I want to talk today about baptism, and our participation in our baptismal covenant. Baptism is and has always been an important stage in the Christian journey: it was one of the two sacraments commanded and enacted by Jesus himself, Eucharist, of course, being the other. In the case of baptism, we are literally following in Jesus’ footsteps, since he himself submitted to baptism by his cousin John; we understand it as an entry into the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, our entry into it, ordained and blessed by God.
It is a sacrament, that is, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given by God, just as the dove at Jesus’ baptism, and the voice from heaven, were outward, visible and audible signs of God’s call upon him, God’s blessing upon him, God’s love for him. But don’t be fooled into thinking that signs are “only” anything. Signs and symbols convey what they represent, they are the means to understanding what is going on behind them, a way of our holding onto something ineffable and divine; the thing within is real, and worth holding on to.
Baptism, then, is a real, vital and important part of the journey into becoming a Christian, a disciple of Christ, a follower of Jesus. But the journey continues; it is not over and done with at baptism; baptism is not a destination, but a station, a place where we embark upon a new vehicle for travelling on with Christ. It opens new roads, new vistas.
I say all of this because if you have not yet been baptized, what I am about to say applies as much to you as to those of us who have. We are on the same journey together. The fact that you are here worshiping and praying, using the same words, inspired by the same Spirit, loved by the same God, regardless of whether or not you have been baptized, or whether you chose your baptism, or whether you remember it, witnesses to the fact that we are all in this together.
So, the feast of All Saints is one of the four festivals of the Church Year which is designated in the Book of Common Prayer as especially suitable for baptism: those and when the bishop is present. When we don’t have a baptism on those days, we are invited to renew our own baptismal covenant, and that is just what we will do after this sermon.
The other days for baptism, if you are wondering, are the Baptism of Jesus, for obvious reasons, Pentecost, also pretty obvious (baptism by the Holy Spirit), the Great Vigil of Easter, when we await the new life of the Resurrection – clearly appropriate – and when the Bishop is in the house, because he or she represents the unity of the church, the bringing together of the community of the saints of God, our common foundation. And that’s where All Saints comes in, too.
On the feast of All Saints, we celebrate the lives and examples and our relationship with and to all of those who have gone before us in faith, those who make up the “cloud of witnesses,” as it has been called, the communion of saints, the church throughout the ages. We are related to those saints whom we knew – our parents, perhaps, or godparents, or those who raised us up in the faith; I remember a retired schoolteacher who never failed to greet me on a Sunday morning at church, who enlisted me as a reader, who checked up on me throughout those squirrelly teenage years; Doug is among the saints that I remember on All Saints Day, for whom I will light a candle this morning. But we are related, too, to those saints whom we never met; those whose words we read, like C.S. Lewis, or Julian of Norwich, or Saint Augustine; and those whose names we barely remember, but without whose sacrifices, whose faith and tenacious worship of God revealed in Jesus Christ even in the face of martyrdom we would not have a church today, or at least, not this one, since God would surely have made another. Names like Ignatius, Perpetua, and Felicity.
All of these we might count as our godparents, our sponsors in faith, because their influence has helped us to grow and to know God in Christ. We know that when we do baptize, we do it as far as possible in community, with the prayers of the people and with people especially appointed to help the newly baptized grow in the faith that they have chosen, or which has been chosen for them, if they are infants.
The Christian life is one of community. It is not an individual proposition; it never was. Jesus called a group of disciples to follow him, and it was the body of them all that met together and held together to wait for the Holy Spirit after he had left them. We are all in this together.
We had a stark reminder this past week of what it means to be dependent upon one another for life, for our safety and comfort and health. As an unusual storm hit our shores unusually hard in all the wrong, or at least unusual places, we heard stories of young babies carried down flight after flight of stairs in the dark by dedicated nurses determined to keep their young lives going. We saw, remarkably in our very recent history, political leaders from opposite sides of the fence embracing each other and working together to serve their people, all of their people. We worried about loved ones going toe to toe, eye to eye with the hurricane. We heard the stories of loss and tragedy, and we heard the stories of courage and generosity. We saw a Red Cross relief center open up in Lakewood, just down the road, in a middle school, offering warmth and light to the blighted. We saw linemen from Columbus, from across state lines, join with our own workers to bring light back to the dark streets. ODOT drivers monitored the lake shore and the roads and guided us to safety. We learned all over again, in case we had forgotten, how interwoven our lives are, how we depend upon one another, and upon people we do not see and seldom think of, to keep our lives on track.
If this is true in our daily lives, why would it not be in our daily lives with God, as disciples together of Christ? “No man is an island,” was John Donne’s observation, and it is fitting that he said so both as a man of the world and as a priest.
Even the story of Lazarus, that we hear today, is not the story of Lazarus alone but of his sisters and his friends, and of the “crowd standing there.” Lazarus, one of that community of saints that we celebrate, and our first ancestor in baptism, in a strange and waterless way; the one who, even before Jesus’ death and resurrection, participated in the tomb and the calling forth into new life.
Jesus did not take Lazarus’ death lightly. He was greatly disturbed, his spirit was moved, he wept with his sister and his friends. He was touched by their grief and he hurt for Lazarus in his moment of death. Even though he knew what he was going to do, Jesus did not take Lazarus’ death lightly, because it was quite real.
Jesus also did not take the people around him for granted, or neglect them in the midst of his grief for Lazarus or his concern for his sisters. He prayed out loud, not, he said, because he needed to for himself, but so that the people around him would know, would be sure, would have faith that God was working in him, that the life of God was running through him, for the sake of their own lives.
He called Lazarus forward, and Lazarus rose up from the dead like a mummified creature from a Hallowe’en horror movie, and he came out of his tomb, back from the grave, and he was given back to his family, to his friends, who were told to unwrap him from his shroud.
Called forward out of Jesus’ love and grief and faith, he was given new life; and he was given back into the care of his family and friends. When we are baptized, we say that we die to our old life, that when the water washes over our faces and blots out our sight, we are laid in the dark tomb with Jesus, just as Lazarus demonstrated for us; and when we are raised up and called out, out of Jesus’ love and grief and faith, we are born into a new life, a fresh start, a clean page in our journals, and we are given back to our family and friends, into their care and prayers.
We are all in it together.
Listen, as we say the baptismal covenant together in a minute or two, whether we are renewing it or reviewing it to see if it calls to us. Listen to how it calls to us first as individuals, making a choice to turn away from evil and live towards Jesus; but then listen as it leads us through the faith of the church throughout the ages, and reminds us of the communion of saints that stand with us and among us. Listen as it reaches out of our individual lives into the life of the parish, of our fellow disciples, into the breaking of bread and the prayers that we share, into mutual accountability. Listen as it leads us further afield, to proclaim the good news of God to those who have yet to hear it, to serve everyone we encounter as though they were Christ himself, to fill the whole earth with the justice and peace of the kingdom of God.
We are all in this together. We need one another, and we are called, we are covenanted, to be there for one another.
A covenant, like the one that we enter into at our baptism, has give and take. It invites us into a new way of life, with God. It is a sign and a sacrament of a grace which God freely offers us. It asks of us that we live as children of God, loving all that God has made. It weaves us into a family, a communion of saints that strives together for the peace of God that passes understanding, for mercy and justice; it promises that we are never alone in that endeavour.
The feast of All Saints, our celebration of our cloud of godparents, promises that God will never leave us alone in the darkness of Hallowe’en, where the “ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties, and things that go bump in the night” live. God lends us companions to help us weather the storm; those we see, and those we do not see. As Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, as God promised to those who went before us, as we celebrate and affirm at our baptisms, God does not, will not leave us alone in the darkness, but will swallow up death, and make all things new. Thanks be to God.
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A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing, by Rosalind C Hughes, is available from Upper Room Books.https://bookstore.upperroom.org/Products/1921/a-family-like-mine.aspx