Life and Death Are Not Opposites
We live our lives by signs and symbols.
When we see a red octagonal sign with white lettering on it, we know it means stop.
When we see a rectangle with a blue square covered in white stars adjacent to white and red horizontal stripes, we know it means America.
When we see the double golden arches, we know it means hamburgers of dubious quality.
But as people of faith, our understanding of the symbolic universe goes much deeper than public safety, patriotism, or advertising.
God communicates to us through signs and symbols.
And in our walk with Christ, God is through our prayer and service helping us take these symbols deeper into our hearts until we ourselves become living signs and symbols of God’s love.
That is the journey these two children, Austin and Carter, are beginning today with their baptism.
And what we discover very rapidly in the life of faith is that God’s symbols are often ambiguous.
The images we take to our hearts, that we know will change us if we are faithful to how they point to God, cut both ways.
That jumped out at me so dramatically as I thought about water this week.
The images of homes and people drowning in water in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey are at war with our beautiful sacrament of baptism that we celebrate today.
For the people of southeast Texas and Louisiana, right now water means death and loss and fear. For those of us celebrating baptism with joy, water means life and rebirth and hope.
How do we reconcile that juxtaposition?
God’s people have always faced this difficult question. Consider our lesson from Exodus today, where Moses encounters the burning bush.
Fire is an incredibly destructive element. People in the western United States whose homes and lives are under threat from wildfires every summer and fall are all too aware of that.
But as early humans discovered, fire is also one of our most useful tools. From the days when we first used it for warmth and cooking all the way up to our most advanced industrial processes today, fire is in many ways one of the major things that makes our community life possible.
That which can destroy us is laden with creative potential. That is true of both fire and water, and also of wind.
When wind is unleashed in a hurricane or tornado, it levels communities and leaves unimaginable destruction in its wake. When it is harnessed, it becomes a cheap and reliable source of clean energy.
The fascinating truth is that all three of these double-edged swords, water, fire, and wind, are the most dominant means of God communicating Godself to us in the Bible.
Over and over we see them return, from the very beginning when the wind of the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of the abyss.
Moses and the burning bush, the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples in a rush of wind and fire, Jesus walking on the water, Elijah taken to heaven on the wind in chariots of fire, Moses striking the rock and bringing forth water, the wind driving back the waters of the Red Sea for the escaping Israelites, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walking through fire in the furnace, Jesus’ own baptism and his invocation of the Living Water.
That which can destroy us is laden with creative potential.
God comes to us in this place of the juxtaposition of life and death.
We drive this reality home with our sacrament of baptism today.
Baptism has been domesticated with pretty white dresses and demure white candles, flowers and cake and happy photo ops.
Nothing is wrong with those cultural celebrations, but if we let them they will take away the central reality that baptism is in fact a symbolic drowning.
What kind of crazy people would get up in church and let a priest reenact their child being drowned?
The kind of people who understand what Paul is talking about in Romans when he asks, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into 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.”
It is precisely in the direct encounter of life with death that transformation takes place.
In Christianity, death and life are not estranged and separated and hidden away from each other at all costs, as is the practice in our culture.
In Christianity, life and death come together in an explosive fusion that results in an entirely new third reality: resurrection.
That is how God works—taking death into Godself and transforming it into new life.
And we are invited on that journey.
God beckons us with fire and water and wind, things we see to be both dangerous and full of blessing, so that we are ready to take the walk to the final crucible of opposites.
And that is the Cross.
Jesus says it himself in our gospel today: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
People have often found this saying of Jesus difficult to interpret, but in the example of Jesus himself, we understand.
It is not by avoiding death that we are transformed, but by following Jesus into it and out the other side to resurrection.
And remember that we’re not just talking about literal death here.
We’re talking about the death of our pride, the death of our comfortable understandings of how God works, the death of our self-imposed limits on generosity, trust, and giving of ourselves in service and care of others.
There’s a lot of death in being a Christian, but it’s death that leads to life.
I always counsel people to remember that when they get upset about what appears to be the death of the institutional church in its old incarnation.
Christians walk forward into death with eyes and hearts open, trusting God to call us through it to new life.
That’s what baptism is all about.
So when we feel the painful juxtaposition of water as death in Houston, and water as life in this baptismal font, we know that in fact we are that the very heart of our gift as Christians.
We are at the Cross, where death and life are brought together and transformed.
And we must remember that this is the great work of God in our lives—for God to transform us into living signs and symbols of love.
Saying yes to that transformation is what makes us able to respond to disasters like Hurricane Harvey with the fullness of our generosity and hard work.
Looking for the signs of fire and wind and water in scripture and in life marks the way for following Jesus.
The galvanizing call of the burning bush is always before us in community discernment.
The strengthening wind of the Holy Spirit is at our back, pushing us forward in service.
And the healing waters of baptism are ready to flood our souls any and every day in prayer.
And these are the practices that help us return to the Cross over and over with faithfulness and hope.
What we know is that with God, what once was an instrument of death, the Cross, is now an instrument of life.
So is it true for fire, wind, and water. And so is it true for every corner of our own souls.
What we despair of ever turning toward the work of the Kingdom of God—our weaknesses and fears—can become the very means of life for the world if we let God in.
“Those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus says.
The very best way to help those affected by the hurricane, and the very best way to help these children we baptize today to grow up into the full stature of Christ, is to take him at his word.
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