Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"You canít swim without getting wet"

Message preached May 16, 2004
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Revelation 21:22-22:5

Order of Worship

            I was fresh out of seminary, serving in my first church. Looking forward to my first baptism, I noticed something interesting in the dressing room that us men were supposed to use. There, hanging on a hook, was a pair of hip-waders. I had no idea what they were doing there. Was a previous pastor an avid fly fisherman or something? If so, why did he leave some of his gear behind?

            When I asked about it, I was told that one of my predecessors used those hip-waders for baptism. "Really?" I asked, trying not to laugh. The thought of pulling on those waders so as not to get wet when dunking someone in the baptismal pool just struck me as funny. Why avoid getting wet? ... "Iíll completely immerse you, but Iíd rather stay dry, thank you." ... While Iím sure there must have been some good reason, I still wonder, "Why?"

            Stepping into the water of baptism is a very tangible and real way of describing our life in Christ. On the one hand, itís a bit like getting in the tub and washing up, something all of us have had to do - hopefully many times! - over the course of our lives. You canít get clean without getting wet, and baptism represents the cleansing forgiveness of God for those who turn away from sin and toward the Lord. In reality, itís something we do every day - dying to sin and rising with Christ.

            Beyond that, however, as we step into the water we remember that the path down which God leads is like the sea that the children of Israel needed to cross in order to leave Egypt behind. The Lord parted the waters for them to escape Pharaohís chariots, but they had to do the walking. The same is true of our life in Christ. We donít simply press a button and instantaneously arrive where we need to go. Faith is about walking with our own two feet, often through difficult times, wilderness experiences which serve to exercise our spiritual muscles.

            They say that swimming is some of the best exercise we can get. The truth is, though, you canít swim without getting wet. The water provides enough resistance to a wide variety of our bodyís muscles, as we move them in it, that they get stronger without tearing. Thatís analogous to our life in Christ, which begins in the waters of baptism. Itís an every-day affair, however. Figuratively speaking, we need to step into that water on a regular basis. We canít do so without getting wet. Otherwise, as disciples of Jesus we become terribly out of shape.

            Now, let me be clear about this "water" to which I am referring. It also involves other people, and there - so often - is the rub. Baptism, you see, is not just about "me and Jesus." Itís about intentionally linking our life with other believers and becoming a part of this "body" called the church. Of course, you do understand (donít you?) that when we talk about "church," weíre talking about people. As we all know, people can be difficult. Which is an understatement. Let me tell you! Many a pastor has wished for hip-waders when stepping into this water called "church life." The truth is, though, you canít do so without getting wet. Nor should you.The New Jerusalem, from the Bamberg - Apocalypse, About 1020, AII 42

            Were you listening as that word picture was painted for us earlier from the revelation of John? Some have heard that open-ended description of things that are yet to be, and they breathe a sigh of relief. After all, here is a portrait of the city of God which has no temple. "The Lord God Almighty" will be the temple, it says. Aha! When we get to heaven we wonít have to mess with all those ornery, difficult people. No church. Just "me and Jesus." Of course, we want to draw into that picture all our loved ones and the grand reunion that will take place. But as we do so, we start realizing that many of our "loved ones" are the very folks who have been both heart-string and heart-ache through the years. Church, you see, is like a family. And families are ... uh ... "interesting," to say the least.

            We live with unreal expectations of both family and church. In these stressful times, and Iíve got to say that there has never been a time that hasnít been stressful, unless you go all the way back to the garden of Eden. In these stressful times, we are tempted to cocoon ourselves away from some of the sources of stress - in particular, Iím talking about "people." We are pulled, however, toward community because none of us were meant to live alone. As we enter the water of fellowship, though, we may have a false picture of what a healthy community involves.

            "Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream," Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote. "The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But Godís grace speedily shatters such dreams."

            "By sheer grace," Bonheoffer continues," God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world... Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in Godís sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it." (Life Together, pp. 26-27)

            Having just quoted those words, I need to say that all dreams are not bad. The future is born upon the wings of a dream. That is what our morning scripture reveals in the form of a vision, a dream from God of a world gone right. This dream energizes us, for it opens up our present experience - which may not be all that great, especially so for those who really suffer in this world - to step out toward possibilities we scarcely can imagine. After all, God is not finished. And the Lord will have the last word! Not us! Praise God!

            However, we can live now with our own "pipe dream" (thatís what Bonhoeffer called it) of what "church," what "fellowship," what "community" should be. And we can, and often do, act as prosecutor, judge, and jury of this community when it doesnít live up to our expectations of it. Church, after all, is made up of people, and "people" can be ... uh, well ... people. In response to this, we can choose to exit the church, or limit our involvement in it (just putting our toes in the water, so to speak). However, a healthy community of faith is one in which people are willing - in spite of all the imperfections of the body of Christ - to enter the water of our life together and get wet.

            Speaking of healthy communities, letís turn back to that vision of John we heard earlier. Did you catch that this revelation of a new heaven and a new earth is purposely pictured as a "city?" To be honest, wouldnít you think a more "pastoral" setting would be more appropriate? I mean, this book of books (the Bible, that is) begins with a garden scene. We "New Jerusalem," by Aristarkh Lentulov, 1917 Oil on Canvas, 102 x 101 cm, The State Russian Museum. think of Eden as a place without problems primarily because it was without people. However, God desired to create people after his own image, starting with Adam. "Me and God." What more could you want? But it was incomplete, for one person is not "people." So God fashioned another. However, as the story goes, a pain in the rib led to a pain in the neck. No more garden.

            Now, youíd think at the end of this book of books (the Bible, that is), that everything would return to that garden, but it doesnít. The coming realm of God is pictured not as a garden, but as ... a city! A city involves people. Donít get so caught up with the real estate description of it (you know, streets of gold, jewel foundations, pearly gates, prime waterfront location, lots and lots of space) that you miss the obvious. "The nations will walk by" the light of Godís glorious presence there, it says. "People will bring into it" glory and honor. The "tree of life" revealed in the middle of that city, drawing moisture from the "river of the water of life" beneath it, has a purpose. Itís not just eye candy. Itís very leaves are "for the healing of the nations." People.

            I know this is "tomorrow talk," but how are we stepping into this water here and now? This is our vision of a world gone right. We desperately need this picture, especially when so many other disgusting images fill our minds, from naked prisoners of war to beheaded civilians. This vision of a world gone right needs to be ever before us, not as an escape from reality, but as a motivation. This is Godís ultimate purpose, the intention toward which everything is moving. The church, made up at present of all us ornery, difficult people, is part of this healing dream.

            The question is, are we going set aside our personal pipe dreams of what we think the church should be, and instead allow God to exercise our spiritual muscles so that we can be the faith community that God wants us to be in this world? If we want to live out our baptism, my friends, we need to get wet. Every day! No hip-waders!

            I invite those of you to come forward - while we sing the first verse of our final hymn - who, during the month of May down through the years, intentionally stepped into the waters of this congregation. Perhaps you were baptized during these Spring days, or maybe you renewed your baptismal vows as you transferred your membership in the church of Jesus Christ to this fellowship. Doesnít matter. You know who you are. Shall we gather at the river?

Service concludes with a celebration and renewal of Baptismal vows.


1 In his shorter catechism, Martin Luther wrote that baptizing with water "signifies that the old Adam in us, together with all sins and evil lusts, should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance and be put to death, and that the new man should come forth daily and rise up, cleansed and righteous, to live forever in God's presence."

online resources for this scripture text

For commentaries consulted, see Revelation.


©2004 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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