Powerful Waters

One of the funniest things I’ve seen lately is a spoof called “Virtual Reality Church.” The creator John Crist advertises his fictional product with this ad: “Tired of having to get dressed and drive across town? Introducing Virtual Reality Church! Choose your own denomination, worship leader and sermon topic, all from the comfort of your couch!” In the fake product demo, he puts on a VR headset at home in PJs and chooses from several options. You can select the kind of church building and music that work for you. VR Church will then customize your virtual outfit based on denomination choice. Custom options allow you to choose the level of skinniness of the worship leader’s jeans. Not a people person? You can select the introvert experience and skip shaking hands, visitor cards, and coffee hour. VR Church will post to your social media for you about how much you enjoyed the service so you get credit for being super spiritual all from the comfort of your home. It will even alert you when your football team’s game is starting so you never miss a kick-off again. Church has never been easier or more about what each of us wants than in the virtual reality edition.

One of the more delightful details is about the Sunday sermon. You can choose what level of conviction you want in a sermon and it will choose a pastor for you. If you select the “feel good” option, the sermon will be about grace, hope, love, acceptance or peace. You never have to hear a sermon series on giving or the seven deadly sins again.

VR Church pokes fun at us church goers. What makes it funny, of course, is that there is some truth in it. We can be lulled into thinking that going to church and following Jesus is only a feel-good affair, primarily for our own solace or inspiration. Barbara Brown Taylor calls this a fallacy, and names it “solar theology.” We can slip into thinking that religion is only about being sunny, about peace and light and love. She says that, if we’re not careful, we end up starting to rely on “a full solar spirituality” which offers only comfort or affirmation. Such spirituality focuses exclusively on a sure sense of God’s presence, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer, which are all wonderful things. However, “You may have discovered that the trouble starts when darkness falls on your life, which can happen in any number of unsurprising ways: you lose your job, your marriage falls apart, your child acts out in some attention-getting way, you pray hard for something that does not happen, or you begin to doubt some of the things you have been taught about what the Bible says.” We can each add our things, like missing a paycheck during a government shutdown or whatever it is that might keep you up at night. It is then that we enter the more spiritually complex terrain of twilight and absence and even darkness. The solar theology proves inadequate. Something more real and useful is needed when darkness falls. And what emerges from that place, Taylor says, is truly life-giving.

Talk of darkness might seem like a strange sermon topic on a day we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and the baptism of little Rebecca and Evelyn (at the 10:30 service). After all, at his own baptism in the Jordan River, there was joy. The heavens opened and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. A voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” What could be more full of light and joy?

And when we baptize in Jesus’ name, it’s one of the most joyful acts in the church, a cause for celebration. We give thanks whenever a new Christian is made and welcomed into the body of Christ.

Yet, in the midst of what’s joyful about baptism, there is something a bit less solar and perhaps more essential. In 1982 the World Council of Churches issued a profound ecumenical statement on the nature of baptism. “Baptism is participation in Christ’s death and resurrection, an immersion in the liberating death of Christ, where sins are buried, the power of sin is broken, and the baptized are raised to a new life in Christ.”

It’s a stunning statement meant for all Christians, regardless of denominational choice. The water of baptism is where sins are buried and the power of sin is broken. So before we quickly speed by that language and move quickly to the light, we should pause there in that water. We can find what we need there.

Orthodox theologian Olivier Clement said that baptism is “total immersion in the choking waters of death.” The language is uncomfortable, but the idea is spot on. A baptized person emerges from those choking waters, reminded with Christ that life is a struggle against the powers of sin and death. Then, a profound calling is offered to every new Christian. We have a moral and spiritual obligation as followers of Jesus to name the powers of sin and death. And to declare, to believe, that, however strong, their ultimate power has been broken in Christ. Whatever the sin of this world, whatever the sin in our own lives, Christ who died and rose again breaks those bonds for us.

Baptism is not some magic formula that erases any capacity for sin or suffering. That’s the honest truth. The other truth is that when Jesus stepped into the river that day, he broke the power and the finality of sin. We are all buried with him under those waters, and we are then led out of the waters, freed from those destructive forces. We need not be paralyzed when the darkness falls because it does not have any ultimate power over us.

Returning to that World Council of Churches’ statement, the authors ended it with something very uncharacteristic for the council. They went cosmic. They noted that in many Christian traditions, the use of baptismal water is seen to have repercussions not only for the individual being baptized but for the whole cosmos. Imagine that. Not only is baptism good for the person, it is good for the whole of creation. It must, then, be good for a world in the grip of some of the worst forces. Perhaps a baptism this morning might just make a difference in the world.

Little Rebecca and Evelyn will be baptized into powerful waters. They are too young to know what liberation this will be, what sinful forces they will be freed from as children of God. And they are too young to understand that what we do here today has implications far beyond them. The waters once blessed will have a ripple effect, reaching out and healing this world. As these children grow, we will need to teach them these things, and we will need to be reminded ourselves. We are gathered today around the waters of baptism, but not just for a feel-good, convenient or sunny message. These waters run deeper than that. These waters can change the world.

Kate Alexander