Baptism Is Belonging

Pastor Jeff Wells

     Have you signed an online petition lately? If you are like me, your email is flooded with them. I find that I don’t have time to sign all of them, so I have to choose carefully the ones that feel most important to me. And almost as frequent as the petitions are the requests for donations. I get several of them every day. Occasionally, I respond with a one-time donation. But, for the most part, I have chosen a small number of organizations to which I give recurring donations. I have noticed a curious thing about these requests – many of the organizations for which I have signed a petition or given money or filled out a survey of my political priorities now considered me a “member.” I belong, they say, even though I don’t know anyone personally and have never talked to or even emailed anyone in the organization. So, I now belong to Credo Action, MoveOn, ColorofChange, Democracy for America, Avaaz, Rootstrikers, UltraViolet Action, and several other groups without having had any human contact or made anything other than the most tangential commitment. This “relationship” does not entail any shared memories or the possibility of authentic human relationship. It seems a strange way to think about “belonging.”

     Yet, authentic belonging isn’t superficial at all. It is intimate and messy. It is filled with the content of love, joy, anger, conflict, hurt, and forgiveness – as we experience in belonging to families or communities, at their best. If you have studied the New Testament at all, you know it is filled with stories and instruction on how to belong – especially how to live together in Christ and in Christ’s body – the church.

     The stories of Lydia and the jailer provide us with some indication of how baptism connects with belong, even though the details are cryptic. Although her story in the Book of Acts is brief, Lydia is an important woman to know about. According to Acts, she was the very first convert in Europe to The Way – which was the name for the early Jesus movement. In Lydia’s story, we have some intriguing details to speculate about. She was a trader in fine purple cloth – a luxury and status symbol at the time. Running her own business was a very unusual for a women. So she probably commanded enough power and respect to be able to function in a very male-dominated society. Likely, she was widowed or divorced and had some significant wealth. When Paul and Silas met her, Lydia was already a God worshipper. That terminology meant that she was a devotee of the God of the Jews and their religion, but had not gone through the process of converting or perhaps had not been welcomed in the synagogue. Paul found her and other women gathered by the river at a place of prayer. Who were these women? Perhaps they were other God worshippers like Lydia. Maybe they had formed a spiritual community among themselves – just women – and were seeking deeper spiritual connection and understanding together. In any case, Lydia was very open to hearing what Paul had to teach about Jesus. With description of their conversation, the story jumps abruptly to the baptism of Lydia and all of her household. Since there is no reference to her family being present, perhaps the “household” referred to was these other women praying with her. In their baptisms, Lydia and her “household” were born into a new community together in Christ. They belonged.

     After they were baptized, Lydia invited Paul and the others back to her home for extravagant hospitality. We can imagine that Lydia was an important leader in the first church in Philippi and offered gathering space, funding, and her personal connections and influence in building the community of Jesus’ first followers there.

     Lydia already had a connection to YHWH before her encounter with Paul. We don’t hear anything about the jailer’s previous spiritual life, but unlike Lydia, we are not told he was a “God worshipper” and, at the time in Philippi, as a government employee, he would likely have worshipped the Roman gods along with a local divine patron whose statues and temples inhabited every city in the empire. Yet, like Lydia, the Spirit of God opened the jailer’s mind and heart to the good news of God’s love and forgiveness and he and his household were baptized that very night.

     I have to say that Paul and Silas and the other disciples traveling with them must have been very good at sharing the truth about Jesus the Messiah and God’s offer of amazing grace through him. Did you see what happened in both instances? The newly baptized gathered together with Paul and the others in Lydia’s home and later the jailer’s home to share a meal together – a sign of their newly-born community. They belonged in Christ and in their new life together.

     Like Lydia and the jailer, we are baptized into community – into the only expression of Christ’s body on earth that God, so far, has inspired human beings to create. Our “belonging” is one of the gifts God gave us in our baptism, when we were born into this body of Christ. This is why baptism is always a communal act and always has radical communal implications. As Will Willimon has written:

“One cannot claim to be ‘in Christ’ without being in the ‘body of Christ.’
There is no solitary Christian, no way of doing the faith by a home correspondence
course in salvation. Nor can you do the faith in the cozy comfort of your living
room watching an evangelist do the faith on television.”

The belonging signified by our baptism is a family affair. A person who does not know the church, does not know Jesus the Messiah. Our presence in worship and in other activities of our community is the foundation of our faith and life.

     A few years ago, I watched a docu-drama called Romero – about the life of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 in the midst of the Salvadoran civil war. When Romero became archbishop in 1977, he was quite well-connected and friendly with the wealth families of the country’s ruling oligarchy. But when a beloved fellow priest was killed by the death squads, Romero was radicalized. He became an outspoken advocate of justice for the poor and oppressed. At one point in the film, one of Romero’s wealthy friends asks him to baptize her baby and proposes a Sunday in December. Romero responds, “Wonderful, that’s a very popular time; there will be a lot of people coming to be bap­tized.” The woman clarifies that she is asking for a private baptism. “We don’t do that,” the archbishop responds. Whereupon, the woman blurts out, “You mean you want me to baptize my baby with a bunch of Indians?” Romero had been awakened to the profound justice embodied in the sacrament and could no longer separate it from the Jesus’ message of radical love and inclusion. In the eyes of the elite, that made him a dangerous revolutionary.  

     You see, our belonging to Christ and community is not one of casual acquaintance and superficial connection – our baptismal belonging embodies the radical equality, dignity, and sacred worth of every human person. Here is how the apostle Paul explained it:

[I]f anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation:
everything old has passed away;
see, everything has become new!

So, “get rid of...anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self
with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which
is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal,
there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian,
slave and free, [male and female, immigrant and native born, transgender and
cisgender, gay and straight]; but Christ is all and in all!”

     OK, Paul didn’t write all of that last part, but the updated Word of God written on our hearts says all of that and more. We strive to live out this radical equality and mutual love in our ongoing baptismal life together.

     Now, I am not claiming our belonging together is easy. Being beloved, baptismal community is messy and takes a lot of commitment. We are all flawed human beings and all are subject to sin. We have or will make mistakes. We will hurt each other unintentionally. We will misunderstand one another. We will fail to listen carefully. We will be timid about holding one another accountable. We will hesitate to express the truth in love. Yet, our hope is that we will also continue to love each other the best way we know how, to forgive one another, and to hold dear each other’s sacred worth. And when one of us is missing, we will feel the void and feel that the body is not whole.

     One of the best parts about belonging together in this beloved community is that none of us have to hide our true self, our faults, our hurts, our questions, opinions, doubts, and fears. Here you can belong – really belong – just as you are.