Sunday, May 21, 2023

Sermon: "Schrodinger's Baptism", Romans 6:1-14 (May 21, 2023)

You’ve all heard of Schrodinger’s cat, right? I’m no physicist, but I’ll do my best to summarize (my apologies in advance to any physicists who may be pained by my rudimentary explanation). As I understand it, Schrodinger’s Cat is a thought experiment performed by physicist Erwin Schrodinger to demonstrate the paradox of quantum indeterminacy (non-physicists, stay with me). This principle says that the physical state of a quantum particle cannot be definitively known apart from observation of it – in other words, observation itself plays a role in determining the particle’s physical state. Schrodinger took this idea out of the realm of quantum particles and into the “real world”: he posited that if a person were to seal a hypothetical cat in a box with something that could eventually kill it, they wouldn’t be able to tell whether the cat was alive or dead until they open the box to look. Therefore, according to quantum indeterminacy, the cat would be both alive AND dead until the box was opened and the cat’s state was observed.

Schrodinger’s point was to prove what he saw as the patent absurdity of this principle: obviously, a cat can’t be both alive AND dead at the same time, no matter how thoroughly unobserved it may be. Most of us, being rational people who’ve generally experienced the concepts of life and death to be mutually exclusive, would agree with Schrodinger – it’s not possible for these two states to exist together. But the thing is, just because something sounds absurd based on our experience doesn’t mean that it’s wrong. Schrodinger’s experiment doesn’t work the same way with a cat as it would, say, with a particle of light, because, according to the friend that fact-checked my physics for me, “Reality is just different down there [in the quantum realm], at least from how we experience it up here.” In other words, there are certain things that we simply can’t comprehend by relying solely on our own understanding. Which pivots nicely into a conversation about the way God works in the world.

Apparently, Paul is a quantum physicist. According to him, baptism is like a theological version of Schrodinger’s Cat. In the act of baptism, a person is simultaneously participating in Christ’s crucifixion AND resurrection – death AND life, at the same time. Each one depends upon the other; they do not and cannot occur separately. And although a person is baptized only once, the coexistence of these two states in us persists indefinitely. Paul argues that, in every moment, we must be both dead to sin AND alive in Christ. This may sound bizarre, but to paraphrase my friend again, “Reality is just different in the waters of baptism.”

Let me try to explain it a little better. The reason for this strange dichotomy is that, although Christ IS risen (he is risen indeed!), we’re still living in “the in-between time” before the full realization of God’s kindom. Sin no longer has authority over us, but it still exists and it can still touch us. It can be really tempting to give into it since righteous living is hard and grace is abundant – it would be much easier to focus on the joy of being alive in Christ and just trust God to take care of our sin. But Paul insists that that isn’t an option for those who are baptized. We must be vigilant to keep sin from ruling our lives until the day that it’s finally vanquished for good in the coming kindom. In every moment, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we remain both alive in Christ AND dead to sin. Alive and dead. At the same time. Schrodinger’s baptism.

No matter how I try to explain it, it doesn’t seem to get any more logical, does it? But just because something’s hard to wrap our minds around doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying to understand. After all, the reason most of us know about Schrodinger’s Cat is because modern physicists still use this thought experiment to help explain the bizarre concept of quantum indeterminacy in terms that the average person can understand. And that’s why, although I usually abhor biblical paraphrases masquerading as scripture, I included the Message’s version of today’s reading in worship.

While The Message tends to make me cringe with its tenuous interpretational leaps, I found myself nodding vigorously along as I read this particular passage. Baptismal theology isn’t simple, but The Message actually does a pretty good job clarifying Paul’s understanding of it. Instead of life and death, it uses the metaphor of citizenship: rather than being “dead to sin,” it imagines us as expatriates of a country where sin is the law of the land (I’ll call this country “Sin-topia”). Rather than being “alive in Christ,” it imagines us as immigrants to a country where grace rules instead (let’s call this one…“Grace-land”). [PAUSE FOR GROANS.]

When we’re baptized, we make a choice to live as citizens of Grace-land from that moment on. We agree to abide by its laws, to further its interests, and to follow its leadership – Jesus. But Sin-topia will always be our homeland, its language will always be our native tongue; it’s where we were born, where we grew up, and where we learned how to live. Even though we’ve left it behind, Sin-topia is still a part of who we are. Our identity therefore encompasses both countries in different ways at the same time.

We have to pay attention to both identities in order to be good citizens of Grace-land. It’s inevitable that we’ll find ourselves slipping back into Sin-topian ways, so we have to make the conscious choice every day to be a faithful Grace-landian. “…you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives,” says the Message. “Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourself wholeheartedly and full-time…into God’s way of doing things.” In other words, we have to put just as much effort into NOT being a Sin-landian as we do into being a Grace-landian.

This metaphor is a little easier to understand than Schrodinger’s baptism, but it’s not perfect, either. We can certainly wrap our minds around the complexities of citizenship – as citizens of nation built by immigrants and refugees, we can understand allegiance to one country coexisting with bits and pieces of another’s culture – but in an increasingly global society, we know that international collaboration isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. And as people of faith, we know that the kindom of heaven will be the same way: it won’t be one religion or nation or people triumphing over all others; instead, all worldly allegiances will dissolve completely into cooperation and loyalty to God alone. If this metaphor is more helpful to you, then please use it with my pastoral blessing – just be aware that it has its own baggage to contend with.

Now, while neither of these metaphors is perfect, they both have one thing in common – they each associate being baptized with taking on an inherently dual nature. Baptism creates a sacred liminal space where the old life and the new life converge, where we become something completely different and yet somehow the same. It establishes a state of being previously unimaginable to us: baptism makes it possible for us to be the kind of person who has roots in two spiritual countries, who is both dead AND alive at the same time. Baptism isn’t just transformative, it’s identity-bending.

This change begins with Christ, but we have vows to keep, too. We have a responsibility BOTH to reject the pull of sin AND to pursue the will of God. One or the other isn’t enough: rejecting sin without pursuing God’s will leads to societal apathy, while pursuing God’s will without rejecting sin leaves us ill-equipped for the work we’ve been called to do. We have to ground our identity in both at the same time in order to be Christ’s disciples in this reality – we have to choose to be citizens of both this world and the next, to be BOTH dead AND alive.

But this commitment, together with the movement of the Holy Spirit, creates a unique opportunity. As participants in Schrodinger’s baptism, as citizens of both Sin-topia and Grace-land, we are able to bridge this kingdom and the next. We know the sufferings and the failings of this world just as intimately as we know the grace, peace, and justice of the world to come. We can see what it takes for the former to change into the latter, and most importantly, we know that it can be done.

Those without a foot in each kingdom often find little hope for this world; they see the horrifying things that human beings are capable of doing to each other and the greed and selfishness that seems to rule over us all, and they assume that a better world is impossible. But we ARE the impossible, and we know better. If we can be both dead AND alive in Christ, if we can be part of this kingdom AND the kindom of heaven, if God can create a beautiful paradox within mortal creatures with nothing more than water, the Holy Spirit, and a promise, then surely this world can become the peaceable kindom that our hearts long for. Surely, we can make it so.

When we remember our own baptisms in a moment, pay extra attention to the vows we renew and the words we use to affirm our faith:

From our baptism: “Trusting in the gracious mercy of God, do you turn from the ways of sin and renounce evil and its power in the world?” From Heidelberg: “Do you promise to open the kindom of heaven through your repentance?” In other words, do you vow to remain dead to sin?

From our baptism: “Will you be Christ’s faithful disciple, obeying his Word and showing his love?” From Heidelberg: “Will you open the kindom of heaven by sharing the Good News through your every action?” In other words, will you work to remain alive in Christ?

If we can keep these promises and live as the impossible people that Paul (and Schrodinger) believe we can be, then the kindom of heaven is inevitable. Maybe not immediately, maybe not even in this lifetime, but it WILL happen. Sin ultimately doesn’t stand a chance against God, no matter how powerful it might seem. So let us go out into this world and proclaim the coming of the next to those who long to hear it most. Let us lift up those still oppressed by the laws of Sin-topia; let us stand up to the kings and tyrants who make them; let us do, in Christ’s name, all the things that others are afraid to do. After all, we are an impossible people. Let’s act like it. Amen.

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