Monday, January 12, 2015

Sermon: Make Your Baptism Matter

January 11, 2015 – 1st Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B
© 2015 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

In between my first two years of seminary, I spent half of the summer living and working in a parish in the industrial north of England. It was St. Martin of Tours in Middlesbrough, and I probably learned more about being a parish priest there than I did in any classroom. The vicar of that parish was Fr. David, and he and his family welcomed me into their home—the vicarage that sat adjacent to the church building. At first, I thought, “How convenient—to live only a fifteen-second walk from the church!” but, within two weeks, I discovered first-hand the challenges that come with sharing a parking lot with the place where you work.

The doorbell rang all the time. Occasionally, it was someone who actually went to church—a parishioner who came by for a pastoral counseling appointment or a church leader who needed to meet with Fr. David about an upcoming event. Usually, though, it was someone with absolutely no ties to the congregation…except that he or she lived within the geographic boundaries of the parish. Because the Church of England is an established church, it means that anyone who resides in the parish is entitled to a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral. It doesn’t matter whether you have ever been to church or ever intend to go to church. If you’re in the parish, you’re considered a parishioner. More often than not, when that doorbell rang, it was someone who was asking, “May I have my baby christened?”

The part that gets under your skin—even after just two weeks—is the tragic confluence of evangelistic opportunity and superstitious motivation. You see, even though every minister I know gets excited at the thought of bringing a new person into the church through the sacrament of baptism, practically none of those people who rang the doorbell was interested in raising her child as a part of the church. They just didn’t want their baby to go to hell. They had learned from their parents and grandparents that “christening” is the thing that makes a child a Christian and that only the waters of baptism could ensure that their little bundle of joy would escape the fires of hell. So, every time the doorbell rang, like Pavlov’s dogs, I learned to sigh an exasperated sigh of disappointment at what could have been but was not to be.

Now, I have the privilege and pleasure of being the rector of a church where everyone takes his or her baptism seriously and where all the parents who call me up asking for a baptism do so not thinking about the white, antique baptismal gown or the opportunity to stand in front of the congregation and show off their baby or the belief that simply splashing water on a baby’s head is enough to constitute a relationship with God. No, all of us, when we think about baptism, we think about initiating a lifelong relationship with God, which will require intentional daily maintenance and will find its principle expression in the shared life of the church. That’s what we think about baptism…right?

Think about your baptism and ask yourself why it matters—or, maybe better than that, ask yourself when your baptism matters. When is or was or will your baptism be important? Is it a moment from the past when something special happened? Is it an eternal life insurance policy—a golden sacramental ticket that someday will get you into heaven? Or is your baptism something that affects and directs your daily life?

I think that’s what Paul was thinking about in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. On his third missionary journey, Paul came to Ephesus—an ancient cosmopolitan coastal city, where the gospel had reached but apostles like Paul had not yet visited. There, Paul found some “disciples,” a word which means that they were believers or followers of Jesus. They knew the gospel, and they had committed themselves to following the way, but, clearly, something was missing. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” Paul asked them. Puzzled, the disciples replied that they had never even heard of the Holy Spirit. “Then, into what were you baptized?” Paul asked incredulously. And they replied that they had received only John’s baptism—the baptism of repentance.

Therein was the problem. “John baptized with the baptism of repentance,” Paul declared, “telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” In other words, John’s baptism was about preparation. It was a way to get ready for the one who was to come. But the Christian life is about more than just getting ready. It’s about more than repentance. Being a Christian means giving one’s life over to God, being filled with the Holy Spirit, and living each day on fire for Jesus. How’s that for language we don’t often use to describe our faith? Well, if you’re uncomfortable with it, take a look at what happened to those dozen disciples: they were baptized in Jesus’ name; Paul laid his hands on him; the Holy Spirit came upon them; and, then, they spoke in tongues and prophesied. In other words, they became the kinds Christians who don’t just sit still in the pews and nod their heads in agreement with the preacher.

So back to the question about baptism: when is or was or will your baptism make a difference in your life? Is it locked away as a moment from the past? Have you tucked into your back pocket as if it were a ticket to heaven? Or does your baptismal identity define your daily life?

In just a moment, we will stand and renew our baptismal vows. I must to confess to you that I have not always liked the Baptismal Covenant. This series of questions and answers seems to shift too much of the emphasis of what happens at baptism onto us, when, in fact, the beauty of baptism is that it is an expression of God’s love that has nothing at all to do with what we say or think or do. But I am learning to take my own baptism seriously—not only as a powerful experience of God’s unconditional love but also as a life-long gift of that love to which I must respond daily as a Spirit-filled, Spirit-led disciple of Jesus Christ.

In a moment, you will be asked in a series of questions about whether you take your baptismal identity seriously, and I want you to think about it carefully. Will you accept that what it means to be a Christian is more than just a one-time splashing of water on your head? Will you believe that your identity as a Christian should have an effect on your daily life? Will you recognize that your baptism has as much to do with today as it does with your past and where you spend your future? Imagine what the church—our church—would be like if it were filled with people who spent every day on fire for the love that God has for them. That is what it means to be a Christian. That is who we are supposed to be.

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