We’ve shared in the privilege of celebrating a baptism this morning, our third baptism of a little baby in recent months. And we have a fourth baptism tentatively scheduled for early May. It seems that God keeps bringing us into relationship with families, and babies, and younger people.
There have been times in the past few years around here where the question had been raised about whether we ought not to just settle into the reality that maybe what we had become is a congregation of older people, a congregation for older people. That that somehow had become our fate, something we ought to accept and make the best of. But I think the evidence is steadily growing—the new relationships being formed, the growth of our children’s ministry—the evidence suggests that God isn’t finished with us yet, as a place and as a people amongst whom people might grow in faith, and grow in our relationships with God.
So this is what I want to reflect on with you today: baptism, believing, and belonging.
The first thing I want to say is that baptism is not the beginning of our relationship with God; it is not our first introduction to God. Scripture tells us that God knows us from before we are born; that God knits us together in our mother’s womb; that God dreams of our lives, and of what we might yet become, before any of those things occur to us.
So, as Pam noted in the story she told about her mother, we can affirm from a Christian perspective that God is in relationship with us before our baptisms, and even if we are not baptized. What this tells us—what the witness of Scripture, and the wisdom of Pam’s mother tells us—is that it starts with God: the relationship starts with God, because God takes the initiative. God wants to be in relationship with us.
So baptism isn’t the beginning of our relationship with God, but it is our first formal response to God’s initiative; it’s our assent to participating in a relationship with God.
In Augustus’ case, as an infant, his parents have taken that decision for him, just as they will make other decisions on his behalf, decisions that contribute to his health, his growth, his nurture, his formation as a human being. In time, as Augustus grows, and grows in his relationship with God, he will have the opportunity to affirm for himself his beliefs, in the process of confirmation. But that’s still a long way off for the little guy!
Believing and Belonging
I want to turn now to the matters of believing and belonging. These are terms that are at the heart of an important theological discussion today. If you come to the Conference event being hosted by Trinity next weekend, you’ll hear from Rev. John Pentland, who discusses this in his recent book. The question that is being asked is which comes first: believing or belonging?
According to one way of looking at this, the idea is that in the past, the church required people to believe certain things—often described as dogma—before they could belong to the church. And the suggestion is that today it’s more appropriate to give people opportunities to belong to a community, and that perhaps belief will emerge for them over time.
In some ways, it’s typical of our modern age to set up these kinds of dualisms or dichotomies—belief vs. belonging—to set these in oppositional terms. In this oppositional framework, belief is seen as dry and dusty, and as “all in the head”; while belonging is seen as warm and fuzzy, as a matter of the heart.
Belief is seen as something old-fashioned, as something belonging to the medieval past, and as something that divides us. Belonging is seen as modern, and contemporary, something that has the promise of bringing us together.
And it’s true that belief can be reduced to a code, to a set of rules, of dos and don’ts, that can become lifeless. But it’s also true that belonging has its limits, if we’re not able to articulate what it is we belong to, what is the nature of our belonging, what is the story that we share. A current debate in the United Church concerns an atheist minister, and whether or not we can discern any limits to our sense of belonging.
Believing and belonging are also at the heart of today’s Gospel story that Caroline read for us. In the story, there’s a group of people around Jesus who are questioning him. The text calls them “the Jews,” but of course pretty much everyone in the story is Jewish, including Jesus and his disciples. Here the term “the Jews” signifies those who are part of the Jewish community but not (or not yet) followers of Jesus. They are people with questions, still on the fence, not sure what to believe.
And so they ask Jesus a question, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they ask. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” They want a clear answer as to what they should believe.
And Jesus responds, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” And he goes on to say that the things he has done—which to this point in the gospel include turning water into wine, healing people, feeding 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish, walking on water, and restoring sight to a man born blind—that these things testify to his identity as the Messiah.
And then he says, “but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” You do not believe because you do not belong. That seems to answer the question I asked earlier, of which comes first, believing or belonging. Jesus here seems to suggest that belonging comes first: you need to belong in order to believe. But it’s not that simple.
The whole of John’s gospel is concerned with what people believe about Jesus. All of the things he does—those healings, and feeding, and the miracles—they are signs that are meant to prove who Jesus is, and the test is in how people respond to those signs: do they respond with belief or with unbelief?
So, in a sense, believing and belonging in John’s gospel are quite intertwined: you are invited to believe and to belong; as you believe who Jesus is, you are simultaneously incorporated into this community of belonging. I read somewhere this week that it’s not so much about believing versus belonging, as though the two could be separated as we might do today, but really about experiencing or participating in a relationship with God that holds belief and belonging together.
Jesus has invited those around him to experience what he has done, to let it touch them. And then to be so moved that they are drawn further into relationship, into participation in what Jesus is doing on behalf of God in the world. If we put that together with what I said earlier—that it starts with God, that God wants to be in relationship with us, we see this pattern of invitation that is at the heart of our faith.
It’s there as well in the psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters… God with us, providing for us, caring for us, in life, in death, in life beyond death.
But it is an invitation that we are meant to take up, to respond to. We are meant to be drawn into this pattern of believing and belonging. That requires getting off the fence, and taking a step into the story. And as we do, as we deepen our participation, our lives are shaped, transformed, remade into a pattern that looks more like what we see in the life of Jesus. Baptism is the first step on that journey. It’s our response to God’s invitation, a first tentative step of belief, a first tentative commitment to participation in, and belonging to, this story.
So do we need to start with a particular belief, as though there is a formula we need to recite in order to be known and loved by God? No, of course not. God knows us and loves us first.
But the witness of Scripture is that God is not content to leave it at that. God wants to be in relationship with us, and wants us to be in relationship with him, wants us to grow in our faith, and in our participation in God’s work in the world. Our believing and our belonging are meant to go deeper over time, to give shape to our lives and to our church.
What we have done today is to invite Augustus into this particular way of believing and belonging, the way of Jesus. We pray that God will continue to work in his life, and that the story of Jesus will inspire him to live with a generous and a humble heart, and that the Spirit will gift him with every gift he needs, and most especially the greatest gift, love. And we pray that Augustus’ participation in the life of the church may teach us, and inspire us, in our believing and our belonging. Amen.
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