Why Baptism Matters

Sermon delivered on Trinity Last A, Sunday, October 25, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary text: Romans 6.1-11.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Father Wylie was supposed to preach this morning but he called me Friday and left me holding the bag as usual. Something about not feeling like he wanted to preach, that he was too important for St. Augustine’s to be spending any time here. Well, actually he might have been exposed to COVID and so I told him to stay at home but I like my story a lot better than reality. Don’t we all? Today we celebrate another big day in the life of our parish family. We will be baptizing our young friend and beloved in Christ, Izro, into the body of Christ and I want to direct my sermon primarily to him. Of course the rest of you ragamuffins are welcome to soak up the great wisdom I will impart along the way.

Izro, you have made the wisest and best decision of your young life. You have decided to reject what St. Paul called the first Adam—the old man living in you despite your young age—and put on the second Adam, Jesus Christ himself. What does that mean? It means that you have decided you no longer want to be a slave to the power of Sin, that you have chosen life over death and no longer want to live your life in ways that demonstrate you are hostile to God by acting in ways that are contrary to his will for you as his image-bearing creature. Instead, you are declaring that you choose to follow Christ and be where he is because you believe him to be God incarnate, the only true reality and Source of life, and you want to live with God forever, starting right now. In biblical terms we call this repentance: you are turning from a life lived for yourself to a life lived for God. You are choosing to kill off in you all that makes you hostile and alienated from God, or as St. Paul puts it, you are crucifying your sinful nature (a lifelong practice), but you realize you cannot do this in your own power or strength. In choosing to be baptized you are declaring that you realize you must rely on the power of God working in your life in and through the Holy Spirit to help heal your sin sickness so that you can live as a fully human being and that your life orientation will point to something (or more precisely Someone) greater than yourself. You are also declaring that you realize this is a free gift from God despite your unworthiness to receive it, but receive it you will because it pleases God the Father to give it to you out of his great love for you. Hear what St. Paul has to say about all this in Romans 6:

[S]hould we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was. We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus (Romans 6.1-11).

NLT

Now if you are like me and want to please God, you may find the first thing St. Paul says here to be puzzling. He asks rhetorically if we should “keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace,” developing an argument he began in Romans 5. Of course not, he roars in reply! We’ve died to sin. How can we keep on living in it?? I confess that’s a head scratcher for me, the power of God at work in me notwithstanding. Perhaps you want to say to him with me, “St. Paul, are you crazy? I still sin. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. How can you say I’ve died to sin?” To which St. Paul would reply, “It’s not about you Izro, it’s about the power of God at work in you.” That’s the key. The power of God working in you, invisible to our senses but there nonetheless. Your baptism is a visible and tangible sign of that power. That’s why we call it a sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible reality.

St. Paul knew very well that being united with Christ does not make one a sinless person. But that is not what St. Paul is talking about. He is echoing what he wrote to the Colossians when he said that “[The Father] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom [from the power of Sin] and forgave our sins” (Colossians 1.13-14). This is the power of God at work in us to rescue us from sin and death and bring us into the kingdom of his promised new creation that one day will come in full at Christ’s return. God did this for us out of his great love for us. We did nothing to deserve this gift nor can we earn it. In our own right we are utterly broken, unworthy and incapable of living as God’s true image-bearers. This is what the power of Sin has done to us. But God loves us too much to let us go the way of eternal death and so God has acted decisively in Christ to break Sin’s power over us on the cross and transfer us into his new world via Christ’s resurrection. This is what grace looks like and your baptism signals, in part, your acceptance of that grace. We can’t earn God’s grace nor do we deserve a lick of it, but it is ours for the taking because of the power and love of God. What God wants, God gets and nothing, not even the power of Sin or the dark powers, can overcome God’s power made known and available to us through Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s a done deal, even if it may not feel like that to us. 

But Christ’s death and resurrection were not feelings. They were and are the objective reality. They made known supremely the power of God to intervene in our lives on our behalf to rescue us from ourselves, our foolishness, our folly, and our slavery to the power of Sin and Death. That is why St. Paul tells us to consider or reckon ourselves dead to sin. By this he meant for us to do the math, so to speak. When we do the math, we discover the sum of what is already there. For example, when we count the cash in the register, we learn what was there already. We don’t create a new reality; rather we affirm the existing reality. Christ has died for us and been raised from the dead to proclaim God’s victory over Sin and Death, and when we are united with Christ in a living relationship with him, St. Paul promises here that we too share in Christ’s reality, whether it feels like we do or not. Again, notice nothing is required of us except an informed (or reckoned) faith. We look at the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and calculate it to be true so that we learn to trust the promise that has not yet been fulfilled is also true. 

How does this happen? St. Paul doesn’t tell us how, only that it does happen beginning with our baptism. When we are baptized we share in Christ’s death and are buried with him so that Sin’s power over us is broken (not to be confused with living a sin-free life, something that is not mortally possible because as St. Paul reminds us in verses 6-7, we are not totally free from sin until death). We have died to sin and can no longer live in it because we have been transferred into a new reality, God’s new world that was inaugurated when God raised Christ from the dead. So in our baptism we begin our new life with Christ (cf. 2 Cor 5.17), flawed as that might look at times. What St. Paul is talking about here is a matter of will. In ch. 8, he will talk about the power and presence of the Spirit in our lives to help us live after the manner of our Lord. Here St. Paul simply tells us that we have been given a great gift in the death and resurrection of Christ and through our relational union with him. Where Christ is, there we will be with him. If this isn’t Good News, I don’t know what is.

So you have died with Christ and are raised with him. You have been delivered from the dark dominion of slavery to the dominion of freedom and life and light, the Father’s kingdom. Now what? Well, for starters it means you no longer need to be afraid. You have peace with God, real peace, a peace that was terribly costly to God, and you also have life that cannot be taken from you. Sure your mortal body will die, but that’s nothing more than a transition until the Lord returns and raises you from the dead and gives you a new body to live in his new world. As a baptized Christian you have no reason to fear death because you believe Christ is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11.25) and you know that where he is, there you will be with him by virtue of your baptism that signals his great love for you and his power to rescue you from Sin and Death! It means you reject living your life in the darkness of sin. It means you reject false realities and are willing to speak out boldly against them. It means you are willing to love even the most unloveable people (and believe me, we are seeing more and more of them every day), starting with yourself. It means you are willing to speak out against injustices of all kinds. It means you have compassion for people, realizing they are without a Good Shepherd who will love and heal them just like he is loving and healing you, and so you are willing to share your baptismal faith with them. There’s more to this reality, but certainly not less. 

Your baptism also means you are welcomed into and agree to become part of the family of God in Christ, hopefully here at St. Augustine’s, because you understand God created you for relationships and that you cannot live out your Christian faith in isolation because that is how the world, the flesh, and the devil conspire to pick Christians off and get them to reject God’s free gift of life won through Christ. The power of God living in you is often made known in and through other people, and just as we rely on family to help us navigate the rough waters of life, so too must you rely on your parish family to help you stay the course. That means you agree to worship with us, study Scripture with us, feed on our Lord’s body and blood each week to have Christ himself nourish you, weep with us, rejoice with us, and everything in between. Your baptism is a tangible reminder that God the Father has claimed you in and through God the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to make you Christ’s own forever. Like any healthy relationship, Izro, God will never force you to love him and gives you the freedom to choose whom you will serve. Today you declare you are choosing to serve Life and not Death and all that that entails. Congratulations, my brother. I couldn’t be happier for you. Glory to him whose power working in you is more than you can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.