Sometimes, you just have to admire the timing and trust that God’s providence is in control despite our best efforts. At the beginning of the week, I remarked to some in Bible study how I wished we had a baptism this week as we remember the baptism of our Lord in the lectionary calendar. I was upset because we had two during Lent—three, if you count a Confirmation. It makes a great opportunity to teach about what is happening, or what is not happening, as a result of baptism.
Of course, this week rectors and vicars and priests-in-charge received the e-mail from the Task Force on the Ministry of the Baptized, asking us to forward the survey link to the members of our congregation. I read on one thread this was the first serious effort to use social media to gauge what people in the pews thought about things in the wider church.
Certainly, some remarks about it bear out the idea that there is a big disconnect between ordinary churchgoer’s—you know, the baptized, and 815. Some have used the survey as an opportunity to gripe about the stewardship of those in power in our church, others have used the survey to gripe about how bad the priesthood is in our church, some have used the survey to complain that the folks in power do not care about the folks living in flyover land, others have complained about the effort to make a new Prayer Book, and others have even used the survey as an opportunity to complain about our ecclesiology. Not all of it, it sounds like, has been critical. A few respondents, apparently, have remarked about how PB Michael seems to be talking about Jesus more. And others have remarked that pastoral care seems to be improving.
Then, swirling in the background as always, is the argument about Communion without Baptism—CWB or CWOB, as you may see in shorthand in some church webpages, or radically inclusive in others. Our fights about sex garner way more headlines and clicks, but there has been a serious effort to remove the idea that one must be baptized before receiving communion from our rubrics and thought. Looking at many faces, I see that most of you did not realize it is a thing.
I first became aware of it at a national church planting seminar in Virginia back in 2004, I think it was. A bishop in California proudly shared with a group of us that he had Hindu, Buddhist, and others non-believers receiving Communion at services. Me being me asked why that was a good thing. It was my first introduction to Episcopal power gone amok. As we discussed the teaching in Scripture and the Tradition of the Church, the argument boiled down to a “I’m the bishop and I say it’s good thing” display of Episcopal power.
To be fair, many proponents of Communion without Baptism or Open Communion mean well, I think. Their justification is usually along the lines of Jesus ate with everyone, sinners and saints alike or the Gospel is good news to all people. There is a thought that requiring baptism before communion is somehow exclusionary and mean. So, what is baptism and why do we insist upon it before we encourage Communion?
What is baptism? Oh, come one, y’all just done two baptisms in the last five or six weeks. You suffered through a bishop’s sermon on it and a priest’s sermon on it. Not everyone was snoring those two days. Thank you! A covenant. See, this is not rocket science or seminary. So what is that covenant, why is it important? Somebody’s reading the liturgy! But that’s right. It is a public profession of faith. Those of us who are baptized, or those of us who bring children to be baptized as we did last month, make a public profession to trust God. In fact we make promises about our behavior as a result of this public profession. Those gathered also make a promise, right? We promise to support those being baptized in their faith, to help them grow into the full stature of Christ, to use the words of the liturgy. Right?
Who else makes a covenant at baptism? Godparents? Sure, they promise to specifically help the child relate to God. But Who makes a covenant with the baptized? Say it loud and strong. God! In fact, who does most of the work in this new covenant relationship? God. You and I and all who are baptized have a few responsibilities. We are supposed to live as if we believe Jesus is Who He says He is, as if we believe the Gospel is true. We know we will fail, we call that sin, and so we promise to do what when we sin in the future. That’s right, repent and return to the Lord. Notice in the liturgy that’s a “when we fall into sin” and not an “if we fall into sin.” There is a realization from the get go in our new relationship that we will sin. But we promise to repent and try again. And again. And Again. Until He returns or calls us home by death, right?
We even promise to share in the Apostles’ teaching, the Breaking of Bread, and in the fellowship of the Church. Basically, we promise to be part of a community of fellow believers. The idea that we stay at home and worship God from our beds or head out to the golf course or fishing hole to worship God is not normal behavior for those who have made a public profession of their faith in God.
The rest of the work, though, is God’s. Do we transform ourselves, or does He transform us? Right, He does. By virtue of our baptism and adoption, Jesus prays to the Father to send the Spirit, and the Spirit comes and dwells with us. Because of our public profession of faith, God promises to redeem us and use us, we consent to this, to His purposes. To use the language of last season, we become little “i” incarnations who point others to THE big “I” Incarnation. By virtue of our baptism, we become heralds of God and His grace in the world around us. It sounds like last months sermons are coming back to you, and I see lost of confident nods, so here’s the big question: Whose faith really does the saving in this covenant?
Does it? Does our faith in any way, shape or form save us? Think about your favorite stories that Jesus shared. How big must your faith be to receive His grace and do mighty works that testify to His redeeming power? That’s right, a mustard seed. Are mustard seeds renowned for their coconut-esque size? Of course not. They are tiny. Do our efforts as a result of our faith, what some forebears might call proponents of works’ righteousness, testify to the saving faith that redeems us? Good. Y’all are on now. We can never do enough to pay God back for our redemption. No one ever can. Not Mother Theresa, not the holiest person you know, not me, none of us! It’s grace.
But again, Whose faith saves us? That was a tentative Jesus back there for a correct answer. Jesus’ faith saves us. Remember our vows? We just renounce Satan and the spiritual forces who rebel against God and promise to repent when we sin. Our work is pretty easy compared to Jesus’. As a result of this act in the Jordan, to what is Jesus publicly committing Himself? God! Right! More specifically, He is committing Himself to God’s redemptive plan of salvation for humanity. Which means what to Him? He will be rejected. He will be humiliated. He will be betrayed. He will be scourged and tortured. He will be crucified. He will be mocked by those for whom He undergoes all that. And lastly, He will die. He becomes sin and is put to death so that you and I might live. And He trusts that His Father will not abandon Him to the grave.
Baptism is Jesus’ public profession of His trust in the Father. That’s why He waves off John’s concerns. His life will be all about God’s plan of salvation. Period. The Father, of course, knows the Son and His heart and tells us what? He is well-pleased with His Son Whom He loves dearly. Through all that pain and suffering, Jesus will trust the Father. When Satan tempts Him to turn aside from this painful path, Jesus will trust the Father. Even when the thief on the cross beside Him and the crowds whom He cam to save mock Him for His faith, still He will trust the Father! And for His faith in the Father, what happens? God raises Him from the dead and places all things under His authority. Better still, the Father promises to see us in the Son and the Son in us, when we place our trust in Him. Jesus’ faith is the keystone to salvation for humanity!
Now, with that understanding, we can in no way diminish the importance of Jesus in salvation! Does everybody agree with that? Good. I see mostly nods. I’m in the office all week but midday Wednesday, so feel free to come chat if you are still struggling with the centrality of Christ’s work and person and faith in salvation. As a result of our covenant with God and His faith, what happens to us? Put a bit simpler, perhaps, what happens to us at our baptism? We’re adopted! Great answer. By virtue of our adoption, you and I are made heirs in Christ. To use modern language, we become princesses and princes in God’s family. To use the language of the Old Testament, we become firstborn heirs. Somehow, we all get a double portion inheritance in the kingdom that is to come. I know. It’s mind blowing. How can we all be princes and princesses or double share inheritors? I’ve got no answer. I just take it on faith that God’s plan for me and for you eternally, is orders of magnitude better than what you or I or others in the Church can imagine.
Now that we are adopted, now that we are ambassadors or princesses and princes or heirs, what happens to us? Let’s go back to Isaiah. Here is My servant, whom I uphold, My chosen, in whom My soul delights; I have put My spirit upon him or her; he or she will bring forth justice to the nations. We are, of course, conditioned to read this passage exclusively with a messianic filter. It is Jesus Whom God has anointed. It is Jesus Whom God has called to walk in righteousness. It is Jesus Whom God has given as a covenant to the people. Good, I see the nods.
But, if God sees us in Jesus and Jesus in us, if we are truly heirs in Christ of God’s promises, this magisterial pronouncement of God-given responsibilities applies to us as well. To use the language of Epiphany, we become little manifestations of God’s glory in the world around us. To speak more missiologically, we are sent forth into the world, a dark world that rejects God and His instruction and His people, to point those in the world around us to the Light that has come into the world. We cannot save anyone; only God can do that. But it is our responsibility, it is our privilege to point others to the One who can save, Jesus Christ our Lord. And believe me, the world desperately needs to know Him.
Don’t believe me? Consider the darknesses in which you and I are called to labor. Just last week, how many of us were fearful of yet another war? How many of us were concerned about loved ones, or loved ones of friends, who serve in the military, and the sacrifices which they might be called to make? After some Twitter bluster, both sides backed down a bit. But a likely scared, itchy trigger-fingered guy, fired an anti aircraft missile at a civilian aircraft. Those travelers, likely fleeing a feared conflict as advised by their governments, lost their lives. Their families get to struggle with finding meaning in pointless deaths. That soldier, or small squad, gets to live with the knowledge that their actions, whether careless or unintentional, took the lives of more than 150 non-combatant lives. That mistake will weigh on them for the rest of their lives, just ask a soldier among us.
Closer to home, there is more than enough darkness to shroud everyone and everything. Episcopalians are generally not a people who concern themselves with the justice system, but now we have a brother who, if we believe him and his new Episcopal lawyers, was railroaded by a racially unjust system and misrepresented by court-appointed attorneys, and now finds himself on death row for a crime he did not commit. Certainly, there are enough questions to make us pause and wonder at his alleged guilt.
Or take our wonderful state practice of rejecting federal dollars to cover the medical expenses of catastrophic illness. President Reagan, that renowned political liberal of the 80’s, declared that no American family should ever be forced into bankruptcy caring for a loved one with catastrophic illnesses. 46 states eventually agreed with him, that fellow Americans helping offset the cost was the least we could do for a fellow citizen so as not to burden them more. One of those states that has not is Tennessee. Both Republicans and Democrats have been in power since the 80’s, yet that federal benefit has never been extended to Tennesseans. Dick Blackburn, whom I would say is anointed by God for this work, as well as other colleagues, have worked hard and tirelessly to get this made available to citizens of Tennessee, instead of letting the money just go away.
Again, that is the problem for other people, poor people, unlucky people. Yet, now we all know a faithful Episcopal family that struggles with the financial weight and burden of caring for a loved one. You all spent most of November and December praying for James. Whether you knew his story and conditions or not, you prayed for him by name each and every time we gathered. Now he’s back out of the hospital gaining back strength and weight even as the family is receiving bill after bill after bill. You don’t think they appreciate Dick’s efforts?
How about Body & Soul? When I sort of pushed us off the ledge, nearly two years ago now, to begin that ministry. A number of Adventers really thought we’d have nobody to whom to give the food. Our area is blessed. Those people do not live around here. Yet, as we have learned, those people are sometimes much like us. How many of us could survive our companies closing and not paying the last check or two? How many of us could make the holidays meaningful for loved ones, in light of those circumstances? Those who work the pantry and have had the fortune of being the face of Advent and of God to those in need of food can tell you heartbreaking stories, stories that make them realize how blessed most of us truly are, and how much the world around us needs God’s love.
Today we will anoint with oil for healing. In a church full of doctors and nurses and other healthcare related parishioners, this service ought to be like a lighthouse on the coast during a dark foggy night. In this service we lay claim to God’s promise that we will be able to heal in His Name. As most of us know, this is often done by the knowledge and expertise of our medical members, and the application of that knowledge and expertise. But, far more often than the world expects, heck, far more often than we expect, God moves powerfully in our prayers! In just the last two weeks we’ve had amazing testimony of God’s healing power among us. This week’s was Landy. Landy’s doctor knew he had colon cancer. He knew it. The tests were just a formality in the doctor’s mind. Landy called asking for prayers. It was a cool thing Friday to hear Landy calling as I was driving back from Virginia with joy in his voice. Either the doctor was wrong, or God had done something really cool.
Just to remind you, we launched that service as a principal worship service four times a year at Advent in response to Justin’s and Francis’ claims that churches have forgotten their inheritances and callings. We are meant to be places of healings; it’s in our DNA. But how few of us expect God to act; what’s worse, how few do our brothers and sisters expect God to show up and give us eyes to see and ears to hear how our suffering glorifies Him in the world around us?
All of these examples, of course, are just a small samplings of the darknesses that seek to blind people to the Gospel, to the manifestations of God’s glory in the world around them. They come hard and fast this time of year, almost as if there is a conspiracy to fight against the hope and wonder inspired by the story of our Lord’s nativity. Family fights are probably still rolling along. Bills are coming due for those who believed the myth that love is best evidenced by the amount of money spent on gifts. Heck, even the weather seems to be conspiring against God here in Nashville, as we deal with the gloom of winter and the fairly constant rain.
All of that, of course, teaches us why there is a proper order to the why in the way we do things. Why do we participate in the Eucharist? See, somebody listens but also wants to get home for the playoff game. That’s right, we eat the Body and drink the Blood of our Lord Christ to remind us of the covenant God made with us at our baptism, to remind ourselves of the Gospel truths we believe, and to prepare us/feed us for the work that God is sending us back out into the world to do! Eucharist reminds us of our share in Christ and of His promise to use us to His glory and His redemptive purposes. So, why would the Church ever think it a good idea for someone to fortified for a covenant they have not made?
To put it in easier to understand terms: If one does not believe that Christ died, that Christ rose, and that Christ will come again in power and great glory to finally and fully establish His kingdom for all eternity, what is the benefit of this pledge? If you do not believe in God, or if you believe you are seeking to be one with the cosmos, or if you serve another God, why eat this meal and remind oneself of the pledge God has made with His people? It makes no sense, right? In fact, if Paul is to be believed, and we proclaim that he was inspired by the Holy Scripture when he penned the letters found in Scripture, partaking of this meal, this pledge, not repentant before God and not at love and charity with your neighbors, is to heap condemnation on oneself, is to mock the very purpose of this meal established by God in Christ.
The Church does not restrict the Eucharist to baptized members because She is exclusive or mean or unwelcoming. The Church teaches that baptism is the sacrament by which one gains proper access to the benefits and pledge found in the hope and promise of the Eucharist!
Now, sitting here, what if you remember you took the Eucharist before you were baptized. Are you condemned to hell? Of course not. How could you know unless someone explained it? More importantly, if you were intentionally taking the Eucharist in an unworthy manner then, a kind of get out of hell free card, but you have since come around to believe in the Gospel, repented of your sins and proclaimed Jesus as Lord of your life in the Sacrament of Baptism, you have been cleansed! God sees His Beloved Son in you and you in His Beloved Son. Your decision to choose Him, to love Him, to trust Him, delights His soul. And He promised on that day that He would uphold you, support you, and love you, that nothing would ever be able to separate you from His saving embrace, even if the manifestations of His love, His support, and His hold are not those things you think might be better evidences of His adoption of you.
So, back to that great big question with which so many of us wrestle with but are often afraid to ask. Why is it appropriate that Jesus be baptized by John? Why does Jesus insist on this course of action, knowing that John is correct in their relative standings and calls in God redemptive plan? It’s the public proclamation of trust in God and His promises. Jesus’ baptism today publicly declared to all who saw it and all who heard about it later that He was here to do the Father’s will. He understood the path He was to walk and all that came with that walk--the shame, the humiliation, the pain, and the death. This was that outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace that He possessed. He knew that, in spite of all that, the Father loved Him and would redeem Him from those sufferings, and that through His loving work, it would be possible for us to be born of that same Spirit, and to do those things which God has called us to do.
We make that same profession in our own lives, mirroring that of our Lord and Savior, that we might become fit sons and daughters who can lead those who are blind to His Saving grace, that we can lead those imprisoned by sin to the Lord who can truly free them, that we can sing to those who are deaf to His healing grace of the joy to be found in His presence so that, in the end and by the working of His Spirit and power, glory will be found only in Him and no other!
In His Saving Grace!