We could infer from this Gospel account that John and Jesus had met for the very first time the day before, when John baptized Jesus. John had said, “I myself did not know him.” Not so. They did know one another. They were cousins. They would have known each other since their births, their impossible-to-believe births, which had been predicted by angels. Angels, no less! Jesus, born to an unmarried mother who insisted she had not had a sexual union; John born to a mother who was old enough to be his great grandmother.
If it was important enough for Mary, while she was pregnant, to travel the 90 miles from Nazareth to the Judean hills to see her pregnant Aunt Elizabeth, John’s mother, it is unimaginable that they would not have visited each other after the births of their miraculous sons.[i] Visited many times. No one in the world could understand one another like these two couples could: Mary and Joseph, and Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah. These two boys, Jesus and John, had to have known one another, and probably looked to each other, befriended each other, confided in each other, shared the burden of their imposed identities with one another. Both of them loved going into the desert. Maybe they camped together? They were cousins, virtually the same age, the only child of their parents. Neither son had married; neither had pursued a profession that was identified; neither, it seems, had found their voice to fulfill the “angelic predictions” until rather late in life. Both of them, at the time of this Gospel account, were about age 30. They had to have known one another. And known each other very well.
John asks an important, honest question, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” He has already recognized what seems like an inappropriate ordering of events. Things are upside down and he doesn’t understand. And Jesus isn’t really going to make things clear to him in advance except by way of confirming that yes, indeed, something extraordinary is at work.
But first maybe we should back up. I mean, we just cleaned up all the Christmas decorations yesterday. The silent night, holy night, wasn’t even two weeks ago and here we are waist deep in the River Jordan on the outskirts of Judea. There was such a long wait for the nativity of our Lord. And then it burst forth suddenly with heavenly hosts singing Gloria. And then begins the Epiphany.
The Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ, is really a collection of vignettes that inaugurate the incarnate life of God. The visit of the Magi, the Baptism of our Lord, and his first miracle at the wedding at Cana, form a kind of triple feast. And each one of them is a scene of the ordinary meeting the extraordinary. Of the natural touching the supernatural, of humanity meeting divinity. They are the opposite of esoteric and vague, they grounded and rooted in human experience in ever widening circles of revelation. The meeting place was here on earth, on this same planet we still use today; in the very human bodies that we still inhabit; all of the senses that we use to perceive this world were turned to perceive another world.
It is perhaps no accident that I have been thinking a lot about clothing in the last few days. Yesterday at Evening Prayer we had the wonderful occasion to clothe our brother Lain in the habit of the Society. Some of you were here for that, and others perhaps joined us remotely.
As I have said before, a clothing ceremony is probably the most dramatic of all the rites of passage that a Brother of the Society undergoes in his time in the community, except perhaps for the last rite of passage, his funeral. Unlike a profession, we actually see a man change, literally, before our very eyes.
Having put on, and taken off my own habit, thousands of times, over the last 30 years, it is this putting on of the habit for the first time, that I find so moving. It is especially moving watching him as he fumbles and searches the fabric for various hidden buttons, and snaps, and tries to wind and knot the cord with as much dignity as possible. Getting dressed, in a strange outfit, in public, with everyone watching, is actually much more difficult than you might think! In that moment, it is just an awkward and cumbersome suit of clothes. But the habit is much more than a suit of clothes. As we say in our Rule, [the habit] is dense with meaning, [and] a source of joy.
As many of you saw, at one point in the service another Brother gives the habit to the postulant saying let the habit remind you of the baptismal gift of your union with Christ. You have put him on; he clothes you with his own self.
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.
Feast Day: Bernard Mizeki
We Brothers are familiar with the story of Bernard Mizeki, because in many ways, he’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the all too brief hagiography of him in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, doesn’t do him justice. Nor does it do justice to reason why his shrine in Zimbabwe continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year on his feast day.
But today, I don’t want to focus on the story of his martyrdom. I want to remember a part of his story, which is less familiar: the story of his baptism.
Writing from Cape Town on 9 March 1886, Father Puller says this:
We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our [African] catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.
Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….
The altar with its dossal and canopy and other sanctuary hangings looked very dignified and beautiful….
Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….
Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people, although we had not given public notice of the service. The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side. Fraulein von Blomberg, as godmother, had a place beside them. Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.
I have a special fondness for the story of Nicodemus, and not just because we share the same name. In 2010, after a few decades of suffering apparent separation between God and me, something happened. It was a very sudden something and it brought spiritual transformation, healing, and gratitude. At the time, the words which came spontaneously to mind describing the experience, the words that felt most true, where that it felt like being born again.
Not long after I found a church and when I told the rector about the “born again” experience she very gently suggested that I call it something else, perhaps a kind of spiritual awakening. I assumed she offered that advice because of the political reality associated with the phrase “born again.” Still, I’ve never forgotten that first Easter I celebrated, how there was an overwhelming and joyful recognition of the baptismal dying and rising of my self in Christ.
Back in the fourth century the sacrament of baptism was seen as the culmination of a Lenten journey, a journey of instruction, spiritual exercises, and ascetic disciplines. Those on this journey, the catechumens, were baptized on the Easter Vigil, a celebration of their participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. As a symbol of this dying and rising, they would enter a pool of water on one side, as entering into a tomb or womb, before emerging on the other side.
“His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified then they remembered that these things had been written of him and had been done in him.” (John 12:16)
Beloved, today we begin a second Holy Week in COVID-19 pandemic time. We have prayed for God’s merciful assistance to enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts whereby we have been given life and immortality. (cf. The Book of Common Prayer p. 270) We pray as we do on every Lord’s Day for the showing forth of the Lord Jesus’s death until he comes among us again in glory. (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26) As disciples in ages past have beheld in awe God’s ‘tender mercy love for the human race’ (BCP p. 219) in Jesus’s suffering and cross, so we do this Palm Sunday.
We continue at present separated in longing by disease and death, grief and loss, fear and uncertainty. Yet we join in hope with those who went out of the holy city of Jerusalem to greet the humble Savior. We raise our cries, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Together we hail Jesus, the Victor over death and evil, present among us now. Our pilgrimage through suffering is in company with that of God’s beloved Son, Jesus. Though scattered and terrified we are being healed, saved, and the whole world transformed and renewed by his glorious cross and resurrection.
The Baptism of Christ
I have a box in my room where I keep all my precious documents. You probably have something similar. These documents, such as passports, birth certificates, ordination papers, for many, marriage certificates, these documents are all very precious because they tell us what we belong to and who we belong to. That’s incredibly important, because belonging gives us our sense of identity. These documents remind me of who I am. Among the most precious of documents for me are my two passports. Whenever I hold these passports I have an enormous sense of gratitude to God that my own life, my very identity, has been formed by the traditions and values of two different nations.
Our core identity is intimately bound up with the values of the country to which we belong; so, when we see these values violated, as we have seen on Capitol Hill during these past days, we feel a visceral shock to our very core.
Belonging and identity are so bound together, that an even worse experience is to actually have your ‘belonging’ taken away. I will never forget a time of ministry some years ago in South Dakota, when I spoke with some elderly native Americans who told me the harrowing story of how they had been made to leave their ancestral lands and at school were forbidden to speak their native language. ‘We don’t belong here anymore’ they said. How terrible to belong nowhere and belong to no one. Those sad and haunted eyes we have seen on the TV of refugees, thrown out of their country, ‘cleansed’ or fled in terror from their homes and from a country where they are told they don’t belong.
The months-long suspension of in-person worship required in response to the coronavirus pandemic continues to be a disorienting experience for church-folk throughout the world. Added to the need for physical distancing in nearly every aspect of daily life, some experience the interruption of regular religious assembly and fellowship as a painful loss. Though alleviated to some degree by the use of technological capabilities for online gathering, the inability to partake of the sacraments is a profound grief for many. In the disruption of accustomed, habitual practices, the temptation to turn inward in despair and inertia is great.
But now our world languishes and groans in the midst of disease and death and the exposure of long-standing hatred, prejudices, injustices and inequities, all the result of human sin. Christians must relinquish self-concern and fear and give themselves, individually and corporately, to steadfast witness of our Creator’s goodness and love.
In his Letter to the Romans, Paul points us to our baptismal death to sin as the source of new and abundant life in Christ, both for ourselves and for the world which Jesus came to save. “You also must consider yourselves dead to dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” [Romans 6:11]
By our union with Christ in the baptismal mystery of his dying and rising we find our unity and meaning in life as his disciples. The Baptismal Covenant which we profess together in the Apostles’ Creed points to the present and eternal reality of our oneness with God, with one another, and with the whole Creation. Our re-birth in Holy Baptism through water and the anointing Spirit has marked us “as Christ’s own for ever”, a new creation reflecting the glory of God in our very being. Through three renunciations of evil and sin, and through three pledges to “turn” to the obedience of our Lord and Savior’s grace and love, we have been given power to be God’s children and messengers of the Good News of God in Christ now.
Acts 9:1-9 | John 21:1-14
There’s no going back. There’s no going back. Once you have said ‘yes’ to Jesus, once you have met the Risen Lord and said YES to his invitation to ‘follow me,’ nothing is the same again. For, as Saint Paul says in 2 Corinthians: “If you are in Christ, you are a new creation. Everything has passed away, see everything has become new.”[i]
In our readings today there are two wonderful accounts of how the greatest leaders of the church – Peter and Paul – each had to learn, in a way which was both humbling and painful, that to follow Jesus, first meant a real death to the life which they had lived until then. They had to become a new creation. They had to be born anew before God could use them for the work of the Kingdom.
So when, in our Gospel today, Peter says, ‘I am going fishing’ – I’m going back to the old life – that was no longer possible. He was a good fisherman, his strong hands were skilled with the ropes and the nets. But although he toiled all through the night, he caught nothing. Something had changed. What had changed was that Jesus had called him to follow him, and he had said YES. But what he was yet to learn was that he could not follow Jesus on his own terms, in his own strength, in the old way. That had died.
These skilled hands of the fisherman would be used by Jesus, but first Peter had to come to Jesus empty handed. And perhaps there is no more poignant moment in all the gospels than when Peter comes ashore, and sees Jesus sitting beside a charcoal fire. That word ‘charcoal’ is only used twice in the New Testament: here and in the courtyard of the High Priest Caiaphas, where Peter stood warming himself, and where he denied knowing Jesus three times.