When Baptism Isn’t Enough

The young man’s voice on the other end of
the telephone said, “I guess the waters of my baptism didn’t cleanse me
enough.”

The young man’s voice on the other end of the telephone said, “I guess the waters of my baptism didn’t cleanse me enough.”

The pain resulting from the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church affirming the act of a local church pastor to exclude a man from membership in a local congregation because of his sexual orientation is deep. The decision has not only caused pain, it’s caused grief, anger and theological reflection unlike any I’ve seen in recent years. But I confess, it’s the pain of this decision that most affects me.

I have never thought the church should be about exclusion and rejection. I’ve believed it, like the gospel, should be about healing, reconciliation, justice and peace. Read Eugene Peterson’s preface to the Gospel of Luke in The Message version of the Bible to see a grace-filled, simple, eloquent discussion of the Gospel of Jesus as inclusive.

I’ve written in this blog that I believe one of the greatest gifts this denomination can offer to the world is its belief in the inclusive nature of the community of faith. Methodism has represented an attitude of openness in a broken, divided world that dishes out far too much pain, exclusion and divisiveness. In my formative years it was the people called Methodist that reflected and embodied the unconditional love of God as revealed in the life and teachings of Jesus. They included me, one who keenly feels an outsider. This was so impressive it led me to answer a call to ministry.

This decision does not reflect the values I have known. Neither does it reflect the practices of community that I have experienced. Therefore, I do not believe the behavior of this one pastor reflects the spirit of openness that I have been taught is fundamental to the Methodist movement. “If your heart is as mine, give me your hand,” said John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

The young man on the telephone spoke of his anguish that he might at some future time be excluded by the church he loves and in which he has been nurtured as a believer. Can an individual pastor determine that my baptism is no longer valid, he asked?

For that matter, does this now mean that any United Methodist pastor can devise a list of behaviors that are deemed sufficient to ban individuals from the community of faith? This decision seems to leave open that possibility. Think about that.

Beyond the real pain, this business of exclusion is dangerous. It risks diminishing the community that has nurtured and affirmed so many who might otherwise have felt left out. That’s the tragedy. This decision sends the wrong message, a message that is, I believe, contrary to the gospel.

Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you, writes Matthew. (Matt. 5:36, The Message)

Don’t pick on people, jump on their failures, criticize their faults–unless, of course, you want the same treatment, Jesus says in Luke’s gospel. (Luke 6: 37, The Message)

It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own, Jesus says only a short time later in Luke. (Luke 6:41, The Message)

And he scolds the Pharisees saying, You’re hopeless, you religion scholars! You took the key of knowledge, but instead of unlocking doors, you locked them.(Luke 11:46, The Message)

And of those outside the circle he told his followers, “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out..They won’t be able to return the favor but the favor will be returned–oh how it will be returned. (Luke 14:12,14, The Message)

His point is clear. Don’t reject anyone.

The challenge we all face is how to interpret these teachings faithfully. The Judicial Council has highlighted language in our Book of Discipline that is inconsistent and needs reconciliation. And more than that, it has emphasized how we must give attention to our tradition of openness and inclusiveness.

But I still believe in the people of The United Methodist Church. I believe they are people of open hearts, open minds, open doors.

And more importantly, I believe my young friend’s baptism is a mark of acceptance in this community and a mark of God’s love that is indelible and eternal. It cannot be revoked by fiat. I believe no one is outside the embrace of the community of faith. And I believe the embrace of a loving God sweeps all into God’s reach. And so, my young friend, I don’t believe God names you gay or straight. I believe God names you God’s own child. And I believe your baptism, through the grace of God, is sufficient for you and for all.

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