With God’s help

Sermon for the fifth Sunday in Eastertide

Tonight we celebrate baptism, one of the two sacraments given by Jesus to the Christian community to shape and deepen our common life. Three people—Grace, Shayne, and Billy—will be baptized, and two others—Jodi and Karen—will stand with us and make a public reaffirmation of the baptisms they underwent at an earlier stage of life. This will take place at the baptismal font, which stands at the back of the church, signifying a couple of things.

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Firstly, with the table at the front and the font at the back, the worship space is symbolically anchored by communion and baptism. And because we have placed the lectern in the middle of the aisle, the scriptures stand at the centre as the lens through which our understanding of these two great acts is read.

Secondly, because baptism marks new beginnings, new life and new birth, traditionally the font is placed by the doorway to the church building; symbolically the point of entry into the life of the Body of Christ. But if you think about it a bit, you’ll realize that this doesn’t just signify a point of entry into something; it also marks the point of connection between baptism and the wider world. To leave the church building at the completion of the baptismal liturgy is to go out and live the claim that these words and this action places on us all.

The words are strong. We’ll begin with a series of questions addressed to Grace, Shayne, Billy, Jodi, and Karen. The first three call for a renunciation of all that distorts, corrupts, destroys, and keeps us from being what we were created to be. This is followed by three strong affirmations of faith in Jesus Christ, and of their willingness to entrust their lives to his grace and love.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Saviour?
I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

Do you promise to obey him as your Lord?
I do.

It is all spoken in the present tense, sounding almost as if this is the very first time these five people have expressed such beliefs. Now I happen to know that all five have not just suddenly come to a place of faith, and that each in his or her own way has been walking with Christ. Yet there is something very strong about standing and declaring here and now, in the present tense, in the midst of the gathered assembly, that this is who and what I am.

This is followed by a question addressed to all of you, and it is interesting that this time it is not framed in the present tense: “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these people in their life in Christ?” The response set out in the liturgy is “We will,” yet I only want you to say that if you mean it. And if you mean it, I want you to really say it. Maybe you’re thinking, “Well I could if I knew these five people better,” to which I can only say that most of you here will know at least one or two of these people fairly well, and maybe it would be a good thing to connect a little more deeply with one or two of the others… after all we’re all members of one Body.

As for it might look like to actually support these folks in their life in Christ, the liturgy itself goes on to make some pretty clear suggestions. There comes a point when I’ll invite everyone here to “join with those who are committing their lives to Christ, and renew our own baptismal covenant,” which begins with the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed; the ancient church’s declaration of belief. It then moves on to a series of five questions that flesh out what that calls out from all of us, and the questions mostly deal with life out there, on the other side of those doors. To each of the five questions the reply is “I will, with God’s help,” and so for instance,

Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
I will, with God’s help.

Notice the wording is “whenever you fall into sin.” Not if, but whenever… it is a foregone conclusion, in other words, and so when you mess up will you repent and return to the Lord? Yes… yes I will… with God’s help.

The question, though, that really catches my attention is this: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself?” It catches me partly because it has such clear resonance with words from the Gospel according to John we heard read aloud tonight.

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’ (John 31:34-35)

But the question also catches my attention because it is so challenging. Alongside of the reading from John we also heard the story from the book of Acts, in which Peter has his strange vision in which he is told, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” The vision has partly to do with issues of clean and unclean as they’d been understood in the old dietary laws, but it quickly moves to the more pressing issue of people. Peter is told that he needs to look at Gentiles with new eyes—“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us”—and before you know it he is busily baptizing Gentiles. Yet when word gets back to some of the others, eyebrows begin to be raised. “Gentiles? The ones we’ve been taught are to be avoided as unclean and as outside of God’s covenantal love? Bad enough we had to treat people like Mary Magdalene and the tax collector Matthew as our neighbours… but Gentiles?”

And that’s precisely the challenge. Our neighbour whom we are called to love can often be—at least in our eyes—rather hard to love; the ones in whom we are called to see the face of Christ generally rather less than Christ-like. Careful, then, how quickly you respond to that question, and when you do put the emphasis not on “I will,” but instead on “with God’s help.” That’s pretty much the only way any of these questions can be answered with any kind of integrity.

That we don’t leave these five people to make these affirmations on their own is significant, and insofar as we actually mean what we say it is our strongest way of letting them know that we really are prepared to “do all in our power to support these people in their life in Christ.” We will support each of them by joining with them in committing ourselves to living into our common call to love one another and to love our neighbour as ourself, and to see in all human faces the very face of Christ.

In a minute or two I’ll be taking the baptismal group to the back of the church, but first Steve Bell is going to offer a baptismal song co-written with the poet Malcolm Guite.

He calls us too, to step into that river,
To die and rise to life and love forever
And so graciously extends to me, a sinner
To tread the sacred waters of
The mystery of love

To dare to love as we have first been loved—to rise to the challenge of seeing something of dignity and worth even in the neighbour who is so very hard to love—that is to walk into sacred water indeed. Tonight step into the river with Grace, Shayn, Billy, Jodi, and Karen, and join them in proclaiming that with God’s help this is we will do, this is the kind of people we will be.

One Response to With God’s help

  1. Byron O'Donnell says:

    A pleasant yet powerful reminder of my baptism in that same place. I like the other reminder you offer the congregation…Let none of us take this lightly.
    Also a nice touch hearing Steve and Malcolm Guite.

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