One of our shared experiences on our visit to our sister church was a breakfast time reflection based on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Pastor Dalia called it a “moving devotional” because there were different people present on different days, and there was always movement– some were serving the coffee, some were clearing the dishes from the table, some were coming and some were going. Each morning we read in both languages a portion of Paul’s letter, working our way through it over six mornings. We reflected on the passages together, sharing our varied perspectives, and the ideas we had in common. We sang and prayed together. Our “moving devotional” was especially moving for me (emotionally, not physically) on the last morning of our visit, when we included the 4 elderly persons who came each day for a simple breakfast provided by the church. They listened to the words of Paul, and each one participated as we shared around the table the kinds of things we rejoice in. I wondered if that experience might have created a new idea for our brothers and sisters to continue in some way, providing not only material bread for breakfast but also spiritual bread for the day.
Throughout the letter, Paul is encouraging his friends in Philippi to live out their Christian faith within their community. In chapter 3, he describes the righteousness of God which is given to us in Jesus Christ, and which must then become our modus operandi. It struck me that the word translated righteousness in my English language Bible was translated as justicia, or justice, in the Spanish language Bible. That is because the two words come from the same Greek word. Righteousness, or right relationship, is justice, and justice is right relationship, or righteousness.
The gospel writer we call Luke focuses on justice as a visible sign of what it means to live Christianity in his day and in our day. Luke is the historian among the gospel writers… he is very careful to place events in a very specific point in history, noting how they relate to the current Roman rulers and Jewish leadership. He is also committed to getting across the message that being a Christ follower entails some specific behaviors that are different, behaviors which illustrate justice/righteousness. More so than any other gospel writer in the New Testament, Luke illustrates how Christians are to incarnate the words of the prophet Micah. Christians are to love mercy, live justly, and walk humbly with their God. God’s people are to live together and in the world as a reflection of God’s own character. And God’s character is bound up in justice, or righteousness.
Matthew and Mark tell us what John is wearing and eating, placing him in the prophetic tradition. They also are clear that John’s message calls for repentance. But Luke is the only gospel writer who gives us such practical details of John’s sermon—he includes the impact on the listeners and their questions back to John. John is crystal clear that baptism is a whole lot more than being dipped in the water. He is talking about a baptism which calls for real change. The baptism he offers is a life-changing event. It should produce visible results—fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. He can’t be easy to listen to, standing out there in the wilderness along the Jordan River. He calls them snakes. He threatens them. He is trash talking the very people he has called out to be baptized. I wonder how many of them turned around and went back home! It would have been pretty easy to say, “I don’t need this!”
But the people who stayed wanted to know more. What did he mean—producing fruit that shows we have changed our hearts and lives? He has a list ready. No more should your neighbor be without a shirt or a coat. No more should your neighbor be without food on the table. John’s baptism means changing the way we do things. It means sharing what we have.
The tax collectors wanted to know how this baptism would affect them. Everyone knew the tax collectors were double dipping, taking more money from the citizens than they had rights to collect. John’s answer does not sound difficult. Just do your job correctly. Do your job honestly. Is that so hard? Maybe it is: what if you were the first customs agent at the airport to STOP taking a “bonus payment” (bribe) from travelers in order to not search through their luggage? How does that sit with the rest of your co-workers? You give them a black eye and no one likes that. Living justly has consequences.
And to the soldiers who wanted to know how this baptism affected them: Just do your job with integrity. Do not harass or cheat people. Do not be greedy and expect more than you deserve. Is that so hard? But maybe it is: what if you were one of the six police officers involved in the arrest and apprehension of Freddie Gray and you refused to treat him roughly? What if you swam against the stream and treated him with respect instead? It will immediately affect your relationships with your co-workers and your boss. Your reputation changes. Living justly has consequences.
John is not demanding something outside of the range of what we can possibly do. He is not requiring the people to become someone they are not. He is requiring them to make a choice to live in right relationship with others and in right relationship with God. For John, baptism means making a lifestyle change. He is a prophet, and his preaching is definitely within the tradition of the prophets of the Old Testament, calling the people to change their ways. John offers God’s Word in the wilderness, the place where God and the people of God really formed their bond centuries before, the place where the people learned to depend on God and not on self. God’s voice speaks from the wilderness of job confusion or family tension or loneliness or spiritual dryness. John offers God’s Word in the wilderness, calling to us even today.
It is a life changing decision to follow Christ. And following Christ means we change the lives of others. We impact others in a new way. Imagine the first teenage girl who was not raped by the soldier because his life had changed. Or the first widow who paid her taxes and still had coins left over for food because the tax collector’s life had changed. Or the man who received a loaf of bread on his doorstep when his neighbor baked. Or the child who puts on a pair of shoes for the first time in months. When people try out generosity the lives of others are changed. Living justly has consequences.
The impact we had on our Cuban brothers and sisters was huge. And so was the impact they had on us. I am standing with Oscar in the church, a man who left an indelible mark on Craig—he will have to tell you the story another time. And Benito and his mother, Antonia, are in their home just a block from the church, where I helped to deliver breakfast of milk and bread for Antonia. I know our visit with each other impacted me, and I believe it left a print on their hearts as well. Living justly has consequences.
The climax for Luke here is that Jesus comes to John for baptism. Jesus himself, the one John is preparing the way for, the one who is more powerful, the one who will do his own baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Cleansing fire, not destroying fire. God’s burning presence, not a consuming fire. Jesus is baptized and the heavens open. The barrier between humans and God is slashed through and God is at work in a new way on this earth. God says, “You are my beloved.” When the heavens open, we respond with a mixture of surprise and hope, awe and gratitude, and an awareness that everything has changed.
We are beginning a new year. The past is behind us. We can not repeat it. The new year brings new opportunities and new challenges. What a good time for us to remember our own baptism, to recognize the ways our changed lives can change the lives of others. One of my favorite Christmas movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life”. The main character, George Bailey, learns through an angel the positive impact which decisions he had made in his life had had on those around him, and the negative differences his entire community would have experienced if he had not made those decisions. At the end of the movie, he realizes that despite problems and trials, it is indeed a wonderful life to live in a community where we each can impact one another for good.
Each of us is a beloved child of God. We say it at a baptism, but we should remind ourselves of it frequently. Beloved children of God, called to a life of justice and righteousness, called to impact the lives of others around us. Amen.