Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
January 13, 2022
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Most of my life, I have thought of baptism as a sacrament that announced God’s promise of love and inclusion to every one of us. For me, it was the induction into a way of living that stood in stark contrast to the ways of the world.
We are all children of God whether we understand or accept the promise.
The community becomes the hands and feet of Jesus to make those promises concrete and real.
We live and stand for something beyond survival of the fittest. That way of living is not sufficient for a Christian. It leads to ranking people by power and wealth, it justifies dismissing the frail and the weak or even worse, anyone who is different from us. In a secular world, driven by biology, we are forever measured, living on a treadmill of deservingness in order to be somebody.
In contrast, Jesus calls us to a life of mindfulness, regard and kindness to all people. It is a gift that is offered to us in baptism and it is a way of life that sees every person as someone to be cherished.
That much I could follow. The concept of being baptized into death, however, confused me. New life and death did not seem to go together. Yet in our funeral liturgy, death is often announced as the fulfillment of our baptism. Linking these ideas has become key to my understanding. Death is no longer viewed as the end but as a means to understand life. That is a hard leap to make when my usual definitions of life and death depend upon what I see. When a heart stops beating and the brain ceases to function. Someone is dead. And the reverse is true. When our hearts and brain are functioning, we are alive. But it turns out, these are narrow definitions of life and death.
Paradoxically, Baptism announces a new way to live in the world and death confirms those promises. Spiritually, birth and death are not the beginning and the end, they are points on a never ending continuum. Unfortunately, we are all too prone to imagine the life after death as a continuation of what we have known. We will live in comfortable condos in permanent retirement reunited with the people we have loved and lost. We live in bliss and contentment. Sadness, pain and suffering are no more. We take what is most desirable about our physical lives and project those ideas forward into eternity. But let’s not think any of our imaginings reflect God’s vision of eternal life. Stay open to the unknown.
Linda LeBron had a wonderful story of her childhood understanding of eternal life. It was a nicely wrapped present to be received at her death. It had never occurred to her that the present is actually given at birth. Eternal life starts with our first breath and continues long after our names are forgotten. Eternal life is not an afterlife, it is a present life— the life we live in the here and now.
If we can believe the promise of our Baptism, we are safe with God and it is safe to love as God loves—-no matter what happens to our bodies. None of the psychological affirmations or post it notes that say “I am somebody” begin to match this fundamental faith claim. Our value and worth derive from God period. This is the foundation of our lives.
In real life however, we have a terrible time actually living out those promises. We say yes, but… and add caveats to our God given worth. We seek to protect our ego and our position in life as if those things make any difference to God’s love. We are seduced into believing our achievements change our status—that our achievements make us better or worse in the eyes of God. It is an enormous amount of effort that leads nowhere. In fact, in spiritual terms, it leads to a wasted life. No where is that clearer than at a funeral.
Every single man-made thing will disappear. Everything we love will be lost, our health, our bodies, the people we love. The eternal life that baptism promises is that our lives matter, how we live matters and love will prevail long after our names are forgotten. It is a mystery but it is experienced by everyone who finds life when they could not imagine living another day. It may take years, but in real life, most people discover they still have life. Most people discover how the person who has died still has life.
However, these are only intellectual conversations until we begin to discover the limitations of our mortal lives. As a young man, I hardly gave a thought to illness, falls or broken bones. I assumed, even if it were painful, I would heal and get back to normal. When, a little later in life, I realized that I might not get better, I became more intentional about self care. I ate better and worked out more. I have successfully slowed the downward curve but now I realize, the curve is only going one direction. I told the FIRL group that now when I lay down and get short of breath, my first reaction is fear. I don’t want to die gasping for breath. Or when I experience increased mental errors and lost memories, I think dementia. I don’t want to die out of touch with the people around me. Nor do I want to be entirely dependent. But if we live long enough, this is how most of us will die.
Hearing this, Bobbie Garner, in her nineties, promised that my fears will turn into curiosity as I realize that the things I thought were important became obviously unreliable. I hope I live long enough to know that curiosity, acceptance and peace.
We cannot rely on our bodies for life. In the end, the only things that turn out to be reliably true are God’s promises at baptism. Jesus demonstrated that in his death. Jesus lived a life that said life did not reside in his mortal body. Jesus’ body most certainly died. His heart stopped beating. He was tortured, suffered, and was abandoned. Yet he lives. Suddenly, none of the ways we evaluate life (starting out with breathing) actually applied. What matters in life is the faith that we matter—no matter what happens to our bodies. We are God’s beloved children. What matters in life is how we offer the love and regard given to us in our baptisms. What matters in life is the conviction that every drop of kindness joins God in an ocean of love. In that moment we are one with God.
I have told the story before but it bears repeating. A woman made of salt wandered the earth desolate and alone. On day she came upon the sea shore. Curious, she put her hand into the water and suddenly felt a peace she had never known. As she withdrew her hand, she was fingerless. Her greatest peace came at the price of the body she had always known.
Or, as Paul wrote: “ For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
LET IT BE SO.