During the season of Lent, we turn our attention to the communal dimensions of our faith. Over the next five weeks, we will explore what it means to make a commitment to join in the work of Christ in the world through baptism into the community of faith.
Lent is traditionally a season set aside for preparing people to take the next step in the journey toward discipleship by being baptized into the body of Christ, the church. You might be thinking, Pastor Heather, I’ve already done that. I’ve been baptized- check.
But, in United Methodism, baptism is not an act by an individual. We don’t perform private baptisms because, for us, baptism is not simply a mark of our personal profession of faith in Christ. Baptism is an act of the community of Christ. It is a covenant between an individual, Christ, and a community of faith, to live together as disciples and to give our whole lives over to being incorporated into the body of Christ. The focus is on the corporate nature of the ritual. In baptism, we make a commitment to hold one another accountable as disciples of Jesus Christ and to confess our sins, not just as individuals, but as human beings forging a life together, bound eternally by the Spirit of Christ.
Like American culture, American Protestant Christianity has always had a tendency to individualize the faith. We like to focus on our relationship with Jesus Christ, our individual salvation, and our personal sins. But historically, Christianity, in general, and United Methodism, in particular, has not placed the emphasis of our relationship to God through Christ so exclusively on the shoulders of the individual- it’s about our communal roots.
Hear these words from our service of baptism……
Through the Sacrament of Baptism
we are initiated into Christ’s holy Church.
We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation
and given new birth through water and the Spirit.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
Mark Stamm, in his new booklet, The Meaning of Baptism in the United Methodist Church, says it this way: “Through baptism, we are born anew by the free gift of God and placed within this family called church.”
Community. Corporate. Family. Congregation. Church. These words all point clearly to our understanding that, for United Methodists, baptism is both individual and communal.
May we be reminded first and foremost that when we make our initial vow in front of the body of Christ in Baptism, we “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin.” We are not just renouncing the spiritual forces that we struggle with as individuals. We are also rejecting the evil powers that are loose in the world. Likewise, we are not just repenting of our sins as individuals. We are also repenting of the sins of humankind as a whole. Corporate sin.
Perhaps when you have read the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil for forty days, you have, like a good American, tended to focus on what this story means in terms of how Jesus’ struggle with the temptations presented by the Devil apply to you or me as an individual. How can we understand the temptations in terms of our communal sin, as the body of Christ?
The three temptations faced by Jesus correspond to temptations we vow to renounce, reject, and repent of in our first baptismal vow.
The first temptation that Jesus refuses is to use his power to preserve himself. He’s starving but he knows the needs of everyone are greater than his own.
His response to the tempter, to the devil, to Satan is “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Jesus says no to making his own survival the top priority and to using his power to meet his own needs- it is more important to be obedient to God.
In the second temptation, the Devil tries to use Scripture itself, demonstrating that the Word of God can be used by the powers of this world in ways that are in direct opposition to the way of God. The Devil quotes Psalm 91:11-12 and tries to get Jesus to just do his own thing again. He offers Jesus fame- sayig that if he jumps and makes a scene, it might make the 5 o’clock news or even better a twitterfeed.
Jesus remains resolute in his refusal to give in to worldly ways. He will not test God, nor will he use God for his own gain. Once again taking up Scripture as his primary tool of resistance, he reminds his tempter of what is written: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
The final temptation Jesus faces is to use his power to become a king, to willingly use violence to put himself at the top in a worldly sense. The devil says, this all can be yours if you will just bow to me. Again Jesus says no, wielding the sword of Scripture against his enemy: “For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
This story is an overthrowing of our own, sinful and distorted understanding of power, and a turning over of power structures, that we face. And it is not just about kingdoms of the world. It is a part of all the temptations we face. Our individual choices always have systemic consequences. Jesus overturns what we see as signs of power and wealth: food- lots of it-a full table, fame- the attention of all the people, and even creation itself, bowing down before his power and might.
But this was not the end for Jesus. And it is not the end of it for us. The work of fighting the powers, renouncing the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of this world, and repenting of our sins—is ongoing work for each one of us. It isn’t a one time deal. We have to continually resist the temptations of this world. We have to return to our baptismal roots again and again to remember what is at stake.
The church takes this time every year to remind ourselves that we need to join Jesus in the resistance by fasting, and by meditating on God’s Word, and by holding one another accountable in Christian love and witness. We can’t skip over this step. We have to be with him and with one another in this journey toward what it means to be in a shared life together as the body of Christ.
The good news in this story is that the power of God in Christ is stronger than the power of Satan. The power of good always triumphs over the power of evil, and the power of life—of resurrection—trumps the power of death and destruction every time. There is hope for our future despite the spiritual forces of wickedness and evil powers of this world that we must fight against.
As we move through this season, let us recommit ourselves to joining with Jesus in living out God’s mission to fight against the powers and principalities that would seek to destroy not just us, but this world and everything in it. AMEN.
NRSV, NIV and CEB Bible Translations
Dawn Chesser, UMC Discipleship Worship and Lectionary Planning. Nashville: Disciplehsip Resources, 2017.
Mark Stamm, The Meaning of Baptism in the United Methodist Church. Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 2017.