(Modified 2021-05-09: Added recorded audio of sermon.)
St. Mary’s Anglican Church, Fifth Sunday after Easter, May 9, 2021 Canon Claude Schroeder
So today we have come to the Fifth and final Sunday in the season of Easter, where we have been rejoicing and celebrating and reflecting together on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed. Alleluia!
Now today is also a very happy day, as we welcome little Gunnar, and his parents Karen and Steve who have come as enquirers into baptism, who are here with Art and Marion, and we send greetings today to Steve’s mom and dad, Karen and Kelley. The memory of that fabulous wedding we celebrated at St. Mary’s almost two summers ago, still brings a smile to my face.
As we look into the Scriptures one of the things we see is how it is that God reveals Himself to us, and how that revelation then gets passed on through the generations. A couple has a child, and in addition to providing him with shelter, food, drink, clothing, love, and affection, they initiate him into the mysteries of the Christian faith, and hand on that revelation. Baptism is the sacrament of this initiation, the result of which is that the child undergoes a “second birth,” a spiritual birth from above,” where, emerging from the womb of the Church, his now a child of God by adoption. Like any good mother, the Church, nurtures that child with the pure milk of the Gospel so that he might grow up in his salvation. (1 Peter 2.2). O taste and see the Lord is good. Happy are they who trust in Him. And on and on it goes throughout the generations.
One of the really good things have been happening in our parish, during COVID, is that at last count 3 couples, two of whom were married here, have been making babies, and coming to church with their children, and coming to celebrate baptism.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed, alleluia!
The last couple Sundays when Karen and Steve have come up for Communion, I have prayed a blessing over Gunnar, and he has responded with a huge smile. What a joy! I have a feeling, and certainly a hope, that Gunnar and I are going to become very good friends.
Friendship. What wonderful gift the experience of friendship is in this deeply divided, fragmented and often lonely world of ours. But friendship is much more than just smiling, and saying hello, and chatting to people. That’s just being friendly, and which is no bad thing. Who wants to go to a church where people are unfriendly?
Friendship for us begins with Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel lesson from St. John, Jesus tells the disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because a servant does not know what the master is doing, but I have called you friends.” Although Christ is our Lord, and our Master, He doesn’t order and boss us around like a master his slave, but lets us on what He is doing, by making known to us “everything that he has heard from His Father.” In doing so He makes us His friends.
In this friendship, Jesus not only makes known to us everything He has heard from his Father” but, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” (John 15. 9). What is this love? It is self-sacrificing, self-emptying love. And so, our prayer for Gunnar this morning is that he would find in Jesus Christ a true friend.
This friendship that we have and enjoy with Jesus Christ sets the pattern for our friendship with each other in the Church. We make known to each other everything we have heard from Christ of the Father, and we love each other as He has loved us. This is the kind of friendship we want to cultivate in our relationships with each other.
Now it can hardly be an accident that on the very Sunday Karen and Steve come to church to begin their enquiry into baptism for Gunnar, the Bible readings have as their unifying theme the various elements which make up the Christian rite of Baptism. Baptism is not only our initiation into the Christian faith. It is our initiation into the Christian life, and our initiation into the Christian family and community. Baptism is what makes us into Christians.
So, what are the various elements that comprise our baptism into Christ?
In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning St. Peter is in the city of Caesarea in the home of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. As an officer in the occupying Roman army, Cornelius would not ordinarily have been on friendly terms with the Jewish people, and they with him. But Cornelius we are told was a devout man, who gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God. Cornelius was what the rabbis call a “ger shotav”, which translated means a “righteous gentile.” A righteous Gentile is a non-Jewish person who, although they don’t follow the 10 commandments, do follow what have been called, “The Seven Laws of Noah” which applies to the descendants of Noah, which is all people everywhere: English, Scottish, German, Scandinavian, Asian, Arab… whatever. The Seven Laws of Noah are: 1.) do not worship idols, 2) do not curse God, 3) do not murder, 4) do not commit adultery or engage in any sexual immorality, 5) do not steal 6) do not eat flesh torn for a living animal, and 6) establish courts of justice. According to the rabbis, such people would be assured a place in the life of the world to come.
So Peter shows up at the home of Cornelius, this “ger shotav” , and begins to tell him and his family the good news about Jesus, that is how at His baptism, “Jesus was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power, and went about doing good, preaching, teaching, and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him…This Jesus they put death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised Him from the dead, and caused to appear not to everyone bit to those who were witnesses who ate and drank with Him after he rose from the dead. He commanded them to preach to the people that Jesus is the one ordained by God to judge the living and the dead, and that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name. (Acts 10. 37-43). Peter hasn’t even finished the sermon when it says that Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard his words, and they started speaking in tongues and extolling God. At which point Peter says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” At which point, Peter baptized Cornelius, a sworn enemy of the Jewish nation, along with his family, and now… they were friends.
So, in this story we see the various elements at work that make up baptism. The first is the Gospel itself, which the story of who Jesus Christ is, and what He has done for us. You may find this hard to believe, but not all churches preach the Gospel! What they are preaching? It often usually some sort of self- help and psychology, or some recipe for achieving worldly success, or rule keeping and social causes. There is no good news in any of this. The in the Gospel of Jesus Christ good news of the Incarnate Son and Word of God, who by His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit, has won for us the victory. He has conquered Satan, and sin, and death, and raises us up with Him from the death of sin and bondage to evil, and gives us a share in the life of the world to come, before we die….If this isn’t good News, I don’t know what is.
The brings us to the second element of baptism, which is faith. Cornelius and his household heard Peter preach the Gospel. That which they heard with their ears, they believed in their hearts.
It’s why in our epistle reading today, John, writes, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. “(1 John 5.4). To be a Christian in this world, is to find yourself in the midst of a conflict, with and against, what the baptism service calls “the world, the flesh, and the devil.” In world this conflict, pain, suffering, and sorrow, where are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered, we are “more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8.37)
I am reminded of the story in the Gospels where this man came to Jesus in deep distress over his troubled teen-ager. Maybe some of you what that’s like. Maybe you were that troubled teen-ager, who is described as being in the grip of a spirit that was leading him into all kinds of self-destructive behavior. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this? The man said, “From childhood,” (There you go, the lasting effects of childhood trauma.) He said, “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can doanything, take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9.21-24)
When it comes to faith we often actually don’t have what it takes. We believe, or we say we believe, but at the same, there is a part of us that doesn’t believe. Faith is something that isn’t quite within our grasp. That’s something of a problem. What we need is someone to step into our lives who does believe, someone whose faith makes everything possible, and whose faith helps us overcome our unbelief. Where are we going to find such a person? This is where Jesus comes in. He is the One whose faith makes everything possible. He is the One whose faith overcomers our unbelief. This is why we say it’s not simply faith in Jesus that saves, but the faith of Jesus that saves us. And as we come to Baptism, we make our appeal, “I believe, help thou my unbelief” and Jesus steps in, and makes it happen.
Faith then properly speaking is a gift, something that God bestows on us, and creates in us. Which brings us to the third element of baptism, and that is the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who bestows upon us and evokes with in us the response of faith. As St. Paul wrote, “No one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12.3) In our story today the presence and power of the Holy Spirit was manifested when Cornelius and his family started speaking in speaking of tongues, and extolling God, in the middle of the sermon. I was thinking this week, that I should prepare myself for this to happen today. Wouldn’t that be exciting! Of course, the “speaking in tongues” isn’t the only way the Holy Spirit manifests Himself. Is not our singing and our praying and even our confession of the Creed, a manifestation of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit? Indeed. The presence and power of the Holy Spirit is also manifested in the faith, the hope, and the love that we share with each other.
And so we come to the final element of our initiation into Christ, and that is the sacrament of Baptism itself. Peter then said, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people?” In is in the service of Holy Baptism in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit “the gifts and promises of God are visibly signed and sealed. Faith is confirmed and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God.” (Article XXVII, BCP p.707) So states the article on Baptism in The Book of Common Prayer.
So now what? What is there left for us to do? There is only one thing left for us to do, and that is to unpack and enjoy the gift! Here we need all the help that we can get. The word that we use to describe this place where we unpack and enjoy the gift is “church.” Steve and Karen: You are not alone. Your friends are here. It is here in the church where we hear the Gospel, and acquire faith, receive the Holy Spirit, celebrate the Sacraments, cultivate friendship, and so learn what it means to live by the command of Jesus to love another as He has loved us, and to discover how it is that the Father gives us whatever we ask in the Name of His Son, so that, as Jesus said, “our lives may bear fruit, fruit that will last,(John 15.16) in acts of self-sacrificing, and self-emptying love.