June 26, 2022
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It was 2012, the end of my first year in ministry at Davidson College Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, and I was about to celebrate my very first baptism with Anna and her parents. Anna must have been about eight, nine months old, and I did everything that Princeton Theological Seminary and Michael Brothers trained me to do in preparation. I met with the parents and the baby at my office a week in advance and practiced holding her. On Sunday morning, the family and friends came early, and Anna was cool as a cucumber. I said all the right prayers that had been written out in a little black binder. As I moved smoothly through the liturgy, Baby Anna was resting peacefully in front of that whole congregation in her mother’s arms.
Then we got to the point where mom had to pass Anna to me so I could place the water on her head. Mom gently placed Anna in my arms, Anna looked right into my eyes with what seemed to be a moment of recognition. Then her little face twisted into an expression of abject terror, and she started screaming. There was no going back: we’re talking a five-alarm, red-faced wail, her face turning back and forth like an oscillating fan.
There was a terrible moment of silence except for her cries, and suddenly everybody in the sanctuary burst out laughing. And to make matters worse, we had this tradition at DCPC where the pastor walked the newly baptized up and down their looooong sanctuary so that everyone could see this child of God. And the organist struck up the hymn, “Child of blessing, child of promise, baptized with the Spirit’s sign…” and people were roaring with laughter. Big, Southern, beet-red guffaws.
A retired professor in his eighties, always a distinguished older gentleman in a linen suit and bowtie, slapped his knee as he leaned over into the aisle, pointing at me and shouting, “Oooooh-weeeee! She really got you, An-drew!”
I think there was more going on there than just the twenty-five-year-old pastor got embarrassed. Amid the uproar of chuckles was a warmth of recognition of their fellow Christian: “Welcome to the Church, baby, this is what it feels like sometimes.” Those church folks knew that the big scene at the font touched on something true about the Christian life: sometimes we’re dragged kicking and screaming into God’s promises.
Yes, baptism can sometimes be a loud reminder that when Jesus says, “Follow me,” a big and unexpected part of living into God’s promises is that we will change. Some parts of us will begin to die and go away, even as something new will begin to come to life in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those growing pains in faith are real, and sometimes we try to pretend it’s not happening, or squeeze back into a shell we’ve grown out of, or drag our feet all the way to the promised land. But it’s good news when we grow and change, when we expand our understanding of how complex God’s world is, when we recognize the ambiguity and mystery of what it means to love God and our neighbor.
This Sunday, we’re closing out a few weeks of looking at Paul’s letter to the Romans. In particular, we’ve looked at chapters 5 and 6, in which Paul makes plain what he understands to be the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. Paul explains to Christians in Rome that everyone is alienated from God because of sin. Everybody has sinned—we’ve hurt one another and ourselves through our actions—everyone is alienated from God in this way. Sin exerts a kind of power or dominion over the whole world that leads to death. But Jesus, both a human being and God, reconciled us to God through his ministry of compassion and justice, through the death that he died on a cross, and through his resurrection on Easter morning. In life and in death, we belong to God through what Jesus has done for us.
Paul is offering a theological interpretation of the earliest proclamation of the Church: Christ is risen! And the early church has always stressed that it is a bodily resurrection. Christ’s body has been raised from the dead. God doesn’t think of bodies as shameful or disposable or insignificant. In Jesus, we see God’s profound solidarity with embodied human beings, especially God’s care about the bodies, the lives, and the stories of people whom this world’s powers and authorities say do not matter. Paul’s reflection on baptism—our bodies and lives belong to God—is a radical religious and political statement. Christians declare in baptism that they are joining Jesus in dying to the sinful ways of this world, and that they hope God will raise them into promises of human flourishing that are beyond our capacity to imagine.
Paul’s astonishing claim that God will raise our bodies with the risen Jesus could not be possible without the witness of the women who gathered at the empty tomb on Easter morning. The four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—agree in their accounts that the first disciples who encountered the empty tomb on Easter morning were women. They had stood by the cross when Jesus died on Good Friday. They saw the horrors of a justice system that did not treat people like Jesus as fully human.
When they saw the empty tomb on Easter morning and ran to the other disciples shouting “Christ is risen!”, they were saying that God had really raised Jesus’ body from the dead. The risen body of Jesus is God’s blunt repudiation of all the coercive, violent attempts that the Roman authorities made at the cross to control his body and his ministry of radical inclusion. Their testimony was about the beautiful things God can do in and through human bodies. Through Jesus’ body. Through our bodies.
I can’t think of a time in the Gospels when Jesus says someone’s bodily needs don’t matter. He was revolutionary in saying that people—especially poor and excluded people—deserved to be treated with dignity. Jesus could see that their needs and hopes and wants are a part of their humanity, part of the goodness that God sees in them. Jesus was always talking about people’s bodies and their needs: their need for healing, their need for food and water, their need for clothing, their need to belong to a community, their need for love and acceptance, their need to embrace. Belonging to the body of Christ is an invitation to bring our whole selves to God.
Jesus’ unending, compassionate concern about people’s bodily needs has been on my mind since I learned on Friday that the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade, effectively ending federal protections for abortion and other reproductive rights. This news matters to so many women, trans persons and genderqueer siblings who are able to carry a pregnancy. In Princeton Presbyterians, where Len and I serve as Chaplains, we often tell our students a saying from Mister Rogers and his mentor, the child psychologist Margaret McFarland: “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.” It matters that we talk about it as people of faith. Loving our neighbors means that we have a responsibility to deepen our understanding about reproductive healthcare.
For some of us, this is a big change, a dramatic expansion of how we’ve understood what it looks like to live out our faith in the risen Jesus. Maybe this calling is new and scary to you, too, and I can sympathize. I grew up listening to Focus on the Family every day on the ride to school. There was a long season in my life as a young evangelical when I prayed earnestly for this day to come. And I can say that experiences from ten years of ministry have transformed my perspective. Being a pastor has included holding hands with young people in an emergency room after their friend was assaulted and needed emergency contraception, as well as hearing women’s stories of serious pregnancy risks and terminations. And every time a woman has disclosed to me that she has had an abortion, it has been a holy experience of vulnerability and risk.
Listening to women and queer siblings of faith share their stories about abortion deepens the respect I have for them. It’s taught me that each pregnancy is unique and happens in a unique body, with health issues and life circumstances that are beyond our ability to judge or fully comprehend as a neighbor. The role we have to play in these stories as members of Jesus’ body—in the event we have any role to play at all—is a calling to offer all the compassion and trust in their God-given ability for discernment that these matters deserve.
I believe that we honor the courage of the women at the empty tomb of Jesus when we say that reproductive rights are human rights. Our witness to the Gospel in this season means speaking out against policies that harm our loved ones. This change will be a matter of life and death for many women and queer siblings.
Denial of access to abortion, contraception, and other reproductive health services will exacerbate a severe health crisis related to rising mortality rates for childbirth. It will contribute to severe consequences for access to education, the persistence of systemic poverty in America, and mental health crises for anyone bearing a forced pregnancy. It means recognizing that what has been banned has far-reaching consequences in many states, potentially including the prohibition of life-saving procedures when a mother’s life is in danger. It is a political erasure of what it means to be a woman or a queer person who has control over their bodies, bodies that God has declared have inherent dignity and worth.
The Supreme Court’s decision to remove federal protections for reproductive rights will not end abortion in America. Research from the Guttmacher Institute in 2020 demonstrates that restrictions on legal abortions lead to an increase in ending pregnancies by abortion clandestinely. This is about an extreme ideology’s assertion of control over people’s autonomy, foreclosing their ability to make critical decisions regarding their bodies and their lives.
You may be thinking this is too political, what does it have to do with how we should live our faith? I’m talking about this news because I love the students and young adults we serve. I am committed to their flourishing.
As a minister of the Gospel, I am trying to speak from my experience with young people to raise the warning that we are in a crisis. That their health is at risk. That their emotional, mental, and spiritual welfare is in danger because this decision forecloses their ability in many states to decide for themselves what a full and meaningful life looks like. I want them to know—as they grow in their faith and understanding—that the God who made them cares about their bodies and the decisions they make to care for themselves.
Bearing witness to the Risen Jesus today involves growing in our capacity for imagination about what it looks like for our friends, our loved ones, our neighbors to fully flourish in the bodies God has given them. Joining Jesus in his resurrection means rejecting decisions by the powerful that disregard the physical safety, humanity, agency, and dignity of fellow human beings. Asserting that access to reproductive health is a human right is a part of the redemptive vision God calls us to work toward in confronting poverty, misogyny, racism, and educational inequality in our country. I am choosing to hope amid despair, because the college students and young adults I know and work with are courageous and creative people of faith. We can love them well by listening to them, and then by doing all that we can in the name of Jesus to help them flourish in body, mind, and soul. Amen.
 Linda Goler Blount, “Op-Ed: The End of Roe Will Be a Death Sentence for Many Black Women,” The Los Angeles Times, accessed June 25, 2022. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-06-24/black-women-abortion-roe-v-wade-maternal-mortality
 Planned Parenthood, “Medical and Social Health Benefits Since Abortion Was Made Legal in the U.S.”
 The Guttmacher Institute, “The percentage of unintended pregnancies ending in abortion has increased in countries where abortion is restricted,” accessed June 25, 2022. https://www.guttmacher.org/infographic/2020/percentage-unintended-pregnancies-ending-abortion-has-increased-countries-where