Seeking God: Community
Passage: Matthew 3:13–3:17
I think Stand by Me is one of the best cable TV movies of all time. I should explain what that means. One of my favorite sports and pop culture writers came up with the concept of the cable TV movie that was a movie that when you stumble upon it while channel surfing you get super excited and are hooked until the end. He talked about how, if you stumble upon Shawshank Redemption on TNT or AMC or some cable channel, you’re in until its over. Frankly if I say, “I find that I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head” there’s bound to be some of you that can complete the quote all the way to the end of the movie. Yes? Maybe? No? Am I the only weird one here?
Anyways, if it’s a Saturday afternoon and Patrick and Emily are napping and I’m trying to find something to watch and I see Stand by Me is on, that’s where I’m going. I love that movie when cable puts it on my tv. Funny enough, I own the movie on DVD but rarely elect to put it on. Again, I’m weird.
For those of you that haven’t seen it, Stand by Me is about a group of twelve year olds who go on a quest to find a dead body. A bunch of other things happen too, but mainly it is about these kids traveling two days journey by foot. And while they do end up finding the dead body, what they really find is friendship. And companionship. And love. And community.
Stand by Me is not a movie with a unique concept. There are many movies and books that are about the quest. And have as their central theme the fact that the byproducts of the quest are, in fact, the important things in life. But only in the pursuit of something physical can we gain the invisible, intangible, qualitative things that are the stuff of life.
Our movies and our tv and our literature are filled with examples of the physical moldering and mirroring and being stand ins for the invisible. For the emotional. For the spiritual.
Similarly our Bible is filled with these stories. This morning we are going to talk about one such story.
We are in our sermon series titled seeking God. During this series we are going to talk about what it means to seek God, what are those things we are seeking when we seek God, and how can find those things and find God. Today we are going to look at community, how we find God as part of a community and how those of us that are seeking community can find it as part of the church and can be drawn into the communal life of God.
Matthew 3: 13-17
So despite the fact that 3 out of the 4 Gospel writers include the baptism of Jesus in their Gospel, we know shockingly little about what I would consider to be a fairly important event. In Matthew’s gospel the event takes five verses, Mark gives it three verses, and Luke gives it just two verses.
But this is what we can piece together. John the Baptist was a charismatic figure who led an ascetic sect of Judaism. For centuries there was a tension within Judaism between the ruling class, the official priestly class, and prophets who were outside of the mainstream. Oftentimes the official priestly class would cozy up to the ruling class, which was fine when the rulers were just like David or Josiah. But when the rulers moved the people towards worship of foreign gods, and the priestly class was ok with it, that created problems. Prophets arose. Now when times were good, the prophets tended to be persecuted because people find flies in the ointment annoying. But when times were bad, the prophets were the place of hope for the people.
Around the time of Jesus’s birth and life, John represented such hope. The chief priests and King Herod were squarely in the pocket of Rome. The Pharisees were somewhat of a prophetic group, but their insistence on extreme rule following alienated the poor who could not afford to buy turtle doves or lambs to secure their atonement. So for everyday Israelites, John represented the hope that God would restore the Kingdom.
Baptism was obviously important for John as it became his epitaph. John’s baptism was one of repentance of sins. According to strict temple laws repentance and forgiveness and atonement was accomplished through ritual sacrifice. But you had to buy the animals for sacrifice. And you had to pay for it using official temple currency. But you weren’t paid in official temple currency so you had to change your money. And there were outrageous fees at every step of the way. So John’s response to that was to make repentance a whole lot easier and cheaper. But, where John did increase the cost was on what you did with the rest of your life. John expected you to dedicate your life to being righteous. John called his followers to costly grace.
You could become part of John’s community fairly easily. But the implications of joining that community would cost you the rest of your life. You would never, ever be the same after your baptism. Most of the Temple elites and those who took part in the ritual of the Temple sacrifice banked on being able to use the Temple rituals as a way of underwriting the lives they were already living. The people that came to John for baptism were using the ritual as a way of renouncing the lives they were living.
But all of this makes even more confusing the fact that Jesus came to John to be baptized. Why did he do this? He certainly did not need a baptism for forgiveness of sins. He wouldn’t have needed to renounce an unholy lifestyle. Why does he come to the river? John himself seems confounded by this as well as John rebuffs Jesus saying that John should be baptized by Jesus, not the other way around. But Jesus says it needs to be done. And so John complies.
And then something kind of amazing happens. The heavens open up. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and alights on him as a dove. And the Father speaks, “This is my Son, whom I love; listen to him.”
This is the most clear depiction of God’s life in Trinity that we get in the Gospel. We can see the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all God, existing in community with one another. We can see all three persons working and acting in an event that is meant to fulfill all righteousness. But it also involves this God becoming a human being, a human who got into a river and was immersed in water. And this is where the theme for our sermon series comes in.
For the next few weeks we are talking about seeking God. All of us are here seeking something. Either we are trying to find God again for the first time or we are trying to reconnect with God or we are searching to know God more and more. In this search, we who are corporeal, we who are physical, we who embody and occupy space seek after a being who is spiritual, who occupies no space but encompasses all space. But this same God desires to be found, or rather desires to find us, and so breaks into our physical world. Our seeking God is fundamentally incarnational as we seek the intersection of the spiritual with the physical. Which is precisely what baptism, Jesus’s and ours, is all about.
Jesus’s baptism is fundamentally about the incarnation. It’s about God accepting and embracing this physical world. It’s about God revealing God’s self through something that is entirely embodied and all about the physical stuff of this world. Our baptism is fundamentally about God’s same acceptance of things of this world: namely humans who embody physical space. Our baptism is a continuation of the story of God coming into and accepting the physical, a story that began in the incarnation and was radically displayed in Jesus’ baptism.
But our baptisms are also about entrance into a community, a community called church. It’s about our initiation into a church and our commitment to serve a church. In baptism we are invited to be members of a unique community. And we take our place within that community.
Now I know I’ve got a lot of balls in the air at the moment, so let me break this down. Baptism is at the same time about both God’s acceptance of the person being baptized and the person’s initiation and commitment to a particular community called church. And the point here is that we seek God through the community of God called church. Our seeking of God is intimately tied up in our search for community.
I think the desire for community is a basic human need. We desire to be accepted by others, we desire to be loved by others. And oftentimes we need to have God’s love for us and God’s acceptance of us made real to us, mediated to us through being loved and accepted by other people. We need the physical to be related to the spiritual. So it should come as no surprise that we draw all these things together in the church, that we connect them, and that we see that God has connected them for us.
One of the reasons we come to church seeking God is that we are seeking a community in which the love and acceptance of God can be made real to us. We come to church and we see that our salvation is worked out through divine and spiritual elements just as we are both incorporeal and embodied. Our seeking involves both the spiritual blessings of God and the embodied blessings of community.
But not only do we seek community in our search for God, but we find God in community. There’s a reason that the people have been drawn to community in their search of God. There’s a reason that Jesus went to the community that John had formed in order for God to be revealed through him. It’s because community and the spiritual revelation of God have forever been bound together.
What does this tell us about the particular community called church? We come to church, we come to this community and find that it is a peculiar community. Mainly cause y’all are peculiar people. Just kidding. It is a unique community that has a unique goal. And that is why baptism is so important.
Our baptisms are our initiation into the life of the church. It’s a sign of our acceptance by God. And it’s also a sharing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The water becomes for us a symbol for the washing away of our sin, our dying with Christ, and our rebirth into Christ’s resurrection. It is a strange ritual, but it is meant to accomplish an important and unique purpose.
In baptism we renounce our former, sinful lives that we lived prior to encountering God’s grace. We die to our sinful self. And we are reborn as new creations of God in Jesus Christ. We do this so that we can take our place within the church: a particular community with a particular calling. And that calling is to be, what Stanley Hauerwas calls, a community “capable of forming people with virtues sufficient to witness to God’s truth in the world.” Which is a high calling indeed. As members of the church we are called to be people who reflect God’s light and God’s love and God’s truth. We are called to show God’s grace to the world. We are called to be God’s witnesses, not just through our words, but through the way we live our lives. We are all called to this. We are called to do this together, in community.
But doing that requires being reformed as people. Doing that requires us being different people from those outside the community, outside the church. Doing that requires us to talk differently, live differently, love differently. And that means transformation.
What would it look like for our church to witness to the truth of God in this community? What would it mean for us to be a place that forms people to be witnesses for God in this world? What steps would we need to take to make that happen?
I think we are given guidance through the Baptismal liturgy. Those coming forward for baptism, or the parents if the one being baptized is a child, must answer a series of questions.
Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? In other words, are you ready to live an alternative life to the way the world lives? Do you think there are things in this world and things in your life that need to be rejected? Are there things we need to fight agains and work against? And can you name them? And repent of them?
Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as Lord through the Church which Christ has opened to all people of all nations and races?
Having rejected the forces of sin and evil and death, will you turn to Jesus? Will you follow him? Will you let him be Lord of your life?
According to the grace given to you, will you remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world? Will you continue to seek out community in the church in order to be formed and transformed as the type of people who can be God’s witnesses in the world? Will you seek out the means of grace? Will you continue on your journey of faith? Will you continue to seek God through seeking community?
I think being part of a loving, accepting community, I think seeing yourself as loved and accepted by God through being loved and accepted by a church-community can have a profound, transformative impact on how we live our daily lives. Community had a huge impact on the main character in Stand by Me. The main character, Gordie, was the second of two sons. His older brother passed away as a teenager and his parents took out their grief on their younger son. Gordie was reminded constantly that he was not his older brother, that he was less than his older brother, that he was a disappointment compared to his older brother.
He goes on this adventure with his friends and at the end of it he and his best friend Chris have a climactic heart to heart scene. Gordie is still processing what it was to see a dead man when he says he wishes he had died instead of his brother. He confesses to Chris that his dad wishes Gordie had died instead of his brother and that his father hates him, that he is worthless, that the gift he has, writing, is stupid. Chris tells Gordie that he wishes he was his father, that he wishes his was the voice Gordie listened to. Chris tells Gordie he has a gift, he is an incredible writer, and that he is an incredible person. Chris says, “It's like God gave you something, man, all those stories you can make up. And He said, ‘This is what we got for ya, kid. Try not to lose it’. Kids lose everything unless there's someone there to look out for them.”
The main character goes on to be a successful writer and to have a family of his own. We see him at the end of the movie finishing up the newspaper article he’s writing so that he can go to play with his son. We don’t see much of him as an adult, but we know the what his best friend said, the loving words and accepting words and encouraging words that his best friend said to him, were transformative. And allowed him to succeed in life. We all have been giving a gift by God. And all of us, kids or adults, can lose everything unless there’s someone there to look out for us. The loving words spoken to us by God in our baptism, the loving words spoken to each of us here in this community by this community, can have the same transformative impact. May you be known and be accepted and be loved by God through being known, loved, and accepted by this church.