Alive to God

Scripture can be found here...

A little more than 13 years ago I took the PC(USA) ordination exams. One of the three theology exam questions has stayed with me ever since. It went something like this:


You are a pastor, and a church member comes to your office to talk. “Pastor,” he says, “I need your help. When I joined the church, I was baptized, and I received Jesus into my heart, I’m sure of it. And I was sure that would heal my life. But here I am, three months later, and I am still struggling with my addiction to prescription medications. I just can’t stop myself from taking those pills. What am I doing wrong?”


I completed the three-hour exam, turned in my blue book, and was trying to rub the cramps out of my right hand when I came upon my friend Rich. He was standing in the seminary café debriefing with others in our class. He was explaining something to them, something that seemed self-evident to him.


“Every year,” he said, “the exam alternates between asking a question on justification and one on sanctification. This year, obviously, it was about sanctification.”


At which point my pulse started to race, because guess what? I had not only not used that word in my response, I had never even heard that word used as an academic theological term. Still, I had understood that the questions boiled down to something like:


Does the resurrection matter at all? To me, personally?


Does my baptism make a difference? Or even, my faith?


The hypothetical church member moves the conversation from the ethereal, theoretical realm, and brings it squarely into the earthy mess of human pain, addiction, suffering, and struggle. This is pretty much the same thing Paul does in this morning’s passage from the letter to the Romans. These fourteen dense verses address themes encompassing topics such as sin, grace, resurrection, baptism, death, and, yes, that thing whose name I learned later that semester, in my class on Calvin’s “Institutes,” sanctification.


That’s what I’d like to talk about today, especially after this particular week of study leave. But I’ll get to that in a minute.


Sanctification. Sounds an awful lot like “sanctimonious,” but trust me, that’s the last thing this is about. If it sounds like it’s got something to do with becoming more holy, then you’re on the right track.


Maybe the easiest way to ease into the idea of sanctification is to compare it to justification. Christians claim that we are justified by faith—that’s a kind of legal term, that indicates that we are made right with God by God’s pure grace, and not by our own actions or goodness or cleverness. Justification is something God does. Sanctification something we have to participate in. As one colleague put it, in sanctification, “Christians grow into what is already true in their baptism.”


It always comes back to baptism. Every time we baptize, the following words (or something like them) are said:


In baptism God claims us, and puts a sign on us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice.


Sanctification is the process of growing into all these hopes and promises. That holds true for the man struggling with addiction, and for each one of us. Yes, baptism matters. Baptism makes a difference. That’s why we keep the font front and center in the church, and that’s why we bring up baptism every time a member joins, or a person says “yes” to the call to serve as a deacon or an elder. That’s why, in some churches, water is poured into the font at the beginning of every service, baptism or not. Or, in other churches, water is poured in while the words of assurance are being said. Each of these things—the choice to join paths with a faith community, showing up for worship with that community, acknowledging our need for God’s help in the day-to-day matters around how we live in this world, and the willingness to serve God, wherever and whenever—all these things are part of that process of growing into our baptism, of being fully “alive to God,” as Paul puts it.


Another way we become fully alive to God, and grow into our baptism, is by the process of continually striving to open ourselves to the ways of being in the world Jesus taught and lived by and died for. At the heart, at the true center of all that, is forgiveness.


That’s where a report from my study leave comes in.


In Pittsburgh I was one of about fifty church leaders studying with an instructor from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, learning all about processes of mediation and conflict resolution. I decided to participate in this because of my work with our presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, but of course, it is always true that peacemaking skills can come in handy, whenever and wherever we are.


First on our plate was to have an introduction to family systems theory. The best illustration I can think of for family systems theory is a mobile. Have you ever had a mobile on your porch, or maybe hanging over a child’s bed or infant’s crib? A mobile is a moving sculpture, a beautiful collection of objects, usually connected by rods and wire or strings. They are all perfectly balanced to move gently with the nearly invisible air currents that are always around us. Can you see in your mind what happens when you touch one of those objects, hanging there in perfect balance? The entire mobile is affected. You touch it here, and everything responds.


That’s what a family system is like. And a church is, essentially, a large and complex family system. Stress over here can be felt here, and here, and here…. everywhere. And that stress can take the form of personality conflicts, or disagreements over worship, or concern about how decisions are made, or poor or uneven communication, or simply the stress of trying to balance many tasks we all have in our lives.


Once we had a grip on family system theory, we began learning how to participate as a mediator in one-to-one disputes, in multi-party conflicts, and in whole church conflicts that actually reside in some congregations for generations, wreaking havoc, sometimes, because of hurts experienced ten, twenty, fifty years before. And in the process of these conflicts, people are hurt. And you know what happens then. Hurt people, hurt people.


Imagine yourself sitting face to face with the person who has hurt you most in the world.


Now imagine that you have the opportunity to say to that person how you felt—not to shame him, or eviscerate her, but just to say, simply, how their actions or behavior affected you…“I felt____________”—and now you fill in that blank. Sad, fearful, furious, humiliated. Wounded. Invisible. Desperate. Whatever it was. I felt…. and then use that word, that powerful word that can bridge divides between separate human beings, because we all understand those words. But imagine too that you connect that word with the action that brought it into being. I felt furious when you belittled me. I felt invisible when you ignored me. I felt humiliated when you bullied me.


This is all part of what another New Testament epistle calls “speaking the truth in love.” But that’s not where it ends. There is another facet to this moment, which comes somewhere in the middle of the formal process of mediation. The same person who has just said “I felt _____ when you ______,” then says, “And I regret that…” or “I am sorry that…” or “I wish I had done…” Mediation is not about finding out whose fault it is. We know that before we start. It’s our fault, all of us, for letting conflict simmer unaddressed, or for avoiding conflict like the plague, or for deciding some people are our enemies and going after them with metaphorical guns blazing every chance we get. When a church is embroiled in a conflict that hurts its life and witness, it’s always all our fault, because we are all part of the mobile that is the congregational family system. And so, as we name our hurts, we also name our regrets. We confess. We say what we wish we had done differently.


Being honest with one another, being honest with ourselves, naming out loud our hurts, and owning our own role in hurting others… these are all at the heart of living the Jesus-led life. These are all centerpieces of the process of forgiveness and reconciliation. These are all vital components of the skills I was immersed in learning this week. And these actions, whether as part of a formal process or simply things we are moved to do on our own, truly can help us to be fully alive to God and to one another. As my new favorite author Richard Rohr puts it,


When human beings “admit” to one another “the exact nature of their wrongs,” we invariably have a human and humanizing encounter that deeply enriches both sides—and even changes lives—often forever! It is no longer an exercise to achieve moral purity, or to regain God’s love, but in fact a direct encounter with God’s love. It’s not about punishing one side, but liberating both sides.[i]


Does our baptism make a difference? Does our faith make a difference? Absolutely. Even if we work against them, we are assured that God’s love is with us, and does not fail. But if we work with them… if we take seriously the process of growing in our faith, and letting it affect every aspect of our lives… why, then we have begun a process of growing into our baptism that is truly wondrous. Then we have embarked upon a way of living in which we are truly living the resurrection life—not later, not somewhere out there, but here and now.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

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[i] Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps (Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2011), 39-40.