From the sermon archives—an appropriate Lenten reflection
Lectionary texts: Romans 5.6-11, 6.3-11; St. John 7.37-39.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is a huge day in the life of your family. MJ will join the ranks of those whom Christ has claimed forever and I want to direct my sermon primarily to him. Yes, yes, I know he is only a little over 2 months old and I regularly confuse adults when I preach. But any child who has a smile that sweet at so early an age surely knows the Lord and communicates with him regularly in ways we adults just don’t understand. So I will trust the Lord, along with his parents and godparents and the rest of you, to compensate for my, um, awesome preaching skills to fill in the blanks in the years to come. I’ll try to make this so easy to understand that even bishops can understand!
MJ, your parents have made the wisest and best decision of your young life. Ever. Why? Because it means you have passed from Death to Life. Now I realize that talking about death at a joyous occasion like this and talking about what causes death (sin) will be perceived by some here as me being a buzzkill. I actually don’t mind that because it reduces requests for me to come back and preach, and I’m good with that. But I love you and your family too much not to be honest with you. The sad fact is that every human being is infected by the power of Sin and that leads to death. It alienates us from God and each other and God hates sin because sin makes us less than human, and God created us to be fully human so we could run his good world on his behalf. So from the minute you were born, you, along with the rest of us, are destined to die because we are all separated from God, who is our only Source of life. The more we are separated from God, the less we have life in us and the less we are able to flourish as human beings. This breaks God’s heart because he loves us and wants us to flourish by being closely connected to him and doing what he calls us to do. We don’t like to talk about this because it is a dark subject and makes us sad and uncomfortable, but it is the reality of the human condition. That’s the bad news.
The Good News is that your baptism today announces that you now belong to Christ and no longer live in that reality. And because you belong to Christ you get to share in his present and future reality. None of us can heal our sin-sickness on our own. We are way too infected to heal ourselves, try as we all do. But God has broken Sin’s power over us in Christ’s death and will one day fully break Death’s power over us when Christ returns to usher in God’s new world in full, the new heavens and earth, a world of beauty beyond our ability to comprehend, where humans will never sin or die again, where they will always flourish and find great meaning and purpose to living, a world where relationships will never go bad nor will our new bodies. All this will be ours because we belong to Jesus in and through our baptism. It is too breathtaking for us to ever fully comprehend or imagine. That’s what dying and rising with Christ means. It means you have a hope and a future because you know Jesus and are reconnected to your Source of life. It means you understand that only in Christ’s power can you overcome Death. I am fully confident that all this will happen as you come of age because you already know Jesus at some level—the smile on your face tells me so.
Dying and rising with Jesus also means you will choose to turn from a life lived for yourself to a life lived for God. You will choose to reject all that can make you God’s enemy, or as St. Paul puts it, you will crucify your sinful nature (a lifelong practice that no one gets entirely right), but you will also realize you cannot do this in your own power or strength. When you are baptized your parents/godparents are declaring that they will help you to rely on the power of God working in your life in and through the Holy Spirit to help you do all this 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. They are also declaring that they will help you realize this is a free gift from God because it pleases God the Father to give it to you out of his great love for you. In other words, MJ, dying and rising with Christ is not about you, 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.
St. Paul put it this way, “[The Father] has rescued us from the kingdom of darkness [where we are separated from God and without real life] and transferred us into the Kingdom of his dear Son, who purchased our freedom [from the power of Sin/Death] and forgave our sins” (Col 1.13-14). This is what God’s grace and power look like; and your baptism signals, in part, your acceptance of that grace and power, even if you don’t fully understand it. We can’t earn God’s grace, but it is ours for the taking because of the power and love of God. And 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 our Lord. It’s a done deal, even though it won’t always feel like that to us.
But Christ’s death and resurrection were not feelings. They were and are real events that made known supremely the power of God to intervene in our lives to rescue us from ourselves, our foolishness, our folly, and our slavery to the power of Sin and Death. We don’t create this new reality of living with and for Christ and thereby conquering Death; rather we believe the reality exists. 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 at our baptism, St. Paul promises in our epistle lesson that we too share in Christ’s reality, whether it feels like we do or not. How does this all happen? St. Paul doesn’t tell us, only that it does happen beginning with our baptism. You ask me how I know all this is true (a great question for a 2 mo old). I know it’s true because like St. Paul, I know Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.
So you have died with Christ and are raised with him. You have been delivered from the dark empire of slavery to the empire of freedom and life and light, the Father’s kingdom. Now what? Well, for starters it means you no longer need to be afraid as you grow older. 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, and you’ll understand what that means when you grow older, 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 forever. As a baptized Christian you have no reason to fear death because you know 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! It means you will reject living your life in ways that tell God you don’t want anything to do with him. It means you will reject false realities and will be willing to speak out boldly against them (you’ll be busy because it gets crazier with each passing day). It means you will be willing to love even the most unloveable people (and unfortunately you will come to know your fair share of them), starting with yourself. It means you will be willing to speak out against real injustices of all kinds, not manmade, phony ones. It means you will have compassion for people, realizing many are without a Good Shepherd who will love and heal them just like he is loving and healing you, and so you will be willing to share your baptismal faith with them. There’s more to this reality, but certainly not less.
Your baptism also means you will agree to become part of the family of God in Christ (the Church)—are you listening, parents?—because you understand God created you for relationships and that you cannot live out your Christian faith by yourself because that is how the world, our fallen nature, and the devil get together to pick off Christians and get them to reject God’s free gift of life won through Christ. The power of God living in you right now is often made known in and through other people, and just as we rely on family to help us when things go bad in our life, so too must you rely on your parish family to help you stay the course.
Your baptism is a tangible reminder that God the Father has claimed you in and through God the Son in the power of God the Holy Spirit to make you Christ’s own forever. Like any healthy relationship, God will never force you to love him and gives you the freedom to choose whom you will serve. Today your parents/godparents declare for you that you are choosing to serve Life, not Death, and all that that entails, even if you don’t fully understand right now. Who among us does? So congratulations, my dear one. I couldn’t be happier for you. Glory to him whose power working in you is infinitely 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.