Saturday, January 7, 2017

Did They Baptize the Wrong People?

Acts 10:34-48
Matthew 3:13-17
January 7, 2017
Baptism of the Lord
William G. Carter

Down in Charlotte, North Carolina, there’s a cartoonist by the name of Doug Marlette. He draws a cartoon strip called “Kudzu,” and it features the Reverend Will B. Dunn, a Southern preacher with a black porkpie hat.

One day, Rev. Dunn is answering his mail. A woman writes, “Rev. Dunn, how do you feel about pond scum in the baptismal pool?”

The preacher thinks for a minute, and writes back. “Honey, in our church, we will baptize just about anybody.”

Now I know that some of us probably have a higher opinion of yourselves. But I also remember what it says in the New Testament. Paul writes to one of his churches and says, “Remember who you are, brothers and sisters: not many of you are very bright, not many of you are very strong, not many of you are well connected. But God chooses what is ridiculous in the world to shame the wise.”[1] In other words, welcome to the church.

This is the place where God always seems to choose the wrong people. Just to prove the point, God makes sure that some of the wrong people get baptized.

That’s what is going on in that story from the book of Acts. Peter was quite content to let the church be a Jewish institution. Jesus was Jewish. All the first disciples were Jewish. They kept the Passover. They celebrated the commandments. They ate the Kosher food.

One day the Holy Spirit came down upon a large group of Jews. Peter was so full of the Spirit that he began to preach. “Listen,” he said, “we’re not drunk with wine; we’re intoxicated with the Holy Spirit. It’s just like the prophet said: God will pour out his Spirit upon all flesh. Everybody who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

That’s what Peter said: the Spirit upon all flesh, everybody who calls on the name… He did say “everybody.”

But then Peter got an invitation to preach to some Gentiles, and he didn’t want to go. He argued with God about it, and God said, “Listen; argue all you want, but even now there are three Italians downstairs, knocking on your door.”

So Peter goes, and he preaches, and you heard what happens: God gives those Italian Gentiles the Holy Spirit. They start singing and prophesying and praising the Lord. Peter and his bunch are astonished. Finally he says, “I guess we’d better baptize them.”

And that is how pasta ended up on the table of church potluck suppers.

We can be light-hearted about this: Peter preaches, the Spirit comes, the Gentiles get included, the Jews eat spaghetti. But don’t forget, this was church, where everybody has an opinion and no good deed goes unpunished. Pretty soon, everybody back in Jerusalem is criticizing Peter. They said, “Peter, you baptized the wrong people.”  

That can be a problem. You know that can be a problem.

On the next snow day that comes along, I’ve already set aside a couple of favorite movies to watch. At the top of the stack is “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” the wild tale of three hoodlums who escape from a prison farm in 1930’s Mississippi.  They break free from the chain gang and head out to the country.

In one scene, they find themselves by a river where a Baptist preacher is baptizing a long line of pilgrims in white. One of the men, the leader, makes fun of the ritual. He’s so busy making fun of the scene that he doesn’t realize that one of his buddies has broken rank, has splashed up to the preacher, and gets himself dunked.

“Well, I’ll be,” says the third man. “Delmar has gone and gotten himself saved.”

Delmar comes out of the water. He says, “That’s it, boys. The preacher has washed away all of my sins. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out. Heaven is my everlasting reward. … The preacher said all my sins (are) washed away, including that Piggly-Wiggly that I knocked over in Yazoo.”

The leader of the gang says, “I thought you said you (was) innocent of those charges.”

“Well, I was lyin’,” said Delmar, “and the preacher said that sin’s been washed away, too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. Come on in, boys. The water is fine.” With that, the third criminal hands over his hat to the leader, and splashes over to the preacher to get himself dunked too. When the two of them come out, they’ve been redeemed.

The very next day, all three of them hitch a ride with Baby Face Nelson. They end up robbing a bank. Apparently the wrong people got baptized.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a parable of my spiritual life. God washes us clean in baptism, gathering us with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and joining us to Christ’s work of redemption. Next thing I know, I’m acting as if God baptized the wrong person.
Back to the story. Certainly some of those Gentiles that Peter baptized were good people. And some of those religious people who complained about it were cranky, miserable, and hard to be around. That’s one of the mysteries, too, isn’t it? God has to work with the people God chooses. God has to work with us.

We believe baptism is the starting point. It doesn’t matter when the baptism took place, if we were a little bitty baby fresh from the mother’s womb, or if we were growing up, fresh from the womb of God’s Spirit. What matter is that there is a claim on our lives. God says, “You belong to me, and I have work for you to do.”

That’s where it starts. And sure, by the end of every day, we may have fallen short of God’s dreams for us. Or at least it looks that way. As a wise person once said, “God never gets to work with any perfect people. God has to work in spite of some people who think they are perfect, and God also has to work with the rest of us.”

            Remember Abraham and Sarah? They said they were too old.
            Remember Jeremiah the prophet? He said he was too young.
            Remember Moses? He murdered a man.
            Remember King David? He had a wandering eye.
            Remember Elisha the prophet? He had a bad temper.
            Remember the apostle Paul? He was in an out of jail.
            In fact, remember Jesus? He was condemned as a criminal.

When we baptize people and send them out to serve God in the world, we recognize that God always has to work with the people in front of him. There aren’t going to be any substitutes sent from headquarters. This is as good as it gets. If the world is going to get saved, if the hungry are going to be fed, if mercy is going to win over meanness, it’s going to happen only through everyday people who serve the best they can, even if they serve in incomplete ways. But it’s going to happen, because it is God’s mission to save the world.

There is always been a connection between God’s claim on us in baptism and our call to do God’s work in the world. There can be no ministry without a baptism. Baptism means we belong to God, and it’s out of that prior love that we can live for God and serve him.

At the same time, there is no baptism without a ministry. If we belong to God, there is always something for us to do. The work of the Gospel is too important to leave to the so-called experts.

The only people God has to use are imperfect people, unfinished people, flawed people, even  people who sometimes get it wrong. And if people like these ever get anything done for God’s sake, it’s because they know the work of the Gospel is not about personal perfection. It’s about service beyond self-centeredness. It’s less about trimming our moral fingernails, and more about get our hands dirty.
The work of the Lord is best done by imperfect people who know that they are wanted by God and needed by the world. They can do extraordinary things in the name of an extraordinary God.

Of all the wrong people to ever be baptized, the most significant is Jesus himself. He is all wrong, but for some different reasons. He is not pond scum, although he lives among people who get dirty and work with their hands. He is not between robbing a Piggly Wiggly and robbing a bank; no, if anything, you would never think he was the type to associate with sinners.

Even John the Baptist looked him straight in face and said, “Oh no, not you!” And Jesus said, “Yes, me too.”

“But this is all wrong,” said John. “You should be baptizing me. You should be bringing down fire from heaven to purge the world of evil. You should be splitting the grain from the stalk. You should be chopping down the overgrown tree. But you should not be coming to be baptized. It’s all wrong.”

And Jesus says, “I have come to finish off righteousness.” You know what that means? It means he has come to complete that old idea that we have to be good in order to be loved. It means he has come to flesh out what it means to live in complete unity with God.

Jesus said, “I’m here to be baptized, so I can do what God has given me to do.”

It didn’t make any human sense for Jesus to get baptized – except he put all of that aside and submitted himself to the preacher in the river. And when he stood again, his hair soaked with the Jordan River, he started the good work of saving the world. And he began by calling all the wrong people to himself and giving them something to do. We are here because he has called us.

Today we add one more person to those who are baptized. It’s not for you or me to say if we are baptizing the right person or the wrong person. That’s God’s business. I do know that she comes on behalf of those who are willing and ready to serve Jesus Christ, to offer a hand up to the downtrodden and the dispirited, to offer their time and talents for the greater good. And that is good enough for any of us.

According to our Bible, that’s good enough for God.

Do you know that if you say, “Here I am, Lord; send me,” God will never turn you away? Never. There’s too much love to show to a hungry, needy world. And somebody has to do it.

So let’s stay wet and do this together.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

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