“Confronting the Plumb Line of Christian Baptism”Dr. Gerald l. Borchert Amos 7:7-14; Colossians 1: 1-14; Luke 10:25-37. Year C - The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
In contrast to the basic way we in the western world think, the people of Israel were very eastern. They loved to think in word-pictures and in stories. While we in the west also love stories and become entranced with movies, we usually prefer to draw our conclusions to problems and issues on the basis of logical formulations rather than on the basis of pictures and stories.
Indeed, the farther east one goes from the Semite world to China and the Orient the more one discovers that the words of the people are developed from pictures and stories. Words in the Orient are not composed of separate letters but are pictograms. That is one reason why languages such as Chinese and Japanese are quite difficult for westerners to learn.
When we come to Christianity, among our most significant pictograms are our common worship experiences known as our sacraments, sacred actions, ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They call us to remember and confirm the sacred or holy covenants and commitments which God in Christ has made with us and we have made in Christ with God.
These covenants and commitments must never be thought as one-way events or experiences although they are not made between equal parties. We are not divine and God is hardly to be considered as a mere human. So, as we turn to the book of Colossians during these next few weeks, I want you to think seriously about God, Christ and the nature of our commitments in baptism, which is the focus of Paul’s letter to the Colossians.
Now the Bible is basically an eastern book and it is filled with stories and word pictures. The first reading for this Sunday is from the Old Testament prophet Amos who reminds us that the prophets often punctuated their messages with word-pictures.
In today’s scripture reading from Amos 7:7-17, for example, when Amos told Israel that judgment was coming, God is pictured as holding a plumb line next to a wall which is likened to Israel and the pictogram illustrates how poorly Israel has been in meeting God’s standards.
Then to make the coming defeat of the Northern Kingdom very realistic to Amaziah, the disobedient priest who claimed he was representing God, Amos informed the wicked priest that his wife would be reduced to a begging harlot in the city and he himself would be exiled to a foreign land! The picture was stark and the prediction was certainly vivid. How would you react to have been handed such a picture?
While we can assert that God is truly a loving and caring God, the biblical stories are truly honest, very frank, down to earth and sometimes quite fear-inducing—if we take them seriously! The prophets did not play games with the receivers of their messages. We, therefore, must be careful not to misread the prophets by dawning rose-colored glasses because we can easily miss the point which this prophet was making.
Israel and Amaziah, the priest, were not authentic! That point could easily be applicable to some of us today. Just consider the lying and self-centeredness in Congress and remember that our politicians usually reflect the thinking of the people. Have you ever wondered how people justify their actions with their baptismal vows?
When we move to the New Testament, we discover that Luke, who was a westerner, had actually learned how to understand the thought processes of the Semites and was amazingly able to capture the marvelous picture-thinking and story-telling pattern of Jesus. Indeed, so captivating are Luke’s stories that once you have heard them, you will never forget them.
Do you remember the lost coin, the lost sheep, the prodigal sons, the widow and the faithless judge, the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector), the rich man and Lazarus, as well as the shepherds and the baby Jesus, the boy Jesus in the temple and the wonderful Emmaus story after the resurrection?
Did you recognize that all of these stories appear only in Luke? And further, did you realize that all of these stories except the last two are focused on the poor, the lost and the rejects? They are not just nice stories; they are incisive statements about how God views people and things! And it is usually quite different than the way we, like most people, view reality.
Yet, did you realize that I failed to mention the text from Luke that was assigned in the lectionary reading for today? It is one of Luke’s most powerful stories that also appears only in his gospel and which we have conveniently called “the Good Samaritan.”
Wait a minute; what did I say? Did I say Good Samaritan? How can a Samaritan be good? That, of course, is the big question in the story! The Samaritans were the rejected, half-breed Jews who built a competing temple on Mount Gerizim and claimed that it was authorized by Moses!
While no building stands on this special site today, the place is still used. And, as I noted in my commentary on John, I have attended the Samaritan Passover there. Like the Jewish Passover it is also viewed as a saving pictogram event which is celebrated by the few Samaritans who still live in the area around Samaria.
But why do we call this Samaritan “good”? The reason is that compared to those people whom we usually regard as “good,” the religiously pious and acceptable ones in our communities—namely our Pastors and Priests as well as our Ministers of Music and Choir Directors (today’s Levites)—this particular Samaritan reject of society stopped and cared for a helpless person.
I will not venture to suggest who the rejects of society might be for you. But I did find it quite revealing when I took the time to read my name into each of the characters in this story—the injured person, the priest, the Levite and of course the Samaritan. Then I began to ponder what I would be thinking if Jesus was telling me this story today.
For example, if I was the injured person, I considered what my thoughts would be about the first two people whom I regarded as my religious leaders and their avoiding me in my helpless state. And then I reflected on what I would be thinking when this reject whom I felt was unclean actually touched me and cared for me.
It was a very enlightening experience. I recommend that you try the process. You might even discover something new about yourself. The point of the story, however, is very clear—the authentic person was neither the priest nor the Levite. The authentic one was the rejected person. Does that fact not ring a bell in your minds when you think about Jesus?
So, with these two pictures in mind, I now want to shift our attention to the third text suggested in the lectionary—the first 14 verses of the letter to the Colossians. This letter is a priceless work from the Apostle Paul and, as I indicated in my reflections on this work in Portraits of Jesus for an Age of Biblical Illiteracy, Colossians is the pinnacle of Paul’s thinking about Christ. To that subject we will return next week. But there is more for us to consider today.
This letter of Colossians was written to function like a handbook for understanding the nature and significance of Christian baptism. Paul was absolutely superb in detailing this subject.
Now remember that Paul was in prison when he wrote this message and that it is addressed to a place where, in spite of all his travels, he had never been. But that did not mean he was unaware of the people who lived due east of the great city of Ephesus in the Lycus River valley near the Asian border with Phryga.
He obviously knew a great deal about these residents of Colossae and their neighbors in the larger cities of Hierapolis and Laodicea (Col 4:13) because their local evangelist, Epaphras, was actually with him when he wrote this missive (4:12) as well as the one which has not survived to the Laodiceans (4:16). Paul was here obviously concerned that they would understand clearly the significance of their commitment to Christ because he enjoined the residents of these cities to read each other’s letters and live as he advised.
So, as together we reflect on the introduction to this letter to the Colossians, please bear in mind that this letter was calling the Christians to remember their baptisms! That summons from Paul has been so impressive to me that I recommend to my theological students and churches—whatever their denomination—that periodically they schedule times in the church year when the preachers and teachers call their people to “Remember your baptism!”
Indeed, as I have taken Christians on my many trips to the lands of the Bible, I always schedule a time for them to remember the implications of their baptisms whether it is in Israel (either at the tourist site south of the Sea of Galilee or at the remote site just north of the Dead Sea across from the similar site in Jordan) or in Greece at Ancient Philippi on the banks of Gangites stream near where Paul baptized the woman from Lydia or in Turkey at the calcium laden waters of Hierapolis near Colossae.
Remembering and reaffirming one’s commitments in baptism is an extremely significant task in which Christians should engage because the world is not a place where Jesus’ call to authenticity is usually proclaimed.
As we turn now to discuss this letter to the Colossians which is the focus of the next few messages, please notice that after the rather typical Hellenistic beginning to the letter, Paul immediately bathes this letter in a “thanksgiving” prayer. Indeed, the word family of the Greek eucharisteinappears in every chapter of the book (1:3.12; 2:7; 3:15, 17 and 4:2).
Even though Paul was stuck in prison with the possibility that he might soon lose his life, his situation did not determine his perspective on life. Instead of complaining, his letter was filled with thanking God for the divine grace that was given to him and which enabled him to challenge his readers also to be thankful.
Moreover, it becomes very clear in this letter that Paul was able to view salvation as involving the whole of life and not a merely a simple saying “yes” to Jesus or walking down the aisle of a church and thinking that everything was then done. Salvation demands a life commitment and that is the basis for understanding his famous triad of faith, love and hope which appears in different orders in his letters.
Although all three of the elements in the triad are necessarily present throughout all of one’s life as a Christian, faith for Paul represents how one begins and continues one’s life with God in Christ, love represents how one lives out that relationship in life and “hope” represents the expectation one has of a Christian’s great eschatological meeting with God at the end of time
When you see this triad used in Paul, the last word of the triad will give you a clue concerning which aspect of salvation is his primary focus.
In Romans (see 5:1-5) and 1 Corinthians (see 13:13) the focus is on love and therefore his perspective centers on living out the sanctified life (cf. Rom 6:19). But in 1 Thessalonians (see 1:3; cf. 1:9) and here in Colossians (1:4-5) the primary focus is on attaining the promise of the glorified life. Remember Paul was now in prison and he knew his time might be very short. He was grateful that the believers in Colossae were following Christ’s call and were bearing fruit and growing in the grace of God which he had learned from Epaphras (1:6-7).
Therefore, as their elder brother and minister in Christ who understood the nature and implications of salvation, he was praying that they would be filled with the knowledge of God’s will for them so that they might grow in the ways that please God (1:9-10). He knew that their path in life would not be easy and therefore he prayed earnestly for them that they would be strengthened with divine power so they could endure and be patient in the tests that were sure to be coming.
He even prayed that they could experience joy in their difficult situation and that they would be able to give thanks to God, the one who would ultimately qualify them for their anticipated inheritance with the saints in light (1:11-12). That expected inheritance not only involved their deliverance from the realm of darkness but would also include their acceptance into the eternal realm of God’s Son who provided for their forgiveness and salvation (1:13-14).
Such was their marvelous hope. And such should be your expectation and the anticipation of all Christians who place their trust in Christ Jesus as their Lord.
But God does have standards and God is able to judge the faithfulness of humans just as he set a plumb line before Israel.
Moreover, even if you might be a pastor, a priest, a minister of music or a choir member do not forget that they were the types that passed by a hurting person while a reject of society was recognized by Jesus as the model of God’s love.
How do you measure up to God’s plumb line?
Are you remembering your commitments in baptism?
May God bless you and empower you to live out the promises you made when you committed yourself to Christ and to your baptism.
About the author: Gerald L. Borchert
Dr. Gerald L. Borchert is Senior Professor at Carson-Newman University (TN); Former Trustee, Emeritus Professor & Thesis Director at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies (FL) was a Canadian lawyer who holds an honors Ph.D. from Princeton in New Testament and did post-doctoral work in Jerusalem, Cambridge, Hamburg, Duke, Boston and San Francisco.
He has taught at many schools throughout the world and been the dean of two American theological seminaries. A translator for the New Living Translation, he has penned over 200 articles and over 30 books including commentaries on John, Revelation, Galatians and Thessalonians as well as other works on Jesus, Assurance and Warning, Worship, Evangelism, Counseling, etc., and two Guides to visiting the Bible lands. His most recent work is Portraits of Jesus for an Age of Biblical illiteracy (Smyth & Helwys).
He is married to Doris Ann Cox, a retired seminary Professor of Christian Education and Ministry Supervision; the father of two sons: Mark, a Professor and Chair of Communications, and Tim, a Teacher of Students on Probation; two professional daughters-in-law; and four grandchildren.
Scripture and Music:
Rescue the Perishing
Worthy of Worship
Hope of the World
God of Grace and God of Glory
Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life
Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart
Lord, I Want to Be a Christian (Moses Hogan)
Battle Hymn of the Republic (Roy Ringwald or Wilhousky)
Prayer Is the Soul s Sincere Desire (Roberta Bitgood)
God of Grace and God of Glory (Paul Langston)
They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love
This Is My Song
Lord, I Want to Be a Christian (H.T. Burleigh)