Sermon for Sunday, January 12, 2014 || Epiphany 1A || Matthew 3:13-17
Before I get into the meat of this sermon, I hope you will indulge me with a moment of personal privilege. This is my final sermon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church. We’ll still be together next Sunday morning, but I won’t be standing in front of you following the Gospel reading like I am now – on the record, as it were. From the bottom of my heart, please allow me to express my deepest gratitude to you for the last four years. They have been the best four years of my life, in no small part because of your welcome of Leah and me into your midst, your love and partnership, and your fervent desire to serve God here and beyond those doors. May you continue to shine with the light of God’s love, to bear witness to God’s healing power, and to welcome every soul who walks across that threshold. With every fiber of my being, I say, “Thank you.”
Since this is my last sermon, it seems only fitting that today I’ll be talking about a beginning. In a few minutes, we will reorient our worship to the south side of the church. We will stand around that behemoth stone basin over there. (As an aside, I have no idea how our font didn’t sink the ship that carried if here from England all those centuries ago.) Anyway, we will stand around the stone basin, say prayers over the water, and baptize little Kaylee. But before we do, let’s have a quick session of Christianity 101: An Introduction to Baptism. It seems only fitting to do this on a day when we will witness a baptism and when we’ve just read about Jesus’ own baptism by John in the River Jordan.
So what’s really going on in baptism? The traditional understanding tells us that baptism serves as the initiatory rite of the church and marks the cleansing of our sins. Now neither of these definitions is wrong (let me be clear), but I think if we stop there we will be prone to misunderstanding. We need to dig a little deeper. Here’s one thing to remember about baptism, and this will be on the test (there’s no test): the sacrament of baptism affirms and celebrates a state of being that already exists. The action of baptizing doesn’t create anything new; rather, the sacrament marks our participation in something God is already doing.
Here’s what I mean. At the end of the baptism service, we will welcome Kaylee saying: “We receive you into the household of God. Confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share with us in his eternal priesthood.” However, by virtue of Kaylee being born in the image and likeness of God, she is already a member of God’s family. She is already part of God’s household. Thus, her baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being she already possesses. Today we will celebrate her membership in God’s family so that we can see the deep truth of God’s reality: that we are all members of that family.
Participating in this deep truth is what makes baptism one of the sacraments of the faith. If you’ve taken a confirmation class or CCD in the Roman Catholic Church, then you might remember the classic definition of a sacrament: An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. Another way to put this is that sacraments are windows through which God gives us the gift of viewing the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Sacraments take ordinary, everyday things – water and bread, for example – and use them to reveal extraordinary holiness hidden in plain sight.
When we baptize Kaylee, the hidden will be revealed for a moment, and we will see the unconditional love of God embracing a soul who has never done a thing to earn that love. And we will learn once again that we can do nothing to earn it either. We can only respond to God’s unconditional love in our lives.
If Kaylee has done nothing to earn God’s love, then neither has she done anything to reject it, so you might be wondering why we baptize to cleanse sins, which you’ll recall was the second part of our traditional understanding of baptism. Once again, we are affirming and celebrating a state of being that already exists.
The word “baptism” sounds all fancy until you dig down to its roots. “Baptism” simply means “to wash.” If you were off to take a shower (and you happened to be a speaker of ancient Greek) you might use the verb from which we get the word “baptism.” When we bathe, we scrub away all the dirt and sweat and grime that accumulates during our day-to-day lives. We have to bathe regularly because we get dirty regularly. But we baptize only once because baptism is a celebration that our sins are forgiven – not just the ones we already committed but all of our sins past and future, everything that has, does, or will separate us from God. When we wash in the waters of baptism, we join God’s reality in progress, a reality in which nothing in all creation can separate us from God’s love. The sacrament of baptism allows us to mark the beginning of our participation in this reality.
So if baptism is an affirmation and celebration of a state of being that already exists, you might be wondering if it asks anything of us at all. If we’re just jumping into a river that’s already flowing, what is our responsibility in all of this?
Well, the action of baptism takes place in a few seconds at the behemoth stone basin over there. We’ll pour a few ounces of blessed water on Kaylee’s forehead, say the words, and that will be that. But the baptismal life continues from that moment on. The baptismal life is a sacramental life, a life in which each baptized person becomes one of those windows into the true and eternal reality of God’s movement in creation. Thus baptism invites us into deeper commitment as followers of Jesus Christ, deeper relationship with God, and deeper resonance with the Holy Spirit’s presence.
When we reaffirm our Baptismal Covenant in a moment, we will promise with God’s help to commit ourselves once again to serve God in this world. We will remember that nothing separates us from God’s love, that we are all members of God’s great family, and that God invites us to live baptismal lives, committed to bearing witness to the true and deep reality of God’s presence in creation.