–Edward Hicks, Noah’s Ark
Baptism of Bryn M.
One of the most ancient words in the Christian vocabulary is the word “salvation.” It shows up in practically all our hymns and prayers. We think we know what it means, sort of, but a lot of us would be hard-pressed to define it. It is like beige. Or wallpaper. It’s a background word. We hardly notice it.
There are other Christians, however, for whom “salvation” is not a wallpaper word. It is a foreground word, a word always on their minds. Given half a chance, these brothers and sisters will confront you with “salvation” whenever they can. And wherever they can—say, on the bridge over the Mass Pike as you’re heading to Fenway Park for a ballgame. They accost you, wearing sandwich boards that are painted with flames (signifying hell, where they believe we all deserve to be). A picture of Jesus on the cross is superimposed over the flames (signifying the way to avoid hell. The only way). As they hand you a tract, they ask, “”If you died tonight, would you wake up in heaven or in hell?” And then, “Have you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?”
They believe that “saving” you is the most loving thing they can do. After all, if there is a God, and if God means business, and if God’s business involves assigning eternal reward and punishment, and if there is a divinely-appointed way to avoid the punishment and get the reward—namely, affirming with your lips that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior—then it really would be in your best interest to listen to them and do what they say.
Hardly anyone does. Especially outside Fenway Park. There’s no hope that they are going to have much success with Sox fans anyway. Most of us have already sold our souls to the devil.
Have you been saved?
The typical theologically-liberal reply to that question is not yes or no, but “it all depends.” It all depends on what you mean by ‘saved’—saved from what? Surely not from damnation. Not too many of us believe in damnation. It flies in the face of our conviction that God is all-forgiving and utterly gracious. We say things like, “Well, maybe hell exists, but that doesn’t mean anyone’s in it.” When pressed, we include even Hitler and Pol Pot in God’s mercy, and if God can redeem those monsters, God will certainly redeem us, who are much smaller potatoes.
If “getting saved” basically means “going to heaven,” then, with hell out of the picture and no purgatory to worry about (Protestants don’t hold to a doctrine of purgatory), all we mainline Christians have to do to “get saved” is to die. Which takes no special talent. Sooner or later we all die. Our somewhat wan theology about all this salvation business is neatly summed up by 19th century German poet Heinrich Heine who once wrote, “I love to sin. God loves to forgive. Really, the world is admirably arranged!”
But surely salvation is about more than where you end up when you die. Our parable today is all about salvation, but it has nothing to say about what happens after death. That’s not to say that nothing happens; it’s only to say that Jesus is not preoccupied with that in this story. He just wants to find that one lost lamb.
When we tie our notion of salvation too narrowly to the matter of our fate after death, we always end up also narrowing the grand complexity and thickness of Christian life and faith. That one might be saved simply by affirming that Jesus is Lord is a case in point. The odd case of limbo is another. Recently it was reported that the Catholic Church is going to abolish limbo. For the clueless, I’ll explain.
Traditional Catholics believe that everyone inherits the “original” sin of Adam and Eve and that we are therefore born into the world in a condition of radical separation from God. Only baptism can take that sin away and restore the human friendship with God. If you die unbaptized, you can’t go to heaven.
Where does an unbaptized soul go? If it’s not its fault that is has not been baptized—say, in the case of a newborn— it goes to a “place” or state of being in hell called “limbo.” There the soul is “punished” by being deprived forever of the vision of God, which is the greatest joy of the saved. But it is mercifully spared the eternal torment of those who are in hell through their own damned fault. In limbo, there is no active suffering, only the deprivation of God’s presence. If a soul is in limbo, it is simply, well, in limbo. Avoiding limbo is the reason that Catholics tend to baptize their babies as soon after birth as possible.
The idea of limbo was meant originally to be a consolation in the face of a very strict doctrine of original sin and a very narrow idea of salvation-as-fate-after-death. At least an unbaptized child is spared the pains of hell. But this teaching about limbo was in fact a source of terrible anxiety for parents. And when a child did die before being baptized, it caused them unspeakable agony. On top of the grief of losing a child, grieving parents had no hope of ever being reunited with her.
The current Pope Benedict is on record as saying that the doctrine of limbo is not “pastorally useful” any more. Many Catholics doubt it ever was. They can’t wait to see it go the way of fish on Fridays.
Now, I know that this internal Catholic discussion about original sin, baptism, salvation, and our fate after death has little to do with us as Protestants of the more open, y’all come, God is merciful to everyone variety. We have a very different view of original sin and a very different view of baptism. We are in no rush to baptize babies! We do not worry about their eternal fate if, God forbid, they should die without the sacrament. Washing away the stain of original sin is not the first (or the second or the last) thing on our minds when we baptize.
And yet when you look closely at our baptism service, you can find traces in it of a concern about sin and salvation. There is language that alludes to cleansing and rebirth. We make promises renouncing evil and turning towards the things that make for eternal life. We mention forgiveness.
Why do we keep that kind of talk? Isn’t baptism more about welcoming people into the Christian family? Isn’t it the moment when we hear God say to us, “You are my beloved”?
We keep traces of the language of sin and forgiveness because the family of faith into which baptism ushers us is not just any old company of people. The church of Jesus Christ has a specific character. More than anything else it is a company of the pardoned, a congregation of the redeemed, a new kind of family characterized by a life-long and life-giving dependence on forgiveness—God’s and each other’s.
In our UCC tradition, baptism does indeed speak primarily of our unconditional acceptance by God as God’s beloved children. But the amazing and precious thing about this gift of acceptance and adoption is that God bestows it on us “just as we are, without one plea.” God gives it to human beings who may come into the world free of sin, innocent, fresh and clean, but who never stay that way. And don’t you think God knows that we won’t stay that way? And yet, knowing what God knows, God embraces us anyway. Baptism’s waters plunge us into an ocean of forgiveness in which we will need to be swimming all the days of our lives.
You do not have to believe in original sin transmitted almost genetically from generation to generation in order to be persuaded that sooner or later actual sin plays a disruptive role in every human life and in every human society. No one and no society escapes its ravages—the revolting headlines of the last week’s carnage in Iraq are proof enough of that.
You do not have to believe that we come into the world already infected by sin to acknowledge that it isn’t all that long afterwards that each of us fall sin-sick in our own way, secret or public, great or small.
You do not have to believe that at our birth original sin radically separates us from God in order to take seriously the common human experience of estrangement, alienation, and loneliness that are like a persistent undertow, dragging our longing to be whole out into a vast sad sea, and against which we feel helpless to resist.
I don’t believe that the simple affirmation that Jesus is my Lord and Savior guarantees me a place in heaven if I should die in the night. In the same way, I don’t believe that left unwashed, the stain of some inherited original sin will damn me to hell at worst, or at best perpetually suspend me in a limbo of futility between my worst fears and my best hopes.
What I do believe is that I need and desire mercy. I need assurance of mercy. Assurance that my own real and deliberate sins will not cause me—now or in the end—to be forgotten or lost. Assurance that I will not—now or in the end—have nowhere to call home. Assurance that I will not ever—now or in the end—vanish like a dream from the heart of God.
So far, Bryn, our newest little sister in the faith, has not hated anyone, started a fight or a war, or decided that she’s more righteous than the rest of us and started treating us that way. She is the very picture of God’s pleasure, holy and innocent. It’s hard to imagine her sinning when you look at her now, but even her besotted parents know that it won’t be long before she’ll be needing mercy just like the rest of us.
And so today we have done the best thing we could do for her. We did for her what loving hands once did for us. And loving hands before them did for them. We presented her to God, who is the mercy we crave. And by water and the spirit God made her part of this great, wide and embracing family of Jesus where it is always and everywhere simply a given that our need for daily saving will always be met by his endless need to save.
We have made a preemptive strike on Bryn’s life, moving it out of the lost column into the found. And by the vows we made to her today, we have become for her, with Christ, the shepherd who will track her down when later on she gets lost for real—as often as that happens, and as long as it takes to find her.
Every time we do this, we glimpse the meaning of Christian fellowship, and the nature of the Church. Every time we do this, we exercise the debt of love we owe each other because God first loved us. Every time we do this, we create and re-create the blessed tie that binds. Every time we do this, a window opens on the character of God, and what we see in that window overcomes us with a joy no circumstance can alter. Every time we do this, the ancient hope for a new world and a new way of living in it together materializes among us.
If salvation is anything, this is it.
If it is to be found anywhere, it is here.