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from the “Nurture in Time and Eternity” collection

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

March 5, 2006
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

The Eucharist, which we are about to celebrate today, is a common theme in Christian thinking, probably because we do it so frequently. Baptism, the other great sacrament for Protestants, is commonly regarded as an adoption ceremony for people entering into the Christian family, something that happens once for each of us, and that we think about mainly in reference to the children and new members in our midst. Lent is a time of preparation for baptism which we celebrate at the Easter Vigil service during Holy Week. We have classes going on now to guide that preparation.

Baptism is a deeply paradoxical practice within Christianity, however. On the one hand it marks the acceptance of an individual into the Christian family, with a commitment on the part of the community to support the individual’s progress in the Christian life, and an implied commitment that the individual will take responsibility for his or her Christian life at the various stages of development. On the other hand, the Christian life into which the individual is baptized firmly rejects the distinction between insiders and outsiders, although this is a controversial point on which the Church has been ambivalent. To put the point at its most paradoxical, the Christian life into which we are baptized is devoted to people who are outside that fold, and the internal discipline of the Christian life aims to perfect our hospitality for all people.

Let me raise up for you, if I might, the views of some Christians who make a sharply significant distinction between who is in the Church and who is out, and for whom baptism marks that distinction. The New Testament was clearly enthusiastic about Christian baptism because it signaled a commitment to the new movement that offered authentic new life and salvation to Gentiles as well as Jews. For the author of Colossians, baptism is a symbol of our participation in the life of Christ, dying with him in a spiritual sense and already being raised with him while remaining in this life. The New Testament is not definite, however, about baptism being necessary for salvation. Jesus clearly did not believe that because he honored faithful Jews and, more interestingly, faithful Romans, Samaritans, and Canaanites. Jesus himself was baptized to show his support for John the Baptist’s renewal movement within Judaism. Paul agreed with Jesus’ stance about salvation for Jews, and was concerned that the salvation God offered through Jews be understood to apply to all kinds of Gentiles because of the sacrifice of Jesus. Nevertheless, as the early Christian movement began to institutionalize itself in the first century, first as a distinct practice within Second Temple Judaism and then as a distinct religion apart from Judaism, it became conscious of its boundaries relative to wider cultures and other religions. From the earliest times a tension has existed between those who see the Christian movement as a vehicle of grace for saving the whole creation and those who see it as a special island in the midst of a sea of corruption, a ship for protecting its passengers from storms, an exclusive vehicle for saving Christians alone. Some contemporary Christians like to think of the baptized faithful as “resident aliens” in this world, testifying to the spiritual and moral truth but essentially living in opposition to the world. Many Christian denominations today require that one be baptized before being allowed to participate in the Eucharist.

The Methodist tradition, from which this Chapel takes its form, does not have any such juridical or legal requirements of baptism for taking the Eucharist. Baptism is a means of grace, but not an admission ticket to the Church, much less to salvation. How is this so? Remember that our Hebrew Bible text was about Noah. Noah was the father of all subsequent human beings, according to that story, Gentiles as well as Jews, God having wiped out all the other people as well as the animals that were not in the ark. The history of the people of Israel does not begin until Abraham, who appears three chapters later in Genesis. The Noah story, you understand, was an almost-reversal of creation, almost a destruction. In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates the Earth by separating the fresh water of the heavens from the salt water of the sea, with Earth in the middle. In the ninth chapter of Genesis God causes Noah’s flood by opening the portals of heaven so that salt water and fresh water mingle, making life impossible, as the story goes, save for those in the ark. After the flood, as our text for today says, God makes a new covenant with Noah and his descendents, all the people of the Earth, that is, plus all animals, promising never to “cut off all flesh” by a flood. The rainbow is the sign of God’s promise not to allow the return of chaos. The moral of this is that even though people sin, God’s judgment will not be so severe as to forsake them or the Earth. Christians say that the power of God is pro-active in salvation.

The importance of the First Epistle of Peter is that it connects Christian baptism with the covenant with Noah, father of Gentiles as well as Jews, not with the covenants with Abraham or Moses, which define Judaism, including Christianity as a form of Second Temple Judaism. The significance of our baptism is that we have been rescued with Noah, not brought into an exclusive club with Abraham and Moses. This point is reinforced with the stories of Jesus’ own baptism in all four gospels. You remember that Genesis tells the beginning of creation in terms of three elements: the chaotic water roiled up by the divine wind and given order by the divine voice. The Jordan’s water for Jesus is primeval chaos, the divine spirit, or wind—the words for wind and spirit are the same—shapes Jesus, and the divine word pronounces him the new creation of God. Jesus’ baptism did not mean for him that he was entering into a new religion; he was already in his religion and wanted only to purify it. Rather his baptism meant that he attained a new status with God and that everyone else has access to that status too. As Paul said, the promises to the Jews have now been extended to the Gentiles. But the theme of baptism points back to Noah where those promises had already been universal.

So our sacrament of baptism had an ambiguous beginning in New Testament times. The apostles thought they were leading a movement to bring everyone into a relation of reconciliation and holiness before God. Baptism was a rite of entrance into the work of that movement. Only slowly did that movement become institutionalized, so that baptism could be construed as a rite of admission into the institution rather than its work. Now, of course, the Christian movement is one religion among many others, with no others celebrating baptism, though many have rites of cleansing, the basic ritual movement in baptism. I believe that we seriously misunderstand the meaning of the Church if we view baptism simply as an admission rite that separates those within the Church from those without.

What is the Christian Church but those who have become conscious of the gracious healing power of God to effect salvation and who live in response to this, mainly helping others also become conscious of this power? Our rhetoric has to do with proclaiming this message, and living it out, in terms of Jesus and the traditions of the Church. Many other people grasp the healing power of God in very different terms, and Christians need to be supportive of those different avenues. When Jesus was confronted by the Samaritan woman who said that Jews and Samaritans were not supposed to associate or worship together, he told her that the time was coming when all people will worship God in spirit and in truth. Whether that worship was in the Jerusalem temple of the Jews or on the sacred mountain of Samaria would not be relevant.

Of course, the means we Christian have to advance the work of reconciliation and justice are the symbols and traditions of Christianity, supplemented by the other elements that have been incorporated throughout Christian history, and the new means of grace available today. We do not do this work the way Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians, Daoists, or Muslims do, although many overlapping practices can bring us into cooperative work.

Nevertheless, to put boundaries around the Christian way of life, distinguishing those who are in from those who are out, is very dangerous. Rather, imagine the Christian life as a large number of concentric circles, with Christian practices scattered on them all, with many practices such as the Eucharist functioning on many circles. Some people might have no tolerance for Christian theology or worship or church organization, but just like the music: Bach is universal. That’s fine and saving. Some people might be devout practitioners of some other religious way and merely see certain elements in Christianity as parallel to theirs. That’s fine and saving. Some people, including all Christian children, begin on the outer circles with mere glancing acquaintance with the practices, understanding them in simplistic ways, and slowly move toward the more central circles with increasing sophistication. That’s fine and saving. Yet other people are deeply devoted to participation in the institutional life of the Church, enjoying a rich density of Christian practices, say, as illustrated in the liturgical calendar. That’s fine and saving. A few people define their lives by ever-deepening Christian spirituality, maximizing the richness and depths of Christian practices and moving through them to the stage where all those practices can be relativized before the absolute reality of God. The deepest Christians I know believe it is a gracious accident of history that they are Christians instead of something else. Baptism is not one of the more inward of the concentric circles, as you might think, a circle that marks entry to some inner sanctum. It is a trajectory from the outer circles toward the center. If you are moving toward the center, it is time to be baptized.

Now I invite you to the Eucharist, a sacramental rite that has powerful spiritual meaning for those who define their spiritual lives around it. It also has meaning for those for whom it is mainly the regular rite for people who appreciate the Christian mission. It is our invitation of hospitality to any who would taste Christ’s way of redemption. To taste Christ’s way is to plunge with him beneath the waters of chaos, to feel the vast power of God’s spirit that blows with cosmic force, and to be ordered by the divine word that brings us from the depths of the deep to new life. Come to this baptismal feast!


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