Sunday, April 8, 2012

He has been raised - and we with him

He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. The most scrupulous of scholars will affirm that as historical fact. But --

We would know nothing of Jesus if he had not been raised from the dead. As it is nothing can stay the same; for we do know of him – and we know him. Because he has been raised from the dead, our faith is alive.

Our faith is in a living Lord – and that makes all the difference. He is alive – and so he is not just a historical figure – to be studied as just another man. He is alive and is alive in us. He is not a mere memory – someone to talk about from the days of a distant past. He is a presence. His influence is all around us and on us and in us.

Jesus is not so much someone to talk about – as someone to meet, not so much someone to know about – as someone to know, and not so much to know – as to be known by.

We may begin by learning about him, studying him, discussing his impact on us, but we wake up to his living presence at last; we know him and trust him. 

(The above draws on William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark. Revised Edition. The Daily Study Bible Series. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1956. 368-369.)

From this point on our lives do not stand still – they move. For our faith is in a living Lord – always moving, changing, revealing new wonders for us to discover, new delights for us to enjoy and share with him. We take joy in his presence in others; we delight in the creation he unfolds; we pause in wonder at the depths of his love.

Truth deepens within us – and so we too are ever changing, growing, developing, and maturing in faith, as we walk with him on the path to Jerusalem and beyond.

Where will we go from here? What happens to us – but to grow in faith? Even as we age physically, we can be growing spiritually. We find ourselves on an upward path, toward his glory, toward knowing him at last in fullness— being known ourselves.

What little we know of the resurrected life of the individual we shall learn in the gospel lessons of the next few weeks – the season of Easter. What we know of the resurrected life of the community – of the Body of Christ that is the Church – we shall study from the Day of Pentecost all the way through to the feast of All Saints. It is a long green growing season in which we see the resurrection of our Lord and its implications for life played out in the life of the believers, our lives.

From our baptism we begin on the journey of faith, the journey into freedom. It is a long journey, a pilgrimage: to become perfected in our faith, to be sustained in the Spirit, and to grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

Today we welcome a new person into the journey, together with us – a new pilgrim into our company of travelers – as we together walk the way of Jesus – and as we welcome the newly baptized so we deepen and reinforce our own commitment as followers of the cross, as heirs of hope, as witnesses of the resurrection.

Today we baptize a new member of the household of faith. We take a vow on her behalf. Her parents and godparents undertake to raise her in the faith; the congregation undertakes to support them in this effort – and to see her grow in Christ. This is our job. This is part of the work of a Christian community: to see its new members grow in faith and grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ.

During the sacrament of Holy Baptism,
The Celebrant asks the parents and godparents:
Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present
is brought up in the Christian faith and life?
And each of the Parents and Godparents responds:
I will, with God's help.
And the Celebrant asks:
Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow
into the full stature of Christ?
And the Parents and Godparents each respond:
I will, with God's help.
But then the Celebrant addresses the congregation, saying:

Will you who witness these vows do all in your
power to support these persons in their life in Christ?

And the People say      We will.

It is that third vow I want to talk to you about today. What it means for the newly baptized, for her parents and godparents, for you – and for the community around you. We are each of us - and all of us - called into a ministry of support for baptized persons in their life in Christ.

As a people of God, as a welcoming, Christ-centered community of faithful believers, we are called to embody and fulfill our own baptismal promises. These are the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, which we will reaffirm in just a few minutes. We are called – as God’s people – to become the good news for the people in our community.

We are the ones who will act as super-godparents of the faithful – not just this child and her sisters but all persons who come to us seeking the life of faith, the good news of Christ.

“We will!” the people say. We say it with all the good will in the world, but what will it mean? In coming days after the liturgy what difference will it have made to say this?

“We will” comes as the ‘third vow’ in the rite of baptism, as it does in the rites of marriage and ordination. It comes after the candidates, or the parents and godparents speaking on their behalf, have said, “I will.”

It is the undertaking of the congregation – to uphold and support these people in their pledge.

What will it mean after the service –?

There is no indication in the Book of Common Prayer that this third vow is to be taken any less seriously, or carried out with less of a will, than the vows that precede it in the rite.

At baptisms we are used to parents, godparents, sponsors, witnesses and/or presenters to take a role. This is not a private, family ceremony, but a service of the church and public. It is not simply giving something special away – it requires responsible incorporation of new members into the community of faith.

Grace is what we want to impart – not cheaply nor wantonly entered into but advisedly and soberly, with a reasonable intention to guide us. The minister, the priest, must have, indeed, a ‘founded hope’ (in the felicitous Roman phrase) that the child shall be raised in the faith. This hope must be founded on vows not only individual but congregational.

Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their new life in Christ?

We ask those who are to be baptized to come forward. We call them out of the congregation, saying, Come forward. You sponsors come along too; and we will pray for you, and we will work with you, and walk with you, in the newness of life you now seek.

The congregation, represented by the sponsors, continues to monitor the progress in faith and newness of life, offering material and moral support and guidance as needed.

This rite of baptism has a meaning for the whole congregation, as the people of God in whose context and presence these sacramental rites take on living form, incarnating the grace of God in the middle of them, and bringing home to the congregation as well their role in the ongoing support of the newly baptized, as they continue to pursue and enact the vocation these vows represent.

This ritual provides an opportunity for the church to take responsibility for its growth and development as a welcoming, Christ-centered community, and to take pride in faith and fellowship, moving forward into a hopeful future, a future where the members of the church embody and enact the reign of a just and loving God in their relationships with each other and in their service to the community and the world, individually and together.

How then can these ‘third vows’ be made sufficiently explicit (and lavish) to engender a sense of meaning and responsibility in we who take them?

Conversion – the continuing turning, turning home which is the Christian life – means taking responsibility for an area of one’s own growth and development. This day’s work, this baptism, can yield new insight into the meaning of the baptismal covenant, not only for the person being baptized today but also indeed for the whole people here assembled.

This is the hidden opportunity of the ‘third vow’. There are plenty of charming examples of a celebrant chiding the people, ‘say it again, this time with feeling’, but beyond emotion and stage theatrics, what lasting change can be effected by taking this vow?

And what help and support and affirmation might the newly baptized expect to receive after the service is over?

The idea of sponsors or witnesses to baptism allows for some willing individuals to represent and model for the congregation the affirmation that all make together and the support that all undertake before God in solemn assembly to carry out.

The people of God have work to do, in praise and prayer and service, which we affirm and renew in this sacramental liturgy? Let’s put some ‘oomph’ into ‘we will’ – and vim into our vows, and power into our prayers. 

Will you pray for this child and her parents?

Will you make her - and all children - welcome in church?

Will you get to know the family and walk with them through good times and challenging times?

Will you participate in the education of this child - and all children - as Christians?

Will you who witness these vows do all in your
power to support these persons in their life in Christ?

And the People say      We will.


Easter Day * April 8, 2012


This sermon owes a lot to the Rev. Dr. Susan Marie Smith, who taught a course on worship at the San Francisco Theological Seminary in 2011. Some of the ideas come from a paper that I wrote for her class.

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