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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by the Reverend Richard Tombaugh
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 24, 2009

May the words spoken and heard here be both spoken and heard in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Do any of you know about John the Deacon who lived in Rome about the year 500 A.D.? I certainly didn’t until I began working on this sermon. He really is obscure. However, he once wrote to a friend about the meaning of Baptism and said something quite wonderful. “Baptism, he wrote, tells us who we are and who we are becoming.” In other words Baptism is about our identity.

In a few minutes we will pour a tankard of water into the font and thank Almighty God for the gift of water, rehearsing the biblical events which have given water its symbolic power. We will then thank God for the living water of Baptism through which the children Shephard, Christopher and Alexandra will be made Christ’s own forever. Finally, Father Lang and I will in turn reach our hands into the font, scoop up a handful of that living water and pour it on the foreheads of the three children, giving them their Christian names. These are the names by which they will be known in heaven and which mark their new identities Today will begin a process by which we and these three children will, in the words of John the Deacon, learn who they are and who they will become in the years ahead.

Every time I watch the water from the font flow over a child’s forehead I am reminded of a powerful biblical image. You will recall that the Land of Israel encompasses two major bodies of water linked by the Jordan River. In the northern part of the country is the Lake of Tiberias also known as the Sea of Galilee. This lake is fed by rivers, and streams, that flow southward from the Syrian mountains. Teaming with life this lake is a symbol of the richness of the land, making the nearby desert bloom and creating lush green pastureland in wonderful abundance. The cool fresh water of the Sea of Galilee is God’s gift to a thirsty country. On its shores and beneath its surface all sorts of animals, plants, fish and insects live out their lives, reproduce and die The dynamic of dying to the old and giving life to the new, of despair and exaltation and, of challenge and response is repeated endlessly in the cool freshness of the lake’s living waters.

These living waters leave the Sea of Galilee and begin a long journey in the Jordan River which meanders southward down the valley around rocks, swelled by storms, shrunken by drought, constantly changing, never the same, but always fresh and rich with life as it passes along.

Sixty miles to the south the Jordan River feeds into another lake, strangely different from the Sea of Galilee. Except for some tiny brine shrimp, nothing lives in this lake called the Dead Sea. Around it is no greenery or growth of any kind. Even the trees that once grew close enough to be touched by the lake’s influence are gaunt specters of life, stark skeletons encrusted by the salt that cakes everything. What has happened to the water in a few short miles? How could it have been so rich a full of life and yet so barren when it enters the Dead Sea? The answer is that nothing has happened to the water. The answer is in the geography of the Jordan Rift. The lowest place on earth, the Dead Sea, has no outlet. Its level is maintained only through evaporation. Everything it receives it keeps for itself, and the result is deadly. With nowhere to flow, the once life-giving waters become a briny soup, fit only for microscopic life, and death to any who drink it.

The promise to those who are marked as Christ’s own for ever in Baptism is that their lives will forever be like the living waters of the Jordan River, ever vital, ever changing, ever fresh. In the words of John the Deacon Shephard, Christopher and Alexandra will each receive a new identity as they are grafted into the dying and rising of Jesus. In a word they will be transformed and set on a life-long journey of self discovery with the assurance that they will never ever become like the toxic water of the Dead Sea.

Today this joyful baptismal promise of new life and new identity in Christ is set in the context of the liturgical celebration of the Ascension. The Feast of the Ascension commemorates the withdrawal of Christ from his earthly ministry and his movement into heaven. Thus the Ascension marks the solemn close of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ and the end of the Easter season.

In a profound way the conjunction of Baptism with the Ascension gives deeper meaning to John the Deacon’s words: Baptism tells us who we are and who we are becoming. The clue to that deeper meaning can be found in the reaction of the disciples to the Ascension. Immediately after the crucifixion of Jesus the disciples were disoriented and dismayed, lost in the confusion of sorrow and hopelessness. The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus gradually dispelled their sorrow and restored their hope. Jesus came into their midst and opened their minds to new depths of understanding. Then one day as they were again together with Jesus, Jesus ascended into heaven and left the disciples standing alone.

I can imagine that the disciples experienced this event as a shocking moment of being abandoned and left behind. Jesus had gone where they could not go. It would take some time before the disciples could understand the transforming power of letting Jesus go where they could not go.

To allow another person to find and develop his or her identity, to permit a loved one to become what that person must be for himself and not to be for us requires enormous courage. . Ascension like Baptism is about new identity. The Ascension inaugurated the new identity of Christ as Savior of the world reigning in heaven. The Ascension also inaugurated the new identities of the disciples as they began to understand and accept the loss of their Friend and Teacher. Jesus needed to complete His journey of self discovery. In time the disciples came to realize that they needed to accept and rejoice in Our Lord’s transformation, as they also completed their journeys of self-discovery.

Each child baptized today is beginning a journey of self-discovery. With God’s guidance each will grow into his or her new identity each in his or her own way. They will become persons for themselves and not for us. As they mature and find themselves, we may at first feel we are being left behind. We are reminded by the Ascension that what at first might feel like being left behind is a really an opportunity for transformation into fullness of life for all concerned.

Baptism begins a process of self discovery not only for the children baptized, but for all of us who travel with them on part of their journeys. Both they and we embark on a new journey. Both they and we will be part of the dynamic of dying to the old and giving life to the new, of despair and exaltation, of challenge and response that is repeated endlessly in both the cool freshness of the Jordan River’s living waters and in the living water of baptism that leads to eternal life.

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