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  • Writer's pictureSt. Luke's

From Sin to Belonging

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

I guess my question for today is: Why did Jesus get baptized? After all, John has just said earlier in this chapter that his baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. But our own scriptures claim that Jesus was without sin. So why did he get baptized?

It seems like a small detail, but I think this is a big deal. Jesus being baptized shifts the very meaning of baptism, which means he shifts the very foundation of our faith.

When Jesus gets in line with all those people seeking repentance, he throws his lot in with theirs. He acknowledges that while he may be without sin himself, he does not exist apart from the people around him. He does not exist outside the systems of sin that govern every aspect of his community—economic systems that keep people poor and struggling, government systems that wrongly condemn people if they threaten the system’s power and authority, religious systems that seek to obtain worldly power at the cost of their own beliefs and values.

When Jesus gets in line with all those self-professed sinners, he’s shifting the paradigm. This isn’t about your individual sins. Of course we all commit these kinds of sins—sins that we can own up to and repent of. And it’s important to confess, to receive forgiveness, and to live differently.

But Jesus has nothing to repent of, no sin to be forgiven. But when he gets in line, he acknowledges that he is human and therefore a part of and a participant in this flawed world, that even he can’t escape the systems of sin.

And so he does what he knows is the only way to deconstruct those systems: he is baptized with his community in the river Jordan, declaring that though he is the son of God, he is also human. He is one of them. He belongs to them, and they belong to him.

He is baptized, and a voice comes from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

Jesus shifts the emphasis from sin to belonging. And God the Creator approves.

I was baptized seven years ago in seminary by The Rev. Dr. Jay Johnson, an Episcopal priest and a theology professor who taught my Queer Theology course. Yes, queer theology is a thing, and no, it’s not what you think.

Most of you know the story of my faith journey. I was raised in a very conservative Pentecostal church. As far as I remember it, the emphasis was constantly on sin and overcoming it. If you didn’t repent of your sins, and if you didn’t get saved, which was the equivalent of baptism in my childhood church, you would go to hell when you died. Every part of their belief was centered on individual sin. God rewards people who live right, so people who were struggling clearly weren’t living right.

If you were poor, it was because of your own actions. If you were sick, it was because you weren’t believing in God’s healing power hard enough. If you were struggling, it was because of your sins.

That kind of belief shifts everything onto individual effort, individual responsibility, individual belief. But I’ve read the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve read the gospels, and not once anywhere does it say, “God helps those who help themselves.” That’s not in the Bible. Anywhere. It was Ben Franklin who said that, actually.

But you know what the Bible does say over and over again. Feed those who are hungry. Clothe those who are naked. Welcome the stranger. Tend to those who are sick. Care for those who are vulnerable.

Our faith is not demonstrated by how strong and prosperous and self-sufficient we are, our faith is demonstrated by how we love our neighbor. And at the heart of loving our neighbor is knowing and believing that we belong to one another.

I didn’t learn that until I went to seminary. After all, I was queer, which—as far as I knew—meant that I was a serious sinner. A top-tier sinner. As far as I knew, Christianity had rejected me and condemned me to hell, so I rejected and condemned it right back.

Somehow, though, the Spirit tricked me into going to a Christian seminary. I thought I was going to seminary in order to be ordained a Unitarian Universalist minister and become a non-profit leader with a faith grounding. I thought, “well, we live in a Christian-centric culture, so I should learn the lingo, beat them at their own game.”

And I’m almost positive God laughed out loud.

Yes, I went to a Christian seminary, but that Christian seminary was the queerest community I’ve ever been part of. Gay, lesbian, bi, non-binary, and trans folks made up the majority of the student body. So much so that the straight cis students talked about starting a Straight Student Alliance. I still don’t if they were joking.

I felt totally free to be myself there. I felt totally free to question what I was learning about Christianity. Oh, and I did. And my professors and fellow students took my questions seriously. I got to safely deconstruct everything I knew about Christianity with Christians. For the first time ever I was in a community with people who loved God, who believed in Jesus, and I felt like I belonged.

That belonging crystallized when I took communion at my seminary’s chapel service for the first time since my childhood. For the first time, I felt safe taking the Body and Blood of Christ. I felt at home. After that, I craved communion, which brought me to The Episcopal Church.

I decided to get baptized because I wanted to formally say yes to that belonging. I wanted to proclaim to the world that “this is my God, and these are my people,” like Jesus did. And more than anything, I wanted to commit to creating that belonging for others. I get to do that in a really intentional way as a priest, but I think that’s the call of every Christian.

Our baptismal covenant in the Book of Common Prayer opens first with the apostles' creed: our belief in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Then it does call us to acknowledge our sin. But we need to remember that sin at its core is about the ways we refuse to acknowledge that we belong to one another and to God’s creation. In fact, the systems of sin I talked about earlier bear witness to the fact that we innately belong to one another. We are so interconnected that when we sin and then refuse to acknowledge that sin and repent, the effects of that sin ripple into our communities’ structures, like a stone thrown into a still pond.

Which is why the rest of our baptismal covenant speaks so powerfully to creating belonging, spreading that belonging in our communities, and putting that belonging into action.

I’m going to lead us in the last part of our baptismal covenant. If you’ve been baptized in any tradition, I invite you to reflect on how your baptism calls to live your faith. If you haven’t been baptized, I invite you to say the words, let them wash over you, and discern if you might be called to proclaim, “this is my God, and these are my people,” and let the waters of baptism, the waters of belonging, wash over you.

I will lead us in the covenant, and you will respond with, “I will, with God’s help.”

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

I will, with God's help.

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

I will, with God's help.

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

I will, with God's help.

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

I will, with God's help.

Let us pray.

Creator God, we thank you for sending us Jesus, who became human, throwing his lot in with ours, whose very being represents God belonging to this world, and this world belonging to God. Help us to remember that the waters of baptism call us to that same belonging. So fill us with your love that we may go out and create that belonging wherever we go. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

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