Second Sunday after Pentecost
I have been blessed to witness it about three hundred times in my priestly ministry. After I have made the sign of the cross on their forehead with a glaze of holy oil, marking the child as Christ’s very own, the dancing eyes of the newly baptized meet the light of a flickering candle passed on their behalf to a godparent with the words: “Receive the light of Christ, a sign of the new life enkindled in you. Shine in the world to the glory of God.” I have always found it to be a stunning and emotional moment in the baptismal rite of a child or adult.
Hidden beneath this simple ritual is the message that our baptism is a call to public witness in the name of Jesus—to shine in the world to the glory of God. And today, as he continues to give his disciples their instructions for going on mission, Jesus tells us that such a witness can have sobering consequences. Letting that light shine in the world can result in conflict, ridicule, and even separation from those who find it too disturbing—maybe even people we thought were our friends, maybe even our family.
We are very fortunate because we don’t have to fear persecution for our belief in Christ as did his those first disciples and as Christians did for several hundred years. We don’t have to worry about getting in hot water with the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin and other Jewish Temple leaders. We have, thank God, religious freedom. But let’s not dismiss too quickly the admonition about being sent as sheep into the midst of wolves.
The gospel is good news for many—particularly to those who are oppressed in one way or another. It is good news for those who acknowledge their need to be restored and made whole. But it can be pretty bad news for those whose worldview is shaped by dominant cultural institutions. The gospel can be objectionable and repulsive to those who live according to the letter of the law—as did the Pharisees—and not according to Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us.
Clayton Schmit, Professor of Homiletics at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, California, says that the gospel—the core message of Christ—is a challenge “to be inclusive, to be willing to touch the filthy, unholy mess of humanity in order to share God’s love. To sink one’s hands into poverty…to sit beside the smug, rank, slovenly sinner and share a meal with him; to ask him to pass the bread and then eat it when it comes to you from his greasy, greedy hand. Or to smile at a harlot and offer her the possibility of dignity; to look at her and see not her painted face and tainted past but her promising future. Jesus called for change and when his followers lived a new kind of life, they got a lot of trouble for their efforts.”
When we bear the light of God’s love into the world, when we proclaim the gospel from the rooftops and shout the good news about forgiving one another instead of harboring resentment, seeking justice instead of keeping people under tow, effecting reconciliation instead of proving who is right, giving up the stuff of this world and giving ourselves to its people, inviting the marginalized and offering them a place at our table, fighting for the weak—when we shout even a little of that from the rooftops, we may well find that the world will hate us for it. That message and the actions people take because of it has always gotten Christians into trouble, and still does.
We find that out if we won’t tolerate racial, or ethnic, or homophobic slurs or jokes. We will see how many points we earn if we rebuke someone for sexual harassment aimed at a co-worker. We get a glimpse of what Jesus is talking about if we fight for an unpopular cause because we know it’s the right thing to do. That baptismal candle—and what it tells us— can get us into hot water.
Probably the most profound line in this passage is “Do not worry.” The candle presented at baptism gets its light from the great Paschal Candle—that marvelous sign of the Risen Christ in our midst. It is that lightening bolt opening the tomb on the day of resurrection and those brilliant flames of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. That’s the light from which we get our light. It’s full of power and blessing and grace. And when we take that light out into the world and shine it in the presence of the sheep who desperately need to experience it—be assured that we will also find ourselves among wolves who would like very much to extinguish that light.
Dale Turner writes in his book Different Seasons: “One of God’s great gifts—perhaps the greatest gift to each of us—is being born into an unfinished world and given a share with God in creation…” Then we are born again in baptism, called forth to bear witness to God’s extravagant love in a world that so desperately needs it, ordained into Christ’s eternal priesthood as ministers and disciples of the Good News.
Jesus was very clear about this: proclaiming God’s word out there in the world can be dangerous. Sometimes that candle can be a little too hot to handle. But as we learned from the Gospel today, God doesn’t necessarily call the equipped for God’s work—God equips the called. That would be us.
Receive the light of Christ, a sign of the new life enkindled in you. Shine in the world to the glory of God. Amen.