Peace United Church of Christ
Once in a while, if you’re lucky, you round a bend down on West Cliff to find a dozen brown pelicans diving out of the sky for herring in the bay. Somehow the herring have schooled there, in shallower water, and this good news passes, as if from pelican to pelican, down the coast and back again. Don’t know about you, but I could watch them circling there, tracking fish, diving at them, for hours on end. It’s like some kind of thrilling ecological liturgy. A liturgy with purpose, exuberance, integrity in every movement. When they’re out there together (a dozen, two, sometimes three dozen pelicans) it’s like a holy communion of beaks and wings, fish and sea spray. And the birds are like celebrants in the middle of it all, every gentle circuit a prayer, every daring dive a sacrament, every fish the body of Christ. Like I say, I could watch them all day long.
And I can’t help thinking about those pelicans as I watch Simon Peter this morning; as I watch him throw some clothes on and leap into the lake, with a hundred fifty-three big fish flapping in his nets and his friends cackling in wild and unexpected delight. Talk about exuberance, right? Peter recognizing Jesus on the beach and God in all that abundance and joy. A hundred fifty-three fish. Peter grasping that right there, right then, his life begins again. Disappointment washed away. Broken promises forgiven. And then Peter throwing his clothes on and leaping in. It’s kind of like those pelicans in the bay, right? His purpose. His exuberance. His integrity. Caring not a hoot for decorum or propriety. Loving his life again, after days of despair. And diving in. Flashing through the shallow water and onto the beach. And right there, right then, his life begins again.
Now here’s the thing. I think this whole bit is so much more than a flourish in the storyteller’s craft. Though this is undoubtedly a well-spun story. But I think this bit about Peter throwing clothes on and diving into the Sea of Galilee has something to do, maybe even everything to do, with the meaning and magnitude of baptism and Christian vocation. Think about it. Those first generations of disciples would have been baptized by total immersion, after having robed up (by the way) in white baptismal gowns. Their initiation would have been raucous and thrilling, accompanied by singing and dancing and laughter, a sign of the living Christ, resurrection not an idea, but a reality, then and there. And that’s baptism. A sign of Christ’s resurrection. Not just in Peter’s life or his friends’. But in yours and mine.
Of course, as adults, most of us don’t think too much about baptism, at least not about our own, not about that moment we threw ourselves purposefully into the arms of God. For most of us, not all but most of us, it was a long-ago moment, the baptismal wave has long-since receded, and the thrill no longer applies.
But John’s Gospel recognizes the meaning and magnitude of baptism for a people committed to discipleship in a fractured and fractious world. And many scholars now read John’s Gospel as something of an extended meditation on baptism—both Peter’s and ours—because baptism is synonymous (at least for John it is) with courage and faith and (most importantly) resurrection. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” says John’s Jesus; “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Baptism is about dying to an old order, rising to a new one and bearing fruit in the here and now, the sweet fruit of service and love and forgiveness. And John’s Gospel insists that the mystery of Christ, the mystery of faith itself, is hidden in this sacrament.
A couple weeks ago, I picked up a fascinating new book by the British biblical scholar N.T. Wright: it’s called Surprised by Hope. And it’s about Easter and Jesus’ resurrection and the many ways we Christians have wrestled with it over the centuries. It’s a great read, and a fresh articulation of our faith and our hope. I highly recommend it to you. Surprised by Hope. And here’s what N.T. Wright has to say about baptism and what it means in the church: “Baptism is not magic,” he says. “But neither is it a simply visual aid. It is one of the points, established by Jesus himself, where heaven and earth interlock, where new creation, resurrection life, appears within the midst of the old.”
One of those points where heaven and earth interlock. Where the already dances with the not yet. Where new creation appears in the midst of the old. If you’re looking for a good definition of sacrament—baptism, eucharist, sacrament—I think you’ve got it right there. One of those points where heaven and earth interlock. Where the already dances with the not-yet. Where new creation appears in the midst of the old.
And I’m thinking back now to our sunrise service two weeks ago: to the huge waves rolling in, and the pelicans standing sentinel on the cliffs, and the nervous energies of six believers, wading in and diving deep and throwing themselves into the arms of God. You start throwing yourself into the arms of God—and you’d better be nervous. I have to confess, as a pastor, I get a little nervous too. Not because the water’s cold. But because life’s so big, and God’s so good, and the moment’s so holy. And I don’t want to mess that up! And it was thrilling, that morning, it was holy. In all the ways Peter’s leap into the Sea of Galilee is thrilling and holy. In all the ways those pelicans diving into the bay off West Cliff are thrilling and holy. And six of you wrapped yourselves in a new practice, a new covenant, a new day: and you jumped in.
During these Great Fifty Days of Easter, we’ve set our own baptismal font at the very entrance to this space to remind ourselves of just this. That you and I—the baptized children of God—are immersed in fearlessness and grace; that you and I—the baptized children of God—are collaborators, conspirators with the Risen Christ; that you and I—the baptized children of God—are midwives of God’s kin-dom, God’s peace, God’s justice, here on earth. The already's dancing with the not-yet.
So you’re welcome to dip your hand in, as you arrive each week, maybe as you go, for baptism is God’s promise to you. Whether you were plunged into the sea on Easter or baptized some other way years and years ago. Baptism’s God’s seal on your heart. It’s God’s mercy showering you and clearing out disappointment and despair. And it’s Jesus great commission: calling you to live and love fearlessly, calling you to dive into life’s responsibilities and opportunities faithfully, calling you to Jesus’ own ministry of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace. Nothing less than that. So dip in every Sunday, and turn your face to the light and the water when we go round sprinkling the church after communion. Let these waters be a sign for you and a consolation for you. And let them be an invitation for you. You are created for living and healing. You are created for exuberance and delight. You are created for diving in, and getting wet, and communion on the beach.
So these Fifty Days of Easter aren’t just about Jesus. They’re about you and me and the church. You see, if resurrection describes Jesus’ radical aliveness in the world, and it does, then baptism is our participation in that project, our affirmation of that aliveness. Death no longer scares us, tyrants no longer rule us, no power on earth can ever diminish us. We are created for justice and peace, sisterhood and brotherhood, and the beloved community on earth. And baptism is God’s promise that this new creation, the Christ of God, is already at hand. Risen in our midst. Dancing around the fire.
But even that’s not all.
Baptism is just the beginning of Peter’s story. And the water we’ll bless this morning, the water we’ll toss and fling and sprinkle and remember is just the beginning of ours as well. It turns out, of course, the Peter’s exuberant plunge is an opening, a strange and even painful opening, to reconciliation with the friend he badly betrayed in Jerusalem. It turns out that Peter’s sweet immersion—like yours and mine—is an invitation to conversation and vulnerability around the fire Jesus’s built on the beach. Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, if he intends always to love him, if he chooses that love as the foundation of everything else in his life. And three times Peter says, yes, I love you. He’s shaken, but resilient. Yes, Lord, I love you. I will go where you go. I will see what you see. I will serve as you serve.
There’s so much going on in this text. There’s Jesus exploring forgiveness and choosing reconciliation with a friend. There’s Peter coming to grips with his betrayal and opening his hear to the invitation, the promise, the healing at hand. But let’s not miss the questions Jesus moves to the very center, the living heart of Christian life and practice. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Baptism is not that moment when all ambiguities are resolved, finally and forever. And baptism is not some kind of ticket punched for the hereafter, a coupon you cash in when your life on this side of things is done. Instead, baptism is an opening to relationship, an invitation to conversation, and a question that will never go away. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The question that drives Christian discipleship, the question that animates our spiritual lives is LOVE. Simon, do you love me? Simon, do you love the sun breaking over the cliffs? Simon, do you love the pelicans in the bay? Simon, do you love the broken woman hobbling down the street with a dog in her grocery cart? Simon, do you love the loudmouth who makes fun of your faith? Simon, son of John, do you love me?
A couple days before Easter, I received a menacing letter from an Aptos man who disparaged my ministry and yours, and sneered at our support for same-sex marriage and human rights. I’ve received a bit of hate mail over the years, but it’s been a while; and I’d forgotten how mean people can be and how frightened and how sad. The temptation, of course, is to shoot back something sharp and snide, to show my quick wit and evolved vocabulary, and generally put the little man in his place. And the temptation is real, believe me.
But the Easter commission is something else, isn’t it? On the beach, Jesus calls Peter and me and all of you to shepherd the people and feed the people and defy despair and resist bitterness. This isn’t about proving ourselves or humiliating one another or pummeling the enemy. The question that drives discipleship is LOVE. So I’ll have to find some other way to respond to my Aptos correspondent. Because to be baptized in Christ, to be immersed in the grace of God, is to die to an old order and rise to a new one. To follow Jesus, to break bread with Jesus, is to celebrate the “future coming to meet us in the present.”
And if I love Jesus, I greet that future with open arms. If I love Jesus, I know that even the Aptos man is invited. And he needs me. And if I love Jesus, I pray every day for the courage to love deeply, to love extravagantly, to love boldly.
Because we’re in a new world now. Where Jesus blesses everything and shares everything and insists that you and me share everything too. We’re in a new world now. Where Jesus forgives everyone for everything and dares you and me to do the same.
You see, Easter is a way of life. And diving in is just the beginning.