Sunday, January 13, 2008

New Life For the Children of God

(Read Mt 3:13-17 and Romans 8:9-17 using The Message translation)

In The United Methodist Church, the Baptismal Covenant begins, “Brothers and sisters in Christ, through the Sacrament of Baptism, we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvations and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price” (UM Hymnal, pg. 33).

I have often pondered the significance of baptism. How does the Church understand it? What does baptism mean for us? It is one of our two Sacraments so it must be very important. John the Baptizer performed baptisms of repentance to prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus himself was baptized by John, even though he was greater than John, and as “Jesus came up out of the baptismal waters,” God’s Spirit, which looked like a dove, descended and landed upon him. “And along with the Spirit, a voice: ‘This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life’” (Mt. 3:.16-17). Or in the words of the translation we are more accustomed to, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Baptism was also practiced among the earliest of believers as recorded in Acts.

And it has continued as the initiating rite of a Christian. Although, we must admit, just because one is baptized does not mean that person will be a practicing or even a believing Christian. But the central idea remains, through baptism, a person is brought into Christ’s church, receives the promises of forgiveness of sins and resurrection to eternal life, and is reborn by the water that is put on his or her head, and transformed by the Spirit who comes into his or her life.

This new birth is what fascinates me and has captured my attention. I want the new life that comes with the new birth that we are given in baptism. In fact, at times, I believe I am already living it, but at other times, the life that I live seems more like the old life.

To me, the old life is a life that is stuck. Nothing ever changes for the good; we are doomed to repeat the same old mistakes and sins over and over and suffer from the same types of negative and fearful emotions over and over. The old life is filled with effort and striving only to learn nothing new and gain nothing of value. The old life is marked by scarcity, in contrast to the new life, which is marked by abundance. That means no matter how hard you work, there is never enough. The things of God, like love, peace and joy are scarce in the old life. And that is why it is so important to be born again of water and the Spirit; because it is the kind of life our souls long for, life in relationship with God where all things are possible, and we are free to truly live, in the greatest sense of the word.

Listen to what Romans, chapter 6 says, according to the Message translation: With baptism we enter into a new life, a new country of grace."That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus, when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light filled world by our Father so that we can [live] in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ…What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection.” (Romans 6: 3-9ish, from the Message translation).

The resurrected life is the life we hope for and know in our hearts is possible because of God’s abundant love. Jesus Christ defeated sin and death for eternity on the Cross, and that means his disciples enter into a new kind of living. The new life is assured in the grand scheme of things, as is God’s victory over death, but one of the struggles we still must face in our day to day experience of realty, is that both death and the old life continue to hold sway. They are still being worked out as God’s kingdom is being worked in.

That’s why we sometimes feel like we are in the new life, and other times, in the old life. Because we are continually moving from one to the other, growing and changing, becoming more and more alive.

Jesus had to die before he rose, and that pattern continues for us. We enter into our new ways of living by going through the cycles of death and birth, birth and death. This is how we are reborn. This is why we continue to suffer even with all of God’s promises. The important thing to remember is that every time the old life knocks our legs out from under us, the Spirit is there waiting to pick us up and set us back on the path to glory.

Eckhart Tolle talks about this reality in his book, Practicing the Power of Now, (although he uses a different sort of language). (By the way, the concept of now is important to the discussion of rebirth because now, the present moment, is the realm of God. God exists, God lives, God works in the now, in the present moment.)

Eckhart Tolle says:
The down cycle is absolutely essential for spiritual realization. You must have failed deeply on some level or experienced some deep loss or pain to be drawn to the spiritual dimension. Or perhaps your very success became empty and meaningless and so turned out to be failure

There are cycles of success, when things come to you and thrive, and cycles of failure,
when they wither or disintegrate, and you have to let them go in order to make room for new things to arise, or for transformation to happen.

If you cling and resist at that point, it means you are refusing to go with the flow of life, and you will suffer. [Parts of our lives must disintegrate or decompose into fragments] for new growth to happen. One Cycle cannot exist without the other, [like the cycles of birth and death] (pg. 103-4).
Baptism is no quick fix, but it does lead us down the worthy path, and it gives meaning to the ebb and flow of life. Our lives repeatedly fall apart, and God puts them back together for us in God’s own, superior way.

Even though change is good for us, and these processes we are talking about are the path to our enlightenment, they can be very painful and difficult to deal with especially if we don’t realize that God is present and working in every circumstance that we face.

The cycle of birth and death and the process of transformation demand that we let go of that which we have come to know and rely on. Our attachments to the things of this world often make us resistant to what God is doing. We hold on to what we know instead of making what God is doing most important. (It’s my house, my job, my dog, my dream, my addiction, my pain, etc).

Again Eckhart Tolle writes,
As long as a [persons judges a condition as “good”], whether it be a relationship, a possession, a social role, a place or your physical body, [then you become] attaché[d] to it and identify[y] with it. It makes you happy, it makes you feel good about yourself, and it may become part of who you are or think you are.

But nothing lasts in this dimension where moth and rust consume. Either it ends or it changes, or it may undergo a polarity shift: The same condition that was good yesterday or last year has suddenly or gradually turned into bad. The same condition that made you happy then makes you unhappy. The prosperity of today becomes the empty consumerism of tomorrow. The happy wedding and honeymoon become the
unhappy divorce or the unhappy coexistence.

[Another possibility is that] a condition disappears, so its absence makes you unhappy. When a condition or situation that [you have] attached [yourself] to and identified with changes or disappears, [its terribly difficult to deal with and accept]. [We] cling to the disappearing condition and resist the change. It is almost as if a limb were being torn off your body (pg. 104-5).
Our happiness plummets in the cycle of death mainly. The process of birth is more exciting and hopeful as the Spirit works to build us up; the painful part is creating space for that building to occur-- the letting go, the death cycle.

For example, when I was fired from my job working in film production in West Hollywood, I thought the world would come to an end. One minute, I was among the rich and famous, pursuing a career in the movie industry. The next, I was rejected and jobless. I was terrified; I was confused. What was I going to do now?

Well, God knew. Once I was fired from that mundane, task-oriented job, I entered seminary and eventually became a minister, the most fulfilling work I’ve ever known. I moved from a land of superficial beauty to a place of depth, where unconditional love awaited me. That is to say, upstate New York, living near my nuclear family. But letting go and allowing for that change to occur was grueling because I was so resistant and afraid of what was happening.

People who develop illnesses, even life-threatening ones, have told me that what was once the worst news they have ever received, the diagnosis, somehow, eventually became a gift. The illness helped them to appreciate life in a way they never had, and to live and love more fully than ever before.

What we must remember is that God is present in every circumstance of our lives. None of this happens without God being there. And so, instead of resisting what has come to be our life, we must surrender to it. By surrender, I don’t mean something negative, as though to imply “defeat, giving up, failing to rise to the challenges of life, becoming lethargic and so on. True surrender is something entirely different. It does not mean to passively put up with whatever situation you find yourself in and to do nothing about it” (Tolle. Practicing the Power of Now. Pg. ), but to find where God is in that situation and align yourself with the Spirit’s work.

“Surrender is the simple but profound wisdom of yielding to rather than opposing the flow of life. The only place where you can experience the flow of life is Now, [in your present circumstance], so to surrender is to accept the present moment…without reservations. [Surrender] is to relinquish inner resistance to what is” (Tolle. Practicing the Power of Now. Pg. ), and to follow the Spirit of God as it moves through your life, helping you to be born again from above.

Listen to what Paul says in Galatians: “How did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God's Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by theirown efforts what was begun by God. If you weren't smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? Did you go through this whole painful learning process for nothing? It is not yet a total loss, but it certainly will be if you keep this up! Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous striving or because you trust him to do them in you?” (Galatians 3: 2-5).

Grace comes in many forms, and many of them we are just beginning to recognize. The alive and present God who raised Jesus from the dead is moving in your lives, doing the same thing in you that he did in Jesus Christ, bringing you fully and freely alive. You don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. And the best way to get on with your new life is to surrender right here and now to where it is you find yourself. Yield. Go with the flow, and trust that God is doing something beautiful in the space he has created.

We are the children of God. The hurt can be healed; the dead-end can become the open road; the bad situation can transform into what you were hoping and praying for. But stop holding on so tight and trying to control things. Let the Spirit take the wheel. As you experience God’s unfathomable, mind blowing, awesome grace, pretty soon you too will be expectantly greeting God with a childlike, “What’s next Papa?” (Romans 8:15).