Thursday, August 02, 2007

Pack Your Suitcase

When Texas minister Jim Denison was in college, he served as a summer missionary in East Malaysia, where he attended a small church. At one of the church’s worship services, a teenage girl came forward to announce her decision to follow Christ and be baptized. During the service, Denison had noticed some worn-out luggage leaning against the wall of the church building. He asked the preacher about it. The preacher pointed to the girl who had just been baptized and told Denison, “Her father said that if she was baptized as a Christian she could never come home again. So she brought her luggage.”

This week I am finishing a four week series titled, “What’s the Big Deal about Baptism?” In these four messages I have tried to let the scriptures speak about the powerful meanings attached to baptism, such as the forgiveness of sins, the work of the Holy Spirit, clothing ourselves with Christ, and undergoing a kind of spiritual circumcision. One of the meanings that is subtly implicit but not pronounced in the New Testament (or in the modern church) is that of “enlistment.” When we express our faith in Jesus and are baptized in his name, we switch our allegiance from advancing our own agenda in the world to joining God’s kingdom work for the world. Sometimes literally but always figuratively, we pack our suitcase in preparation for the ways in which our allegiance to God’s kingdom will change our circumstances.

In Luke’s gospel, we are told that large crowds were traveling with Jesus. He turned to them and said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-- yes, even his own life-- he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26-27). As the preacher William Willimon likes to point out, those of us in the “God management business” (clergy) tend to take a scripture like this and say, in effect, to our congregations, “Now calm down. Jesus didn’t really mean ‘hate’ your parents. Let me unpack this for you in the next twenty minutes and I’ll tell you what Jesus really meant to say if he had had the benefit of a seminary education.” In other words, we take the teeth out of Jesus’ teachings.

But following Jesus, and therefore baptism into discipleship with Jesus, is serious stuff. To enlist in something is “to participate hardily in a cause.” That sounds pretty much to me like what Jesus was saying. Don’t enlist if you’re not willing to consider leaving home or losing friends. Those are ways you may need to carry your cross.

I recall a young lady we baptized at my congregation in Los Angeles. She came from a rough background and had ties to drug sellers and gangs. She knew that if she were baptized she would need to extricate herself from those activities. She also knew that gang members might harm her if she did. As she publicly professed her faith and prepared to be immersed, she quietly cried. She seemed so young and vulnerable, but also brave and determined. I marveled at the power of Christ to touch hearts and change lives.

There is a trend to associate baptism these days with all the blessings we receive, and that is fine, because there are numerous blessings associated with baptism. But baptism is also a pledge to follow Jesus at great cost when called for, which Jesus says will be a blessing in its own way. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Pack your suitcase.


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