Sunday, January 10, 2021
Stepping away from the abyss
The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy Tx 77493
This has been an unprecedented week. I know that is an overused word these days but I can’t think of anything better right now. I am very careful to keep politics out of the pulpit and I intend to do that. I will address the events of the past week in this sermon. I feel it would be irresponsible not to acknowledge what happened. However, I want to look at these events through a gospel lens, for that is my reference point for most everything in the world. That lens in particular this Sunday is one of baptism. So what does Baptism have to do with the current mess we are in? Stay with me and I hope to lay this out in a way that makes sense and offers a way forward.
Baptism is one of the two central sacraments of the church along with the Eucharist and we celebrate both today. Our readings today refer to the baptism of John as a baptism of repentance. This ritual cleansing is not something new and unique to John or his community. Ritual baths or mikvahs can be found in the ruins of many ancient synagogues and even in individual homes. With the purity codes as they were it was necessary to have ways to ritually cleanse a person so they could return to the company of their family, the synagogue and the temple. There were many ways to become impure in the ancient world so this ritual would be repeated as often as necessary. Even today some people who convert to Judaism will go to a mikvah for a ritual immersion interestingly enough three times to cleanse them of their sins so that they may convert and join a synagogue.
Jesus did not need to be baptized in order to be cleansed of his sin. In fact, most Christology holds that Jesus was without sin. So why is the baptism of Jesus as described in the Gospels so important? Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all? His baptism is part of the incarnation and part of Jesus’ becoming fully human.
I love the explanation of the necessity of the incarnation in the book The Shack. Jesus tells Mack, the main character, that he became fully human to teach us to be fully human. The incarnation did not happen because God didn’t understand our condition, but because we do not understand God, our condition or the beauty of the creation that we live in. If the incarnation serves as a guide to how we can become fully human, then baptism makes sense. Jesus is showing us how to become fully human and baptism is one of those ways in which we attain that. For to be fully human we need an intimate contact with the divine and baptism is one way Christians achieve this. Jesus leads and teaches not by saying do as I say but do as I do. By becoming human God, through Jesus, shows us how to act, how to live and how to be in communion with God.
What was missing in the baptism of John, what Apollos’ followers in our epistle did not understand, was the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. This is the element that the baptism of Jesus brings us. The presence of the Holy Spirit given in baptism is that link to the divine. Jesus’ baptism in the river changes the idea of baptism forever.
This is why in our service we baptize in the name of the trinity and proclaim the person as a new person, a changed person. They are reborn through the water of baptism. This is why I anoint the person being baptized with oil of Chrism, blessed by the bishop. Listen to the words that the celebrant says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (BCP) This is what makes all the difference in the world. This was a radical change for in the time previous to Jesus it was believed that only a few select people would feel the power of the Spirit. Only a few special chosen ones would be prophets. With our baptism the whole spectrum of spiritual gifts open up to us. God pours his grace out on us in baptism.
This gift though is not without cost and this is where we come to our world today. If we are truly open to the Spirit, then we are and must be changed. We are not given our spiritual gifts just to leave here today and go home and say, wow, what a great person I am. We are then sent into the world to spread the good news. We are given gifts, but then are expected to use them. We are called to be a gift to the world an example to the world. How those gifts manifest themselves in each of us is as unique as varied as we are.
In our scripture passage today and in the baptism, service is concept of metanoia the Greek word for making a turn, changing direction. In the ancient service the candidate for baptism would stand facing west and make the renunciation of sin and the devil. Then they would physically turn and face east and proclaim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
We are at a moment of metanoia, a time to turn for turn from where we are headed and turn we must. Bishop Curry said on Friday ““In the moment of a national crisis, a moment of great danger, … a people must decide, ‘Who shall we be?’” Curry continued, “I want to submit that the way of love that leads to beloved community is the only way of hope for humanity. Consider the alternative. The alternative is chaos, not community. The alternative is the abyss of anarchy, of chaos, of hatred, of bigotry, of violence, and that alternative is unthinkable. We have seen nightmarish visions of that alternative.” If you have not watched his video please take 15 minutes and watch. It is linked on our Facebook Page.
So how can we turn, turn towards a community that reflects the Kingdom of God where God’s will for peace and love is the way of the world?
I will take some inspiration here from Mary Wilson’s homily last week. At this time of year, we often turn to New Year’s resolutions and many self-improvement projects. I want to propose a different type of resolution, one based on the gift of the Spirit that we are considering today.
I believe with all my heart the antidote is contained in our baptismal promises that we will read this morning and the baptismal covenant that we all of us will reaffirm in just a few moments.
What I want to encourage, no challenge you to do is pick just one of the 5 and with God’s help strive to do a better job of living it. Don’t try to do them all at once, you will not be any more successful than trying to change too many other things in your life at one time. I will let you pick the one you want to focus on and I suggest you let the Spirit speak to you. In particular I would encourage you to pick the one that makes you the most uncomfortable. I find the Spirit often speaks to us through that sense of discomfort.
That discomfort may be in the form of I’m not very good at this or even more important, I’m not sure I want to really live this one in the way I think I am called. Maybe there is one that you think, I’m not sure I believe this. There, there is the Spirit speaking to you not in a small still voice, but in a loud shout. The Spirit often speaks out of that place of discomfort when the Spirit wants to challenge you.
The way to reconciliation, to healing for our country is in the words of our Presiding Bishop to be and live the Way of Love even though that may seem very hard right now. It is what we as Christians are called to show the world. This is not sentimental love, but the love Jesus showed us while he was here. This is tough love, righteous love, love that is about giving to the other, it is focused in an outward direction.
Towards the end of his video the Presiding Bishop asked us to make two commitments. One is to make a commitment to the way of Love and I have given you a suggestion on how you might do that. The second is to make a commitment to do something about that change. To go out and be a blessing and to bless others. To bless those with whom you agree, but even more important to be a blessing to those with whom you disagree.
I watched a conversation this week between two people with very different life experiences as they share their thoughts about how their life had caused them to look at the world though very different lenses. I saw understanding of each other deepen and I saw community being built. That’s what living the Way of Love can do. We must rebuild community and we can start right here at St. Paul’s. We can go beyond not talking about issues to keep the peace and begin to confront the issues so the Way of Love can spread. As bishop Curry said, “We either build community or continue to descend into chaos and the chaos is not an alternative.
Now in that spirit of building a sacred community, I now invite you stand and renew your Baptismal Covenant.