Waters of Welcome

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
Thursday, November 11, 2021

Waters of Welcome

Water is often present in Jesus’ ministry. When we say that administering the sacraments rightly is an essential “note” of the authentic church, we echo John Calvin’s contention that the sacraments be administered “according to Christ’s institution” (something I discussed in last week’s letter). “Institution” is a double-edged word – it refers both to what Jesus did, and to what he told his followers to do.

Jesus’ final words to his disciples in Matthew are water words: Go and baptize! We baptize because Jesus told us to. But there’s more. Jesus’ diverse interactions with water disclose many other essential things for an authentic church.

Jesus began his ministry by being baptized in the Jordan River. Much of his ministry took place on or near Lake Galilee. There he rode out a storm on a boat, he walked on the water, he called fishermen from their boats to be his disciples, and he spoke to crowds from a boat because they were pressing in on him too hard. He sent a herd of swine into the lake to drown. He helped his disciples catch fish when they had been unsuccessful on their own. He healed a blind man with the waters of the Siloam pool and healed a cripple at the Bethesda pool. On his final night with his disciples, he greeted each of them with a basin of water with which he washed their feet.

The writers of the New Testament use water stories from the Hebrew Scriptures as backdrops for understanding Christian baptism. (See one example here.) Similarly, we are on solid footing when we ground our understanding of Christian baptism in Jesus’ various water stories.

We begin with Jesus’ baptism itself. John’s baptism was intended as a sign of washing away sins. So why would Jesus, the sinless one, go to John to be washed from sin?

Christian baptism is not about our washing ourselves, but about our putting ourselves publicly in a place where God claims and sanctifies us, something outwardly signified by being washed with water. It was precisely at his baptism that Jesus was announced from heaven as God’s chosen one. At the close of his ministry, Jesus underscores that being a disciple is first about our being chosen rather than about our choosing – “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” (John 15:16) He adds water to that claim by greeting his disciples that evening with a basin and washing their feet, even though they don’t want him to do so.

Christian baptism is first and foremost about acknowledging God’s claim on us. Like Peter facing Jesus who wanted to wash his feet, we may not want to be washed, for a variety of reasons. We may prefer to rely on our own commitment to be faithful to God, rather than on God’s commitment to be faithful to us. Peter avers that his commitment level is high enough to sustain his fidelity no matter what might happen to Jesus. We know how that turns out.

The story of the disciples’ foot-washing is not a story of rebaptism. If it were, Jesus would have taken up Peter’s offer to wash his whole body. But that wasn’t necessary. Once we are claimed by God, there is no need to be reclaimed, but we do need reminders of God’s claim on us, for our own sake. Jesus’ act of foot-washing reminds his disciples of what it means to be claimed by God, and to claim each other, welcoming each other even as Jesus has welcomed us. (Romans 15:7)

Jesus washes his disciples’ feet not only to clean them up, but to provide an example of unconditional welcome and service to each other. What I do to you, you should to each other, he urges them. The authentic church is marked by mutual welcome that is just like that of Jesus, a welcome that accepts our belonging to each other rooted in our awareness that we have first been claimed by God.

For our place and time, the challenge is to acknowledge that being claimed by God through the waters of baptism obligates us to welcome all who have been likewise claimed by God – even those who may be inclined to disown us due to the stark polarizations running through the heart of our society – fault lines that run through the church as well. John 13 is clear that Jesus knows Judas is about to betray him, yet he includes Judas in the circle of those whose feet he washes. When he directs them to do for each other what he has done for them, he is asking his disciples to wash Judas’s feet, even though his feet will soon take him down a path that is as traitorous to them as it is to Jesus himself.

I have no right to withhold my welcome from those who, like me, have been claimed by God in the waters of Christian baptism. That means that I offer the basin and towel of welcome to those who don’t want anything to do with me, and whom I would rather keep at a distance as well. Am I up to it? it is just this sort of welcome that marks a church as authentic.

Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

With open arms,

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