This past Sunday I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC. We were celebrating the Baptism of the Lord as well as welcoming a new member of the congregation through baptism. Here is the sermon I shared. (An audio recording can be found here.)
Eternal Father, who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son, anointing him with the Holy Spirit, keep your children, born of water and the Spirit, faithful to their calling; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Genesis 1:1-5 (“a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”)
Psalm 29 (“The voice of the Lord is over the waters”)
Acts 19:1-7 (“Into what then were you baptized?”)
Mark 1:4-11 (John baptized Jesus: “‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”)
It’s a challenge to preach at a baptism. It’s a challenge because baptism is a very particular thing. It involves the acceptance of one unique individual into the Body of Christ, present in one concrete community of faith. We are baptized into the Universal and Eternal Church, but also into this group of people in this time and place, Just as we are each part of a larger family, but grow to know the family, to understand it, to live into it by living with the small group that raises us. So I want to preach about this particular person and this particular community, even though I am a guest. On the other hand, this is something wonderful, and I am honored to be part of it, because there is something special about the Church, Universal and Eternal. The church is both broad and deep. We love one another, and we strive in our diversity to know one another in our particularity. I’m honored to share several friends with Dean Elliott, to share a family and a faith, not just in principle, but in practice, in the creation of communities of hospitality, in the midst of a world that often promotes hostility. And so it says in the rubrics of the Book of Alternative Services: “Baptism is the sign of new life in Christ. Baptism unites Christ with his people. That union is both individual and corporate. Christians are, it is true, baptized one by one, but to be a Christian is to be part of a new creation which rises from the dark waters of Christ’s death into the dawn of his risen life. Christians are not just baptized individuals; they are a new humanity.” Today we remember the Baptism of the Lord, and hear in the gospel reading of John baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan. Have you ever wondered why Jesus needed to be baptized? That bothered me for a while. If the main point of baptism is adoption, then why would Jesus need to be adopted? He was already God’s son. If the main point of baptism is forgiveness of sins then why would Jesus need to be forgiven. He was without sin. Let me suggest that baptism does more than those things – though surely it does those things as well. Let me suggest that in baptism God creates and we participate in a perfect moment a perfect reflection of the Divine image in a human being. Like light that shines through stained glass, we see by the one true source, but we appreciate it playing out in countless colors, in panes that differentiate, but do not diminish the beauty of the Sun. Jesus was baptized because he was, and is, particular: a real man, incarnate, facing the same challenges we face – politics, violence, disease, pettiness – but also enjoying the concrete daily pleasures of companionship and laughter, food and sleep. To be human is to be particular. And we work out our lives, indeed we work out our salvation, in particular relationships with the people around us. A friend of mine, a rector, was telling me the other day about his challenges dealing with all the financial laws that restrict how churches can rent property. It was difficult, but it was also faith in practice, as is balancing the checkbook, putting up with an employee – or a boss, even making a meal. True faith is always concrete and particular. And so we are unique individuals and we form unique communities. Jesus began his ministry at the river Jordan. He was baptized and immediately went into the wilderness. When he returned he gathered about him disciples and began to spread word of the Kingdom of Heaven, now come near. Jesus’ baptism was a moment for God to look down from heaven and say “You specifically are my son. You particularly are beloved. And in you, I am well pleased.” And Jesus went out and called people to him recognizing them in their uniqueness and building a community of Peter and Andrew, James and John, Mary and Martha, and many others. Mark, Matthew, and Acts make a point of distinguishing between two kinds of baptism. John’s baptism was a baptism of water and repentance; it meant turning away from the evil in the world. Baptism into Christ Jesus is something more. It involves fire and the Spirit of God. It means entering into a community that already has Christ in it, not generically, but specifically, that very man who waded into the river Jordan. It is not just a turning away, but a turning into. And each and every one of us who is baptized, changes the church. It is something dangerous and wonderful that you welcome this new child of God. You will be changed. So baptism has these two sides. It is God’s recognition of God in this person, God’s welcome and favor, made visible by the church. It is also our acceptance of this new member, into the body of Christ here and now. Just as they become one of us, so we make this commitment, that what we become will include them. It is not a thing we do lightly. For those of you who do not know me, my name is Lucas Mix and I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists. Who knew there was a group of people, exercising ministry as priests and deacons, but also as natural philosophers, as scientists? It was a surprise to me when I learned of it 5 years ago, but the more I think about it, the more necessary it seems. We need Christians whose particular communities reach into the worlds of technology, engineering, and medicine. We need Christians who look to God’s will in the Earth and the stars, as the Magi did, who study plants and animals and even bacteria. And we need people who think of these issues as pastors and priests, asking how they shape us as individuals and communities – people who ask how our knowledge of the world affects our relationship with God. I study the history of definitions of life in biology and theology and how they relate. My home is at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, but my home is also among the Ordained Scientists. They are one of my particular communities. And so I came here this weekend, to meet with two of our newest members, Mother Marilyn Hames and Greg Kennelly. I also came to speak with some of you about the Ebola Virus and the current epidemic in West Africa. Surely it provokes us to bring all we have to bear, both scientific and theological knowledge, as we look for an appropriate response. We had a great discussion yesterday. One of the ideas I am left with, truly something that Ebola has brought home to me, is that we do not understand why some things happen. We do not know why God allows such suffering, and we seldom know the best way to respond. In light of this, I remember that Christianity is not, nor ever was, primarily an explanation. It is a response. It is God’s response to our suffering. In the incarnation, Jesus became one of us, lived and died as one of us, in all our particularity and confusion – in the mess. And it is our response to the world we find ourselves in, to return God’s love with love, and to love one another as Jesus loved us, and to build communities of hope, faith, and love. We are not just a people who are saved, we are a people living into the Kingdom, with Jesus in our midst. As we welcome a new member into the community, both this local household and the very household of God, I ask you to bear this in mind. It is a profound and dangerous and wonderful thing to recognize someone as they are, to promise curiosity and friendship in service to God. It is dangerous because we know they can shape us, and that God can shine through them into the community and into the world. It is dangerous because it reminds us that God has a calling for each of us in our particularity and asks no less than heart, soul, mind, and strength, even the parts of ourselves we may not know or like. In the rite of baptism, we say: “Receive the light of Christ, to show that you have passed from darkness to light. Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Always remember, there are consequences of sin, but there are also consequences of grace. Let us speak of the light we are moving towards, and the Spirit that moves within us bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us speak of the particular seeds, named and warmed and watered in baptism that will growing into the tree of life. And let us accept the danger and the promise of allowing God to transform our particularity, becoming more our unique selves, even as we become one in the Body of Christ.