“A team of evangelical Christian explorers claim they’ve found the remains of Noah’s ark beneath snow and volcanic debris on Turkey’s Mount Ararat. But some archaeologists and historians are taking the latest claim that Noah’s ark has been found about as seriously as they have past ones – which is to say not very.” These are the opening sentence to that National Geographic article from 2010. The article goes on, “I don’t know of any expedition that ever went looking for the ark and didn’t find it,” said Paul Zimansky, an archaeologist specializing in the Middle East at Stony Brook University in New York State. Turkish and Chinese explorers from a group called Noah’s Ark Ministries International made the latest discovery claim.….in Hong Kong, where the group is based. “It’s not 100 percent that it is Noah’s ark, but we think it is 99.9 percent that this is it,” Yeung Wing-cheung, a filmmaker accompanying the explorers, told The Daily Mail.
Don’t you wish we could be 99.9% sure about anything, especially finding a piece of archeological antiquity? I think the apostle Peter was 100% sure that the suffering early Christians need a word of hope. And that’s why I think Noah’s ark was mentioned in this letter to the people in Asia Minor. I think Jews and non-Jews all held the belief that the ark had indeed come to rest on a mountain in their region. Peter was appealing to a story that was well known in the wider culture. Also, this story was a good example of how a handful of believers was saved from the sinning and evil world around them. The ark story is about people being rescued, redeemed, dare we say, resurrected from a great flood. The ark narrative was a good story to explain the practice of baptism, in which early Christians found the symbol of baptism to be one of rising into new creation after being consumed by the flood.
But, according to Peter’s letter, baptism is more than just a washing to be made clean from one’s former life. Most religions have ritual washings for cleansing and keeping germs and diseases at bay. Just like the great flood, the ritual of baptism in Christ was something totally new and different. British scholar NT Wright says, “But baptism, the thing which marks out the Christian publicly from the world around, isn’t just a matter of being made clean from one’s former life, though it can be seen that way as well. Precisely because it functions as the boundary marker for the Christian community, it shapes the confrontation that must then take place between that community and the watching world.” Baptism is like that.
Baptism is like that. Those are the words in the Common English Bible translation of 1 Peter 3:21. “Baptism is like that. It saves you now – not because it removes dirt from your body but because it is the mark of a good conscience toward God.” Baptism is like that. Baptism is that action and experience that connects us with our community and shows that we are living lives filled with a good conscience, as it says in the text. Baptism identifies us with other Christians, which is what was needed for this nascent Christian community in Asia Minor. These early Christians needed each other. They needed to recognize each other. They needed to lean on and rely on each other. Because as we’ve said in previous weeks, the first followers of Jesus in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, were being shunned and scorned by their neighbors. They were living passionately, and differently and lovingly in a way that was countercultural and different from the Empire, the government that wanted to oppress, persecute, and even kill them.
NT Wright continued, speaking of the passage we are studying today, “It is an encouragement to people who are likely to suffer unjust treatment from the human authorities – not just, in other words, from a random act of mob violence or casual brutality, but an official, legal, persecution. And the point that Peter is making is not only that this brings them into line with the Messiah himself, who suffered the same away… and Peter’s point is that these complex authorities have received notice that Jesus has overthrown their power. He is now sovereign over the whole world, all other authorities included.”
Friends, like the early church that read Peter’s letter, we are suffering. We have had loved ones die. We have loved ones who are ill and we don’t know what will happen to them. We are isolated from those we love. We don’t know when things will be back to normal and it’s very difficult to be gentle and reverent through our suffering, as Peter instructed early Christians to be.
And that is why we remember our baptisms. Baptisms remind us that there are moments when we can’t breathe, when everything is blurry, when we aren’t sure if we are dying or if we’ll live again. But we will come out of the water eventually. We will come up for air and things will get better. And Peter said that the dirt won’t necessarily be washed away. Our lives will still be frail and fragile. We will still be soaking wet from our struggles and trials. We aren’t magically better, or healthier, or smarter, or more compassionate. That’s not what baptism does. Baptism is an appeal to God; it is our cry out to the divine that we want to follow Jesus, not only through the waters but through his suffering, as well.
Baptism is like that. Baptism shows our allegiance to the God of creation and the Christ of justice, knowing that we will suffer, we will experience pain, and we will have heartache. But even through the depths and darkness, we will be lifted into the light and feel fresh air in our lungs again. Suffering is seasonal, don’t you know? It’s seasonal because there will be a time of resurrection. There will be a time when life returns to us. There will be a time when the authorities of this world succumb to the justice of God and we will all play a part in that. Baptism is like that and we need to show the world that baptism is like that.
One way we can show our baptisms is by praying for one another. Even in our suffering, we can pray for all of our other neighbors who are suffering with us, for us, and because of us. Another way to show our baptisms is by rescuing those who are suffering. Our ministry partner, Faith in Texas, recently helped post bail for dozens of individuals who didn’t have the resources to get out of jail. And this was important because COVID is running rampant in our prisons and jails without proper resources to stay socially distanced and without proper protective equipment. Maybe our baptisms call us to protect the vulnerable in this city and in our own church, as we make decisions about not meeting together for worship and small groups. I know it is very hard to not be with each other, but our baptisms call us to care for the vulnerable and put their lives and wellbeing over the authorities and powers. Our baptisms remind us that God’s victory is over the death, suffering, and darkness in the world. You see baptism is like that.
As soon as cities and states began announcing Stay-at-Home orders, electronic resources began hitting my email inbox in spades. All of the topics are intriguing and useful, but I just don’t have enough time in the day to watch all the webinars and listen to all the podcasts out there. However, one workshop on spirituality in the time of COVID-19 caught my attention because of the panel of religious leaders discussing their theological thoughts in this time of crisis. The speakers were scholars in religion and congregational life. The lineup included renowned authors Brian McLaren and Diana Butler Bass, and UCC leaders Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and Traci Blackman. They had a wealth of information about spirituality in the time of COVID, but one story really stood out in my mind. At the end of the hour-long webinar, Diana Butler Bass recounted this story of St Cuthbert.
Cuthbert became a monk at the age of sixteen and then ten years later the plague came to his monastery. The abbot and many of the brothers died and Cuthbert became gravely ill. One night the remaining brothers gathered outside Cuthbert’s room to pray and in the morning, when one of the brothers came into his room to bring Cuthbert some water, he told him what the brothers had done, “We prayed for you all last night.” Cuthbert replied, “Well, what am I still doing in bed!” … and he got out of bed and sat in a chair, and it was in the chair that he recovered from the plague. Butler Bass says, “What happened next was the most remarkable thing. He did recover and he became the next Abbot – but he was never the same: he had developed a limp and was forever quite frail. But, he went on to be one of the greatest evangelists of the church.”
Butler Bass told the story not to say something particular about the power of prayer and whether the sick should leap from their beds, but as a parable that reminds us “that we are going to recover. We can get out of these beds and into the chair. We can fight this as best as we can… and one day we’ll even walk out of the room… but most likely we’re going to limp for the rest of our lives.”
She finished by saying, “It was the capacity to embrace the vulnerability that followed, that gave Cuthbert the depth and the power of who he became as a preacher and someone who spread the good news of Jesus Christ. We too will be different. We, too, will be limping, but it doesn’t mean that everything is over.”
Friends, we are in the midst of a plague with people praying outside our doors. And in the midst of the plagues of this world both viral and structural, we will be good to our neighbors. We will stand up against the authorities in order to share the good news and the justice of Christ. We will get through this. And when we get through this, we will probably be different, reality will probably be different, we will be in a new normal, a new life baptized in power and purpose. We will rise from underneath the water and find new life and new hope after the suffering. Because one thing we can be sure of is that “we too will be different. We will be limping… but it doesn’t mean that everything is over.”
Baptism is like that.