Baptism As Resistance and Solidarity

Pastor Jeff Wells

     We are in the midst of a worship series focused on baptism – its power as a channel for God’s grace, its significance in our spiritual lives, and today its importance as an expression of resistance and solidarity. We will get to that.

     Let me begin today with interpreting the passage from the Book of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah proclaims God’s extravagant welcome of the foreigner and the one excluded because of genital difference. Let’s examine the context of this powerful passage. This is in the second called “Third Isaiah,” because scholars believe the book was composed over a long period of time and by three different authors. Chapter 56 is the very beginning of Third Isaiah and coincides historically with the return from exile in Babylon of the Israelite leadership – especially the former elite of Jerusalem. It is also the period of very the beginning of the transformation of the Israelites religion toward what we think of today as Judaism. It is a period of great hope and also great conflict and dispute. Back in their homeland, the Israelites are looking a hoped for brighter future – one that at least some in the community believe is promised by YHWH. This is captured in the oracle of God toward the end of the Book of Isaiah in which God declares:

“I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress…. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord – and their descendants as well. Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.”

But while the returning exiles and those who remained in Judea may have shared a common hope, they were in deep conflict over what the restored community should look like and on what values it should be founded. Starkly posed before them were the questions, “How shall we live?” and “To what is God calling us?”

     Some were inclined who push for a strict delineation of “God’s people” from all others, calling essentially for “ethnic purity” – even later even legislating that Jewish men must divorce and send home their foreign-born wives – as we hear strongly voiced in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah. For others, the impulse was to find a way to live as a community of faith that was both serious and disciplined yet also open to and affirming of outsiders. “Will we live by mispat and sedeqah, by justice and righteousness?” they surely asked. Will the people of God, in Isaiah’s words, “Do what is right and work for justice?”

     Isaiah answers with a forthright advocacy of inclusiveness and attention to the needs of neighbors. These, he seems to declare, must be the core principles of the new Jerusalem. Eunuchs and foreigners are representative of the many “outsiders” who must be invited, welcomed, and included – at least so long as they love and worship God and cling to the covenant. In this, Isaiah directly challenges other voices in the community of the returning exiles. These conflicts over inclusion and exclusion, over welcoming or keeping out, echo loudly in our own time.

     Five hundred years after Isaiah, Jesus found himself in a different, but somewhat parallel conflict in which the Jewish people had to choose a way forward. They were not returning from exile, but were living under the oppressive reign of a foreign power. Was the best way forward to be conservative, to accommodate to their Roman rulers and carve our breathing space in which a small elite would benefit, but most Jews would be hard-pressed just to survive? Or, was it to turn to violence resistance as advocated by the Zealots and others? Characteristically, Jesus responded mostly with “none of the above” – neither accommodation nor violence, but a fierce resistance founded on love – a love which practices justice and righteousness, which opposes all imperial powers and oppressions, which reaches out to all of the excluded, and which, at the same time, says, “Those who live by the sword will die by it” and “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” It is not surprising that Jesus referred often to the prophet Isaiah since his own teaching and preaching have so much in common with Isaiah’s own radically inclusive theological and prophetic stance.

         What does all of this have to do with baptism? This sacrament of God’s grace – treated properly – can be a powerful expression of resistance to exclusion and solidarity with the outcast.  Yet, the followers of Jesus have often and still are often caught up in same sorts of challenges and disputes as Isaiah and Jesus encountered – whether to be inclusive or exclusive; whether to build walls or to tear down every wall that separates us as human beings. The church has often perverted the sacraments of baptism and communion by making them exclusive rather than inclusive, by using them to try to create criteria to keep some people out, by seeing them as means of harsh judgement about others rather than means for God’s grace to flow into our lives. So many of us have been harmed by the ways the sacraments have been abused and use as weapons rather than as invitations to grace.

         Enter the Story of Philip and the Ethiopian official, a man who happened to be a eunuch – that is castrated. We don’t know whether he was castrated because of a congenital problem, by an accident, or intentionally and against his will, but he was. We do know that he would likely have been excluded from Israelite and Jewish worship, in accordance with the prohibition in the Book of Deuteronomy in the Hebrew Scriptures, which states: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of God.” Not only was the official who Philip encountered a eunuch, he was also a foreigner, and an official of a foreign power, at that – doubly and triply to be excluded, according to many in the Jewish community. Remember that at the time Philip was ordained a deacon, the early Christian movement was still very Jewish. But Philip was a follower of the radical teachings of Jesus and his actions in this story indicate his attitude of radical inclusion and affirmation of the outsider who loves God. We do not hear it in the passage, but after interpreting the passage from Isaiah to the official and opening his eyes to the good news about Jesus, Philip must have spoken with the stranger about baptism because the Ethiopian official said, “Look! Here is water; what is to prevent my being baptized?” Philip must have said, “Nothing at all! Let’s do it!”, because the carriage stops, they go to the water, and Philip baptizes him right then – no long preparation, no recital of vows or an affirmation of faith, just an “I desire to be baptized” from the official and “OK, Let’s go” from Philip.

         I am proposing this morning is a radical understanding of baptism as a symbol and an actual expression of resistance to exclusion of the other, of the differently-abled, of the foreigner – all of these exclusions based on misplaced fear and prejudice. On one hand, it is God who makes the invitation and offers amazing grace through baptism. On the other hand, we are God’s messengers of invitation and inclusion. In a related way, in our baptisms, we were and are called by God in our baptisms – and in our ongoing covenant relationship – to take the stand that God takes of solidarity with the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the excluded. We are called to what the prophet Isaiah and Jesus and latter-day prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. have taught us again and again – to practice radical inclusion and revolutionary love, justice and righteousness, so that baptism, is seen not as an action isolated in time or even in an individual’s life, and not as merely a bit of water in a bowl, but becomes for us a mighty communal and ever-flowing stream. So that, in the oracle of God proclaimed by the prophet Amos, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.”

         So our baptizing, the renewal of our baptismal vows, and our living out of our baptismal covenant are all intimately tied with the ways we act in the world for justice and liberation and in ministry with the oppressed. When we march next Saturday in Washington, DC and in New York City, especially in solidarity with women who continue to suffer oppression, and more broadly with all who are more deeply threatened in the new political configuration. I have been protesting and marching for my entire adult life, but not always putting value on baptism. But since I came back to God and the community of Jesus’ followers, when I march, I am acutely aware that I do so because I was called and covenant was made in my baptism.  

     Look! Here is water. If you have never been baptized, what is keeping you from it? What is keeping you from joining this powerful movement for love and justice? If you want to be baptized, speak with me or Pastor Elyse. If you are sensing God’s Spirit calling you to a renewed commitment to justice and righteousness, come forward during the time of healing prayer in a few minutes and pray about how God is working in you with one of our prayer teams. And in a couple of weeks on January 29, we will all have the opportunity to renew our baptisms and recommit ourselves to the covenant with God that was established when we were baptized.