Baptism & its Rivals

When I was a kid I knew someone who liked to give away watches. The watches came from the then notorious Canal Street in NYC and they were fake Tag Heurs. The real Tag watches are expensive and run up to thousands of dollars. The fake Tag watches were still watches, they looked like Tag watches, they still told the time and gave the date but they weren’t made by Tag. So the quality was not high and after some time they would scuff and break down. And this type of counterfeiting was, and is, still big business because its cheaper to look like you’re wearing a luxury brand item than to actually wear a luxury brand item. Rival watches to counter the genuine article. This came into my mind this week particularly after the rioting in DC. 

Let’s come right out and say it, this act was wrong, this act was heinous, and violent rioting is inexcusable. This right wing version of something that’s been happening all year across various US cities by the left cannot and should not be excused nor should those who organized it and participated be spared from the consequences of their actions, not even the president. I feel like as a nation the lack of person to person communication and the lockdowns and protests against the lockdowns have exacerbated problems that would have taken years to come to the surface normally. The ongoing dehumanization of each other spurred on by the various media outlets and political factions have weighed heavy on my heart this year, and I confess to you brothers and sisters that has made me a bit fearful of what’s to come and how we should as a church should function. Today will serve as the intro into a new series called “The Church Is/Is Not” and hopefully we can navigate some of these issues together. 

II. John’s Disciples

In the reading from Acts we get a story of St. Paul in Ephesus and his encounter with the disciples of St. John the Baptizer. Now he has been dead for a long time at this point so it is interesting to see that his followers had spread as far as Ephesus, but its not surprising given John’s mission in preparing for the coming of Christ was preaching repentance and baptizing those who sought it. Jews from the Diaspora would have been in the area at times so it makes sense he had some followers who may have left Judea before the ministry and death/resurrection of Christ. St. Paul comes across them and asks them directly “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” They looked at each other quizzically, and were like, “Uhhhh what’s the Holy Spirit?” He finds out they were baptized by John linking John’s baptism with John’s own words about his mission to testify to Jesus. Now what happened? They got baptized again, because there’s a difference between the baptism of John and Jesus and when St. Paul lays his hands on them, something we still do to this day, they received the Holy Spirit. This is evidenced by their speaking in tongues, languages, they did not know. When we read the NT we see this a few times and you may have family members who think this is an experience that all Christians should have. But speaking in tongues is speaking in languages, its not a personal private prayer language God gives us (sorry to my Pentecostal friends). So why this experience? Because it links these Jewish believers to the experience of the Apostles in the Upper Room and those they have laid hands on. It’s to show it’s the same Holy Spirit that unites them.

Now I am going to stretch this story a bit to make a point that ties in with what I said in my introduction. Let’s do a thought experiment: What if the followers of John said to St. Paul, “Thanks but no thanks. We don’t believe that.” What if they refused his message thinking their previous experience was enough? What if, when confronted by the truth they chose to serve something else? What if their baptism into John, although good kept them from converting to Christ? And keep in mind John’s mission and message was holy and divinely inspired but it pointed to someone else, someone who’s shoes John was not worthy of tying. It was a good message, it was something they could live by but it wasn’t complete. There was something else just beyond that they didn’t even know about. 

III. Right and Left

A. The Right

Over the past few years we have seen the increase of virulent conspiracy theories, intolerance,  and paranoia. This is present on both the left and on the right. The right wing has been baptized into InfoWars, until media companies dumped them, and now has seen the rise and fall of white nationalism as well as the rise of QAnon. QAnon is a group that believes that a ring of Satan worship child molesters is trying to take over the world and the only person fighting them is the President. I have seen this type of thing put out there by extreme right-wing pastors, inculcating this into their church culture. Add to that the rhetoric of stolen elections and calling on people to rise up and you have the perfect storm as reflected in what happened this week at the Capitol building.

B. The Left

The left has fallen sway, baptized into to what’s been called critical theory which Lindsay writes, ”Begins with their conclusion—their own assumptions about power dynamics in society, how those are problematic, and the need for their disruption or dismantling—and then seeks to find ways to read them into various aspects of society.” So you see this reflected in race: all white people are racists (redefining what racism actually is to fit their conclusions). So everything is about power and oppression and trying to”fix” it all by trying to reinterpret everything though things like postcolonial studies, queer theory, gender studies, race theory, and sexuality studies. Add to this the awful murder of George Floyd and other African-Americans over the years created the perfect storm as non violent protests became hijacked by agitators spilling out into violence as reflected by the rioting in cities across the US this year. This shows up as well in churches on the left, all of the things I have mentioned have been applied to Christian theology to such an extent that once that’s done all that’s left is a neutered Jesus who maybe came to earth, if he’s even divine at all, to teaches how to be inclusive. Both have been baptized into deeply different ideologies and both are wrong.

IV. Rival Baptisms

I use the word baptism here on purpose. For us as Christians we have been baptized into Christ and have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. We have received this gift setting us apart from the world. Baptism is our actual participation in death and resurrection of Jesus Christ where God’s grace is given and our sins well and truly are cleansed. St. Paul calls this “putting on Christ.” But we have rival baptisms that pull at us, trying to lead us away. And these baptisms are our participation in something other than Christ and his church.

1. Nationalism

We have a myth that America is a Christian country. I don’t remember a pastor or priest flying over it and dowsing it with water or turning rain into holy water as it fell. American had devout Christians as part of its founding, this is true but the foundations of our government is based on the political philosophy borne from the movement called the “Enlightenment” (which is itself a bogus concept). And many of our founders do mention God but many were essentially Deists not Christians. I mention this because one rival baptism that tempts is the baptism into nationalism and extreme patriotism. This was on display this week as commentators and politicians used the words normally utilized by the church when they said the Capitol building is a sacred space, the work there being hallowed work, even using words like sacred in connection with voting rights. Now the Capitol is important and the work Congress does is important, however it is no sacred and it is not hallowed, and it is not holy. Nor is the work done in there sacred or holy. This is a hard pill to swallow because we’ve wrapped up the church, the font, and the table with American flags. Not only nationalism ,but the political process tempts us away as a rival baptism because in the extreme it offers both sides methods to transform human relationships through force of law. Thats tempting for anyone but I see it as a rival baptism that primarily influences the political right. 

2. Wokery

A rival baptism that infuences the political left is the woke movement. This has long and deep ties that would take too long to deal with in a short sermon but essentially what was politically correct has morphed into the what we call being woke. And we see this played out not only in culture and government but also in businesses, particularly large technology companies. Remember what I said about critical theory a few minutes ago? Being woke is putting those theories into practice by trying to deconstruct everything to fit a preconceived idea about power relationship based on Marxism, which is a reprehensible system. This can be done through the academy and schools (which is happening), through violent agitation, and through selectively interpreting the complex variables that make up human behavior and relationships into being all about power dynamics. 

V. The Turn

All of these rival baptisms are so tempting because they give non-religious and religious people a way of framing the world. A way of telling them what is wrong with the world. A way of telling them what is wrong with humanity. A way of telling them what exactly needs to be done and then a way of getting them to work for getting those aims accomplished. That is very tempting especially since we have fallen prey to the idea that truth is subjective. These rivals turn good Christians away from what truly matters, these rival baptisms provide a poor substitute, these rival baptisms over promise and always under deliver. And the sad thing is both sides have something important to show: patriotism, loving ones country, can be a good thing and a positive way one can participate in society. And some of the observations of the woke aren’t all wrong. Structural racism has existed in our past and still exists to some degree even though we’ve become more aware of it and have attempted to repair the damage its caused. There are folk on the margins who have been overlooked and discriminated against, but to embrace both of those worldview to the extreme we’ve seen on display baptizes into something that scripture utterly forbids: idolatry.

Today we celebrate the baptism of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His entrance into the waters sanctified all waters for those who would follow him. We follow Christ not nationalism, and certainly not wokery. We resist the lure and temptations of those baptisms because all they can offer us is ongoing struggle and ultimately violence. As Christians we cannot embrace them and we cannot tolerate them because Christ calls us to live sanctified and holy, set apart from the world. As our sins are washed in the waters we are then to turn all of our allegiances, our country, our identity, our desires, our sexuality, our material goods, everything over to Christ because it is only in Christ that true and abundant and eternal life is found. Rival baptisms provide us with alternate visions of the world. The problem is those alternate visions purport themselves to be the true vision. But the true vision of the world is not found in worldviews based on secularism. The true vision of the world is born in and through and from the Christian faith. It is the vision of the world is viewed through the lens of Christ that we are offered what the world is supposed to be for the world should be and what the world will ultimately become. The hard part for us as Christians is that were waiting for the world to become what it supposed to. There is a sense were we are supposed to work for the good of the world but we also temper that with the realization that the world is not going to become everything it’s supposed to be everything that God intends for it to be until the return of our Lord. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

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