This is a sermon for Easter day, given in the “church next door.” There was a baptism at this service, and the sermon is really an extended reflection on the baptismal liturgy.
It’s a very big thing to bring a child for baptism. In a moment Zalen’s parents and godparents are going to be asked some serious questions, and we are all going to together reaffirm our common belief in the Christian faith.
You might be forgiven for wondering why we do that; after all, Zalen is just a baby, he doesn’t understand yet what we are doing, and he won’t remember it when he’s older. Is it worth doing this in a way which makes it seem exclusive or difficult? I’ve heard people make that kind of comment about baptism services before. Perhaps similar thoughts have occurred to some of you.
But I think that kind of questioning comes from a place of not fully appreciating what’s at stake. If all this were about was making Zalen a member of the Christian “club,” allowing him to be one of “us” instead of one of “them” – however you define us and them – then the only generous and hospitable thing to do would be to make baptism as easy as possible. No promises, no affirmations, just a quick dunk and you’re in. Let’s all go eat.
But on this day, perhaps more than any other day in the Christian year, we remember that there is so much more than that at stake.
Zalen is coming this morning to be made a member of the church, a part of the body of Christ. Baptism is all about belonging, not just to a social club, but to a spiritual reality which has the power and the potential to totally transform each of us. Christ rose from the dead, and his resurrection redefines the horizons of human potential forever.
When we say that we “turn to Christ,” there is so much wrapped up in that phrase. We are saying that we want to live a life in which evil and hatred have no permanent hold on us; a life free of crippling guilt and shame; a life in which we can walk in joy and hope and peace; a life, in short, in which we can experience something of heaven on this earth, and we know the companionship of the creator of the universe.
We are saying that we acknowledge that there is more than one way to be, in this life; that good and evil, light and darkness, are real; and that we want to, as best we can, align ourselves with what is good. And that we want to incorporate ourselves into a community which has made the same commitment; a community which can offer us support, encouragement, teaching and enrichment, and in which we can also make a contribution and play a part in supporting, encouraging, and enriching others in turn.
That’s what Zalen’s parents and godparents are seeking for him in bringing him to be baptised today. They are seeking the active involvement of the Holy Spirit in Zalen’s life; that God might be at work in his heart from today, helping him to grow in love and generosity and kindness, and looking outward to how he might be of service to others.
These are not small things in the development of a child. They don’t happen by default. They need to be approached intentionally, carefully. Of course, good parents of all faith positions and none will seek to raise good, moral children, but this is about more than that. It’s about seeking for Zalen a life which will be profoundly shaped by the One who created everything that exists, and who so desires intimate, loving relationship with those He created that he was willing to become human, to suffer and die, to make that relationship a living reality.
And part of that relationship with God means knowing and being a part of God’s people, because the Holy Spirit isn’t given to us each individually just for our own benefit, but so that we can be integrated together into a community; a community which looks outward with passion and purpose towards the world which God loves. In baptism, each of us brings something uniquely valuable to that community; each person is irreplaceable, and when one of us is not here, we are all diminished.
(And I don’t mean that just in the sense of “not attending services” as if the sum and point of being a Christian were being in a pew on Sunday morning, but a broader sense of active participation).
This is what it means to fight the good fight; to seek after truth and accept no imitations or substitutes; to have the courage to grasp the vision of what God’s reign can mean for human life, and to work towards that at every opportunity; to learn to embrace the value of human flourishing above self-gratification. To come to the end of life knowing that you’ve lived it with integrity and kindness and finished the race well, open to the glory of God wherever it may be found.
These are big things. Sometimes they are hard things. Sometimes they are costly. But this is the vision and the set of values to which the church is committed and constantly recommits itself, even though we understand that we can never live up to it perfectly.
And that’s why the serious questions and the affirmation of faith. Because they spell out and help us all to understand what it is that we are seeking to be part of. They help us to integrate God’s vision for us more firmly into our own identity. And they help us all to know what is at stake when we come to the font; not just some empty words. Not just a feel good moment of celebrating a new life (although there is something of that). But our own inheritance in the kingdom of heaven; an inheritance which comes with both blessings and responsibilities, to God and to one another.
This morning, as we celebrate the resurrection, and as we celebrate a baptism, we know that the kingdom of heaven has come near. It opens us up to new horizons of possibility and makes available to us profound reserves of love and hope. And it is to this that we come, open and trusting, and ready for new beginnings with God.