Sunday, December 10, 2023
Sermon Audio
Full Service Audio

“Now No Longer”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, December 10, 2023
Reading: Galatians 3:23-29

I don’t know if you noticed it. It could be easy to miss. But the passage read is one of the most important in all of scripture. It’s a description of identity, and what happens to our identity after baptism. When we go under those waters, our old self is drowned, and we come up a whole new humanity. And in this new humanity, there are no gradations of value like we have in our ordinary world.

In Paul’s time, and in our time, we size one another up based on what we think are obvious categories: gender, race, economics, what have you. This seems to be old and natural. What’s not old or natural is this: Jesus Christ summons a new humanity out of the waters of baptism. This one is not demarcated by gender, race, status, economics. It’s just Christian. And that, my friends, is extraordinary.

The image you see this morning is by a Filipino artist named Vicente Manansala. I saw this image in a museum in Manila once, told our own tech genius Josh del Rosario it was in a wing called the Del Rosario gallery. I asked him, Josh, do you own this painting? He doesn’t think so. I love it because most baptism images we see are often of lily-white Europeans. Mostly men. Manansala depicted Filipino village life. These are two women, one joining the other to Christ forever.

When we started our series on Paul way back in September, I told you of some current philosophers who see in Paul a radical egalitarianism. One so risky it’s never even been approximated. G.K. Chesterton said people today think Christianity has been tried and found wanting. The truth is, Christianity has been found difficult, and not really been tried at all. I mean, you find me a people not divided over these lines, lots of cultures have tried. Christianity is the first world religion not to have a preferred race. A single holy language. We try to say Christ invites all, the least in our world first, the first in our world last. Our present North American cultures have worked hard against discrimination in all its legal forms. But ask anyone who’s ever suffered due to gender, race, or religion, whether discrimination is gone. It is not. One could argue it never will be.

Paul says something different. Those divisions are gone. Not that divisions will be erased (future tense), they are erased (present tense). Not that if we got our act together, they would go. He could have tried that. A rah-rah speech, you guys can do it! Sometimes we have tried. Monks and nuns try to organize their lives without marriage, or the gender-difference that births new people. It’s hard to do, it’s possible, but hard. Transgender people say they don’t want their birth gender to define them; non-binary people say they don’t want any gender to define them. Our society is struggling with the ramifications of such claims. Another example that we’ve tried: the first thinker of any kind, Christian, Jewish, pagan, anybody, to say slavery is essentially wrong, was a church father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, arguing in the 4th century from this passage that the new humanity Christ brings is one without ownership of human beings. That’s pretty good, we should be proud of that. It took western Europe 1400 years to catch up with St. Gregory, and the Americas still longer, but it happened.

Biblical scholar NT Wright speaks of these passages in Paul as little time release capsules. Bombs primed to go off. The seeds of liberation are here in scripture, they can take a while to release, but their fruition is sure. We’ve had Christian experiments with erasing divisions even in North America: our own Ontario proudly banning slavery from our province’s founding. Little sectarian groups even in the US south trying to be equal on race and class, at great risk to themselves. But here’s what Paul says. Not, ‘hey you guys try harder.’ He says this: These divisions are already gone. Annihilated. Disintegrated in baptism. They don’t matter anymore.

But this is difficult. Just ask our Jewish friends if they want their Jewishness washed away in baptism. Uh, no, thanks, don’t ask again. Even with some feminist success in the last century, most women still want to be identified as women, different than men, proud of it, and not just one of the boys. Ask a person of colour if they want to be considered white, and you’ll get an earful, and if you’re lucky that’s all you’ll get. White liberals used to say things like, ‘I don’t see you as white or black, just a person.’ A person of colour is likely to respond, yeah um, I am black, and proud of it. In other words, most of the divisions Paul describes persist, and they’re not all bad. Except for slavery, that one’s all bad. But differences in gender, race, religion, those aren’t necessarily harmful. Paul himself still speaks to women about this, gentiles about that, Jews about the other.

Do you see how disorienting baptism is? Race, gender, religion, economics are gone. Ah, wait, they’re still here. Sort of. Just marginalized. Hard to imagine right? But let’s try.

There was a famous Canadian ethicist named George Grant, sort of a curmudgeonly academic. He wrote a book in the early 1960s about Canadian identity. It was a lament. He said we Canadians spent 400 years as a vassal state to Great Britain. And we recently traded that identity to be a vassal to the USA. Can’t we just have our own identity for a change? You know, take the strengths from each, leave the weaknesses, add other immigrant peoples’ strengths? Now, if we were to say, ‘let’s just erase Canadian identity altogether!’ That wouldn’t be good news. Because those with less power don’t want erasure. We just want dignity. So, we’ll keep our Canadian identity, thanks, take it away and we’d just be swallowed up by Americanness. What’s the joke? Canada could have had British culture, French food, and American technology? Instead, we have British food, American culture, and French technology? Baptism washes away even national identity. Americanness doesn’t make you good. Neither does Canadianness, Britishness, Chineseness. Baptism washes away those markers. How do we live now when they’re radically relativized?

The church I was involved with in Vancouver was a multi-site megachurch, about half Asian. And in a newcomer class there was a conversation between a new Japanese family and a new Malaysian one. Two very different cultures. But they’d had the same experience. In Japan, you can go to church all you like. Take communion even, they don’t care. But if you’re baptized, your family of origin might cut you off. Non-Christian Japanese recognize the power of baptism: it’s a denial of your Japanese identity. The Malaysian family said it was the same for them. Churchgoing is not a problem. Baptism is. It meant you’d opted out of Malay culture and identity. Go join your new Christian friends and don’t expect to be in the will. That’s serious.

I wish we realized how serious baptism is for us too.

Here’s a start. We have new members joining this morning at 9:15. We have seven folks being baptized at 11:00, including five adults. Their identity changes today. They are born again into a new family called church, given a new surname that replaces the old: Christian. I spoke with an adult we baptized last year, and he said he got home afterwards and thought, what just happened? What does it mean? The rest of the Christian life is figuring out the answer to that question. In one way nothing changed. You can’t go to your credit card company and say, ‘hey, uh, that guy who borrowed money is dead. This newly Christian guy is debt-free baby!’ There’s no space on government forms to mark “Christian” instead of indigenous or Anglo or Caribbean. Our whole world is still organized on such divisions. But baptism is the beginning of a whole new world, right in the middle of the old. The world of resurrection. And everybody is invited in. It’ll cost you your whole identity, with all its markers, but it’ll gain you everything.

In the ancient church, we baptized new believers once a year, at Easter. The 40-day fast of Lent was a preparation. Then the new believers would be baptized at dawn on Easter Sunday, as the sun comes up. They’d go down into a baptismal font that looks like a cross-shaped tomb. Big enough to drown in. Some of you in Bible study asked if I want a font like this for our church. I responded, I wouldn’t suggest that, but it sounds like some of you just did. Before walking down those steps you’d take off your clothes. That is, you’d strip as naked as the day you were born. This is evidence for women in leadership in the ancient church: someone needed to midwife her sisters to new life. You’d go down those steps to death, under that water three times in the name of the Trinity, and up the other steps to new life. You’d be clothed in a new robe, a white one, and you would wear that for 50 days till Pentecost. White to symbolize Christ, holiness. I know the same garment for 50 days doesn’t sound clean by our standards and wouldn’t be all that white by the end—they had different standards of cleanliness in the ancient world, bear with me, you cynics. We Christians usually go stealth, no one can tell who we are outwardly—race and economics and gender are outward markers for others to quickly classify you. But for 50 days after baptism no one could tell—wait, that person is not male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, that person is . . . Jesus. Another version of those fonts has eight sides, for the eight days of creation. Genesis describes seven days of creation. The resurrection is the eighth day, the completion of creation. To be baptized is to step into God’s new world of resurrection now. The one where no other status matters.

One of my teachers was asked in an interview in the early 90s about transgender people. It wasn’t on the agenda then for most mainline communities. He said, I don’t know what to say about that, but I hope they show all of us that identity in Christ is more important than our gender. That’s a Galatians 3 response: in Christ, all old markers are cast away, and our only marker from now on is that of a resurrected rabbi, and the new world he brings.

And after baptism, water itself is never the same. It’s always a sign of something more. A church I admire makes these tags for the shower: every bath is a reminder of baptism now. One of our folks here is a children’s author named Mariko Uda who has a lovely book about Toronto’s water and waste systems. She says our bodies are some 60 percent water. In Toronto, our water comes from Lake Ontario. Our waste goes there too after being treated—check out her book for the story. So, she says that means all of us, you and me, are 60 percent Lake Ontario. Cool, eh? Don’t you want to take better care of the lake now? I sure do. Paul says after baptism we’re 100 percent Jesus Christ, child of God, beloved. Don’t you want to invite others to that too? I sure do.

Now be careful. Difference still matters and should be honoured, not homogenized, or flattened. For centuries in western Europe there was a social benefit to Jews becoming Christian, being baptized. It could help in your line of work, or your kids to get into better schools. A desecration of baptism: making it a new marker of status, a way to steamroll someone’s identity. In my US south there were laws on the books that said, hey, churches talk a lot about freedom, but being baptized doesn’t manumit a slave. This “liberation” is only spiritual. Can you hear the nervousness? You only pass a law because it’s perceived as needed. Baptism does break chains, whatever the laws of South Carolina or Alabama say. I remember working at a Christian camp, wondering where we could go to church that wasn’t boring. And one brave guy said I know where. They sing and dance and shout. Y’all will love it. It’s the black church in town. Here’s how racism works: we’d never considered that. We visited. And he was completely right. His baptism was more determinative than his whiteness in that moment. I’ve told you before no black church we can find ever turned away a white person. You see? Sometimes baptism works even in this world, not just in the one to come.

Well, here’s a poem. Scott Cairns is an Eastern Orthodox Christian, imagining how baptism makes not just us new, but all things new. The word “sepulcher” means tomb.

And when we had invented death
had severed every soul from life
we made of these our bodies sepulchers

And as we wandered dying, dim
among the dying multitudes,
He acquiesced to be interred in us.

So when He had descended thus
into our persons and the grave,
He broke the limits, opening the grip,
He shaped of every sepulcher a womb.

“We” humans invented death. Christ was buried in our grave so he could make new life from every tomb.

Baptism can work even for small things. When I was working a hard job in Chicago I’d go to and from work on the train. And there was a fountain en route. And just walking by I’d think for a minute, wait, I’m baptized, and nothing that can happen today can change that. Commuting in North Carolina another time there was a canal on the way to work. It was not even a foot deep with concrete banks. A beaver found its way into that fake river, can you believe it? A gift from us Canadians, an invasion like the War of 1812 (don’t burn the White House down). Not much to eat even with those teeth in a concrete canal. My fellow North Carolinians rescued Barry, not to worry. Once again, stepping by that water to work I’d think, hmm, baptism makes me, me, in a way that my job cannot unmake. And neither can anything else.

Friends, your baptism makes you, you in a way that nothing else can, and in a way that nothing can unmake. Other demarcations stay down under the water when you come up. And no matter who you are. No matter who you’ve been. From that day on, you’ll have a new identity. That of the risen Jesus Christ. You’ll wear it around not just for 50 days but forever. And we who share that identity with you will be changed too. Made new. Refreshed. As we wait together for the coming of our saviour, Jesus Christ, not too long from now. Amen.