11AM April 16 2023 “Baptism: A Little Background”
Welcome to St. John’s, everyone from far and near. We especially welcome those like godmother Ariella in London who are watching on the internet. In a few minutes we will baptize Theo and Frankie. Their mom was my student a few years back at Breck School. Lainey’s dad, Derek, was my colleague. I taught world religions and he taught Chinese. He and his wife Wei are natives of China and now American citizens. During the cultural revolution, religious ceremonies like this were strictly forbidden, and promises of the sort we will soon be making could not be spoken.
I’d also like to welcome the father’s side, the Brooks family, led by Peter’s dad Paul, who are Catholic. I hasten to add that China isn’t the only place where religions are damaged by politics. Roman Catholics and Anglicans like us get along great, though our institutions have been estranged since the Reformation. So God Bless America, and welcome to the Yangs and Brookses to our little stone church, where we welcome everyone without distinction.
Our church is named after John the Baptist, a Jewish man who lived 2000 years ago and who, despite being from a priestly family, took up a life of poverty in the desert, sharing his counter-cultural ritual, baptism. Sacred bathing was an old Jewish custom even then, and mikvah pools are found in Jewish communities all over the world. He borrowed the idea of immersion, but used the Jordan River instead. It’s the most important body of water in Jewish history. But instead of a woman taking a sacred bath once a month, or a male priest taking one before serving at the altar, John’s bath was a once-in-a-lifetime repentance, not a replacement for Yom Kippur, but it was like being born. It was for people who were turning their lives around. It was like re-immigrating: you left Israel and came back at the Jordan River Border Crossing. You waded into the water, looked into John’s serious face, and promised to walk the path of a right-living person for the rest of your days.
Jesus was baptized by John. And John didn’t bless him in the name of Father, Son, Holy Spirit, what we call the Trinity. It was baruch atah Adonai, elohenu melech ha-olam, blessed in the name of the one God, the ruler of the universe. A couple generations later, when the religion founded by Jesus’ followers split from Judaism–kind of like a divorce settlement–Jews kept the ancient mikvah and Christians kept John’s invention, baptism, but changed the blessing to the one we use today.
Baptism had become THE initiation into our religion, not circumcision, and although the first Christians all came to it as adults, most wanted their babies included in the religion, too.
We have many ideas about this ritual. Some say it’s like a vaccination against wrongdoing. Others consider it the time when your given name is official. In some countries, what we call a “first name” is called your “Christian name,” so you can’t call your daughter Tiffany, because there is no St. Tiffany. Yet. Some churches teach that unbaptized people cannot be with God in the world to come. Others say baptism is important, but what you believe about God is your ticket to heaven, and you need to believe Exactly This Way. Still others say that your ethical conduct determines your afterlife. And the Universalists say that, since God is love, everyone moves on to whatever paradise is waiting. Some churches baptize you right after birth, maybe 7 or 8 days. Others say you shouldn’t agree to be baptized until you choose it for yourself.
The Episcopal Church became independent of the Church of England when the United States declared independence. No more prayers for the king. No more church and state entanglement. We maintained our seven Catholic sacraments, and we have bishops, priests, and deacons, but we elect them, and the Pope is not the earthly head of our church. But from the Anglican Church, the C of E, we inherited many Protestant ideas, like married clergy, endless arguments about faith versus works, and the use of English instead of Latin. The religious wars of the Reformation, the pilgrims, the secret Catholics, the dissenters, the puritans, all those conflicts were settled by a peculiar agreement: Anglicans will not have a common doctrine, but we will have common prayer.
Some of us imagine God like the feminine wisdom figure we heard about in that first reading. Others can’t imagine God as anything but an infinite cosmic hologram of the male Jesus Christ. Still others, like doubting Thomas, need tangible evidence of the existence of God, and remain skeptical about all this spiritual business. What we believe about the Bible, what we mean exactly by the prayers we say together every Sunday, is up to us. But since the reformation, we’ve agreed to cherish these scriptures, and pray these prayers.
Therefore, in a moment, we will be saying some very traditional Christian words, imported from England hundreds of years ago and only slightly modernized. They are pretty strict. But we will understand them in a lot of ways. Members and guests will promise to care for the spiritual life of Theo and Frankie, but just what it means “to care” will vary from person to person, family to family, tradition to tradition.
The precious meaning of this sacrament is utterly simple: these little ones are gifts created by their parents and nurtured in the spirit of God, who we know most vividly in love. We older generations have the duty to name, to teach, to equip, and to set on their proper paths these treasured and helpless souls. As their helplessness decreases, their responsibilities increase. They will gradually take up lives of purpose. Our Jewish cousins call this purpose tikkun ‘olam–helping to heal the world. Theo and Frankie were birthed from Lainey’s tiny amniotic ocean, and will one day confidently swim, run, and dance. The water of baptism is our sign that we pray for their safe delivery from childhood to adulthood.
With water, candlelight, and anointing oil, we will promise to bathe, to guide, and to nurture them.