Summit Presbyterian Church
April 30, 2017
Acts 2: 14a, 36-42
Promises to our Children
When Alysia and I were looking at dates to have the children baptized, I didn’t know that on April 30th, Acts 2: 36-42 would be the lectionary reading. You’ll recognize it as the scripture we always quote at baptisms, so that makes it easier than usual for me to connect the sacrament with the scripture. Which is what you're supposed to do. Sometimes the Holy Spirit gives the preacher a break!
Before I read the passage, I want to set the scene. It takes place after the Risen Christ has appeared to the disciples and also after he has ascended into heaven. According to Luke, before ascending Jesus told the apostles they’d receive the Holy Spirit not many days later, and sure enough, 50 days after Easter morning, the Spirit arrived. On that day Jews from all nations were in Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost, a harvest festival. There were gathered together when suddenly the Spirit came upon the disciples, resting on them like tongues of fire. The disciples began speaking of Jesus, and all who were there heard them speaking in their own language. (We celebrate that event on Pentecost, May this year). Peter then gave a sermon proclaiming the death and resurrection of Christ. Our scripture today opens at the very end of that sermon. Listen for the word of God.
[Scripture reading, Acts 2:14a, 36-42]
Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, describes her baptism as an infant in her book, “The Preaching Life.” Her mother was southern Methodist and her father Roman Catholic, so her parents presented her to the “pre-Vatican II” Catholic Church as an infant. Taylor says, “that medieval event proved so traumatic for them that we did not attend church for the next seven years and neither of my younger sisters was baptized until she was an adult. My mother’s explanation is simple: “The priest took you out of my arms, going on and on about your sinfulness, my sinfulness, everybody’s sinfulness, and I thought, ‘This is all wrong.’ You were the best thing I had ever done in my life, and I could not wait to get you out of there.’
That 1950s baptism — or at least what Barbara Brown Taylor’s mother memory of it, and Catholic practice has changed — represents what is both mystifying and disturbing to many people about baptism, especially the baptism of children. If baptism is about washing away sins, how does “sin” even apply to an infant, who can’t yet know right from wrong let alone make a confession of faith? And how is it that baptized people are among the world’s greatest sinners?
What we’re doing in baptism - or rather, what God is doing - is not self-evident. Most of us are at least a bit mystified by it. And although what happens in baptism will always be beyond our full comprehension, I thought it might be helpful to go into teaching mode today and talk about the different meanings of baptism. I’m drawing from the document “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry,” published by the World Council of Churches, a council that represents hundreds of Christian traditions, including our own. (Faith and Order Paper No. 11, 1982).
1. We believe that in baptism - in a mystical way— we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That doesn’t mean we’re living his life or crucified with him, or suffering has he did. But we believe that through baptism the “old Adam,” or “old self” is crucified and buried. That the power of sin is broken and we’re liberated from guilt or old patterns that keep us captive. It doesn’t mean we no longer sin — wouldn’t that be nice — but that when we do, we’re always given another chance to turn to Christ and start again. We’re always invited into new life — into resurrection. That new life may be reflected in relationships, sobriety, a new commitment to work or ministry, or through the lifting of depression or grief. Now you may well ask “what does that have to do with infants? And the key is in our scripture, when Peter says: “The promise is for you and your children . . .” Baptism is not just what happens at the font. It begins but it doesn’t end there. It’s a promise. A promise that the grace of Christ will always be offered to us and to our children, as they grow year by year, in love and we hope in faith.
2. Baptism means “confession of sin and conversion of heart, a pardon and cleansing.” In our scripture today, it says the people were cut to the heart and Peter called them to repent and be baptized. When an adult is baptized, they renounce sin and turn to Christ; Infants can’t do that. But baptism is also a promise; so it’s our hope that if we nurture them in the church, that as they are able, they will also renounce evil and it’s power in the world and turn to Jesus to help them do the right thing.
3. Baptism is about the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now, the Spirit is at work in our lives before, in and after baptism - it works where it will. But we might think of Baptism as the “first installment” of our inheritance as God’s children, no matter what our age. With it, we receive the promise that the Spirit will nurture our life and faith, and our children’s faith and life until that final deliverance when we enter into the Spirit’s full possession — which is why we say at funerals that a person’s baptism is now complete.
4. Baptism is incorporation into the body of Christ. A sign and seal of our common discipleship. We believe that in baptism we’re brought into union with the church of every time and place. That even though we’re of many denominations, doctrines, languages, and politics, we belong to the one holy catholic (meaning universal) and apostolic (meaning handed down through the witness of the apostles) church. And even though Zion can’t yet vote or become a deacon, — although watch out for that Church Nominating Committee — Zion is every bit a member of the church as a serving Elder who’s been here for decades. There’s no junior membership in the body of Christ.
5. Finally, It’s a sign of the Kingdom of God and the life of world to come. That even in us, old sinful us, through the gifts of the Spirit, God’s reign of peace and love can be seen — and that may be even more evident in the baptism of children.
So — participating in the life, death and resurrection of Christ; conversion, pardon and cleansing; the gift of the Holy Spirit, incorporation in to the body of Christ, a sign of the Kingdom. All of this happens at the font, but it’s also a promise for our whole lives and the lives of our children. That promise asks for a response: adults make it before baptism. With children, it’s made on their behalf but it’s our hope that when Zion and Ahkiria and Ahmir are older, they will respond to this gift with the affirmation of faith that their parents have made on their behalf today.
I thought I’d to end with a reflection on my baptism, which I hope will help you to reflect on yours. My father was the son of Ukrainian immigrants, and I was baptized at St. Michael’s Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church in Yonkers, NY. The Greek Ukrainian Catholic Church is part of the Roman Catholic church, but its worship, its “rite,” is closer to Greek Orthodox. I was baptized at 3 weeks old and I did not step into St. Michael’s again until the death of my uncle, 15 years ago. Although I had been baptized at St. Michael’s in deference to my paternal grandmother, my mother had been raised in various Protestant churches so I grew up in the Episcopalian church. The funeral at St. Michael’s was something: it was a beautiful church with icons and painted screens at the altar. A chorus of elderly Ukrainian women sung and chanted throughout the long service. We were all invited to process up the aisle and kiss a crucifix held out by the priest - which I did. I learned from my mother that my father hated these Greek Ukrainian Catholic funerals. Like many first generation Americans he wanted to get away from his parent’s culture, he wanted to get away from his troubled family. He used to tell my mother “Please bury me in Scarsdale Presbyterian” —Scarsdale Presbyterian being as far away from that elderly Ukrainian Chorus and kissing a cross as he could imagine. (We buried him at Grace Episcopal in Hastings on Hudson which wasn’t quite Scarsdale Presbyterian* but close enough). But as I was sitting at the funeral I understood those words we often say, “remember your baptism and be thankful.” I was grateful I had begun my Christian journey in the church of my forbears, so different than the Presbyterian one to which I now belonged but also not so different, being the holy, catholic apostolic church. Gratitude that God had called me through my parents to life in Christ. Gratitude that the Spirit has been with me since my baptism at that font, to an adult profession of faith and even ordination. Grateful that I had been taught to trust in the love of Christ as a child, and that Christ continues to offer new life to me — and to all of us. So, — I invite you to also remember your baptism and to be thankful. [Silence ending in prayer].
*Scarsdale Presbyterian does not actually exist!