Sermon: “What Makes a Christian?”

January 8, 2017: First Sunday after the Epiphany

Matthew 3:13-17

To the great reformer Martin Luther, this was one of the most precious passages in the Bible: the baptism of Jesus. In a 1534 sermon, he said:

“The heavens, previously closed, are now opened, becoming a clear gateway and window for us to see into heaven itself. There is no longer a dividing line between God and us, for he has descended into the [baptismal] water. Isn’t this a great revelation?”

Yes, Luther actually said, “Isn’t this a great revelation?”

It’s said that when Luther was distressed, he would repeat the words, “I am baptized” to himself for comfort and reassurance, even write them on his desk.

In the launch of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Luther perceived the soaring arch of heaven, and it’s a vision for which I’m profoundly grateful. I confess, however, that there’s something else that caught my eye. In addition to the dove, and the heavenly voice, and the gateway in the sky – or rather before any of them happened – Jesus’ ministry began… With an argument.

With John the Baptist.

Which, you’ll notice, Jesus won.

Jesus’ victory aside, however, John’s words seem absolutely right to me and to most Christians as they echo down the centuries. “I need to be baptized by you,” John says, and the ancient theologians say, and we say, “and do you come to me?”

We’ve actually enacted, enfleshed, enshrined those very words into our faith, by making baptism into the rite of entrance into the Church of Jesus Christ. It’s a radical departure from the practice of first century Judaism and, for that matter, from John the Baptist himself. For them, baptism was a real washing with real water. It cleansed real dirt from the body, and it cleansed real sin from the soul.

Because real, physical dirt happens in our lives, we bathe regularly, repeatedly, religiously you might say. John the Baptist would remind us that real greed, selfishness, and abuse of relationship happen too – sin happens – and he would encourage us to seek regular cleansing of the soul as well. Regular ritual washing was part of the faith practice of observant first century Jews.

The early Christians, however, rapidly adopted a custom of one baptism. It was more than a cleansing of body and soul. It inaugurated a new way of life, and a new life itself. The Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Roman church: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:3-4)

Baptism meant a new, and very different, life, one lived graciously here on Earth and one lived eternally by the grace of God in heaven.

No wonder Martin Luther took comfort in the reminder of his baptism.

But… Is it enough?

I don’t mean, is baptism enough to gain you a place in heaven. In my theology, I tend to leave the choice of who enters the Realm of God to God. I think God will find a place in heaven for all who come to it in love and in humility. That’s the kind of God I believe in. And some day I may even know what “heaven,” what “love,” and for that matter what “humility” actually mean.

I do mean: Is baptism enough to make a Christian?

For centuries, the Church’s answer to that question has been yes. It was a simple definition. Baptized in the name of Jesus, or in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit equals “Christian.” Not-baptized equals not Christian. It has the virtue of simplicity.

But it has the weakness of ignoring the commitments, the values, and the practices of Christianity. It turns baptism itself into a mere sign of belonging to a certain group, and not a sign of the power of God.

So. What makes a Christian?

Kathryn Matthews writes this about why Jesus felt that he had to accept baptism: “Perhaps Jesus knows he can’t address our human condition unless he gets down in the mud, or into the tank, with us. Unless he gets baptized, like the rest of us.”

A Christian is fully human, with all the weaknesses and faults, and all the strengths and wonders, of that word. They live life fully in the world, where the rocks are hard, and the wind blows you over. They live life fully in the world, where the sun is warm and where the anthuriums bloom.

Christians strive to be aware of themselves, of their talents as well as of their failings. They seek to know when humility is called for in order to fulfill all righteousness, and when the time has come to stand forth from the crowd and cry, “Follow me.”

Christians also know that humanity is not a solitary condition. They live in relationship with other people, whether they share a home with anyone or not. That brief phrase “to fulfill all righteousness” tells us a great deal about how we treat our fellow human beings, Christian or not, like us or not, well behaved or not. As Karoline Lewis writes, “Baptism is also about who the other needs you, and them, to be. To be present in the wilderness. To tell the other of God’s words from heaven. To proclaim that baptism cannot just be about the self, but is about living life as being the light of the world for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven here and now. You, plural, are God’s beloved children.”

Christians care for others in their home life and their work life, in their social life and their public life, in their worship time and their personal prayer time, in their play time and, since you can’t care well for anyone when you’re over-tired, in their sleep time. Christianity is a twenty-four/seven activity, and most of the grace we’ll share with each other happens in the most mundane of moments. As Michael Coffey writes,

“You will always come back to this mundane moment
like Jesus walking on from the Jordan to middling towns
you trod again the profane path of normalcy:
a breakfast egg, kissing, money spent, ICU waiting room,
neat whiskey, forest walks, a desk and its chair,
so think with obfuscation you feel lost in those days,
but even these wanting words can’t completely hide the wonder.”

No, even these wanting words can’t completely hide the wonder of love, care, and compassion – aloha – offered to another human being over a counter, or through a drive-through window, or at a traffic intersection, or in a church Board meeting (keep that in mind, Council members, at our meeting after worship), in the first moment of the day as the eyes are fluttering open, or in the last waking memory before life’s end, and entering God’s new life.

Christians bear the wonder, the glory, the compassion, and the very aloha of Jesus in the mundane moments of every day.

That’s fulfilling all righteousness. That’s being a Christian.

There is a power in baptism. We name it a sacrament, a time that God has promised to bring us grace.

And there is more power, I believe, in living out our baptism, making wonder, making things wonder-full, in all the ordinary interactions of our lives.

What makes a Christian? Well, baptism does, by definition. God does, by accompanying us through each day of our lives with the reality of our creation, with the assurance of salvation through Jesus, and with the power of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

And we make ourselves Christians, in small ways and great, each and every day that we live out our baptism.

Live out your baptism. Be the water that revives for someone else.


The image is a mosaic at the 11th century Nea Moni monastery on the Island of Chios, just west of the Anatolian Peninsula.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on January 8, 2017

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  1. by Robin

    On January 9, 2017

    Thank you for sharing the site. I enjoyed the read.

  2. by holycrosshilo

    On January 12, 2017

    Thanks for the good word, Robin!

    – Eric

  3. by Gordon bates

    On February 17, 2017

    Eric: what have you learned so far about Hawaii’s criminal justice system ( law enforcement courts, prisons)? Do you try to relate “love your enemies” to local crime? The topic of retribution v rehabilitation is one I’ve tracked for the last forty years here in CT. I’d like to know more about Hio’s culture in response to crime and punishment. Best wishes, Gordon

  4. by holycrosshilo

    On February 17, 2017

    Hi, Gordon! Hawai’i does have a significant problem with increasing prison populations, related, as on the mainland, to lengthy terms for drug offences. And as on the mainland, certain ethnic groups end up over-represented in the prisons. The problem is on the agenda of the Hawai’i Conference’s Justice task group, and our Association meeting last May included a forum with legislators.

    Like most states, Hawai’i does not have beds for all the people it incarcerates, so a good number end up in for-profit facilities on the mainland. That’s a terrible problem for those imprisoned and their families.

    Ancient Hawai’i had a tradition of “pu’uhonua,” or place of refuge. These permitted persons who had transgressed the laws or customs to find forgiveness, and to return to society. There was a real healing aspect to the practice. The state legislature passed a bill requiring development of this concept so that those returning from prison might have more success in the outside world. Unfortunately, there’s been very little movement to get this to happen, but the law means that the foundation stone has been laid.

    – Eric Anderson

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