Saying “Hallelujah” under your breath a myriad of times throughout the day is claiming your voice and claiming your part in what God is up to – which, if you stand back and take it in, and step up to take it on, is wonderful, is absolutely amazing, this gift of life. Who could have imagined what God has imagined? Hallelujah.
-Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
Joy is a gift. And it’s a paradoxical gift because suffering and joy are often bedmates. The psalmist says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.” It is very possible to experience deep suffering and equally deep joy, as if the experience of suffering creates the chasm for joy. This is the context where we hear Jesus pray that his joy be ours: ours, in the context of our suffering.
-Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
I was twenty years old when I was baptized. I chose to be baptized. I had been raised in a conservative Protestant tradition of the church which sees baptism as a rite intended for adult Christian believers. In that tradition, if you are to be baptized, you must know what you are doing because the baptismal vows that you make are personal: they are your vows marking your salvation, vows not taken on behalf of someone else.
In the earliest tradition of the church, at least for the first four centuries, adult baptism was normally preceded by the “catechumenate.” This was a three-year time of instruction and preparation for an adult who was to be baptized and incorporated into the membership of the church.[i] Momentarily we here will be invited to renew our own “Baptismal Covenant,” which is a very adult kind of thing to be doing.[ii] All of us here who are baptized will be asked to respond to questions that begin with very decisive verbs: “Do you believe…?” “Will you continue…?” “Will you proclaim…?” “Will you strive…?” Yes or no?
While all this is going on, it is safe to say that our rather youthful baptismal candidate, Anuoluwapo Liliane, will probably be quite oblivious to what’s going on. “Anu” may even be asleep, maybe crying. Oh dear. She gives us witness to a different baptismal tradition: infant baptism, which, from our reading of the Acts of the Apostles, we may also infer was going on with the earliest followers of Jesus. [iii] By the fifth century, infant baptism had become the norm, where whole households, whole nations, came to experience themselves as Christian.[iv] Holy Baptism became as much a cultural identity as it was a spiritual identity. Infant baptism came to be the more familiar pattern of initiation into the life of the church.
Both baptismal traditions – adult “believer” baptism and infant baptism – have precedence and integrity. In my own experience, I look back and see in actuality that when I was baptized at age 20, I barely had a clue what I was asking for. In many ways I was as much a “newborn babe” as “Anu” is, and it shall take a lifetime for me (and likely for Anu and for you) to live into the maturity of our baptismal vows. The difference in age between a between a seventy year old and a two month old is but a blink in the timeline of eternity. We are all children of God, regardless of our chronological age.
Our baptizing “Anu” today emphasizes God’s initiative in all of this: that it is God who is the source of our lives, and God who is the end of our lives, and it is God who calls us and desires us to be in union with God forever. It is God who seeks us out, God who has all the time in the world for us. Baptism is an act which anticipates its completion in the future, with a person’s own confession of faith. We shall pray that “Anu” will someday personally confirm the baptismal vows we are making on her behalf today.[v] What is true for “Anu” (as has been true for me and probably you), is understanding baptism as an initiation, not as a completion.
For us here, I will name two very significant things about today’s baptism. For one, we call baptism “a Sacrament.” Now here’s a test question, not for “Anu” but for us adults: What is a Sacrament? Do you remember? “A Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”[vi] We actually understand baptism as a spiritual sign of “new birth.” Jesus said that it’s like “Anu’s” being “born again” after just having been born for the first time only a couple of months back. That is, Anu’s being born again into “a body” which is much bigger than her little body. I’m speaking metaphorically about the church being like a body with many different bodily parts.[vii] Up to this point, Anu’s identity is as a child of her parents, Deji and Stacy, her godparents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and cousins. As of today she is also our sister. We shall from now on belong to one another like a hand belongs to an arm. We are all different parts of one body, which is Jesus’ metaphor for the church.
There is also this baptismal sign of the “washing away of sin.” It stretches our imagination to think how precious little “Anu” could in any way be sinful. Soiled diapers and irregular sleep patterns that may keep her parents awake certainly don’t count as sin. But given the world into which she has been born – a world so ravaged by evil in which we adults have both suffered and colluded – we could see this as a kind of washing from the contamination of the world which surrounds her, a world which will affect her and which could also infect her. Baptism gives “Anu” a kind of fresh access to the Spirit of God who blew over the first waters of the creation giving us life and light and love.[viii]
Which is the second point. We all here who are witnesses have a role. We have had a role already in the shaping of the world in which Anu is being raised. We now pledge ourselves anew to the reforming of this world, to our intentionally co-operating with God in our own conversion to Christ, and helping Anu in hers. We pledge ourselves as instruments of her formation, joining with her parents and godparents and other loved ones to point the way to Christ. As any parent or godparent will know, children model what they see. This precious child, “Anu” has every reason to look at all of us here and to others who call themselves “Christians” as models for what it means to “grow in Christ.”[ix]
We will symbolically wash “Anu” in this great baptismal tub. We will anoint her with holy oil, a traditional “sealing with oil” signifying the Spirit of God come upon her and within her. And we will give a candle of light to her godparents on her behalf. The candle is a symbol of light for the soul.
I suspect that all of us here who are adults know about the dark night of the soul that may come with the changes and chances of life, often through the experience of loss, or injustice, or prejudice, and suffering. None of us would wish those experiences onto “Anu” as she grows up. But if her life experience is like mine and probably yours, she will grow into the awareness of some suffering that surrounds her and, at some points, may affect her quite deeply. Some day the symbol of this candle may be a great comfort for her to realize we knew she would need a sign of light during a future time that seems without light. The symbolic candle is a beacon of hope which she cannot yet appreciate but we do, her sisters and brothers. It is not easy to be alive these days. Probably never was. But it is possible absolutely thrive in life if we have help. We are God’s help for “Anu.” We are the help for one another. We, together, are like different parts of a body, and we need one another to be whole. All of us who are baptized have a mission in life. All of us are God’s missionaries wherever we go.
Today we have the joy of baptizing Anuoluwapo Liliane. Anuoluwapo is a Nigerian name meaning “God’s mercy is abundant.” The name Liliane is derived from the Latin for “lily,” a flower symbolizing innocence, purity, beauty. Today we pray God’s blessing on Anuoluwapo Liliane, who, in turn, has already become a channel of God’s blessing, not just to her parents and godparents and loved ones, but to all of us. She is a blessing from God, and a blessing to God, and a blessing and to us – God’s blessing. Blessed Anu.
Lectionary Year and Proper: 2021-22 – A
Solemnity or Major Feast Day: Fourth Sunday of Easter
[i] This perspective on baptism as intended for adult believers has been widely held by many Protestant groups throughout the western church since the sixteenth century Reformation. The Anabaptist tradition (‘re-baptizers’, from the Greek άνα and βαπτίξω) was comprised of groups on the Continent of Europe who in the sixteenth century refused to allow their children to be baptized and reinstituted the baptism of believers.
[ii] See “The Baptismal Covenant,” in The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 304-305.
[iii] Acts 16:14-15.
[iv] Insight drawn from “The Meaning of Baptism” in Sacraments & Liturgy, by Louis Weil (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), pp. 68-74.
[v] Weil, p. 71.
[vi] See “The Catechism” in The Book of Common Prayer, p. 857ff.
[vii] The metaphor of “body,” e.g., Romans 12:4-5; 1 Corinthians 10: 16-17; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-26.
[viii] See Genesis 1.
[ix] “Growing in Christ,” e.g., Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:10.
In the face of many odds, you are a survivor; your life has extended into this new day. Past events in your life may have just killed you, but look at you. You’ve come back to life. It’s not just Jesus who is a walking miracle; you also are a walking miracle.
-Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
We hear proclaimed in our Gospel account that Jesus is resurrected. But one thing has not changed. Even though Jesus is resurrected, Jesus’ heart is still broken. Just several days earlier, from the Mount of Olives, Jesus had wept as he looked upon Jerusalem, grieving his own people’s neglect of “justice and mercy.”[i] That wound in Jesus’ heart has not changed. And Jesus is also still wounded by the betrayal and abandonment of his closest friends, the disciples, who literally left Jesus hanging. And Jesus’ resurrected body is still wounded by the scourgings that preceded his crucifixion, and the horrific piercing wounds from his hanging on the cross, and the wound in his side. None of these wounds is yet healed. Other witnesses are also wounded. The women who were there when they crucified their Lord, witnessed it all, a horrific experience, leaving the women traumatized. And the disciples, wounded by their own culpability. On that first Easter day the disciples are hiding – hiding in their own fear, and guilt, and shame.[ii] On this day of resurrection, everyone in the Gospel story is wounded.
And so for us: the wounds of life. We can acknowledge Jesus’ resurrection and, at the same time, acknowledge somuch woundedness around us and within us: woundedness from the residual trauma and ongoing suffering and loss because of COVID; woundedness because of our own personal experience of loss – be it our own loss of health, or our loss of security, or our loss of dignity; or our loss of loved ones who have meant the world to us. Jesus is resurrected; however meanwhile we witness such woundedness in our world because of the appalling wars and political upheaval going on right now on every continent of the earth; the woundedness for so many people who have been displaced, who have fled for their lives in terror, having lost their homes or lost their hope. There is also, in our own time, the woundedness of the earth, our common home, in the face of the climate emergency. Saint Paul is speaking to our own day when he writes about “the whole creation groaning in labor pains… and waiting for adoption.”[iii]
Jesus’ entering Jerusalem is doing an old thing in a new way. There’s no way he can rival the power of the Roman Empire. And he doesn’t try to. He confronts violent, violating power with the principled power of nonviolent love. What is stirring in your soul where some power structure must be redressed? Jesus prays to the Father: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Be an answer to Jesus’ prayer.
-Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
We are God’s help. We’re the best God has to witness to God’s presence, tender loving mercy, and provision. With our hands, our hearts, our voices, and our prayer, we are the mediators of the real presence of God to so many people who otherwise are lost and dying to live.
– Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
A practice for your day:
We are called to be God’s hands, God’s voice, God’s help. How can you show up – through presence or provision – in the life of someone lost and dying to live? Find a concrete way to share God’s love with another today.
You will face death many-a-time in this life. Life some days, some seasons, can be such a killer. And that is the very cross that Jesus is sharing with you.
-Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
A prayer for your day:
Jesus, in the cross you show me that I must pass through death, and that life waits on the other side. Thank you for going first. Thank you for going with me.
Jesus’ listeners would have to have been scandalized. If there were anyone to leave the temple “justified,” surely it would be a Pharisee. Pharisees set the mark in their pious practices. Pharisees were faithful, prayerful, dependable, and principled. They were good people. Like us. Not so with tax collectors, who were the scourge of society. Tax collectors were Jews who colluded in a cruel and corrupt Roman system of legalized extortion; they were turncoats on their own people. Tax collectors were the dregs of society, and they were hated and excluded by most everyone… not including Jesus, who sought them out as dinner companions.[i]
What we hear in this Gospel lesson is not a piece of history. This is a parable Jesus tells. A parable is a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson. If we are not scandalized by what Jesus’ parable means for us today, we completely miss the point of the parable. We completely miss Jesus’ point if we ever find ourselves saying, perhaps silently, “God, I thank you that I am not like so-and-so.” If so, who is it for you? It’s probably not a tax collector or a Pharisee, but it’s someone or some type. Most all of us have this unverbalized, perhaps secret list of people or types of people we find abhorrent and surely dammed, and about whom we are certain and thankful we are not like.
I am familiar with this type of list. If you have a list like this – a list of appalling people – who is on your list? Because these same people are also on Jesus’ list, the people he associates with and welcomes so indiscriminately. It seems that Jesus even loves them. And he tells us to do the same.[ii] If loving those on your unlovely list is too far of a reach – and some days it certainly is too far a reach for me to love them – then we must at least remember that the God loves them, and that the God of love is not done with them yet… nor with you and me.
[i] Matthew 9:10-17; Mark 2:15-22; Luke 5:29-39.
[ii] Luke 10:37.
Lent invites our detachment from the alluring consumer culture that surrounds us. Fasting is a way to abstain from the lure of the new, to live with what is now, already. Be content, be satisfied, be sated with what is already present, with the now.
-Br. Curtis Almquist, SSJE
A provocation for your day:
We are often lured to look to the next new thing. What is already in your life that you might take for granted? Be mindful of what is present in your life and where you have enough.