Friday, January 10, 2014

What Is Baptism For?

RCL Baptism of Christ
12 January 2014

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

‘What Is Baptism For?’
            When I was in the early stages of my doctoral studies, I was required to participate in a seminar on ‘Early Christian Liturgy’.  This course explored the development of Christian worship from the second century of the common era to the sixth century.  One of the prayers that has remained embedded in my heart and mind is a prayer attributed to Pope Leo the Great who born around the year 400 and died in 461 after more than twenty years as Bishop of Rome.

            Leo’s times were not easy ones for the Roman empire in western Europe.  Britain, once a province of Rome, had been abandoned to its own fate with the withdrawal of Roman legions from the island.  What we now know as Spain, Portugal, France, Germany and Switzerland were coming under the control of local tribes and peoples, some of whom had drunk deeply at the well of Roman civilization.  Fiercely independent tribes were pushing against the eastern borders of the empire.  It was not, as we say, the ‘best of times’ to be a Roman.

            On top of the geo-political troubles of the empire in western Europe, the Christian church, both in the east and in the west, was in the midst of what we now call ‘the Christological controversies’.  These controversies all centred around how Christians answered the following question:  'What is the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the God of Israel?'  I won’t go into detail right now; after all, this is a sermon not a lecture on early Christian doctrine!  Leo, as Bishop of Rome, was thrown into this swirl of conflict.

            The prayer attributed to Leo is now used at Christmas time and, in some traditions, it is recited when the celebrant of the eucharist pours water to mix with the wine in the chalice before the prayer of thanksgiving at the table.  Here’s what Leo wrote:

Almighty God,
who most wonderfully did create
and yet more wonderfully did restore
the dignity of human nature:
Grant that we might share the divine life
of the one who humbly shared our humanity,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

In fifty-five words (in English) Leo summarized the whole Christian story:  creation by a loving God, redemption by a humble Saviour and the hope of glory through the work of the Holy Spirit.  We could print these words on a 3 x 5 card and put them in our wallets and purses to pull out and read whenever we forget who we are and who we are called to become.

            When we celebrate the baptism of Christ by John in the Jordan, we celebrate both God’s solidarity with humanity and our solidarity with God.  In his baptism Christ chooses to identify himself with a humanity in need of repentance, conversion and reconciliation.  In our baptism we choose to identify ourselves with the God who calls all of humanity to repent of our selfish ways, to change our perspective on the meaning of life and to become humble agents of God’s justice and compassion.

            To be baptized is to participate in Christ’s death and resurrection. [1]  When we enter the waters of baptism, we die to the old ways of self-centredness and identify ourselves with the One who came to serve not to be served.  We are raised to a new life, not just the promise of a future life, but a life lived in this world without fear and full of hope.

            To be baptized is acknowledge that we all fall short of the glory of God. [2]  In our baptismal covenant we promise that we will persevere in resisting evil and, whenever we fall into sin, that we will repent and return to the Lord. [3]  Believe it or not, these words are ‘good news’.  We live in a world where individuals and peoples hold on to old wrongs, both committed and endured, unable to believe that it is possible to lay them aside and find a new life together.

            To be baptized is to receive the gift of God’s Spirit. [4]  The first and most tangible gift of the Spirit is the knowledge that we are children of God not orphans abandoned to a cruel fate.  The second gift is a new perspective on the world:  the world is no longer a sign of God’s absence but rather ‘(the) heavens declare the glory of God and (the earth) shows (God’s) handiwork’. [5]

            To be baptized is to become a member of the Body of Christ, the living community of men, women and children who throughout the ages have born witness to God’s justice and compassion. [6]  In a world in which many people live in isolation, even in cities, the baptized form an ‘inside out’ community that reaches out to those who are lonely and fearful.  We become both the voice of those whose voices are ignored and the arms of God embracing the whole creation. [7]

            To be baptized is to become a sign of God’s promised reign of justice and peace. [8]  As I said in last week’s sermon, God’s plan depends upon our witness to what God has done in and through Jesus of Nazareth.  This is why Anglican and Roman Catholics will gather two Sundays from today for the first of a series of gatherings intended to help us discover ways of making God’s love visible despite our differences in theology and practice.

            Too often Christians have wasted their energies debating whether we baptize infants or adults, whether we pour water or immerse, whether confirmation is necessary or not.  On this day we set aside all those debates and celebrate what baptism is for:  In baptism we declare our solidarity with God’s mission begun in creation, renewed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and continued through the work of the Spirit who leads us to raise up things that have been cast down, to make new things that have grown old and to bring to perfection all things through Christ. [9]

            One of my historical theological mentors once entered a baptismal fray in his century when the Church of England was divided over the meaning of baptism. [10]  He quoted a German phrase:  Werde was du bist ---  Become who you are.  In baptism we recover our right minds, the mind of Christ, so that we might share in the divine life in order that all of humanity will know that God is for us not against us.

            This is the vision that strengthened Leo during the troubles of the fifth century.  This is the vision that strengthened Martin Luther in the sixteenth century who, when struggling, was heard to say:  ‘I am baptized.’  This is the vision that strengthens us as we face the challenges of our times.  May we, who have passed through the waters of baptism, be found in the company of the One who passed through the waters of Jordan to be at our side.  Amen.

[1] Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1983), paragraph 3.

[2] Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1983), paragraph 4.

[3] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 159.

[4] Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1983), paragraph 5.

[5] Psalm 19.1 in The Book of Alternative Services, alt.

[6] Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1983), paragraph 6.

[7] cf. Thomas Schattauer, Inside Out:  Worship in an Age of Mission (Fortress Press, 1999).

[8] Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (1983), paragraph 7.

[9] The Book of Alternative Services (1985), 328-329, 634, 644, 653.

[10] Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-1872).

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