As we finish up our three-week mini-series on Awakening, at first glance you may be wondering what in the world the story of the Good Shepherd has to do with awakening to baptism. And certainly this reading is not a text that is traditionally connected to baptism. There is no water imagery. There is no use of the word “baptism.” No one is baptized.
But I want to suggest that as we consider what it means to awaken to baptism, that baptism is not a singular event for any of us. Baptism is a way of life.
I remember when my husband and I first got married, a wise friend counseled us that we each needed to choose every single day to be married to each other. Marriage, the friend said, is a choice we make. Loving our partner is a choice we make. Good marriages don’t just happen on their own, and one partner alone cannot make a marriage good. It takes both spouses choosing each day to love their spouse, and choosing each day to nurture him or her, and choosing each day to be married to one another.
I think our baptismal covenant is rather like a marriage covenant in this way. We may or may not remember the actual event of our baptism. But at some point, we start taking responsibility for our vows, whether they were reaffirmed by others while we were infants, or we made them on our own as youth or adults. Either way, each of us must make a decision to live as baptized members of the community of faith. We have to make that choice intentionally. We have to make that choice every single day.
Mark Stamm, in his new booklet, The Meaning of Baptism in the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2017), writes that in the Pentecost story, the author of Acts says “And that day about three thousand persons were added” (Acts 2:41, NRSV) to the community of Christians through baptism. Stamm goes on to observe:
When I recount this story to my students, I often pause here and facetiously say, “And then they all went home and said, ‘what a wonderful and transforming religious experience that was!’” When they’re paying attention, they protest, saying, “That’s not what happened at all,” and they are correct. Those first Christians became a new community, one that “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts. 2:42). Theirs was a community in which the work of the Spirit was manifest. They cared for one another, sharing their lives on multiple levels, and that sharing overflowed, drawing others into their fellowship. The remainder of Acts provides the continued narrative of that overflow and by the grace of God received in baptism, we continue writing new chapters.
How are you writing new chapters into the unfolding story of the grace of God, received in baptism, through your personal life and relationships, in your church, in your community, and in the world?
Just like in a marriage, one partner in the baptismal covenant alone cannot make the relationship work. It takes other disciples, other members of the body, choosing every day to live in covenant with other baptized members, to make a Christlike community of faith. Being a baptized disciple of Jesus Christ is a communal act. We live out our faith and practice our discipleship within a community of other Jesus-followers. Baptism is an ecclesial act. That is why in The United Methodist Church we do not hold “private” baptisms. The saving grace of Christ Jesus, marked in our baptism, is lived out through our participation in community with God’s people. In the words of Mark Stamm,
. . .baptism saves us, but not in the strictly personalized way that some may have taught or believed. Through the Baptismal Covenant and the community of faith, God draws us beyond preoccupation with our own needs and destiny, and gives us a place in God’s ongoing project of blessing the world and calling it to justice and love (Stamm 26).
When we pass through the waters of baptism, we die to our old, individualized way of being and rise with Christ into a new and different way of being in the world. We are born again into the body of Christ. We emerge not as our old, self-preoccupied selves, but as anointed disciples called to bless the world as we stand up for justice and love. We become part of the flock, under the protection and guidance of our shepherd Jesus.
This is where the passage on the Good Shepherd from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to John helps to awaken us to a deeper meaning of our baptism. Baptism is an issue of identity, both personally and ecclesially. And here, I want to focus specifically on the communal aspect of Christian identity.
When people visit your worship service, how clear is it that your primary identity is in your relationship with the Triune God? What makes that identity clear? How is that identity communicated? How are you as a congregation marked unmistakably as members of the flock of Jesus Christ when compared to other groups in your community? I ask you to think about these questions because I believe reflecting on what sets us apart as followers of Jesus Christ is critical work for the church today.
In this passage, the shepherd seeks to hold the sheep together—all the sheep, including those with darker coats, and those who have been crippled, blinded, wounded, ostracized, attacked—as one beloved community. The identity of this flock is made known by the very clear relationship between the sheep and their shepherd. Likewise, the identity of the church is made evident by its clear, unmistakable relationship to the teachings and practices of its shepherd Jesus.
The good news in this passage is that our Good Shepherd Jesus calls out to each of us by name and goes ahead of us into every situation in which we find ourselves. Our Good Shepherd Jesus protects us from the thieves and the bandits—systemic powers and principalities—who would seek to destroy God’s mission to this world. Our Good Shepherd Jesus leads us forward through the ages in that very same mission, sometimes directing us to go into difficult situations and dangerous pastures, to reach out in love and justice to all God’s people, and to welcome all God’s children into the loving protection of the sheepfold. Our Good Shepherd sees what we cannot see for ourselves: he knows not just the names of those who are already part of the flock, but the names of those who have yet to join the flock.
In order to fully grasp the meaning of Jesus as our Good Shepherd, it is important to understand the role of the shepherd in the world of Jesus. I find the work of Rob Fuquay helpful in his book, The God We Can Know: Exploring the “I Am” Sayings of Jesus (Nashville, Upper Room Books, 2014).
In the time of Jesus, sheep pens were made out of rocks. A pen generally had only one entrance. When the sheep were being herded through the entrance and into the pen, the shepherd would literally lay hands on each member of the flock. He would run his hands through their wool to make sure there were no injuries or burrs or other things that needed attention. Oftentimes, the doorway to the sheepfold didn’t have a gate or any other type of physical barrier, so after checking the sheep, the shepherd would position himself physically across the opening. He would literally be the gate to the sheepfold, placing his body where he could keep the sheep from escaping, and thieves, bandits, and animals that might do them harm, from coming in. The shepherd literally was the gate (paraphrased from Fuquay, 55-57).
Jesus is the gate for his flock, the church. He is our gate. He is our protector, our trusted shepherd, the caregiver of not just our bodies, but our souls.
But we are not sheep. We are human beings, created in the image of God. And so, by the power of the Holy Spirit, our Lord Jesus has entrusted some of this work to us. He has commanded us to care for one another, to love one another as God has loved us.
As members of the flock of Jesus Christ, the church, we watch over one another in Christian love. We keep our eyes open for injuries or troubles faced by our sisters and brothers so that, if needed, we may attend to their needs and offer assistance, so that all are able to grow and thrive in service to God and to the world. In the Wesleyan tradition, this is the work of accountable discipleship groups, class leaders, spiritual directors, and others whom we trust and who may be in a better position to see us as we are.
In a similar way, we watch over others in prayer, continually lifting their needs for healing, justice, peace, and restoration—all forms of God’s salvation—to the One who saves.
I turn again to the words of Mark Stamm:
We take up the baptismal calling of the church to intercede for the world, and to continue to live more deeply into the mind of Christ. In the lifelong pilgrimage with the church begun in baptism, we discover again and again that our purpose in life is deeply tied up with giving ourselves in service to others. In baptism, we step into the flow of living water, and in it we experience, now, already, a foretaste of heaven (Stamm, 13).
Over these past three weeks, we have been awakened to a deeper sense of God’s call on our lives to ministry, to the table of the Lord, and to living into our baptismal covenant. In a moment, we will have an opportunity to respond to this awakening by reaffirming our baptismal vow together.
This may be the end of this miniseries, but the season of Easter and the work of learning to live as disciples marches on. Next week, we begin a new Easter Season miniseries: “Becoming.”
Over the four remaining Sundays in the Great Fifty Days of Easter, as we prepare for Pentecost, we will consider more deeply the commending words found in our Prayer of Great Thanksgiving and how as disciples of Jesus Christ we are becoming more fully one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry, flowing out into all the world.
We hope that as you close your sermon and this short series, that you will make a special invitation to those who are present to invite others to join you in the continuing journey of discipleship.