ne of my favorite stories from Christian history is about a certain baptismal practice that rose to some level of prominence. It was still the early days of our faith, before the fall of the Roman Empire, but after Christianity had found wide-spread acceptance among the Romans. One of the widely-held beliefs about baptism at the time was that it erased your sins. Like a dirty chalk board, in baptism all the marks upon you were wiped away. In baptism, you literally became a clean slate.
The problem was that you can only be baptized once. So, there arose the unique practice of deathbed baptism. The idea was to try and time your baptism as close as possible to your death. In this way, one could enter heaven as clean as possible, having little-to-no time to sin again after baptism. A more cynical interpretation, of course, was that this baptismal practice meant that you could live it up, doing whatever you pleased. Then, at the last moment, you could be washed clean and die sinless.
There was, of course, one major drawback. Namely, none of know the hour or manner of our deaths. The risk, therefore, was to misjudge it and die unbaptized. Nonetheless, for a brief period, this was the method of choice for those discerning individuals who believed enough to be concerned about their eternal salvation, but not enough to actually change their lives or their behaviors.
Deathbed baptisms as a practice did not last long. In a somewhat ironic shift, across the long history of Christianity, baptismal practice would swing in the opposite direction. Instead of waiting to the last possible moment, it became popular to baptize as soon as possible after a person’s birth. But even though they have been out of practice for one-and-a-half millennia, I still love the story of deathbed baptisms because it illustrates so well the human tendency to try and game the system.
After all, we humans do love trying to game the system. We do it in almost every aspect of our lives. We know, for example, that we are supposed to drive the speed limit, and we know exactly how much over the limit we can go before we get pulled over. And we know which roads upon which we are likely to encounter police, as well as the roads that are rarely monitored.
With the deadline of April 15 on the horizon, we are all taking part in a massive, collective, gaming of the system. We look for loopholes, for exceptions, for any opportunity to write something off. We hire professionals to help us in our efforts, professionals who advertise their wares to us by promising to help us game the system to the fullest extent possible under the law. Of course, somebody always takes it too far, and we hear their stories from time to time on the news.
We expect, even admire, such behavior in our business leaders. We dress it up with euphemisms like, “taking full advantage of the current regulatory environment and laws,” or, “lobbying.” But we all know what it is. It is gaming the system on a massive scale. And it is an admittedly fuzzy line between successful business leader and crook.
It should come as no surprise that we bring this same tendency into our faith as well. Jesus said, “Give up all your possessions to the poor and follow me.” So, we say to ourselves, “he really meant to give 10% of our income.” Then we debate whether that 10% should include all other charities to which we give, and whether it should be before or after taxes. Then we throw $5 into the plate and write it off at tax time.
And God commanded us to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest to remember what the Lord our God has done for us. So, we come to church for one hour a week, assuming we don’t have too much to do at home, or the kids don’t have a sports game, or we’re not too tired. And we get impatient when the service goes too long, because we have places to be and things to do.
While some of these examples are largely harmless, even amusing, the reality is that the path Jesus walked, the path we too are called to walk as his disciples, so often gets watered down. It gets watered down by the church. It gets watered down by ourselves. And this, my sisters and my brothers, is dangerous. Discipleship that costs us little is dangerous.
Faith that does not ask much of us, instead of making us in the image of Christ, ends up conforming us to the world. Faith reduced to token actions, allows us to justify, in our minds and in our consciences, our actions that are antithetical to our faith.
Jesus said to feed the hungry. So, we bring a can of food to the foodbank, or we volunteer at a soup kitchen. Then we elect politicians who campaign on cutting funds for food stamps. Jesus said to love our neighbors as ourselves. So, we smile at our neighbors. We help each other dig out from snow storms. We greet each other with hugs and affection on Sunday mornings. But we say people who don’t speak our language, or people who don’t worship as we worship, or people who don’t dress as we dress, don’t belong in our communities.
Jesus said that whatsoever we do unto the least in our world, we do unto Christ. So, we wax poetic about how we see God in our children. And then we turn around and cast people into prison and throw away the keys. We tell the poor and sick that they are on their own for medical care. And we turn and objectify one another, reducing others around us to objects of lust, or objects of hatred, or objects of disdain. We blind ourselves to Christ who stands before us.
Faith that is cheap assuages our guilt as we conform to the brokenness of the world. It justifies the actions we take and the sins we commit. And there is nothing more dangerous than a person who believes all their actions are justified. Faith that asks nothing of us, but justifies all that we do, is not faith in God, it is faith in our selves. And there is no greater opportunity for evil than the person who believes in their own righteousness.
So, what does it mean to follow Jesus? His words in today’s gospel lesson offer us insight. They are a corrective to our very human tendency to game the system, our human desire to find the shortcut. “You have heard it said,” Jesus begins, “that you shall not murder. But I say to you that if you are even angry with your brother or sister, then you will be subject to the judgement.” The message is clear. It is not enough to simply play by the rules. You must be obedient to them. You must take them into your very being, living them out in every aspect of your life.
What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? It means being obedient to him. Discipleship is not something that can be done halfway. If we think there is a shortcut, it is not discipleship. If it makes no demand of us, it is not discipleship, for discipleship demands everything of us. As we follow after Christ, we find ourselves conformed, not to the world, but to Christ.
When we do this, we receive the liberation of the gospel message. When we are willing to give what discipleship demands, we find ourselves set free. We become free, not from the world, but for the world. For discipleship does not mean being separate from the brokenness of this world. Nor does it mean pretending that the world is not broken. And it certainly does not mean adding to the world’s brokenness.
My friends, when we are obedient to Christ, when we have allowed ourselves to be conformed to him, we will find that it leads us right into the heart of brokenness. Following Christ always leads us into the rift. And it is there that we become agents of transformation. It is there that we help to bring about God’s new creation. It is there that we find the cross. And it is there that we discover the new life the flows from it.
Preached by Adam Yates