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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Epiphany 1 – Year B

Many of you probably have heard the story about the famous astronomy professor who was teaching his class how gravity holds the planet Earth in outer space, as a kind of invisible and universal grounding force.

A little old lady raised her hand and commented that she believed that the earth rested on the back of a giant turtle. The professor asked her, “madame, if that is the case, then what holds the turtle?” To which she replied, “you’re a smart young man, but you can’t fool me—it’s turtles all the way down.”

Reminds me of a funny debate which happened at my summer camp 19 years ago—between the two smartest kids there. The topic of the debate, which was carried out over camp fires and in the camp newspaper, was: “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

Now these kids were pretty bright, real egg-heads. I’m sure they wrote in cursive in the first-grade, knew algebra by the fifth grade, and played chess with timing clocks for fun. You know. Smart kids. So, in this debate, they were pretty thorough. They started with a purely logical Aristotelian approach, which any sensible person would, and they deduced, as Thomas Aquinas had before them, that this was a debate over first causes. While the first cause of the chicken was clearly the egg, the first cause of the egg was necessarily the chicken. This … got them nowhere.

So they took a look at the fundamentalist argument – stipulating that on the sixth day, when God commanded that there be cattle and birds and all manner of creeping things, God also made chickens from scratch, from his special no-egg recipe. But neither of them was a fundamentalist, and they rejected this argument as contrary to scientific evidence.

So the boys moved onto the evolutionary approach. They argued whether over the course of eons, there had arisen distinctive genetic mutations in countless generations of proto-poultry. As such, the first “true chicken” was hatched from an egg which had been laid by a hen who was herself not a “true chicken.”

But even this got them no further along. Because this required them to debate the question, “what specifically constitutes a chicken?” And there they could not agree on the basic essence of chicken-ness. They could not agree to that old question, “is what I call a chicken exactly the same as what you call a chicken?”

So, when all of their intellectual pyrotechnics were over with, the question mark was still as big in my mind as in anyone else’s. So, “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

This all reminds me one of the longest running theological debates in the Christian Church since its earliest days as a “weirdo Eastern religious movement” in the Roman Empire, back when Christians were considered persona non grata, and were fed to the lions every now and again. Christians were actually called atheists, back then, because they didn’t recognize the gods of the Romans, or the divinity of the emperor.

The debate has to do with baptism. What does it mean? Why do we do it? When should we do it? Where should we do it? How many times should we do it? When people said that Baptism meant all sins—including original sin—were washed away in the Baptismal waters, then some said: “well, uh, what happens if you sin after you’re baptized?”

Some said that Baptism was more like an initiation ceremony, not a mysterious washing away of original sin. Others said: “well what if you renounce your faith under persecution, to save your family? Do you need to be baptized again, when the persecution is over and you want to publicly proclaim your loyalty to the faith?” Some said that it was a mystical and indelible sacrament and therefore could not be changed like one’s mailing address.

Some believed that it was not just a citizenship card in this kingdom or that, but that it was eternal citizenship in the Kingdom of God. These believed that it could only be done once, and only a sin against the Holy Spirit, only the most virulent renunciation and ongoing denial of God’s Presence, could possibly hinder its saving effect.

Some said that Baptism was the only way people could be saved and enter into the Kingdom of heaven. Others said, “well what happens if you die before you’re baptized?” Some said that Baptism makes little or no difference at all, but rather the only thing that really matters is whether a person claims Christ as their personal savior after a realizing their utter depravity, experiencing a powerful spiritual conversion and truly amending their evil ways. Others said, “but what if that isn’t my story? What if I came to God by another road?”

Some said you shouldn’t baptize infants, and others said you should.

Some said you must baptize people, whether they want it our not, to save them from the fires of eternal hell. And to make this happen for more people, in a perverse twist of logic, Portuguese priests were stationed off the Coast of West Africa centuries ago, by whom millions of Africans were forcibly baptized, before being sent across the sea into slavery.

Yes, there has been a long debate about this thing we do. And where has it gotten us? What does it mean? Why do we do it?

Baptism does mean full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, but it doesn’t mean we come in fully grown. We enter not necessarily as fully-matured people of faith, but more importantly, as persons fully-embraced by the loving arms of the living Christ.

None of us is fully grown as sons and daughters of God—yet. None of us have come to the fullness of our being—yet.

But all that we are, may be one in the Body of Christ, through Baptism.

People will say, how ca n an infant choose this for herself? We say, “she can’t.” But even though some people do choose Baptism for themselves, and that is a wonderful thing, that doesn’t make them “more baptized than others.” We are one in the body of Christ—just as the parable of the laborers in the vineyard tells us that those who worked from morning to night received the same pay as those who only started in the afternoon.

People will ask, how is that fair? Shouldn’t the first have preference? Should those who choose their own baptisms get preference over those whom God chose?

Baptism is the great equalizer.

Baptism says to us, that we do not choose God, and therefore become his sons and daughters. We do not say, “God, I saw you, I knew you, I loved you first.” Baptism says to us, that whether we are infants or middle-aged attorneys, God chooses us, anoints us, calls us, lifts us up, as his Sons and Daughters. And this through the saving work of Jesus Christ.

One of the most popular heresies in the Anglican Church is called Pelagianism. It is attributed to a British scholar-monk who taught in Rome in the early 400’s. Pelagianism holds that a human being can take the initial and fundamental steps toward salvation, without God making the first move in her heart. In other words, in Pelagianism, people are the first cause of their own salvation.

This is a popular heresy in Anglicanism, because it fits into the stiff-upper-lip attitude many of us may share. It fits into the ideology of the self-made man. It fits into the delusion many people share which says, “hey, I’m basically a good person, I pay my taxes, pay my dues, work hard all day, and thank you, I’ll work out my salvation on my terms, in my way, by my own hard work and will power.”

Pelagianism is the heresy for those marathon swimmers who believe they can stay afloat on the chaos of this difficult and painful world by their own hard strokes and natural buoyancy.

But for me, I need a God that makes the first move. In creation, and in recreation. I need a God which comes first. I need a God which comes to me first. I need a God who says, “I love you, be my child, and I will be your God.”

That is why I believe Baptism is so important. It symbolizes the love of God who makes the first move. It symbolizes the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit who wipes away the brine of this chaotic sea of sin, and restores us to who we were meant to be.

Of course, God is looking for a second move on our part. God is looking for our response. God waits for us to say, like David, “You are my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation.”

Today, we will have that chance to do that together. And in the years to come, if we have really meant what we’ve said to God, I believe that the little ones in our midst will begin to recognize who made the first move in their life, and they too will speak to God as his children.

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