When I was in Christian College back in the early 1970’s I worked one summer as a student intern at a church in the Mountain West. I was there to do youth ministry. It was supposed to be a couple of months of camping, hiking, fishing, swimming, waterskiing, cookouts, basketball, prayer groups and Bible study with the kids of that church and their friends. But 2 weeks in, things took an unexpected turn when the senior minister suddenly announced that he was going on vacation. He was going to be gone for three weeks, nearly a third of my time there, and he was leaving me in charge. Me. A 19-year-old kid. In charge. What was he thinking?
As he drove away, I remember him waving and reassuring everybody within shouting distance that everything was going to be just fine. It was summer. Things were always quiet during the summer. Ha! No sooner had he hit the state line with his family in the car than the pastoral emergencies began to pile up. There were accidents, heart attacks, and unscheduled surgeries. I did my first funeral within days of his leaving! And then there was the “sweet torture” of Sunday mornings. A sermon and an order of worship every single week. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it anyway.
On the first Sunday I preached, a woman actually came forward to give her heart to Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and Savior and to ask for baptism! Talk about a confidence boost. I thought maybe just maybe I did know what I was doing! But then the next Sunday morning, she came forward and did it all over again! Needless to say, I was a little surprised, but not wanting to appear incompetent or unprepared, I just rolled with it. I took her good confession again and baptized her for a second time. I didn’t know, maybe it hadn’t taken the first time. But when she came forward on my third Sunday in charge, I went looking for the chair of the elders for help just as soon as the service was over.
That’s when he told me, “Yeah, we probably should have told you about her. She does that a lot!” It seems that this woman was well known by that church. She was one of their eccentrics. Every church has them, people who march to the beat of that proverbial different drummer. They’re like your crazy uncle at the Christmas dinner table, you never know what he’s going to say or do, but that’s okay because he’s family, and you love him.
Well, this woman really cared about her relationship with Jesus Christ. It was clearly important to her. All she wanted to do was to be faithful to Him, but she never quite felt like she was keeping faith with her commitment to Him as fully as she wanted. She was trying so hard to be a good disciple of Christ, but, in her own mind and heart, she just kept coming up short. And so, the way she chose to deal with it was to try to start all over again, and again, and again, every chance she got. This was why she came forward each week to make her confession of faith in Jesus Christ and to try to recapture her experience of the reassurance of forgiveness and acceptance that her baptism provided.
It was pretty clear to me that the chair of the elders thought this woman was odd, and that her constant coming forward was inappropriate. Today, some 50 years later, I don’t think of her as odd at all. In fact, I think of her as being pretty normal. I mean does anybody here feel like they’ve got this being-a-Christian-thing down pat? Does anybody ever show up here at church on a Sunday morning feeling like they’ve knocked this following Jesus thing clean out of the ballpark the week before? I know I don’t. And in light of our Scripture reading this morning from Philippians chapter 3, I’m pretty sure that if he were here this morning, neither would the Apostle Paul.
In the first part of our Scripture reading this morning Paul described his own initial decision to follow Jesus Christ and what it was that he was willing to put aside in order to “gain Christ” and to “be found in Him” (3:8-9). He said that everything else was “rubbish” compared to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus as his Lord” (3:8). In one of his books, Michael Green, one of the great English pastors and scholars of the last generation, described the very first Christians in the Bible as people who were “consumed with a passion for Jesus Christ.” He explained that “He was their Lord, He was their first love,” and that “nothing else (in their lives) was as important to them.” Keith Green, the contemporary Christian musician from the 1980’s, put it much more colorfully. At his concerts he liked to say that Christians were people who were “bananas about Jesus!”
Paul was. That’s what he was telling us in the first part of our Scripture lesson this morning. He was all in for Jesus Christ. Paul told us in those first few verses this morning that he was willing to sacrifice everything he was and everything he had in order to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. That’s how, and where, and why the Christian life begins. We are “seized by the power of a great affection” as they used to say about people who went forward in Gospel meetings to give their hearts to Christ. Without this passion for Jesus none of the rest of this makes any sense at all.
Paul had it, as did that woman in church 50 years ago who kept coming forward. But there’s something else that our Scripture lesson this morning makes clear that we’ve just got to understand. Paul told us that while this passion for knowing Jesus Christ was the organizing principle of his life, it wasn’t something that he felt like he had already fully attained. Paul didn’t think of himself as someone who had mastered what it means to be a Christian.
“I am not what God wants me to be yet,” Paul told the Philippians. “I’ve not yet reached that goal, but there is something I do. Forgetting what lies behind I press on to what lies ahead,I keep trying to reach the goal and get the prize for which God called me through Christ to the life above.” While following Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior begins with an initial decision of faith, the life of Christian discipleship is not something that is completed by that first decision of faith. It’s true, as the old saying goes, that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” But after that first step, there’s still a thousand miles to go, and we’ve got to regularly be renewed to stay on that journey.
This is why the church has two sacraments. One is for the very beginning of the journey of faith, and the other one is for the regular renewing it. Baptism is where the life of Christian discipleship is supposed to formally begin. In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost, when the Gospel was preached for the very first time in the power of the Holy Spirit, and people were convicted and asked, “What shall we do?” Peter told them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Sacramentally, the Christian life begins in this “bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) where an “appeal (is made) to God for a clean conscience” (I Peter 3:21), and we are “raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). This is meant to be a one-time experience for us. As the Creed says, “we believe in one baptism for the remission of sins.” Believer’s baptism is a stake driven in time as a permanent witness to when and where the journey of our faith began.
Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said that whenever he worried about the certainty of his salvation (something that he did surprisingly often), he learned to answer the fierce assault of his doubt by saying – “I am baptized!” – and that’s right. Baptism is meant to be the bright line marking the personal BC/AD divide in our lives (BC: “Before Christ” ~ AD: “Anno Domini” – “in the year of our Lord”). But once this journey begins in the waters of baptism, there’s a second sacrament that we are given to keep it going.
In the book of Acts, Luke tells us that the people who were baptized on Pentecost Sunday “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). That’s a good description of what the early church did when they got together, and right at the center of it was the sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of Bread. They got baptized once. They took communion every week. That’s how their faith was regularly renewed. Their spiritual well-being was not settled by the single decision made somewhere in the far distant past that prompted them to receive the sacrament of baptism, but by their recurring decision to participate in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. It was at the Lord’s Table that they found their regular reassurance that they were loved, accepted, and forgiven. That was the bread for the wilderness and the wine for the journey that sustained them, that kept them going.
I don’t consider that woman who came forward week after week at the church I served as a summer student intern some 50 years ago as mistaken in her desire to experience some continuing assurance that she was a child of God through all of the up’s and down’s and the in’s and out’s of her life. I need it too. Where I think the church failed her was in not making it clear that what she felt the day when she was first baptized was something that the Lord’s Supper is there to make sure she would feel every time she came to church.
Alexander Campbell, one of our church’s founders, said that the Lord’s Supper “commemorates the love which reconciled us to God, and always furnishes us with a new argument to live for him who died for us.” We need the Gospel message that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son on the day we first believe as we stand on the threshold of the journey of faith ready to take our very first step, but we also need it every single day of that journey of faith as we slowly but steadily make our way step by step to the house of the Lord where we will dwell forever.
Helen Mallon is a writer. One of her essays is a painfully frank confession of an emotional affair that she had with another author outside of her marriage. When she finally came to her senses, realizing how this was a real betrayal of who she was and what she valued, she was shattered. She wrote, “I’ve emerged raw from a lunatic romance, and there’s a Sunday school song running through my head: ‘The foolish man built his house upon the sand.’” “In naked humiliation,” she said she prayed to God using a line from a famous George Herbert poem – “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace.”
As she began the process of emotionally and spiritually putting her life back together again, Helen Mallon recalled something that she had seen at the beach while on a vacation with her family. There were a group of seagulls “scavenging at the water’s edge.” She said that “they (were) cutting arcs in the wind.” And as she watched, she said that one of them, “its head cocked toward a piece of bread that floated on the shallow waves,” and then it suddenly dropped out of the sky without warning or hesitation to “snatch that crust (of bread).” Helen Mallon said that she is just like that seagull turning circles in the sky, scanning the surface of the waters, desperately searching for some morsel of love, forgiveness, and acceptance, and diving for it full speed when it appears. We all are, and there (point to the Lord’s Table) it is.