Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sermon: 5 Pentecost (5 July 2009)

Sermon: 5 Pentecost (5 July 2009)
(Isaiah 12/Psalm 1/Romans 6:1-11/John 4:1-26)
Coming Naked To The Water

Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
And blessed be his kingdom, now and for ever. Amen.

On rare occasions –generally when events in the life of the congregation or the world prompt me – I depart from the lectionary. This is one such occasion. In their confirmation class, our young people have recently been challenged to explore more deeply the meaning of their baptism. That, in conjunction with a book on the Rwandan genocide that I recently finished
reading, led me into deeper reflection on the meaning of baptism in the life of
the church. What follows are some reflections – as in a mirror – on Christian baptism.


I would like to tell you something of my baptism. After the fashion of the Christian Church in which I was raised, my baptism was a simple ceremony. One Sunday morning I joined the minister in the baptistery – filled with very cold water as I still recall. He asked me to repeat after him the confession “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God” – not unlike the earliest confession/creed of the church, Jesus is Lord – and I responded. He looked at me – whether he called me by name I do not now remember – and he invoked over me the ancient, Trinitarian baptismal formula: I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. With those words he immersed me in that cold, life-giving water and raised me up, a new creation. However simple the ceremony – bare bones, really – it “took:” forty-six years later I still believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God and, sometimes with greater and sometimes with lesser faithfulness, I have lived my life in and through him, in accordance with that confession.

Many baptismal liturgies are more elaborate that the one I described – perhaps yours was – with exorcisms, vows, multiple immersions, chrismation. We will look at one of these more developed liturgies in moment, one from the third century. But simple or elaborate, every baptism is a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace (BCP 1979, p. 857). All the outward ritual and ceremony of baptism – whether simple or elaborate – is a sign not that something has already taken place, but that something is taking place. A sacrament, like baptism, does not merely symbolize a real event, a real change; rather, a sacrament is the means by which and through which the real event, the real change occurs.

The difference between symbol and sacrament is vital. A familiar, though not perfect, example will perhaps make the difference clear: a wedding. A wedding is a vast constellation of outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual grace of marriage. Some signs are incidental and dispensable: flowers and cake; music and candles. Other signs are essential: the mutual making of vows before witnesses and the pronouncement “husband and wife” by one duly authorized by church and state to preside. No white roses, Wedding March, and cake: no problem. No vows, no witnesses, no pronouncement of husband and wife: no marriage. The vows and the witnesses and the pronouncement are “sacramental” in this sense: they are outward and visible signs that do not merely signify that a marriage has occurred; they are the means through which and by which the marriage actually takes place.

Baptism is not flowers and music and cake; it is vows and witnesses and pronouncement. It not only signifies union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit (BCP 1979, p. 858); it is the means through which and by which this saving work of God takes place. In the “ordinary” economy of God – and I do not question that God can and almost certainly does work in extraordinary ways – but, in the ordinary economy of God, if there is no water, if there is no invocation of Father and Son and Holy Spirit – in short, if there is no baptism – there is no union with Christ, no forgiveness of sin, no new life in the Spirit.

All this lead to the main thesis of this sermon, the one idea which above all I wish you to remember: That which is not baptized is not redeemed. If that seems a trivial statement, we will see in a moment the life-shattering consequences of ignoring it. But first, let’s turn to the third century baptismal liturgy recorded by Hippolytus in his work On The Apostolic Tradition.

Whether this liturgy was typical of most or even many third century churches we do not know, but it does provide us a window into the primitive, apostolic church and it has formed the basis for subsequent baptismal liturgies in both East and West. Though the full liturgy deserves a careful reading, we will consider just a portion of it.

Now at the time when the cock crows they shall first pray over the water.
The water should be flowing into the tank or be poured down into it. It
should be so if there is no necessity, but if there is continuous and sudden
necessity use any water you can find. And they should take off their
clothes. You are to baptize the little ones first. All those who are
able to speak for themselves should speak. With regard to those who cannot
speak for themselves their parents, or somebody who belongs to their family,
should speak. Then baptize the grown men and finally the women, after they
have let down their hair and laid down the gold and silver ornaments which they
have on them. Nobody should take any alien object down into the
water. And at the time determined for baptism the bishop shall give thanks
over the oil and put it into a vessel and call it the oil of thanksgiving.
And he shall take other oil and perform the exorcism over it and call it the oil
of exorcism.

And a deacon brings the oil of exorcism and places himself on the left hand of the presbyter, and another deacon takes the oil of thanksgiving and stands on the right hand of the presbyter. And when the presbyter takes hold of each of those who are to be baptized he should bid him renounce saying: “I renounce you Satan, and all your service and all your works.”

And when he has renounced all this he should anoint him with the oil of exorcism saying to him: “Let all evil spirits depart far from you.”

Then he should hand him over to the bishop or the presbyter who stands at the water to baptize; and they should stand in the water naked. And a deacon likewise should go down with him into the water.

When the one being baptized goes down into the waters the one who baptizes, placing a hand on him, should say thus: “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?”

And he who is being baptized should reply: “I believe.”

Let him baptize him once immediately, having his hand placed upon his head. And after this he should say: “Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and Mary the virgin and was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was dead [and buried] and rose on the third day alive from the dead and ascended in the heavens and sits at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead?”

And when he has said, “I believe,” he is baptized again.

And again he should say: “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the holy church and the resurrection of the flesh?”

And he who is being baptized should say: “I believe.” And he should be baptized a third time.

And afterwards, when he has come up from the water, he is anointed by the presbyter with that sanctified oil, saying: “I anoint you with holy oil in the name
of Jesus Christ.”

And afterwards, each drying himself, they shall dress themselves, and afterwards let them go into the church (Hippolytus. On The Apostolic Tradition. Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2001.).

An epiclesis – and invocation of the Holy Spirit – follows with chrismation (anointing), and the baptism transitions into the Eucharist.

Parts of this liturgy are more symbolic than sacramental; you need the water and the words, but the nakedness is optional – at least we deem it so today. Still, it is a powerful symbol; all candidates entered the water naked and women, in particular, loosed their hair and laid aside any ornamentation – gold or silver jewelry. The meaning of the symbol is clear, isn’t it? Nothing of the old life – nothing alien, Hippolytus writes – can be taken into the water and retained. In baptism you are born anew; you are given a new identity in Christ. All the former things have passed away; behold, all things are made new. Nothing of the old life can be taken into the water and retained.

But this symbolic nakedness and divestiture begs a question: What did the women do – and here I must single them out because the liturgy does so – what did the women do with their hair and their jewelry when they emerged from the water? Did they leave their hair down or at some point fashion it up again? Did they leave their gold and silver on the floor and walk away or did they at some point pick it up and put it on again? Of course I don’t know, but I suspect many of them retained these vestiges of former life. And that concerns me; that is a potential, serious problem with the symbol, especially if my thesis is correct: That which is not baptized is not redeemed. Surely, our relationship with fashion, our obsession with fashion and appearance – for women and men alike – must be redeemed. It must go into the water to die and be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. Surely, our relationship with gold and silver, not jewelry only, but our economic obsession, must be redeemed. It must go into the water to die and be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. With great respect for the tradition of the church, I nevertheless think it would be more fitting for the baptismal candidate to enter the water fully clothed, along with his/her family, friends, employer, checkbook and credit cards, house and car titles, television remote and season football tickets, Republican or Democratic party membership card, NRA or ACLU bumper sticker, everything that defines the old life. Surely, all these must be redeemed. Surely, all these must go into the water to die and be born anew, born of water and the Spirit. Some of these may be brought up out of the water. Some must remain floating there like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwrecked life. But one thing seems certain to me: That which is not baptized is not redeemed.

Is this so much silliness, just a novel idea for a sermon? Well, let me tell you a story – a true and disturbing story – and then you can decide. In 1994 the world witnessed genocide in the small, African nation of Rwanda.

The slaughter that lasted for a hundred days in the spring of 1994 began on April 7, the Thursday of Easter week. In a country that was over eighty-five percent Christian, almost everyone gathered on Easter Sunday to remember the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Just a week before the genocide began, Rwandans celebrated Maundy Thursday. Maundy comes from the Latin maundatum, which means “command.” On the Thursday before Jesus was crucified, Christians remember how he gathered with his
disciples in the upper room, washed their feet, shared a meal, and gave them a
“new command.” Jesus looked at his disciples and said, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

This is the new commandment Christians remember on Maundy Thursday – the command to love one another, even to the point of laying down our own lives. But one week later in 1994, Christians in Rwanda took up machetes, looked fellow church members in the face, and hacked their body to pieces (Emmanuel Katongole. Mirror to the Church: Resurrecting Faith after Genocide in Rwanda. Zondervan. 2009.).

In these hundred days, with the world watching, 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children were murdered – most of them brutally hacked to death with machetes – by their Hutu neighbors, Christians murdering Christians. Churches were turned into killing fields with priests and pastors complicit in and sometimes presiding over the slaughter – priests and pastors turning over parishioners to be slaughtered.

How do you explain this in a predominantly Christian country, in a country held up by the Western world as the model of successful evangelism? Cardinal Etchegaray, representative of Pope John Paul II, asked this question in the aftermath of the genocide.

Cardinal Etchegaray was the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice
and Peace from 1984 to 1998. When he visited Rwanda on behalf of the
pope in 1994, he asked the assembled church leaders, “Are you saying that
the blood of tribalism is deeper than the waters of baptism?” One leader answered,
“Yes, it is,” (Katongole).

There is the answer that was offered: Rwandan tribalism runs deeper than the waters of baptism. I cannot even begin to imagine the pain of the man who spoke those words and I have no right to speak to it. But we can and must speak to his flawed theology: nothing – absolutely nothing – runs deeper than the waters of baptism. But here we come round again to the
main thesis: That which is not baptized is not redeemed. It is not that tribalism runs deeper than the waters of baptism. The tribal identities of the Hutu and Tutsi were never taken into the water. They were laid aside like so much gold or silver jewelry and picked up again on the
way out of the water, unbaptized and unredeemed. Would that the tribal identification cards carried by the Rwandan Christians had been taken into the water and left floating there, never to be taken up and carried again. How to do that now is the challenge facing the Rwandan church.

So we are left with this two-fold notion: While nothing runs deeper than the water of baptism, only that which is baptized is redeemed. We must not go naked to the water. We must lay nothing aside. Instead, we must bring all that we are and all that we have to the water so that what can be redeemed may be redeemed and what cannot be redeemed may be drowned there.

Emmanuel Katongole titled his book on the spiritual implications of the Rwandan genocide Mirror to the Church. He writes,

As we look into the events that led to this tragedy and the reasons that made it
possible, Rwanda becomes a mirror that reflects the deep brokenness of the
church – not simply in Africa but in the West as well. Rwanda brings us to
a deep place of lament as we see the formations that have made tribalism in its
many forms an essential, unquestioned feature of Christianity.

He calls the Western church to examine its own reflection in the mirror of Rwanda, to examine itself for traces of tribalism. Any loyalty held higher than Christ is tribalism. Any ideology prized more highly than the faith is tribalism. Any policy not motivated by and blessed by the Holy Spirit is tribalism. And any tribalism places the Western church on the road to

But Rwanda poses other questions – more personal – nearer the thesis of this sermon: What did you lay aside before coming to the water of baptism? What is yet unredeemed? What did you pick up and retain when you emerged from the water? Is it yet possible to baptize these elements of our lives and identities? In another context Jesus spoke these words of hope and promise to a Samaritan woman by a well in Sychar – a woman who had much in her life that needed the water of baptism: “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14b, NRSV). The water of baptism is a spring welling up within you to wash and redeem or to wash away whatever you bring to it – a fountain of eternal life. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is deeper than the water of baptism: no sin or shame, no success or failure, no relationship or loyalty, no loss or gain, no self-image or self-interest. Nothing – absolutely nothing – is deeper than the water of baptism which wells up within you as a fountain of life. All that remains is to come to the water – again and again – bringing everything you are and everything you have.


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