During seminary, I was part of a small group that met weekly for self examination, mutual care and -discernment. Our time together was governed by one question, “How goes your soul before God?” The question was an invitation to examine our “spiritual lives,” to discern the ways that God was moving within and around us, to hear the words that God was speaking into our lives. I have thought a lot about that question these last several days, especially during the moments that I have felt righteous indignation over the trauma and loss of life incited by the words and encouragement of a sitting president. Anger over these events is an appropriate reaction. The events of Wednesday and the response of our highest elected official in the days that followed should be condemned.
But we must also recognize that these events didn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a prevailing philosophy that undergirds the systems and institutions that govern our lives, and its sole aim is to protect the power and privilege of whiteness. It manifests itself in hierarchies of difference in which whiteness is the norm against which to compare all others and the gateway that permits access to its privilege. This philosophy was evident on Wednesday in the way that chatter on social media promoting violence was brushed off as hyperbole and “blowing off steam” (imagine if it had been BLM networks promoting the same violent action!). It was evident in the kinds of weapons and protective gear donned (or the lack thereof) by security and police holding protest lines. And this also deserves our righteous indignation.
How goes your soul before God? Again, this question comes to mind. Like a mirror, it forces me to reflect on that anger, to recognize the ways that the philosophy of white supremacy that I condemn is also what affords me the power and privilege that I have. Though I may wield it differently, I still benefit from the power of whiteness. On this side of the mirror, that anger turns to lament for the ways that my privilege disenfranchises others and contributes to inequity and inequality. I am called to repentance for my complicity in the sin of racism and reminded that the Way of Christ is participation in his ministry of reconciliation.
How goes your soul before God? It is a fitting question for today as we commemorate the Baptism of our Lord by renewing our own baptismal vows. It invites us to listen again to the voice of John in the wilderness, to renounce again the cosmic, systemic, and personal forces of evil that distort our relationships with God and with one another. It invites us to turn again toward Christ, to allow John’s pointing arm to direct our gaze away from all that we have renounced and toward the One who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
Renewing our baptismal vows is not like renewing our driver’s license or car registration. Rather, it is a call to recommitment, to revive our desire to follow in the Way of Christ. The Way of Christ is guided by the apostles’ teaching, supported in the fellowship we share, and sustained by worship and prayer. It demands that we discern and name the forces of sin that exist in the world and within ourselves and to actively resist them. The Way of Christ is a call to bear witness – in word and deed – to the liberating and transforming power of God. It requires us to seek and serve Christ in the “Other,” to pay attention to the world around us and to strive for justice and peace.
These are no small things to which we commit. After a week like we just had, it may seem daunting to consider these vows anew. Chaos is bubbling under the surface and it’s not at all clear what the damage will be when it fully erupts. This uncertainty exposes the weight of our vows and the risks we will inevitably need to take in order to live into them. But we need not carry this weight on our own. We have received the Holy Spirit, the one who hovered over the formless earth at creation and whose descent into Christ at his baptism tore open the heavens. The Spirit incorporates us into a new life, a life that is not bound by the norms and categories of this world. The Spirit gives us the wisdom to discern the goodness of God’s creation and to see clearly the forces of sin that distort the goodness of all that God created. The Spirit empowers us to boldly name those forces and renounce them as we journey in the Way of Christ.
Through the Spirit we are claimed by Christ, named as children of God, united not only with God as individuals, but with each other as the Body of Christ. Our unity with one another is not found in our shared values or beliefs, nor is it found in our shared doctrines or dogmas. Our unity is found in our common adoption as children of God and as co-participants in the mystery of salvation. In baptism we are given a new identity that enables us to enter into the trinitarian mystery of salvation so that we might be conformed to Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.
This new identity is not a mere façade. In baptism, the meaning of our life and our purpose is radically reoriented toward the divine life and purpose. Through the Holy Spirit we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, and so we are also united with his life and purpose. The prayer book defines this as the mission to restore all people to unity with God. Through baptism we are both enlisted into and empowered to take up the ministry of reconciliation given to us by Christ.
How goes your soul before God? It is well, it is well with my soul. Not because the world is free of strife and conflict, but because our God has empowered us to live as children of God, to embody a way of life different from the world, to proclaim the Way of Christ in all that we do and speak. Living into our baptismal vows is not dependent on our effort alone, but on the faithfulness of God to accomplish in us all that is necessary to liberate us from the forces of sin and evil that exist within and around us – and this, my friends, really is good news! As we renew our baptismal covenant, let us hold onto this truth: God offers us all the help we need to fulfill our vows – all we have to do is accept the gift of grace!
May God, indeed, grant us the grace to keep the covenant we have made and to boldly confess Jesus as Lord and Savior.