When I meet with parents to discuss the baptism of their child, I do my best to stress the commitment this entails. Yes, baptism is God’s free gift, our adoption into the body of Christ. It is God restoring us in God’s image, making us children of God.
But the adoption into the body of Christ also gives us a new family, the church. This is important not only for people like me who come from a dysfunctional family but it is important for all of us, for this community we call the church becomes as important as our biological family, and even includes annoying uncles and aunts (or nephews and nieces) which we are to love anyway. If the church is our family, then gathering for worship is not a matter of choice, is not up to how we feel on any given day, or subject to what other important things may come up, but it is something we do because we belong together.
This used to be harder to do in times past.
You may have expected me to say that it used to be easier. And in some ways it was, because we shared a common culture and there was nothing else one could do on a Sunday morning. But that actually meant that we did not have to think very hard about what it meant to be Christian, what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Now, in the age of Trump, in Western democracies that are marked by polarized debates, where we are no longer certain about what holds us together as a society, other than the market economy, it has become easier to gather on Sunday mornings, for it is here that we remember who God made us, and who God calls us to be.
And so, when I met with parents, I would remind them that they were making serious promises that were meant to be kept. I would tell them that baptism was not some ritual to appease an angry God, nor was it magic, but that it was gift and call. When older language calls baptism Christening it seems to assume that she who is baptized is to live as one.
Yet, it is a hard sell. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. There are the good intentions and then there are horse-riding lessons, and soccer, and dance classes. It’s a different world now. But that does not mean that knowing what it means to be Christian is any less important. The opposite is true, it is more important so that our lives will be informed by the Gospel and we would let our light shine.
Of course, all the church can do is ask. None of us always do what we say, nor do we know how we will judge future conflicts. I know what I want to do tomorrow but I do not know what I will do tomorrow.
And so I will admit that I have “lost” as many of these “battles” as any pastor has, and I particularly think of a young girl whose mother had figured out who she was going to be in confirmation with when she was three who now dances on Sunday mornings.
Everyone needs to make their own choices and we can’t make them for them. But I wonder how this young girl will learn to know that she is infinitely loved by God (and that all people are, even our enemies), whether she lives up to her parents’ or anyone else’ expectations or not. I wonder how she will learn the stories that inform the life of the church. I wonder what she will base her ethical judgments on and how she will be able to resist the consumer perspective that the world is about me.
It’s not easy raising kids, it’s learning by doing, but our children won’t learn to follow Jesus if they don’t have a community in which they can practise and that can show them. Of course, the same is true for all of us.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is the pastor of House of All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado. In an interview at the Wild Goose Festival a year ago or so, she said that in their home, she and her husband did not push a lot of personal piety, it was hard enough for their kids to be pastor’s kids, or something like that.
I could relate to that when I heard it because we too have been trying to maintain the line between “this is who we are” and allowing our children to think critically. We wanted our children to know that they are loved by God and church but we also knew that coercion is counter-productive.
And those of us who have seen our children grow up wonder whether we have done enough, wonder whether we have done right. Obviously, this question is not about our kids, so you don’t have to quiz them, but it is about us, perhaps about me.
In light of my identification with Nadia Bolz-Weber’s approach, I have wondered whether our children know that “He’s got the whole world in his hands,” especially when we do not. I wonder if they can fall back on God’s mercy when they come to a point where they see that things are not in their hands, not under their control. For the people who first sung this song were people who were not in control but who in the midst of their suffering were able to affirm that their oppressors were not in control either, but that God was.
And that is where all of this connects with our readings. We have a man who is ill and his two sisters who call for Jesus. Lazarus is seriously ill and he dies before Jesus arrives. The assumption is that they called Jesus to heal their brother, yet maybe they had wanted them to have a chance to say good-bye to each other.
The question as Jesus arrives is what this all means. Is this a time for general kinds of confessions of faith, as we hear Martha say, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”?
Or is there more at play?
There is no doubt that John told us about Jesus’ love for Lazarus intentionally, for it is his love that makes all he difference.
It is his love that makes him come to Judea, even though his life is under threat. It is his love that makes him grieve, for had he not loved Lazarus, he would not have grieved. It is his love that transcends death. It is the love he shares with the Father and it is the love that makes them one. This is the love that makes Jesus not only come to Bethany but come to Jerusalem and to Calvary, that love that allows him to surrender so that the world may live. It is the love that raises the dead and that allows us to be in him as he is in us, as Jesus will say a little later:
“On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” (14:20)
“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23)
The scene here is similar to the scene in John 9 that we read last week. Human need is not a sign of sin but an opportunity for God to redeem.
Mary and Martha exemplify the faith for us in that they not only profess Jesus as Lord, but because they trust Jesus despite being in the midst of the experience of death. In the midst of death they know that he is the resurrection and the life.
In 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul exhorts us not to grieve as others who have no hope. What Paul is saying is that may we grieve as those who have hope.
That is what it means to have faith. May this be so for our children and may this be so for us.