Volatile grace. An interesting juxtaposition of words, isn’t it? Sounds like an oxymoron. Grace is one of the biggie theological terms. It has to do with acceptance, radical acceptance of people just as they are, “wherever they are on life’s journey.” Because of grace, God accepts us and loves us just as we are. Our goal in Christian community is to love and accept others just as they are. Grace. It’s a nice, calm, sweet word, right?
The word “volatile,” on the other hand, conjures up unpredictable, combustible, somewhat scary chemical or human reactions. NOT so nice, calm, or sweet. So, what happens when we put those two opporsite-sounding words together? What is “volatile grace?” And what might it have to do with Jesus’ baptism—which we’re looking at today—and our own baptisms, which ideally guide us every day?
In most Christian traditions, baptism is considered a sacrament, a sacrament being “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (Miles, 227). The grace of baptism is the grace of having been claimed by God as a beloved child. As we hear God say to Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson just after Jesus’ baptism: “You are my child, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” We don’t have to earn it, we don’t have to work for it. In fact, we can’t work for or earn it. God loves us just as we are. Period. THAT is the grace of baptism.
So what makes that grace volatile? Joan Chittister is the person who came up with this idea of volatile grace. Yes, God loves us and accepts us for who we are, she says. God is with us in the here and now; we don’t have to go searching to find God. God is right here with us every moment of the day or night. That is God’s gift of grace to us.
But, Chittister writes, “we have been given a grace that is volatile. To feel it and ignore it, to receive it but reject it…is to be in a worse situation than if we had never paid attention to” it in the first place. “For disregard of God’s good gifts….for refusing to use the resources we have for the upbuilding of the reign of God, for beginning what we do not intend to complete, the price is high….We lose what is ours for the taking, we miss out on the life we are meant to have.” (RB, Jan. 1)
So, grace is grace—free gift, full acceptance, profound love….but accompanying that gift is a feeling, an urge, a pull, a need to respond to that grace in some way. And until we do respond, grace is unpredictable, combustible, volatile. Grace unresponded to soon explodes within us and dies. Responding to grace keeps it alive, helps it continue, helps it to grow.
So, what is an appropriate response to grace? What is an appropriate response to the grace of baptism?
One way to respond to the grace of baptism is to take seriously the baptisms of others. You all do that well here at Pilgrimage. When a child is baptized in this community, you take seriously your call to help the parents nurture that child into Christian faith. When I walk around the sanctuary immediately after the baby’s baptism? There’s not one face in this place that doesn’t have a smile on it. Nurturing other baptized people? That is one way to respond to the grace of baptism.
Another way is simply to receive the grace, to hear God’s words in baptism: “You are my child, my beloved; in you I am well pleased” and to live as if that is true.
A story from Sara Miles’ book, Take This Bread, illustrates many good responses to the grace of baptism. A middle-aged atheist journalist, Sara had no need for church or God or Christian faith. But then one Sunday morning walking down a sidewalk in San Francisco, she wandered into St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, received communion—and was transformed.
The experience of receiving the bread and wine, the grace of it, was so powerful, Sara felt compelled to respond—she started a food bank that distributed food to the hungry… off St. Gregory’s communion table.
The first week the bank was open also was the week Sara was baptized. She said that for her, it was appropriate that the food bank opened the same week she was baptized: feeding others was her response to having been fed. Opening the food bank was her response to having received God’s grace.
Sara relates another baptism story. “I was unloading groceries one Friday,” she says, “when I spotted Sasha standing out back by the baptismal font, as if she were waiting for someone. Sasha was a very small black girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, who usually came to the pantry with an impatient, teenage aunt. I’d never met her mother. Sasha’s hair wasn’t always combed, and this day she had a split lip. ‘Sweetheart!’ I said. I was glad to see her again. ‘Want a snack? There’s some chips inside.”
Sasha looked at me, not smiling. ‘Is this water the water God puts on you to make you safe?” she demanded abruptly, in a strangely formal voice.
I put down my boxes. What was she asking for? Was I being asked to baptize her? My mind raced, flashing back to when I’d stood at the font for my own baptism just a few years ago.
Nothing about that water had made me safe. It had pushed me further out from the certainties and habits of my former life, taken me away from my family, and launched me on this mad and frustrating mission to feed multitudes. It had eroded my identity as an objective journalist and given me an unsettling glimpse of how very little I knew. I was no less flawed or frightened or capable of being hurt than I’d been before my conversion, and now, in addition, I was adrift in this water, yoked together with all kinds of other Christians, many of whom I didn’t like or trust.
How could I tell this child that a drop of water could make her safe? I had no idea what Sasha was going through at home, but I suspected it was rough. And baptism, if it signified anything, signified the unavoidable reality of the cross at the heart of Christian faith. It wasn’t a magic charm but a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of unresolved human pain.
I remembered what Lynn Baird had asked me, when I was contemplating baptism.
“Do you want it?” I asked. Sasha locked her yes on me. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, I want that water.’” There was something so serious in her face that it stopped me cold. I dipped my fingers into the font, and Sasha turned her face up to me, concentrating. I made the sign of the cross on her forehead.
I took Sasha into the church and found Lynn, one of St. Gregory’s priests. I told her what had happened. Lynn asked Sasha if she wanted a special blessing.
‘Yes,’ Sasha said again, gravely. ‘I want that.’
Lynn took a small container of oil and showed it to Sasha. The girl stood very still. “I’m going to put my hands on you and pray now, if you’re ready,’ Lynn said, and Sasha nodded.
‘Jesus is always with you,’ Lynne told Sasha as she finished rubbing the oil on her skin, ‘no matter what happens to you even when bad things happen. You’re not ever alone.’ Sasha closed her eyes for a moment, then looked down directly at the seated priest, and I saw something flowing between them: the child, crucified, anointing Lynn with the power of her crucifixion, and Lynn, receiving it, anointing Sasha.”
The grace moves back and forth in this story so much it feels a little like a ping pong game. Sara receives the grace of communion then baptism….she responds to that grace by baptizing Sasha…Sasha responds to her baptism by opening herself to being blessed by Lynn…Lynn responds to the gift of Sasha’s openness with the anointing and the blessing…I’m sure Sara and Lynn talked about the incident later, thus extending the grace even further.
This story illustrates well how we neutralize volatile grace—we respond to it again and again….and thus keep it going and going.
How will you neutralize the volatile grace in your life? How will you respond to the grace of your baptism? How will you share the good news—with others and with yourself—that we are God’s children, that we are beloved, and that God is well pleased with us?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2012
Luke 3:15-17, 20-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,*16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with* the Holy Spirit and fire.17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’20added to them all by shutting up John in prison.<!– 21 –>
The Baptism of Jesus
21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,22and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved;* with you I am well pleased.’*