Equipped to Serve

SJF • Proper 7c • Tobias Haller BSG
As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
In my sermon last week, I spoke about how the woman who came into Simon the Pharisee’s house and washed Jesus’s feet was reenacting a kind of baptismal liturgy. In today’s readings we have an even clearer exposition of that liturgy, including Saint Paul’s explicit reference to baptism.

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We begin with the Old Testament passage from the Prophet Zechariah. This prophecy has long been held to point towards both the crucifixion and the subsequent upwelling of repentance that would eventually bring many of the Jewish leaders into the church. The Book of Acts shows how the Apostles’ testimony to the resurrection convicted their hearts and enabled them to realize the generosity and graciousness of God. And the symbol of this generosity and graciousness is the fountain opened for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from their sin. Christians have seized upon this imagery from an Old Testament prophet and applied it to their own experience of cleansing and liberation, in that “precious fountain” that wells up “near the cross, near the cross.”

As with the woman who wept at Jesus’s feet, sorrow and contrition come before the cleansing fountain. There is an old theological word for this, which one hardly ever hears anymore except in the phrase, “I have no compunctions.” Compunction is that sharp realization that pierces you with the knowledge
of your own wrongdoing. I remember from my elementary school days a story that stuck with me — as I assume those who presented it intended. It was part of a good citizenship class, about good behavior and responsibility. It involved a bad little boy who liked to throw rocks at the passing passenger trains that ran near his home. And one day as he was throwing rocks in this irresponsible way, one of them shattered the train window, and the broken glass and the rock itself terribly injured one of the passengers. And it turned out to be the little boy’s father!

The compunction and sorrow of the people of Jerusalem is similar — as they realize that the one they have pierced, the holy one they have rejected and crucified, is as it were their only child, their firstborn. They are cut to the quick in this realization, that they have murdered their own child. It reminds me of Joe Keller, the father in Arthur Miller’s play, All My Sons — and perhaps Miller was thinking of this passage when he wrote the play. Keller realizes at last that his own shady business practices in selling substandard airplane parts to the military have resulted not only in his own son’s death, but the death of many other pilots — and he realizes with incredible pain, as the title says, that “they were all my sons.”

That is what compunction means — to be pierced by the knowledge of one’s own responsibility; to realize that, as Joe Keller’s younger son assures him, we all “live in the world” and are connected to each other, and bear intimate responsibility for and to one another.

When the people of Jerusalem realized what it was they had done, their flowing tears were answered by the flowing fountain of grace that rose up to cleanse and restore. And this continues to happen as that precious fountain flows in every baptism.

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The second stage of our Scriptural baptismal liturgy comes in our continued reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It marks the first stage in being equipped for service, which follows immediately upon the baptismal induction: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.” This may simply be symbolic language, or it may be one of the earliest references to the white robe that was given to those who were baptized, as a symbol of their new life — the same white robe, called an alb, from the Latin word for “white,” that all of us who minister in the sanctuary are wearing now.

This white robe not only symbolizes baptismal purity and renewal but it also serves the practical function of being a uniform. Uniforms are designed to obscure the individual differences of those who wear them, and to make them more, well, uniform! It would be very distracting if all of us serving at the altar were wearing our street clothes. It’s the same with the choir — who are now enjoying their summer vacation and not having to wear an extra layer or two on top of their street clothes!

But there is a greater significance to this uniformity when it comes to baptism — for the uniform is not just a white robe, but in a very special way it is Christ himself in whom we are clothed. We have become little Christs — Christians — for we have put on his uniform, his likeness. And that uniform covers not just our street clothes, but all of the other things that might identify or divide us one from another.

Saint Paul mentions three categories of distinctiveness that disappear under the uniform of baptism. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Christ covers over and conceals these distinctions — ethnic, social and sexual — most of them still quite capable of causing division in our own day, so you can imagine how divisive these categories were 2000 years ago! But for the baptized person, for the Christian who has put on Christ, these distinctions cease to have any consequence for us, or any ability to distract us from our mission. They disappear under the uniform, so we can be about our work.

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And that is the next step, for as anyone knows, just getting the uniform isn’t enough to be equipped to serve. People can get all dressed up and have no place to go! And so when we turn to the Gospel for today we come to that last bit of the baptismal liturgy that equips those who are baptized to serve. It’s a simple thing — it happens so quickly in a baptismal liturgy you might even miss it — as the priest takes holy oil and makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized, saying, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

By doing this, we realize what Jesus said to his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” To be baptized means to bear that cross — and that cross is the essential equipment for our service to God and to our neighbor. For it is the cross that reminds us of Christ’s great gift to us and to the whole world. But it is useful as well as emblematic: it equips us in the way of deference, of giving of ourselves for the good of others — the opposite of the selfishness that puts down others or takes advantage of them.

When Saint Paul would write to the Ephesians about the Christian equipment, he would talk about that whole suit of armor: the helmet, shield, sword, and shoes. But here in the Gospel, Jesus presents us with one all-purpose tool: the cross that each of us bears day by day — as we walk in its shadow o’er us — as a reminder of what he did, and of what we are called to do as his followers — to set our own lives, our needs and desires, to one side; to deny ourselves and seek to serve others to the best of our ability in the strength that God will give us, through the cross.

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And so we return to that place on Calvary, and take our stand near the cross, near the cross — where the precious fountain of grace rises up, and the waters overflow in which we have been immersed, and by which we have been cleansed. And we rise from those waters to be clothed upon from on high with the uniform of God’s service, given a robe, and crowned with the sign of the cross in the middle of our foreheads.

We have been commissioned, my friends, commissioned and equipped to do God’s work in the world. Let none of us stand idle, but trust in his spirit to empower us to do the work he has given us to do, “till our raptured souls shall find Rest beyond the river.”+