Baptism’s Gift and Calling: Being Rich Toward God

We celebrated a baptism today, one of my favorite tasks as a pastor. Baptisms are fun because I can hold a beautiful baby like Sophia. Next Sunday we will witness the baptism of a beautiful baby boy named Illijah. There is something very humbling about holding an infant:  you must hold them securely because they are helpless and frankly, fragile. But on the other hand is the great strength of life itself: a new life brought into the world; and the strength of a life of God-given potential. Baptisms are not only fun but they make faith come alive! Baptisms are very dramatic because of the faithfulness of God, what God is doing for and saying to the child or the adult who is baptized. According to the language of the Bible baptism means to be God-possessed, God-protected, and God promised. One is baptized in the full triune name: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One is baptized into Jesus Christ, specifically his death and resurrection for victory over sin and death. And the Holy Spirit says “I’m here and ready to work for the child, the work of faith, for the child to conform his or her life to the image of God. One of the most powerful passages of the Bible, in the 8th chapter of Romans, the Holy Spirit is said to give life to our mortal bodies, the Holy Spirit dwells with us which earlier in Romans called the outpouring of God’s grace and love. So that we don’t become slaves to the fears the come in this mortal life, the Holy Spirit gives what the apostle Paul called a “spirit of adoption” so when we cry “Abba, Father! it is that very Holy Spirit bearing witness to our spirits that we are children of God.”

Years ago when I was a pastor in Saskatchewan, I was discussing the meaning of baptism with a mother and her two children, a boy about ten and his sister who was in confirmation class. All three, mother and kids were to be baptized:  this was going to be fun, and I was looking forward to the coming Sunday. But then the youngest of the three asked a question that had me stumped. I was commenting on God’s grace, the gift of becoming a child of God through baptism. But then the boy had the nerve and verve to tell me he was already a child of God. Was he right? Are the unbaptized children of God?

I would answer ‘yes’ because of the Bible’s witness that human beings are made in the image of God. However baptism’s gift and power does not leave us to figure out “the image of God” for ourselves. Baptism gives the Holy Spirit so our lives are open for renewal. The phrase “Child of God” is not meant to be figurative or forgotten, but our Spirit-led calling to live like we belong to God. Our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Colossians is about baptism’s meaning for daily life. But first let us review what we heard last week from the reading from Colossians in case you have forgotten. The reference to baptism was very clear:  baptism is participation in Jesus’ death and resurrection: “you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God.” To be buried with Christ in his death, to be raised with him means rescue from the powers of sin and death. The gift of forgiveness was definitely presented as something no one could ever earn: the lesson said frankly that we were dead in trespasses, but then made alive together with Christ who forgave us all our trespasses or sins. Then the apostle used that image of our record of sins being erased, set aside, nailed to the cross. We are children of God through our birth, beloved of God and made in God’s image, and baptism seeks to protect and affirm this gift, and renew this gift if we have strayed from God for God never strays away from us. The image of “child of God” has to do with family, belonging to God. But another image used is citizenship. The letter to the Colossians said God has rescued from the power of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, Jesus, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. Baptism is to be remembered and enjoyed daily so we live not as guilty children of God, but as forgiven children of God, belonging to Jesus and his kingdom.

Today’s reading from Colossians could be titled the “New Life in Christ”. Since we have been raised with Christ in baptism, “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” This does not mean we are to spend our lives thinking only about heaven and not about anything on earth. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.” What I believe the text is saying is another gift from baptism: we set our minds on Jesus who is seated at the right hand of God. So by the Holy Spirit’s grace, we set our minds on the Lordship, rule, and authority of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit works so we grow in faith, have the mind of Christ, or as it says in Ephesians, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. No matter our age we have the privilege to call upon God, and call God “Father”; the word used is “Abba”, a term of respected authority but also affection and love. But hidden in the term ‘child of God’ is the assumption that we will grow in faith and be like Christ. So our text said “Put to death whatever in you is earthly”, but somehow I think that translation can be misleading. Some may mistakenly figure anything of this earth is bad. I think a better meaning is don’t take part in any of the evil things you see going on this earth. If one is taking part in such things as sexuality immorality, greed, malice and abusive language, the imperatives in the text are strong:  ‘put to death such things’; ‘get rid of such things’, ‘strip off the clothing of the old self with its practices’; because in baptism you received new clothes. Baptism announces that we are clothed with Christ, new life, being renewed daily in the true knowledge according to the image of its creator. We are made in the image of God, but that image can be covered over by the evil practices that hurt this earth. And one of the evil things of this earth unfortunately is greed. The word from the original language of the New Testament, Greek, is very figurative, the word is pleonexia, which literally means “having more”. The reading from Colossians called “having more” idolatry or putting our fear, love, and trust in money and possessions. In the gospel Jesus warned “Be on guard against all kinds of greed for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of one’s possessions.”

Jesus told the famous story about a rich man who had an abundance of everything, so many crops and goods that he would have to build bigger barns. He then came to the conclusion that he could retire with security and ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God came and called him a “Fool”, for that very night he would die, and he couldn’t take his barns with him. The word “fool” literally means lacking sense, one who hasn’t thought things through. Such are those who store up treasures for themselves and are not rich toward God. One commentator put it this way: “That’s what happens when you fill you barns with SELF and not with GOD.” In today’s modern culture Jesus could ask “So what’s in your wallet?” Are our lives guided by a desire for wealth or having more, or are they Spirit-guided to desire God, and grow as children of God?

Our baptisms have shown us the riches we have from God. Not long ago I saw over Pioneer Lake a beautiful rainbow after a rainstorm. I took a picture with the cell phone and after looking at the picture I saw not only the rainbow in the sky, but the rainbow also reflected in the water. In the book of Genesis, in the story of Noah, a rainbow is literally called a “bow”, because its curving shape is like the weapon. The image in the text is that God is hanging up his weapons, for never again will God destroy the whole earth by a flood. So the meaning is “compassion and covenant faithfulness:” triumph over wrath and judgment.  The rainbow is a symbol of God’s promise and peace. This is reflected in the waters of baptism, through the Word of God. There is no greater riches than being declared by grace a child of God: a child God will never neglect or forget. Baptism has transferred us to the kingdom of Jesus where we live with forgiveness of sins, and the record of our sins permanently erased. We are marked with the cross of Christ forever, a sign of the love that has saved us. We are rich with the Holy Spirit who works to have us grow in faith according to the measure and stature of Christ.

God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, enriches our lives not with possessions but people. There was an OP-ED in the New York Times that began with the author remembering something that took place years before:  her grandmother was playing cards with a nearly deaf friend. The radio was tuned to a rock station playing the Beatles, this was back in 1968. She asked her grandmother “why are you listening to that station?” Her grandmother hushed her and said her friend thinks it is a classical music station. Now almost 50 years later, the author of the article is dealing with hearing loss, fitted with hearing aids and learning to read lips. The author wrote “Now I keep thinking of my grandmother’s friend back then, whose handicap struck me as the stuff of comedy and not compassion.” She called for the need of what she termed “moral imagination” or the idea that our personal behavior should transcend our own personal experience and embrace the dignity of the human race.” God will enrich us when we look upon others not with comedy or condemnation, but with compassion. For the Holy Spirit, given to us in baptism, wants to teach us renewal in our lives, and renewal of this suffering earth, for there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, Republican or Democrat, black or white, but Christ is all and in all!”