Day 252: Matthew 28:19-20 – Part 4

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the fourth of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

After my husband John retired from urban ministry in Chicago we moved out to the far suburbs to start a new life.  It was a great experience bouncing around in search of a new church home.  All of it was highly instructive.

One of the churches we attended for a while was Assembly of God.  Like most Assembly churches they had a really great band.  Although Assembly churches are supposed to emphasize the ministries of the Holy Spirit, this one was really an evangelical church with an  emphasis  on entry-level Christian teaching.

While we were there the pastor came up with what he believed was a divinely-inspired mission statement for the church:

At (this church) we exist to glorify God by helping people become Saved, Solid, Serving and Sent.

  • Saved – Entering into a relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ.
  • Solid – Growing and maturing in that relationship.
  • Serving – Finding one’s specific purpose and calling.
  • Sent – Going out to help others do the same.

Saved, Solid, Serving, Sent.  The pastor believed that this was God’s plan for discipleship.  He even had giant banners with these four words made for the sanctuary so we could all stare at them every week.

Another bit of décor in this church was its big “Saved/Unsaved” board.  People were invited to put the names of all their unsaved friends and relatives on the bottom (in the hellish part of the board).  The congregation was encouraged to pray for the people posted on the hell part of the board talk and somehow talk them into making a confession of faith so that their name could be moved, with great fanfare, to the upper half of the board where heaven was.

The leadership group never put my husband and me on the unsaved part, but I think they had their doubts about us.  Actually they were a pretty suspicious bunch.  I think they all had doubts about each other.  Like the old saying says, “All the world’s strange save thee and me, and even thou art a little strange.”

Anyhow that’s the way it was around there.  And they had no social justice ministries because they believe that the only thing that was important was getting people saved, so that’s where they put all their time and energy.  Every now and then they would try to do something for people, but they always ended up harassing them about whether or not they had been born again because that was their prime directive.  They didn’t know any better, or if they did it had been brainwashed out of them.

The music was really, really good and there was a nice seniors group, but eventually it couldn’t compensate for the ”strangeness” of it all so we left and went to another church.  Such a good praise band.  What a pity.

Anyway, as I contemplated their plan for discipleship, that “Saved, Solid, Serving, and Sent” business, I had a revelation.  Perhaps God did give these words to the pastor, but I think he got it mixed up.  I think he got it backwards.

 

Here’s the way I see it relative to the teachings of Jesus:

  • You are “Sent” out into the world every day, whether or not you are saved.  That’s a given.  You are part of the world and you interact with people every day.
  • As we go out about our business, Jesus commands us to “Serve” others.  He commands his followers to take care of those in need, encourage others, share our resources, love our enemies, and do all of the stuff in the Sermon on the Mount.
  • Then, when we start doing that for long enough, we start to get “Solid.” We start to get a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God is all about and get born again of the Spirit.  We start to live it instead of just talking about it.  Or waiting around for it.
  • And then, having done all we can do, we assume that “Saved” will take care of itself when the time comes.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to go out and sign up people to be on the Jesus team.  He wanted them to do what he did.  He wanted them to go out empowered and energized, carrying on his ministry and mission to teach (about the proper application of the Law of Moses), preach (about the Kingdom of God) and heal (everyone who needs it).  That’s what he did:

Jesus went all over Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the Good News about the Kingdom, and healing people who had all kinds of disease and sickness. (Matthew 4:23).

He never asked anyone to make a confession or faith.  He never signed anyone up to go to church.  He just commanded them to love.  We need to keep that in mind as we go out – Sent, Serving, Solid, and Saved.

What does this scripture say to you?

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Day 250: Matthew 28:18-20 – Part 2

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the second of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

After Jesus is crucified he returns and gives his disciples some final instructions.  He tells them to go and “disciple” people by baptizing and teaching them.  Today I’m going to look at his first instruction – to baptize people.

The first words that Jesus speaks in the Book of Matthew are at the time of his baptism.  Jesus began his ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist.  John the Baptist was an outspoken prophet called for people to repent (change their ways) because the Kingdom of God was near.   He also called for people to be baptized as a sign of their intent to reform their lives.   John’s baptism, which involved the immersion of the physical body in water, was a symbol of the cleansing of the inner being in preparation for a fresh start.  Baptism at that time was about leaving the past behind, with all of its baggage, and starting a new life of obedience to God.  I already wrote quite a bit about John the Baptist and the practice of baptism on Day 103.

When you look at both this passage and the ministry of John the Baptist, it seems like maybe baptism is another practice that has been corrupted over the years by Christendom.

First, this scripture tells us that Jesus wanted his followers to baptize people.  I want to be a follower of Jesus, but how many people have I baptized?  None, of course, because I am not a pastor. I am not allowed to baptize people.  Only authorized pastors and priests are allowed to baptize people. The church prohibits me from doing what Jesus said I should do.  Back in John the Baptist day you were baptized into the Kingdom of God.  Today you get baptized into “the church”.  Baptism has become a church initiation rite and ordained clergy are the gatekeepers to the church.  Of course Jesus wasn’t big on religious gatekeepers. (See Day 198).  He was a “power to the people” kind of guy.  And anyone can baptize. It’s not like it requires any special skill to dunk somebody and say the words.

Second, because baptism is about being accepted into the church, it’s not really a symbol of repentance anymore.  Most denominations baptize you as an infant so you really don’t have much to repent about at that point in your life.  Further, you are sent into the world with no recollection of your baptism.  Some, like the Baptists, wait until you are about 12 or so.  In either case people are baptized before puberty and young adulthood were all of the real problems begin.  You are baptized in advance of your most sinful years.

Third, many adults think they are not “good enough” to come to church.  They feel ashamed.  They feel like the people in the church are all holy and they are too much of a hot mess to step into the building. Maybe if all of us ordinary disciples were allowed to get out there baptize people they would come to church, because baptism washes away all that shame.  The current situation is a vicious cycle.  People are too ashamed to come to church, but they have to come to church and (probably) have to be quizzed by a scary clergy-person before they can get cleansed. It’s kind of a roadblock.  It would be better if they could be baptized by someone who they know and trust.

And then, of course, there is the issue of re-baptism for all those people who, like me, screw up and need another baptism to wipe the slate clean because they were baptized as infants and have no recollection whatsoever of the first one.  And re-baptism is, of course, forbidden.  I already told the story about how I was re-baptized on Day 233.  My husband, who is a pastor, refused to do it but one day everything came together and we were both re-baptized when we were on vacation.

Today’s blog includes my husband John Hudson’s current thoughts on the issue of re-baptism. He’s a retired Methodist pastor who tried for years to convince me that I didn’t need to be re-baptized (to no avail).

2002_Rebaptism_John_3

I read Susan’s blog about being baptized as an adult. Yes, I did tell her that the policy was that if you were baptized as a baby that was it. So it was a time until by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit not only Susan but I received baptism as an adult. For me, now that I think of it, although I appreciate the blessing of baptism as a baby that happened by the act of my parents, it is clear that for me that was not an experiential event.  Even if it was said in a liturgy, “Remember your baptism” at a service, I did not have any conscious remembrance of that event. While at Granville UMC I presided over adult baptisms in Lake Michigan and there is quite a difference in the feel and experience. The baptized adult knows he or she has been baptized and can remember his or her baptism.

2002_Rebaptism_John_2

In the history of the early church adult baptism was the norm. Infant baptism came later as a way of ushering the new born into the community of the church without allowing free will and experience to operate. On top of that the story was that the newborn would go to hell if something did happen in those first months and years in times when child mortality rates were very high. It all became part of the institution and was carried on without question until the Radical Reformation and the Anabaptists, stood for adult baptism even for those who had been baptized as infants. Others who followed this tradition include the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Christian Church (the Disciples of Christ). There may be others as well.

2002_Rebaptism_John_1I no longer pastor a church but have always baptized infants as well as adults. It is a time of blessing and I pray that all baptisms lead to a full experience. As I have found out, there is not a sufficient recognition of that full experience, if and when it happens. I doubt that churches that promote infant baptism will change, but I think anyone who feels the need to be newly baptized including by immersion needs to have that option. Just for further thought, here are the words of Karl Barth, one of the great Reformed theologians of the 20th century on this subject:

“The real reason for the persistent adherence to infant baptism is quite simply the fact that without it the church would suddenly be in a remarkably embarrassing position. Every individual would then have to decide whether he wanted to be a Christian. But how many Christians would there be in that case? The whole concept of a national church (or national religion) would be shaken. That must not happen; and so one proposes argument upon argument for infant baptism and yet cannot speak convincingly because fundamentally he has a bad conscience. The introduction of adult baptism in itself would of course not reform the church which needs reforming. The adherence to infant baptism is only one — a very important one — of many symptoms that the church is not alive and bold, that it is afraid to walk on the water like Peter to meet the Lord, that it therefore does not seek a sure foundation but only deceptive props.”

As you can see, my husband’s opinion about baptism continues to evolve.  I think the entire church needs to take another look at this.  You see, the problem is that we don’t always live happily ever after, even after we “give our lives to Jesus”.  Things go wrong and sometimes we need a fresh start.  Sometimes more than once.  I remember in that movie “The Apostle” the Robert Duvall character needs to start over so he re-baptizes himself in a lake.  I’ve felt like that.  When everything falls out from under you and you are ready to begin again, re-baptism seems appropriate.  Whenever you really need to turn things around or initiate a new life phase.  Like when you start a new ministry, or are preparing for marriage, or when you emerge from a period of grieving, or when you become an empty nester, or when you give up an addiction, or when you turn 70 or 50 or even 30, or when you retire, or when you move to a new city, or when you’ve had a revelatory spiritual experience or something.  It seems like there could be more than one of these turning points in one’s life.

My current pastor works around this by saying that you should remember your baptism every time you take a shower, or every time you take a bath.  Every time you go into the water it can be a sign of a new life.  Just like Robert Duvall you can emerge from your daily shower renewed and ready for a fresh start.

Nevertheless I think there is a missed opportunity here for the Kingdom of God.  If Jesus says we should baptize, I think we should all be able to do it.  He never imposes any limitations.  The Bible doesn’t limit the number of baptisms.  There’s no shortage of water.  And when it comes to the philosophy of Jesus, he says we must forgive seventy times seven times.  I think he would probably say we should be allowed to get that many baptisms if that’s what it takes to keep us on track.  Seventy time seven baptisms.  And why would God object to re-baptism?  There’s no limit to God’s grace and mercy and the number of fresh starts that he is willing to give us.  So why do we set limits where God does not?

What does this scripture say to you?

Day 249: Matthew 28:18-20 – Part 1

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my disciples: baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.

[This is the first of four reflections on this scripture where Jesus gives his disciples their final instructions before he ascends into heaven.]

Jesus has died, and now he has been resurrected.  He predicted several times that he would rise from the dead and now it has happened.  His prophecy was correct.  Amen to that.  It must have been so very hard for the disciples.  The crucifixion was a terrible traumatic experience.  Sometimes in the “fog of war” it’s hard to separate the good guys from the bad, because people who push for social justice are usually not well received.   Very often the people who are the most hated in their own time turn out to be the biggest heroes from the perspective of history.  Like Abraham Lincoln, for instance.  Or Dr. King. Or Joan of Arc.  Or thousands of others who were misjudged by their contemporaries.

Jesus tells his disciples that he has been given “all authority” in both heaven and earth.  That’s a lot of power.  I don’t know what that means, but it’s certainly a statement of validates his ministry and his teachings.  It says, “All’s well that ends well.”  It’s also a big, fat, “I told you so.”  The very fact that he is speaking to them is a sign that there are mysteries that we still don’t understand.  It’s also proof that you can’t keep a good man down.  This time mankind was unable to silence God’s truth by killing the messenger.  The truth will out.

So, having been given all authority in both earth and heaven, what does Jesus do with it?  He gives it away, of course!  He doesn’t want them to sit around and reminisce about the good old days when Jesus was around.  He doesn’t want them to passively wait for him to come back one more time to rescue them.  He takes the authority he has been given and passes it on to his disciples by asking them to carry on his work.  This is often referred to as the “Great Commission.”

Does Jesus demand that his disciples “believe in him” so that they can “receive eternal life” and “be saved”?  No, has asks them to GO.  He wants them to DO.  And what is it he wants them to do?  This scripture says that Jesus wants them to go out and “make disciples.”  It’s interesting that the Greek word here is “mathéteuó” which is not a noun.  It’s a verb.  He is really asking them to “disciple” all of the people.  This, to me, is very different than “making disciples.”

I think we Christians have a lot of trouble with that phrase “make disciples”.  I’ve been to churches where they seem to interpret that as, “force them to be disciples, using any means necessary.”  These are the people who hound you about going to their church or making a confession of faith and threaten you with hell if you don’t comply.  They are the people who treat the church like a business and use high pressure sales tactics to get you to join up and commit your time and money toward the cause of reeling in more people.  They are the people who blithely dismiss anyone who is not in their own church as “lost”, all the while justifying their selfish, immoral, greedy, secularized lifestyles as acceptable because they are “saved.”  They are the people who believe the ends justify the means.  Their goal is numbers.  Butts in the seats, dollars in the church coffers, and notches “for Christ” on the collective belt of church leadership.

This is not something peculiar to our own day and age.  Conversion by coercion has been going on for a long time.  On Day 99 I discussed how Christianity spread throughout Europe and beyond largely as a result of conquest and domination. Examples are:

  • Romans used forced conversion after Christianity became the sole legal religion in the Roman Empire in 392.
  • Charlemagne forced the Germanic Saxons to become Roman Catholics in the late 700s.
  • In the 1300s Lithuanians were targeted and converted by the Roman Catholics.
  • Both Jews and Muslims were forced to become Roman Catholics during the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s.
  • The Portuguese tortured and oppressed the Hindus in Goa, India to convert to Catholicism in the 16th and 17th centuries, destroying their temples and sacred books.  Resistance was punished with torture and imprisonment.
  • In the 1900s US Christians separated Native American children from their parents and forced them to adopt European-American culture and religion.

I don’t believe this kind of domination and coercion is what Jesus had in mind.  He never forced anybody to do anything.  He was smart enough to know that it never works.  You can never force people to do something they don’t want to do.  You can’t make them love God.  You can’t make them love each other.  You may be able to force them to say it, but you can’t make them to do it.  You can’t “make disciples.”

Conversely, what, does it look like to “disciple” people?  Jesus says that we act this out in two ways – baptizing and instructing them to do what Jesus said to do.  Those things will be the subject of the next couple of blog entries, so that’s it for today.  Check back tomorrow.

What does this scripture say to you?