February 28, 2016
Genesis 7:17-22, 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, Matthew 3:13-17
In Genesis we know “God remembered Noah.” God remembered God’s promise to Noah that the waters would subside, the earth be made clean, and all in the ark would live a renewed life. In 2 Corinthians, we are reminded, “But we have this treasure in clay jars.” Indeed, we are the clay jars and yet there is a promise in our clay jars, an extraordinary power, which belongs to God. And then with the words spoken in Matthew at Jesus’ baptism, “my beloved with whom I am well pleased,” this promise is fulfilled. Our scripture readings this morning are about promise.
To live with a promise is a beautiful way to live. Think of the five-year old on Christmas morning, who knows the promise of joy in the hours to come. Every moment is charged with anticipation. Think of the parents who see the emerging capacities in their child to know the world. Their hearts are filled with gratitude. To live with a promise is to live with expectation for its fulfillment. And, to live with a promise is to live with trust in the one who made the promise; it is, therefore, to live in relationship. To live with a promise is to live in the present moment with hope and joy for what is to be. The promise gives strength and it promotes a way of living that is not tied to touchable certainties, or countable facts. The promise suggests a new way of living. To live with a promise is to live beyond observable realities. To live with a promise is to live with faith. The promise is given and the response is faith.
Today we will celebrate the baptism of Caroline McMahan Farmer, and we will give thanks for the promise that is in her baptism. We will give thanks for the hope and joy, for the relationship, for the new way of life that is the promise of her baptism. And, in turn, we offer our support as a church community to nurture Caroline’s response and the response of her parents, which is faith in the promise that is given.
Today is about the promise.
So, let me be clear. God gives us a promise through baptism and baptism is also our acknowledgement of that promise. Baptism is one of the two sacraments in the Protestant Church along with Communion. As sacraments, baptism and communion are visible and outward signs of God’s Grace in our lives and they are also our response. In the sacraments we know God’s grace and we respond with gratitude. In baptism, we know God’s grace physically through the touch of water and visibly through the community of the church.
What, then, is the content of this promise? What does baptism mean? In baptism we hear the invitation for who we are meant to be. Like Jesus, we are told we are God’s beloved with whom God is well pleased. We are God’s own children. God loves us beyond all human comprehension just as we are. We need be nothing more, and nothing less. We are valued for being God’s creation. We are valued for being ourselves. This is the message of baptism. It is a message that gives us permission to be human beings. It is a message of acceptance. But it is also a message to heed our calling as God’s children. Baptism, then, is a sacrament of Christian vocation to know our identity, to know we are related to the almighty God. In this sacrament, God’s Grace moves upon us that we might bring to our daily lives the assurance of our relationship to God, and because of this awareness we are brought into the fullness of life. This is baptism. Be who you are because you are God’s beloved creation. God made you, God loves you, and God gives you purpose. This is baptism.
If we are in relationship to God and God is in relationship to all of creation, then baptism is also about the awareness of our connection to one another. We are not ourselves all on our own. We are ourselves because we are related to others, whom God equally loves and values. This is indeed what Bishop Desmund Tutu spoke of as Ubuntu theology; a person is a person through other people all of whom are God’s creation. We heard about this Ubuntu concept during our Diversity Day this week. The Ubuntu concept is that our humanity, which is affirmed in our baptism, becomes a reality as we love one another. And this is why baptism is a communal act. Baptism is not complete if it happens in private. The Grace we experience in baptism connects us to God and to one another, and as God’s children we know that our love for God is shown through our love for one another. In baptism, then we also hold one another, and we respond to the promise that we are all God’s beloved by nurturing, supporting and praying for one another. This is why baptism is an act of welcoming one another as the family of Christ.
But being God’s beloved and the family of Christ does not mean that life is without disappointment and without difficulty. To live with a promise is a beautiful way to live, but it does not mean it is an easy way to live. To live with a promise is a new way to live, but to rely not on touchable certainties or countable facts, in other words to live a life of faith, does not come easily to human beings. The joy of the five-year old on Christmas morning can quickly turn to sadness when the visible presents have all been opened. The baptized Christian, who lives with the promise, can easily turn to self-doubt when she acts as if God’s love for her is conditional; conditional upon how much she knows and conditional upon how much good she does in the world. And even one who holds the promise can feel beaten down by enduring physical ailments or by social injustices that cause the demons in us to question how real God’s love can possibly be if life is so full of suffering. To live with the promise is a beautiful way to live, but it is not always an easy way to live.
This is also the message of baptism.
The Christian vocation as God’s child, which we respond to in baptism, acknowledges the life of the body as much as it acknowledges the life of the spirit. Second Corinthians chapter four verse ten is clear that we“10always [carry] in the body the death of Jesus.” Our physical reality of life includes suffering, and this is what Jesus died for because we are so beloved. We are always carrying in our body suffering and therefore, we are carrying the death of Jesus. But this is for a purpose, which is the second half of the verse: “so that the life [and love and joy] of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” And this life of Jesus made visible in us is the promise of baptism.
But the Apostle Paul takes us one step further to remind us that, “11while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh.” Friends, baptism is a communal act; it is our communal response to take up the suffering of others for Jesus’ sake. It is our communal response to bear the cross of Jesus with Jesus for the sake of our neighbor, our poor, disenfranchised, voiceless or victimized neighbor, so that the life of Jesus will be made visible for others in our mortal flesh here and now. This is also the promise of baptism, the promise of our Christian vocation, our Christian calling to see the suffering in our world and to respond with love for one another, as God loves us.
Baptism is our reminder that we are clay jars with treasures inside. Baptism is our reminder that though we may have difficulty, though we may have worries and anxiety, though we may fall ill in our bodies, and though we may experience evil perpetrated on us by others our foundational identity as God’s beloved remains unshaken. Baptism is our reminder that though we may be “afflicted in every way, [we are] not crushed; [though we may be] perplexed, [we are] not driven to despair; 9 [though we may be persecuted], [we are] not forsaken; [though we may be] struck down, [we are] not destroyed.” This is the promise of baptism. It is a promise that there is an extraordinary power within us that belongs to God and does not come from us. This is the promise of love and this promise brings us into the fullness of life as we live out this love for one another. This is baptism. Thanks be to God. Amen.