Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
Paul is addressing a divided community in crisis in Colossae. So Paul reminds them that in baptism we strip off the old self and clothe ourselves with a new self in Christ. It’s a letter that could have been written today after the past two weeks have put into relief the divided nature of our nation – a nation Martin Luther King, Jr once described as the Beloved Community. One peculiar understanding of Baptism is that we are made One with Christ and one another. Upon his baptism by John in the Jordan, Jesus hears a voice that says, “You are my Beloved…with you I am well pleased.” As we are made one with Him, we become God’s Beloved Community, a community with no distinctions, no divisions, no us and them, no insiders and outsiders. This is reflected in our Baptismal promises. Besides, I learned all I needed to know about baptism from a four year-old girl.
It was a special morning in Christ Church, Winnetka, IL, and all in the congregation were eager with anticipation as I baptized a little girl named Eleanor and her mother, Franny, who had not been baptized. Seeing the mother and daughter baptized together touched the hearts of us all, but God was not through with me yet. Eleanor was about 4 years old and capable of fully participating in the baptism herself. She answered, “I will with God’s help,” to each of the questions in our Baptismal Covenant.
Afterwards, we were invited back to Eleanor and Franny’s house for brunch. As I stood there talking with someone while having a glass of wine and a piece of quiche (how entirely Episcopalian), I felt a tug on the back of my pants leg. As I looked down, it was Eleanor. I asked her, “Eleanor, what can I do for you?” To which she replied, “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?” Meaning, of course the cross traced with oil blessed by our Bishop, James Winchester Montgomery, marking her and sealing her as Christ’s own forever. This ritual signing also represents her answering, “I will with God’s help” to a series of questions like: Will you continue in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will all that you say and do proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, not some persons, not most persons, but all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And, Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, not some people, not most people, but all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
All this flashed through my mind as Eleanor looked up at me with eager anticipation for an answer to her most wonderful question, and I said, “Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead.” And you really could in her smile, in her skipping off so pleased with herself upon hearing that indeed, we could still see the cross on her forehead. I thought to myself, what a great question! And then I went back to eating quiche, drinking wine and talking to someone.
The next day I went to church to do such important tasks for the kingdom of God, such as lay out the parish newsletter and deliver it to the printer. I forgot all about Eleanor’s question. But God was not through with me yet!
A week later, as I was vesting in the vesting sacristy getting ready for the family service, I felt a tug on the back of my alb. I turned around only to find it was Eleanor once again. “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?” She still knew. She was still asking the question. This was the beginning of an epiphany for me as I said, once again, “Yes, Eleanor, I can still see the cross on your forehead!” The gospel for that morning was the one in which Jesus says, “If you wish to be a disciple of mine, you must pick up your cross and follow me.” That is, if you desire to be part of the Beloved Community you must pick up your cross and follow me. And look where He goes: he attends to the broken and broken hearted, sinners, prostitutes, and the homes of insiders and outsiders alike.
I had always thought picking up my cross meant you had to grin and bear it when life hits you with bad stuff: like loneliness, loss of a loved one, cancer, sanctions from a group of scared Anglican Primates, job loss, …the list could go on and on with the kinds of things that cause us to say things like, “She has had this cross to bear a long time,” “and “He has had so many crosses to bear in his life.”
Despite twelve years of Sunday School, four years undergraduate studies in religion, three years of seminary, nine canonical exams in the Diocese of Rhode Island, vocational testing, psychological exams and a week of General Ordination exams, I thought I was meant to carry a large sack over my shoulder like Santa Claus filled with all the crosses of my life weighing me down as I try to follow Jesus, trudging step by step, and at the end of the line, exhausted, I would open it, spread them all out, and say, “There they are Jesus! I have been carrying these crosses all of my life and boy am I tired!”
It took the wisdom of a four year-old girl to get me to see that worst case scenario, Jesus would stand there and laugh as he says, “Kirk, I have been carrying these for you your whole life long. This cross on your forehead is the one I want you to carry. It says that you are mine and I am yours. It says you will strive for justice and peace for all people, not some people, not most people, but all people. It says you are God’s Beloved. It says you will serve Christ in all persons. It says nothing can separate you from my love. This cross goes before you wherever you go. It leads you in the life of my disciples. It says I live inside of you. People can see it in all that you do and all that you say. It says we can laugh and dance and sing our way into the life of my father’s kingdom. As +Michael Curry says, ‘We are part of the Jesus Movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world can never stop and will never be defeated.’”
Like those in Colossae, we live in a seriously divided world, a seriously divided nation, and a seriously divided church. Over time I have eventually found ways to share Eleanor’s story and turn its lessons into a song: Eleanor’s Song. I am so grateful to Eleanor, who now is an adult, married her beloved Charles, the two of them doing their best to address the divided nature of the world in which we live. Later today I will let her know that I told you her story and taught you her song. Knowing this makes a difference in her life, and in turn in the lives of those around her. That is how it works when we remind ourselves who we are and whose we are and what it truly means to follow Christ as we strive to become the Beloved Community of Love. Put on the new self.