Sometimes working with small groups of students in my years in University chaplaincy I used to challenge students to stand up and hold their breath as long as they could. Some students did a very good job, had very good lungs, stood there for a long time, holding on to that breath, maybe turning color a little bit, but enduring as long as they could, until they had to let go and take another breath.
And then I would smile and say, “Now you know that life is not a contest, more of a give and take matter, a dance where you receive and give, take and let go, inhale and exhale, minute by minute, breath by breath, now by now.” That’s where true life, where -- to quote T. S. Eliot -- the dance begins, where God calls us to join in the dance. And that is where being baptized comes in. The writer and priest Alan Jones used to say that we’re invited to exchange our living death -- where we hold on to each breath, each right, each prerogative and plan as long as we can -- we exchange that living death for Christ’s dying life, that dance of give and take, receiving and relinquishing, taking on and letting go in the context of a blessed faith, hope and love.
Baptism is taking that breath and letting it go, holding out our hand to join in that relationship and dance with God in the very middle of this world that will, over time, move us into a larger world: a world remade in love. In baptism God recalls us in an ongoing relationship that has to do with quality rather than quantity; gifting rather than getting, taking up our call of love and give ourselves over as living members of a caring and heartfelt charity that gives it all away. Just like Jesus.
Henri Nouwen once wrote, in a better sermon that this, that there are four words to describe what it is to be a baptized member of Christ’s body: Take, Bless, Break, Give. We’ll come to these words in our Eucharist this morning as well, but let’s just go over these words now.
In baptism we give ourselves over to be taken up by God. To take on the identity of being blessed by God: one who receives life and hope and meaning, moment by moment, by the gift of God’s grace. But once we are taken into the new identity, once we start realizing the truth of our baptism, that we are God’s beloved, then somethings else happen. We start to take the world with both more openhearted seriousness and song, with greater gravity and grace, because we are sent as God’s messengers of the reconciling love we see in the life of Jesus. So, in that light, we begin to see the world as the place where God’s love seeks to be, to serve, to join, to live in love. Then we come to let ourselves to taken to the world that it might know how deeply it is loved by God.
So we bless. We begin to give what we have received. Baptism opens each of us to know how much we are loved, what a valuable, unique, fragile and fantastic package of love each of us is: and as we open up to that truth, we start to open up to the world we live in, we become ready to let anyone know, moment by moment, day by day, here and now, in word and deed, how deeply lovable they are.
And I don’t mean handing them a pamphlet or reading to them from the Bible, but looking at and meeting and greeting the whole world the way God does, with a newborn and inspired patience and kindness and love, a deep and earthy and heavenly creativity and connection and expectation that the world is better than it can ever know.
That’s our business! God sends love into the world in Christ, as messengers of that good news in the world, we deliver it to everyone!
And that can break down old ideas of self-sufficiency, breaks apart the myth that we don’t need anybody else; even breaks down that popular and cheap optimism that tells us that life shouldn’t hurt. My maternal grandmother always used to say that the shortest verse of scripture was “Jesus wept.” She was right! For the world is enough to break your hope and heart if you take it lightly enough and seriously enough and hold it high just like Jesus does; loving people at their worst and still hoping for the best.
It is not easy to stand with the world as it breaks apart, and even let love break us apart. Yet, as God’s baptised messengers, companions and friends, we do. We sacrifice ourselves, give ourselves over to be broken and made whole in sight of a love that is larger than we are, larger than life itself, a love that lives forever. Like a breath taken with care and let go, given over to a God who stands beyond life and death. We take, we bless, we break and we keep on giving: giving it over, breath by breath, day by day, now by now, in the hope and the faith that Christ’s love will live. It isn’t easy, but, by God, it can be wonderful!
Here’s how Nouwen finishes his sermon:
“We are little people, but if we believe that we are chosen, that we are blessed, that we are broken, to be given, then we can trust that our life will bear fruit. It will multiply. Not only in this life, but beyond it. Many, many people will find strength by knowing that they are being given new life by those who lived as the beloved and they can become the beloved themselves.”
And that is good news. In the name of Christ. Amen