May 10, 2015
You may have heard that blood is thicker than water. Scientifically that may be accurate, but that doesn’t make it true. Though we celebrate our blood relatives —today, especially, our mothers—the blood ties we share with them are nowhere near as strong as the bond Christians share through the waters of baptism.
In baptism we are made members of the family of God, and those family ties connect us across time and geography to all of God’s people in every land and every generation. It is a bond so tight that it impacts everything we do and everything we are. Because we are connected to God by water and the Holy Spirit we are empowered to love not only the people we are related to or like, but also those we do not like and those who are not biologically related to us.
That may be especially good news for people today who feel uncomfortable about Mother’s Day because you are estranged from your biological family, or have a difficult relationship with your mother or your children. Or have had trouble conceiving. Or have lost children or parents. Sometimes a holiday like this one can make your grief more sharp. That’s why I want to say aloud that the family that is yours through the waters of baptism is yours forever. Nothing can separate you from the unbreakable connection you have to God and God’s family. Nothing you do or leave undone can sever these family ties. In all the ways that count, water is thicker than blood.
That’s what Peter comes to understand in today’s reading from Acts. Despite his upbringing as a good Jew and his cultural understanding of who he could and should love, Peter is called upon to baptism a group of Romans. Which is to say detested Gentiles, people he would never have dreamed he would socialize, much less call “brother” or “sister.” But here they are, asking to be baptized into God’s family. Peter realizes that he cannot control the Holy Spirit. She blows where she will, and She includes in her sphere of influence and affection even those Peter could never have imagined God choosing to love. In a question that reminds us of the Ethiopian eunuch’s question last week, Peter asks, “What is to prevent them from being baptized?” And the answer is Nothing. Nothing prevents Romans or Ethiopians or you or me or anyone else from being part of God’s family tree. Our family tree.
And because we have no need to worry about ever being apart from God’s family, we don’t need to focus on behaving well enough to be “saved” in the fundamentalist sense of the word. We are already saved. In those unquenchable baptismal waters, we already belong to God forever, so we are free to live authentically and genuinely, trusting that no matter what else life throws at us, we can cling to our heritage as members of God’s family.
So if we don’t need to do anything or refrain from doing anything to be saved, how does that square with what Jesus is saying in the Gospel of John today? He tells his disciples, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” Doesn’t that suggest that if we don’t keep the commandments we don’t abide in God’s love? Does that mean that being part of the family is not a permanent arrangement?
If it were up to us to choose Jesus, to abide in him and to obey his commandments, then we are lost. We simply don’t do it. Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we try—and there is something valiant and noble and important about trying—but when push comes to shove, we cannot always and invariably love other people or God or ourselves as God loves. We do not unconditionally and forever accept and embrace all that God has made and call it good. We hurt one another and ourselves. We ignore the suffering of our sisters and brothers and God’s beautiful creation. Our wants often take precedence over the needs of others. If we have to keep God’s commandments in order to be loved, then we are toast.
I find it helpful to remember that this conversation Jesus and his disciples are having about love takes place on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion. Just a few hours after this discussion, Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, and executed as an enemy of the state. Jesus will endures all of this pain in order to demonstrate the love he has for his disciples and, indeed, for the whole world.
Maybe the disciples are able (eventually) to look back on those events as signs of God’s all-encompassing grace and mercy, but first they are left feeling bereft, alone, and frightened. That is probably why he wanted them to hear, on the night before it all blew apart, that they were to abide in him and his love. In the midst of hatred and cruelty, violence and injustice, he wanted them to hear the voice of love, the promise of eternal belonging, ringing in their ears. And he wanted to remind them that he abides in them. And so he tells them that they did not choose him; rather, he chose them.
Because that’s the really Good News in this passage: Jesus says, “You didn’t choose me. I chose you.” The original disciples did not audition for the role of “Jesus follower.” Jesus handpicked the 12 and all the other disciples, none of whom demonstrate unending love at the time of his most crucial need. And Jesus has chosen us, called us, claimed us, too—not because we earned the part, but because he loves us, just as he loved those hapless original disciples. Jesus commanded his disciples to remain and abide in him and his love, yes, but above and beyond his command, Jesus just plain loved them. Loves US. Loves the whole world—enough to give his life for us all! Jesus chose us. Jesus. Chose. Us.
And although knowing that in the waters of baptism, God has chosen us and loves us more than any human family member ever could does not enable us to keep the commandments perfectly, nor to fix all the heartbreakingly damaged parts of this world, it does give us the courage and renewed commitment to do something. Knowing that we are and will always be welcomed at the family table, we are strengthened to make our little corner of the world a better place! Jesus has chosen us to use our hands and our feet and our hearts and our wallets to build up the battered and bruised places and to offer healing and hope wherever we can. There are obstacles beyond our capacity to overcome, for sure. We cannot remedy all the tragic situations that break our hearts, so it is key that we remember that Jesus not only wants to redeem the whole world, but will. In the meantime, let us trust in God’s promises and love and serve God’s beloved creation as best we can.
This week, let’s strive to abide in God’s compassion, to recognize that we are invited to abide and obey in love. And in the midst of all that is wrong with us, our families, and the world, let’s hear and receive the good news that God has chosen us, sealed us with the invincible sign of the cross, and drowned all that threatens our membership in God’s family…once and for all.
~Pastor Susan Schneider