Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Baptism of Our Lord – January 12, 2014
In the name of the living God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus – it is one of the four days of the year traditionally identified by the Church as a day to administer the sacrament of Holy Baptism. One of the parts of my job here is to help people prepare for the sacrament – it’s one of my favorite things about my work – and while there are no candidates to be baptized here today, we will all have a chance to renew our own baptismal promises in just a few minutes.
Most of us were not baptized here at St. Paul’s. In fact, I would wager that most of us were not baptized in the Episcopal Church. Many have come from the Roman Catholic tradition, others from various reformed traditions. While the actual baptism – water applied to the head in some way, accompanied by the words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” is the same, the meaning of this action varies widely, depending on the theology and doctrine behind it.
I recently found my own baptismal certificate tucked inside a pamphlet entitled: “The Baptismal Service,” in one of the boxes I brought back to Connecticut after my parents’ death this past year. It begins, “Dearly beloved in the Lord: The principal parts of the doctrine of Holy Baptism are these three:
First, that we, with our children, are by nature, sinful and guilty before God, and therefore cannot enter in the kingdom of God except we be born again.
Secondly. Holy Baptism, through the dipping in or sprinkling with water, witnesses and seals unto us the washing away of our sins through Jesus Christ….
Thirdly. Since in this holy Sacrament we enter into covenant with God, we are admonished and obliged by it unto a new obedience; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature and walk in a new and holy life….”
That explains a lot, I’m afraid – my neuroses and my continual hammering on about how God loves us as we are, no matter what. Clearly, I was not baptized in the Episcopal Church, but praise the good Lord, I eventually found my spiritual home here!
Baptism – what does it mean? How do we, as Episcopalians understand this thing we do with water four times a year?
It would be impossible to cover all the bases regarding baptism today, but since we’re going to have the opportunity to renew our own baptismal promises in a few minutes, I’d like to share just a few highlights of the things we talk about when we meet to prepare for this sacrament.
Sacrament – that’s the first “church-y” word we need to unpack (I’ve tried to avoid church-y words, for the most part – but this one is a must.)
A sacrament, according to the teaching of our church, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.” (BCP p. 857) We do something with things that we can touch, see and hear as a symbol of something that God is doing.
What is God doing? God is offering grace: “Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts and strengthens our wills.” (BCP p. 858)
The “things” of baptism, the water, the oil, the fire and the words, are symbols of what God has, is and will be doing: God will be showing up; God will be offering us grace; God will take up residence in and around us. God in Christ will be making us whole, knitting us together, celebrating the reality of a grace-filled family. God will be making us God’s own.
A few years ago, Dr. Fredrica Thompsett offered a mini retreat on baptism here. Since then, I have used her schema as the basis for our instruction: the “3 B’s of Baptism.” It sure beats the 3 premises of my baptism – and maybe yours, as well.
The first “B” stands for belonging. Through baptism, we are adopted into the family of God. We say yes to God’s invitation to become part of the holy, catholic church – the past, present and future generations of people who identify themselves as Christians.
Baptism does not make us members of a particular church – a specific congregation or parish, nor does it make us members of a particular denomination – it doesn’t make us Episcopal Christians. Baptism, in our understanding, makes us daughters and sons of God – so it happens once, we do not re-baptize those who have come from different traditions – we are already members of the family – and the family of God is way bigger and much more diverse than a particular humanly defined group.
Baptism does, however, take place in a particular location, within the company of a particular group. When we baptize, it is not only the parents and godparents or the adult candidate that make promises. The entire congregation makes an important promise as well. We are asked, “Will you do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” And we all answer with a resounding, “We will!” That means we’re in this boat all together; living into and out of our new identities as God’s beloved children. That’s why we learn each other’s names; that’s why we pray for one another, why we offer classes and small groups to help us learn and grow into healthy adult Christians.
The second “B” stands for belief. The Baptismal Covenant itself begins with a series of questions about belief and is based on an ancient creed – the Apostles Creed. Like the Nicene Creed that we recite together every week when we gather for the Eucharist, it is a concise statement of our core beliefs as Christians.
It is important to note here that our understanding of these statements is limited. The meaning behind them can seem murky and confusing. And that’s okay – not even the greatest theologians agree on the meaning of some of those statements – but what we say we believe identifies the family we are joining through Baptism. We’re not joining an honor society or the Elks Club.
The third “B” refers to behavior. Following the statements of belief, the Baptismal Covenant shifts to questions about our behavior as members of God’s family. It touches on our lives as a worshiping community – people who gather to be fed at God’s table and to pray. It touches on our lives as people who don’t always get it right – people who make mistakes and find forgiveness from God. It asks us to proclaim the Good News of God’s love in both our words and actions. And then, it asks us to do two very radical and sometimes very difficult things: to seek God in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves and to strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being. Thankfully, our response – I will – also includes the phrase “with God’s help!”
So, that’s the three “Baptismal “B’s” in a nutshell: belonging, belief and behavior.
It’s likely that one of these three “B’s” resonates more readily for us than another. Those of us who have been raised in a religious environment that emphasizes tradition, for instance, might connect with the idea of belonging. I hear this often from people who have been raised in the Roman Catholic Church where they have been taught that belonging to that Church through baptism in that Church is tantamount to salvation.
Those of us who were raised in churches that hold Scripture and the church’s understanding – or doctrine – of Scripture up as the final authority may be drawn to the idea that belief is the kingpin of this sacrament.
And those who were raised in an environment that encouraged an individual response to God’s invitation to new life in Christ, may resonant most strongly with the idea that none of this makes any sense unless it impacts our behavior.
And while we may be more drawn to one aspect of baptism than another, we are invited today to think about, to investigate, each and every one of them. Around here we say that one can belong without believing – and that is so. But an honest look at what we believe and how we behave only enhances our belonging. So, today, without the precious distraction of babies in white gowns, God invites us to participate in renewing our own baptismal promises.
First, we will ask God to bless some water – remembering what an important part it has played in our history. We will then renew our baptismal vows – asking God to make them more and more real, more and more meaningful. And then, we will be sprinkled with the blessed water. May every drop we feel be a symbol of what God offers us today – a new bit of grace – grace that brings us to a new experience of belonging – a deeper belief in who God is and who we are – and grace enough to have that belonging and belief make a difference in our lives today and tomorrow. Amen.