When we are baptized, we die to our old selves and rise to life in Christ. Paul says, “As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” Last week, we heard Paul say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” Crucified to our old selves, adorned with Christ on the outside, alive by Christ on the inside, that is what it means for us to be baptized. As the church of Jesus Christ, life after baptism should be an intense focus on giving Christ free reign over our lives, so that we can be made more and more like Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
This isn’t just about basic things like attending worship or praying. This is about actively confessing to God about the parts of our life we keep back from Christ so that God can dismantle the barriers we have built between us and God, between us and our fellow disciples. It is personal, deeply personal, but also something we all do together, as the church. What is holding you back from being the disciple God called you to be at your baptism? What is holding us at Centre back from being the church God intends us to be in Forest Hill? Because we are not yet the disciples Jesus calls us to be; we are not yet the church God intends for us to be. And we only deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, if we think otherwise. Pray, pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to wash over you, to expose the parts of our life that are still dead in sin, and to bring the power of Christ’s resurrection to the places we need it most.
One of the beautiful consequences of having clothed ourselves with Christ in baptism is that we get to see Christ in the life of others. So often we want to constrict Christ’s appearance to neat, manageable forms. The Sunday School paintings of Jesus looking bleary-eyed and radiant toward heaven. The Jesus who looks like the way we want things to be. The Jesus who always looks the same. But if, through baptism, we get to see Christ in others, then we ought to know that Jesus isn’t so easily bound. Being clothed in Christ doesn’t mean that we all look the same, or act the same, or even think the same. Christ appears in our differences as much as in our similarities, in our distinctiveness as much as in our commonness. This is Pentecostal unity, the unity that brings together people who are different from each other as a feast of celebration and thanksgiving to God who is our Creator, who has made all things well. We are to see Christ in our differences, not paper over them so that we all have a bland and sinful sameness.
Paul says that after baptism “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Differences become a problem when we allow them to become walls, barriers, and separating lines that we use to mark who’s in and who’s out, who belongs and who doesn’t, who matters and who won’t. These barriers, the evil uses of difference, all disappear in the church, the body of Christ. They may be alive and active in the world, they may even define who we are in the world: male, female, Republican, Democrat, American, Iraqi, black, white, but in the church a deeper, more fundamental identity is in place: Jesus Christ. All of us are one in Christ Jesus.
This is who you are: one in Christ Jesus. Become who you are! Accept your identity as a baptized member of the body of Christ! If you look around, here or in the wider church, and you don’t see those barriers, those walls, those separating lines disappearing, then work to get rid of them yourself. This isn’t some side job to the main work of the proclamation of the gospel. The gospel is not about Jesus. The gospel is Jesus Christ! Being one in Christ Jesus is a fundamental task. Racism, sexism, nationalism: these aren’t modern political issues. They are gospel issues! Whenever we allow these barriers to carry over into the church, whenever we invite them into our lives, whenever we see through their distorting lenses, we fall back to something far less than being alive in Jesus Christ. We clothe ourselves with the dirty linens of a fallen world. We stop being disciples of Jesus Christ, and we become disciples of the satanic divisions that rip apart our world every day.
When a group of teachers tries to introduce these divisions back into the churches of Galatia, Paul hits the roof. “You foolish Galatians,” he roars at the beginning of chapter 3, “who has bewitched you?” Unfortunately the church of Christ has not always maintained such a passionate anger with respect to other divisions that have crept in over the years. It wasn’t until 60 years ago that the Methodist Church started ordaining women. For centuries we were content to divide who could be a pastor and who could not based on gender, without any consideration of that person’s gifts or deeds. When Martin Luther King, Jr., advanced the cause of African Americans in this country, white church leaders repeatedly called on King to reign in his campaign, allowing the racial divisions that scarred and still scar the United States to gash the church, too.
But the church has also taken steps to further our unity in Christ Jesus. This spring at our General Conference United Methodists took good steps toward reconciling with Native Americans who our ancestors helped keep on the wrong side of barriers and walls. And just last week the Southern Baptist Convention voted to take a stand for justice and the unity of the body of Christ by decrying the use of the Confederate flag, a hate symbol if ever there was one; it was a long time coming for a denomination that was started in order to allow slaveholders to keep their membership in the church.
These are little steps, of course, and they probably seem too big picture and distant for us here in this local congregation. And we still live in a world where divisions define daily life for our society, to the harm and injustice of many of God’s beloved children, even our brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless, even for us at Centre there is work to be done for the unity of the body of Christ. Nevertheless, our witness to the gospel is still inseparable from our commitment to being a church that accepts differences among us as gifts from God, without turning them into barriers. A commitment to being a church where there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.
And that commitment was gravely challenged by the massacre of forty-nine people at a gay nightclub in Orlando last Saturday. As United Methodists we have a tense but clear teaching about this: we believe that all people, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, have sacred worth; this is non-negotiable for us. We also believe that certain practices—practices, not persons—are incompatible with the gospel.
So when people, including people who certainly have been baptized and are therefore our sisters and brothers in Christ—full stop, no caveats, no “well, maybe, kinda, sorta”—when people are gunned down for who they are, when they are killed, at least in part, for being something, for being gay, for being queer, for being LGBTQ, for being different, for being on the wrong side of a wall, a barrier, a dividing line, then we Christians have a gospel obligation to claim our baptismal identity and unity in Christ with our fullest and most passionate voices. When they were murdered, we, too, suffered greatly, whether we know it or not, for in the body of Christ we share in all joys and all sorrows.
If you have been uncertain about how to react to the Orlando shootings, or if you have been paralyzed by the fact that some of the victims were gay, allow me to offer some pastoral direction: pray for the victims and those who mourn them. Stand with them against violence that targets LGBTQ people. It is wrong. It is incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Speak out against anyone who says bigoted or hateful things about those who were killed, or their friends and families. Hateful speech is unworthy of our baptism. Dare to see Jesus among the dead and those who mourn them, clothing them with his love, mercy, and grace—because that’s where Jesus is.
We are all one in Christ Jesus. As a church we witness to Jesus, our gospel, by living out Jesus, our life and our hope. The divisions we allow to blind us to the unity we share in Christ hold us back from being the disciples we are called to be at our baptism; they hold us back from being the church God intends us to be in Forest Hill. Pray for the Holy Spirit to expose these divisions, to break our hearts for them, and to wash over them like a flood with the love of God that is given to us. Pray that our eyes will see more clearly Christ clothed upon all our sisters and brothers.
Galatians begins with grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ is our peace! We have lived for far too long as if the peace of Christ does not matter or even exist.
We cannot continue this way, friends. We cannot…