Christ Church Gardiner
September 8, 2019
Pentecost 13: Baptism
If you have been following along this summer, you will have noticed by now that we don’t have Genesis readings this week. Not to worry, next week we will return to the story of Jacob and his many sons and all the trouble they get into. But today we celebrate a baptism. And in the baptism liturgy, we always renew our baptismal vows.
This renewal of vows is important for us as individuals, but it’s also important to us as a community, because it speaks to the ministry of all of the baptized. Ministry isn’t something that only clergy do. It’s a responsibility of all of those who have committed to a Christian life. And the liturgy that we use when we baptize is a good reminder that baptism is not simply about God’s salvation offered to individuals, but about our responsibility to the world, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, called upon to continue his work as his disciples.
The symbolism of our baptism ritual is deep and beautiful and layered with meaning. Before we baptize, the water is blessed with this beautiful thanksgiving to God in which we say over the water,
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.
Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage
in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus
received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy
Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death
and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are
buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his
resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.
This prayer points to all the ways that water, from the beginning of time, has been fundamental to our identity as children of God. As Christians, we tend to focus on how the waters of baptism free us from the bondage of sin, and that’s important. But they also point to a sharing of the suffering and death of Jesus—this idea that in that water, we go down into the darkness of that suffering and death.
This symbolism is, of course, more expressive in baptisms of immersion when a person is fully submerged under water. Episcopalians tend to prefer the symbolism of water poured over one’s head, which probably makes more sense for babies, like Lyla who is being baptized this morning. But in other traditions, when the baptized is plunged beneath the water, we can more clearly see the symbolism of being engulfed in the darkness that Jesus knew when he encountered the poor, the sick, the hopeless, the oppressed, and the darkness of his own suffering in the last hours of his life.
We might wonder why the person sent to save us would need to experience such darkness. But God, incarnate in the person of Jesus, was willing to be fully immersed in the chaos of our world. In the pain of our world. He was never exempt from human suffering—not his own, nor the suffering of those he spent much of his life comforting, healing, and loving.
And if we take our baptism seriously, we also will not shy away from the darkness that comes with discipleship. The darkness that Jesus knew. The darkness that we see around us every day, in our world, in our country, in our communities, and in our own lives.
Discipleship isn’t easy as we heard in our Gospel from Luke this morning. Luke quotes some strong words from Jesus… “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Luke may have been exaggerating a bit by using the word “hate.” The Gospel writer Matthew says it a bit differently. In his Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
But whichever words are closer to what Jesus actually said, the sentiment is the same. Discipleship for these early followers was not to be taken lightly. Jesus warned them that they better count the costs before getting in too deep. And because we know how all of this ends, we know how right Jesus was to warn them.
Jesus was arrested, beaten, and crucified for speaking out against those in power. And once Jesus had been resurrected and the disciples chose to proclaim his message to the world, despite the warnings of the authorities in Jerusalem that they should remain silent, they, too, would be persecuted. And eventually martyred for being followers of Jesus.
Persecution and martyrdom may not be real fears for Christians living in the United States, though there are places in the world where being a Christian remains a dangerous business. Here in the United States, the Church, is likely, too safe, too aligned with the power structures in our country, and not able to be the prophetic voice that Jesus called us to be. But that’s a sermon for another day…
Still, that doesn’t mean that being a Christian should be easy. If we take or baptism seriously then part of our responsibility is to name the darkness and the suffering that we see around us. Because in our baptism, we are being led to where Jesus agreed to go—into the chaos and vulnerability of this human existence.
As Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, puts it, “Being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny. So baptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’: the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need – but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be.”
I suppose “being in the depths” of human need and God’s love is what we are agreeing to when we make our baptismal vows. When we vow to continue to share in the community of faith founded by Jesus, to continually name our own sin and shortcomings and to repent and change, and when we vow to care for others, especially those on the margins, to love our neighbors as ourselves and to strive for justice and peace for all people.
We are vowing to respond to the needs of the world…empowered by God’s love and proclaiming that love for others. We have to be willing to name the darkness but also to proclaim the light that Jesus promises to the world.
And there’s a reason we don’t renew these vows in private. We renew and proclaim them in the company of the Christian community. So that we can look around us and know that we are not alone in this work. Jesus called many disciples, not just one or two. We all have different gifts to offer the world and we have support to offer each other. When we baptize children, which we often do in the Episcopal Church, we are making these vows on their behalf, and promising to teach them how to live out their own commitments. We are also trying to be a Christian community that is worthy of them.
So don’t be afraid of the darkness. It is part of your baptism. Don’t be afraid to name it. To go through it. You are not alone. In our Christian story it is only the darkness of the tomb that brings the light of new life. Amen.