“Remember Who You Are”
June 24, 2012
“Remember,” the author of the epistle to the Ephesians writes, addressing both those early Gentile Christians and us today, “Remember that you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”
Alienated, strangers, without hope, without God.
If you find such a situation difficult to imagine, you are not alone.
One person put it this way: “The proclamation of many churches in America would lead you to think that gentiles have always had equal access to God. And most of us are not taught that we are the gentiles. That’s hard for us to swallow.”[i]
When we forget our past, we lose track of who we are and where we are going.
Forgetfulness is a constant danger for people of faith.
Standing across the river from the Promised Land, Moses calls the Hebrew people to be vigilant in remembering who they are and where they came from. They were to remember both the bad times of slavery in Egypt and the joyful occasion of God’s deliverance through the waters of the Red Sea.
Without the memory of slavery, they would lapse into a smug self-righteousness.
Without the memory of deliverance, despair and hopelessness would always be companions on their journey.
The Hebrew people were told: “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”
But hearing these words would not be enough. They were to speak them to their children, talk about them when they were away and at home, when they would lie down and when they rose up. They were to bind them on their hands and foreheads. They were to write them on their door-posts and gates.
This wasn't just a matter of religious ritual. The price of forgetfulness was too high. It was a matter of life in the fullest sense of that word.
True, God would never forget the covenant God made with these people. Even if they were unfaithful, God would be faithful still. Even if we forget God, God does not forget us.
But forgetfulness would lead to “mistaken identity,” no longer knowing who they were, or where they were going. Forgetfulness would mean that the way of faithfulness the people had learned in the desert would be abandoned in their new land.
Ephesians is addressed to people who have entered the new land of God's grace. The writer of this letter is on a mission from God to remind the Ephesians of their past. He knows that if these Gentiles forget who they were, they will soon presume that God owes them something. They will decide to live under their own merit and not under God’s grace.[ii] They, too, run the risk of forgetting that they have come to a new place where God’s love offers new opportunities and creates new challenges.
We forget that we were once aliens, strangers to the love of God. As a result, many people keep looking for some group that they can ostracize, that they can exempt from God’s love today.
We forget that God loves us unconditionally. As a result, many people continue to think that some part of them—or all of them—is simply unlovable.
We forget that God forgives us unconditionally. As a result, many people imagine that there is something they have done that God cannot forgive, will not forgive.
We forget that Jesus came that we might have life and have it abundantly. As a result many people seek to live cramped and restricted lives. We set aside the common good, the public life of our community, all to often limiting our concerns to a small circle.
Still, something remembers. The late Vaclav Havel wrote: “Life cannot be destroyed for good; a secret streamlet trickles on beneath the heavy crust of inertia and pseudo-events, slowly and inconspicuously undermining it.”
Remembering our watery beginnings in baptism is central to understanding who we are as Christians.
Baptism means everything that water means: cleansing, refreshment, life. Baptism, like water, also means death. Early churches often built their baptismal fonts in the shape of tombs.
Our beginning in baptism is like death—death to old ways, death to the sin that would separate us from God. But there is more to baptism than death.
If the beginning is death, the end of baptism is life. If baptism looks backward to our dying with Christ, even more it looks forward to our rising with Christ. It has been said that “The growth and responsibility that are recognized and made possible in baptism are potentially without limit. Like our physical birth and death, which is resembles, baptism contains intimations of immortality, of infinite possibility. Baptism is a sign that as new creatures we have fully entered the new land of grace. Learning to live in this new land takes the rest of life—on this earth and beyond.”[iii]
Baptism is about love, forgiveness, and life.
Love, forgiveness, life. Remember that you have been embraced by a God who offers you all three. Baptism reminds us again.
This is one reason why in our Congregational tradition within the United Church of Christ we usually baptize in a public services of worship on Sunday morning instead of at other times. Baptism is an act of the entire congregation. And each time we participate in baptism, we are given the chance to remember, to remember our baptism, to remember where we have come from so that we get a better sense of who we are and where we are going. This renewed awareness can restore our senses and bring a new perspective to difficult situations.
The love of God calls us to be loving—to look with the eye of compassion, to listen with the ear of understanding, to open hands and heart in reaching toward others.
The forgiveness of God calls us to be forgiving—humbly recognizing the log in our own eye more than the speck in the eye of our neighbor.
The life of God calls us to live toward life—freely giving as we have freely received, being merciful because we have received mercy, remembering our public as well as our private lives.
And because baptism is an act of the whole church, it is an occasion for a congregation—for this congregation—to remember who we are: a community of diverse individuals that welcomes others into this often joyful, often confusing, sometimes crazy life of faith. We celebrate together—which means we laugh and cry together. We share the love of God with each other—but we’re not just about ourselves. We recognize here that we are called to show that love to a hurting world as well.
We do these things not because we’re good people but because we are baptized people—those who know death and hope in the resurrection. That hope is so strong and fierce that we find the courage to say even to small children and their parents: “Welcome to the journey!”
Remember your baptism.
Remember that you have been called out of death into life.
Remember that you too are a child of the covenant, a resident of the land of grace.
[i] Wm. Lamar IV, “We were aliens,” Christian Century, 8/12/03, pg. 16.