrestling with these things can support our discipleship, but they are not our discipleship. Following Jesus is not a test, but a life – the baptismal life that sets us on the path one step behind Jesus.
So if you don’t think you know enough to be a follower, or you think you’ve learned too much to be one, remember that Jesus does not invite us to know things. He invites us to follow. He invites us to embrace the patterns and priorities of a life following him.
Season 3, Episode 9:
End of Season Trivia Challenge!
Season Three of the Podcast for Nerdy Christians concludes with a fun trivia challenge. Carrie and Adam fire off fifteen questions each from across their favorite pieces of nerd canon, and you can play along!