Rev. Heather J. Blais
Two weeks ago, Bishop Fisher was here and we welcomed Laurie, Mark, and Alyssa into the Episcopal Church, while supporting Joan, as she reaffirmed her commitment. We stood up with them, reaffirming our own baptismal vows.
Last Sunday, I offered a teaching sermon that focused on baptismal beliefs and practices. We explored how baptism:
We also talked about the shadow side of the institutional Church; how it has used baptism and fear of heaven and hell as a tool to grow the Church, misrepresenting God and causing detrimental harm to God’s people. We celebrated the fact that scripture shows us repeatedly that our God is a God of transformative, unconditional love. Whether or not one has formally been marked in baptism, each and every person in this world is adopted, cherished, and loved by God, and there is a place for all of us at God’s Table. No exceptions.
We affirmed that baptism at its best is an intentional act of love, a choice to walk this life with a community. A choice made in freedom. We gave thanks for the fact that the promises we make in baptism are not individual promises - they are communal promises that we strive to live into together, as a community of faith, with God’s help.
Today, we will be baptizing Evelyn into Christ’s Church. We will stand up, for the second time this month, to promise Evelyn and one another that together, with God’s help, we will:
Are you excited? Because I’m excited. I love these promises, and I love making them with this community, again and again. What about you?
What do these promises mean to you? And what does it mean to you that these are communal promises? Do you recall a time when you felt the community really lived into these promises by supporting you, or encouraging you to grow in some way? What was that experience like for you?
I bet you can guess what’s going to happen next….For those of you here in person, in just a moment, I’m going to invite you to get up and move near someone else, getting into pairs. The ushers will be handing out a piece of paper with a bulleted version of our baptismal promises and two questions:
For any of our kiddos, draw a picture of what you think baptism looks like or of what our church community looks like to you. For those of you joining us online, I invite you to engage in the comment section, share with any household companions, or by writing it out on a piece of paper.
I wonder if 2 or 3 folks might be willing to say in a few words something they took out of their conversation?
From in-person folks:
"I talked with Joan McKelvey - two Joans. We were talking about the second question, and we were talking about when St. James welcomed St. Andrew with open arms - 5 years ago this April. That was definitely a sense of community. Nobody knew how that was going to feel. And, I remember that very day. We had a police escort over the mountain, and I just felt so overwhelmed with how everyone here, with open arms you let us be part of what you do here....this is off the cuff, and I'm not really good at off the cuff. It was a really good time for me. Because when St. Andrew closed, it was a really strange time not to have a building to go to. So thank you for welcoming St. Andrew's all those years ago."
"The first question: you become of a loving community. And also, the second question: is everyone's welcome. No exceptions. That means a lot to me."
"Elizabeth, Rose, Bernie and I chatted and we decided the second question we are living into the promises-we managed to stay connected as community, even when we were not in a church or in community, and we always managed to help others along the way. So being able to stay together, without being able to be together, was a big thing."
From virtual folks:
"I believe we are living into the promise of respecting the dignity of every human being by welcoming all neighbors into our midst and offering them the love of our community, whether by sharing our property in the labyrinth or by sharing our bounty in our outreach ministries."
It is a sacrament that is almost universally recognized across the many, varied branches of the Jesus Movement. In the fifth century, St. Augustine defined a sacrament as, “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” 1 Depending on who you’re talking to there are two, seven, or even countless sacraments - but we’ll save that thread for another day.
The origins of baptism stem from many faith traditions with ritual washing, and Jesus would have grown up knowing baptism as a Jewish ritual. It was understood as a cleansing, a washing away of one's sins. I’d invite us to think about sin as those things which distract us from living the life we are called to live, leaving us feeling separated and far from God.
John the Baptist, as his name would suggest, popularized the ritual cleansing of baptism, as a means of reorienting hearts, souls, and minds towards God. People would travel from all over in order to be baptized by him. Yet John was clear with his followers, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” 2
When John baptized Jesus, the Spirit of God descended on him like a dove, proclaiming Jesus as God’s own.3 The ritual of baptism was adopted by Jesus, and in turn, the early Church, which you can read about in the Book of Acts. Baptism shifted into a ritual that required an extensive, three year period of study and preparation, which would culminate in baptism at the first cockcrow on Easter morning. 4 Immediately afterward, the newly baptized would partake in the Easter Eucharist for the first time. 4
Initially, bishops presided at baptisms. The establishment of Christianity by Constantine brought with it an increased emphasis on the idea of original sin, which needed to be washed away in baptism. 4 This created a sense of urgency, which led to infants and children being baptized, greatly reducing the preparation period. It became impractical for bishops to preside at so many liturgies, and soon priests predominately presided at baptisms. 4 & 5 It is worth noting that in potential life and death situations, baptism does not even require clergy. Any lay person can take water and baptize the one who wants to be baptized.
Baptism has come to symbolize a great deal:
Unfortunately, throughout the Church’s history, there has been some truly unfortunate, and harmful theology around baptism. In particular, teachings about what happens if someone should die without being baptized. I can’t tell you how many conversations Molly and I have had with folks over the years, who are anxious that a loved one, often a grandchild, is not baptized. A fear has been instilled by the institutional Church over the course of centuries, that should a child not be baptized, they would not get to experience resurrection life. This teaching stems from fear, and church leaders using fear to ‘grow the church’. These are the very behaviors and teachings that have left generations of folks questioning and rejecting the institutional Church. Every institution has its shadow side, and that is part of ours; it does not reflect what we know about God’s nature throughout scripture.
Scripture shows us repeatedly that our God is a God of transformative, unconditional love. Whether one has formally been marked in baptism, each and every person in this world is adopted, cherished, and loved by God. It can be hard to remember - about ourselves and others - but we are each beloved, beautiful, and broken children of God. There is a place for all of us at God’s Table. No exceptions. Baptism is not something one should do out of fear - fear of hell or heaven, fear of being outside the hands of God, fear of being left out of a community. Baptism at its best is an intentional act of love, a choice to walk this life with a community. A choice made in freedom, not to avoid an eternal ‘timeout’.
The only real requirement for baptism is a desire to be baptized. A desire to be part of this universal Church that spans across time and space, and a desire to proclaim your intention to the world in thought, word, and deed: I want to walk through this life with faith, hope, and love; to be a part of the movement that will help God’s dream for this world come into fruition; trusting in the knowledge that we are all children of God.
In the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement, people of all ages can be baptized. When infants and young children are baptized, it is their parents and sponsors who are making these promises on their behalf, committing to raise the child in faith. Then when they have grown up and become young adults, they can decide whether or not to choose this path for themselves in a confirmation liturgy.
Once upon a time, it was common for baptisms to take place in private, outside of Sunday worship. I am know many of us, myself included, were baptized privately. Then, in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Episcopal Church shifted our theology of baptism to more closely reflect Jesus’ original intent; moving baptism into the context of communal worship. Lauren Winner, in Girl Meets God, emphasizes the importance of baptism taking place in the context of community.
“The very point [of baptism] is that no baptismal candidate, even an adult, can promise to do those things all by [themselves]. The community is promising for you, with you, on your behalf…When a baby is baptized, we cannot labor under the atomizing illusion that individuals in Christ can or should go this road alone. When a baby is baptized we are struck unavoidably with the fact that this is a community covenant, a community relationship, that these are communal promises.” 6
The promises we make in our baptism are big, bold, and beautiful ideals for us to strive to live into. The only way we can really live into them is in the context of community, and by remembering the words we say when making these promises: I will, with God’s help. 7 Not I will (period); but, I will (comma) with God’s help - which includes the help of our community.
Let’s take a brief walk through the baptismal liturgy. 7 It begins after the sermon, when the candidate and their sponsors are invited to come forward. The liturgy begins by the candidate affirming it is their desire to be baptized, and the sponsors affirming they will do their best to support this person in their spiritual journey. Then the candidate answers three questions that are focused on turning away from Satan, a name that represents the power of evil in our world and the sinful desires that can separate us from God. After renouncing these powers, the candidate then answers three questions affirming they will put their trust in Jesus Christ, our Savior and guide.
The presider then turns to the congregation and asks the community: Will you as a community do everything in your power to support this person in faith?
We respond with a very loud: We will!
But, this isn’t like signing up to help with the next church fundraiser. This is a community promise to walk beside, care for, and support this person in their spiritual journey. It’s answering the phone when our fellow community member is going through a tough time; it’s being surrogate aunts, uncles, and grandparents to the children and teenagers of this community; it’s sitting at the bedside of a dying church friend. While we are here to transform the world by the power of God’s love, it all begins in our weekly, community worship. We are grounded in that community worship, before going out into the world each Sunday to walk in love. This is not a promise to be taken lightly.
At this point in the liturgy, we are now all standing together, as we are able, as a sign and symbol that we are in this together, both as a local parish and as the universal Church. Together, the soon to be newly baptized and the community affirm the promises of our baptism. Over the course of our lives, we will repeat these promises hundreds of times, and we will never cease to need that reminder of who we are and how we have promised to live.
The Baptismal Covenant takes the shape of question and answer. We begin by affirming the Apostles’ Creed, which has been associated with baptism since the early Church. Each of these three statements begins, I believe. In this instance, I believe, does not mean we are intellectually subscribing to an idea; rather it means, ‘I give my entire heart to this reality’. 6. The creed summarizes the basic teachings of our faith: that God created everything; that Jesus Christ lived; our faith in the Spirit, the universal Church, the communion of saints, that our sins are forgiven, and the promise of eternal life.
We then make six promises:
Then the presider offers prayers of thanksgiving over the water. As Marion J. Hatchett, writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, the water of baptism recalls: “...the waters of creation, the exodus, and the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, and portrays the font, in the classical manner as a bath, a womb, and a tomb…”. 4 This is followed by the baptism, which means ‘dip’; as baptism was often a full immersion experience, dunking the candidate three times. 4. Full immersion baptism still happens all the time, though in our tradition we tend to have more folks opt for a small bit of water poured over their head three times.
One Easter in seminary, our parish priest brought a cow trough into the front of the church for a full immersion baptism, well decorated with linen and surrounded by easter flowers. It was beautiful to watch the candidate be dunked in their white robe, but some of the longtime Episcopalians had a bit of a kanipshin that there was a cow trough in their sanctuary. I haven’t done this to you yet - but no promises.
As the water is poured out, the presider says, “...I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” 7. This baptismal formula comes from the Great Commission in Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” 8
Following the baptism, a prayer is said thanking God for what has just happened, and asking the Spirit to sustain and nurture them. The presider then takes an oil of thanksgiving blessed by the bishop, known as chrism oil, and says, “...you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. Amen.” 4 & 8 Then the newly baptized is welcomed into the household of God.
This has been a mere cursory glance at baptismal belief and practices. There is much that was not covered, and if you're interested in learning more, please speak to Molly or myself.
As we prepare for a baptism next Sunday, I would invite us all to do some reflecting this week:
First, it’s not entirely clear what the nature of the story is. Is it a Call Story, of which there are lots in the Bible? The biblical storytellers frequently offer us tales of those whom God has called, so that we might be ready to hear the call ourselves. In some Bibles this morning’s story is designated “the calling of the first disciples”. The fact that it is paired with also-quite-interesting Call of Isaiah, our first lesson today, would back this assumption.
But maybe it’s a miracle story? Other Bibles introduce it as “The Miraculous Catch”, and it IS that. Let’s agree that Luke has done a clever job of combining both a call, and a miracle.
The next important thing, in my mind, is how different Luke’s chronology is from the other three New Testament gospels, and I think it’s interesting to think about why.
Matthew, Mark, and John all begin with Jesus’ baptism, Mark and Matthew describe Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and describe him introducing his ministry by declaring that “the realm of God has come near”, but after that, in all three, Jesus begins his ministry of outreach by explicitly inviting (“calling”) disciples to join him.
Not Luke. In the third gospel, after Jesus’ baptism and temptation, Jesus begins his ministry on his own by teaching in the synagogues, and he immediately begins to acquire a following. In the last two weeks we’ve heard the story of the dramatic incident at the synagogue in Nazareth that starts out well but soon has Jesus’ boyhood neighbors running him out of town.
In Luke’s story, Jesus then proceeds to cleanse a man with an unclean spirit, heal Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (though there is no mention of any particular relationship between Jesus and Simon Peter,) and to travel out of Galilee and into Judea, teaching and healing bodies and spirits and increasingly, drawing crowds. AND IT IS ONLY THEN that today’s incident occurs, ultimately resulting in Jesus’ invitation to Simon Peter, James, and John to come with him with the opportunity of “catching people”.
We assume that as the gospel writers began producing their accounts of the “good news story” of Jesus Christ during the years of the developing early church, decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, there was lots of material in circulation about Jesus. We assume that each of them drew from that material and made choices to construct a narrative that conveyed what they felt was important.
Why did Luke present Jesus as initiating his ministry on his own, and then inviting a community of followers, friends, and (as Luke describes them in chapter 6) apostles almost as an afterthought?
You may have other ideas about this, but I think Jesus recognized, weeks into a solo ministry tour, that he couldn’t do it on his own. I think that he not only discovered that crowd management was becoming an issue, but I suspect that Jesus discovered a need for companionship and community in the work of preaching the Realm of God and of caring for the needs of God’s children. Later on, as he sent the disciples out to minister on their own, he sent them in pairs. And the lesson of the importance of sharing the work of ministry is equally true for us.
The third interesting thing I want to observe about this story is the way in which Luke shapes this introduction of Simon Peter, who was the undoubtedly the most important leader in the very early church. Throughout all of the gospels we come to know Peter as not only the first-called, but as a complex, passionate, and yet really fallible human being. He was at times the most faithful of Jesus’ community, being the first to openly name Jesus as the Messiah, but the strength of his own certainties caused Peter to get it wrong as often as he got it right.
You can imagine that members in the early church must have been eager and fascinated to hear about the origins of Simon Peter’s relationship with Jesus, and this morning’s story is the way Luke filled in those gaps for them. What’s intriguing to me is that Luke, rather than depicting Simon Peter as eager and decisive, showed his vulnerable side.
The fishing business of Simon Peter and his colleagues served multiple purposes: it not only fed their families, but provided their livelihood, feeding the community who purchased their catch. It was hard, physical work, and times (such as the night preceding this morning’s story) when there was little or no catch would have been distressing as well as disheartening.
But despite what must have been his fatigue and discouragement, when the new teacher (who Simon would have known to have helped his mother-in-law) asked his assistance in being transported out onto the lake to get some space from the crowds, Simon was willing to be helpful.
After the teaching was done, however, Jesus’ instruction to the fishers to head further out to drop their nets was more than Simon wanted to take on. “We’ve already tried, and they’re just not biting. Besides, we’ve washed the nets. There’s no point in trying again.” But Jesus insisted, and so Simon complied. Was he hopeful, do you think, or just too tired to argue?
As Luke tells us, the catch was just crazy. There were enough fish to break the nets and threaten that the boats would sink. (I like to imagine that all of those fish were magnetically drawn to Jesus, just as the crowds on the lakeshore were, and were practically jumping into the boat to be close to the power Jesus radiated.)
And the situation frightened Simon Peter. He had been impressed by the new rabbi earlier, but he was not comfortable with what he had just witnessed. He wanted some distance. His anxiety suddenly made him aware of his own unworthiness. Probably he felt that he’d be better off with the unpredictability of the fishing business than he was with this guy who seemed to cause such unnatural things to happen.
He exclaimed “Go away from me, for I am a sinful man.” Jesus understood Simon Peter’s fear, and offered not only reassurance, but the opportunity to be part of something bigger: “From now on, you will be catching people.”
So, finally, we come down to the place we always come down to. What does this story have to say to us?
It’s not too hard to see some obvious connections. Like Simon Peter, we’re tired out by things that are hard and uncertain. For Simon Peter the strain was largely physical; for us, in the last couple of years, it’s more emotional and spiritual. When you think about not only the pandemic, but also the increasing cultural divide in not only our nation, but the world, as well as the frowing environmental environmental crisis, we are in a hard place. A lot of the things we’ve been doing don’t seem to be getting us anywhere. We feel like we’re going through the motions, maybe, and repeating familiar pattern because we don’t have a better idea.
I’m grateful for an observation I read about today’s gospel in a commentary by New Testament scholar Ronald Allen that has rung a chord for me. Allen points out that bathos, the Greek word for depth that’s used when Jesus instructs Simon Peter to “Put out into deep waters”, is associated. Where it’s used elsewhere in Hebrew scriptures, in Hebrew scriptures with the danger and chaos of the primordial seas.*
Jesus encourages Simon Peter to dip the nets into the deeper, more dangerous and perhaps more unpredictable waters of the Sea of Galilee – the better-known name for Lake Gennesaret - rather than steering away from them. And it is when they did so that Simon and his companions experienced God’s unexpected abundance – a catch that was more than they were ready for or knew how to handle.
Might this be a useful metaphor for us to apply to the challenges of our own lives? How often do we keep doing things in the same safe way we’ve been doing them but which is no longer providing what we are looking for?
How frequently do we avoid the depths because there’s too much unknown there - they are too frightening, too unpredictable?
We can listen to Jesus’ words to Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid.” As we’ve observed in relation to another sea-going tale in the gospels, we can afford to risk because we’ve got Jesus in the boat with us. Our God provides a world of abundant (if unpredictable) riches. Ours is the opportunity to dig in, and who knows what we’ll pull up.
*Ronald J Allen, Commentary on Luke 5:1-11, February 10 2019, workingpreacher.org
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