A service featuring two baptisms and two first communions for our young folk provided the occasion for an informal meditation on baptism (“for all ages”) and a brief sermon on communion.
Jesus told his disciples make disciples of all peoples or nations, baptizing them. But he didn’t explain what baptism is and why we do it. Baptism looks kind of like a rite of initiation. Ever join a secret club? Or the scouts? Secret groups love to have special initiations to distinguish the members from those who are outside, in the dark.
Well, baptism isn’t quite like that. Baptism doesn’t distinguish us from those outside. You know why? Because Christ Jesus came for all. And all are saved in Jesus whether they know it or not. Baptism doesn’t unite you with us into some private club. It is for you and for us to recognize that we, and even everyone, are united with Christ and with God. Baptism unites us with Jesus Christ, it makes his life our life, but in Jesus Christ God united with all of humanity.
In fact, do you know when you were baptized? Well, in a weird way, you were baptized about 2000 years ago when Jesus was baptized in the river Jordan by John the Baptist, because he was baptized for us and for all humanity. We sprinkled some water on you a few years ago, or we will in a few years, but you are baptized into Christ’s baptism. So baptism isn’t something that makes you different; it just shows you that you belong to Jesus, but so does everyone.
Baptism is weird, because when God acts, it is once and forever and always. (Can you say that with me: always, once, and forever.) So Liam and Isaac will be baptized today, but that baptism won’t happen just today. They may or may not feel changed today. And you might not remember the day of your own baptism, but that doesn’t matter. But because it’s by God, our baptism is always happening. You may find it means something different to you next week than it means today. It may feel different in 20 years.
Baptism and communion are our two sacraments. One uses water, the other uses bread and juice; both these sacraments unite us to God. God loves to take some good created stuff, add the Words esp. of Jesus, and then add the Spirit or power of God right now. God mixed all those together like a recipe, and what God makes is a people of God’s own—us. That’s what happened at Jesus’ baptism: God took water, added the Spirit who came down like a dove, and added a word: “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And why water? … I think God uses created stuff that means more than words can possibly say. Otherwise God would just use words and Spirit. But for all the reasons you suggest: water washes and purifies, it nourishes and refreshes, it can be calm or bubbly and splashing, we are born from water, and we can drown in water—it means both life and death; God created from water, God saved the Israelites by bringing them through the water of the Red Sea. Water holds all of that meaning, and so your baptism can mean all of that to you. So may your baptism never stop speaking to you. It is as deep as the ocean.
Sermon: “Life for Others: A Service of Baptism and First Communion”
Matthew 28:16-20; Luke 24:13-35
This is a truly blessed Sunday in Easter, blessed by baptism and communion, by the fullness of the two sacraments that we recognize as a denomination, blessed by milestones of grace in the lives of three children—let me take advantage of the fact that Silas and Jessica are away this weekend—three of the most wonderful children we could ever ask for. And two of them we’ve only been blessed to know for a few months, but already they have changed us and blessed us. And this Sunday is blessed yet in one other way, for both me and you, by having a shortened sermon.
We are puzzled by these sacraments, aren’t we? We like them, I think; we like the symbol and the ritual of them. You realize very quickly as a parent that children just naturally love symbol and ritual. And that means human beings naturally love symbol and ritual; archeological evidence of our earliest human ancestors, some 40,000 years ago, shows that they buried the dead, at least, with symbol and ritual. And hardly anyone in the intervening 40,000 years ever thought twice about having symbol and ritual, although many people reinterpreted and reimagined symbols and rituals, perhaps none did this as remarkably and with such impact as Jesus and his first disciples. But something has happened to some of us adults in just the last several hundred years to turn symbol and ritual into something alien, odd, perplexing. And so over several centuries, we’ve made worship into a time during which you don’t do much of anything. You sit. You don’t move. You don’t say much. Singing is ok. But you mostly sit and listen, and you get a message. And it better be a clear message, one that you can understand and that is useful. We—not us here but mostly our ancestors—have worked hard to suck all the ritual and symbol out of worship—all the elements that imply we are up against a great mystery. God, apparently, is a being easily and concisely grasped.
Granted, not without good reason were our ancestors suspicious of ritual and symbol. Our longer church tradition bears responsibility here for abusing the power of its symbol and ritual. Communion or the Eucharist came to be understood as the church’s to dispense as it saw fit; and if the church withheld communion—the meaning of “excommunicate”—then you were no longer receiving God’s grace and your salvation was in peril. As if God’s grace is a literal substance to be dispensed; and as if God’s grace really belonged to the church. I’m not just talking about medieval Catholicism, unfortunately; our forefather Jonathan Edwards was in favor of withholding communion until churchgoers could demonstrate that they had had a proper conversion experience. If you demonstrated this, you received a token—maybe you’ve seen these in local museums—and you presented this token at the time of communion.
Well, even we have a kind of mandated class for our young people to go through for first communion. And it was a beautiful thing to see every Sunday, as I rushed up to my office, passing Liam and Lydia, and often some parents or friends sitting in too, sitting around the table in the “upper room” of the parish hall, being guided by Marion Mason who has led this first communion class with joy and sincerity over many years. It was a beautiful thing.
Now, we started a discussion last year about how to state our requirements for communion, a discussion I look forward to getting back to—sorry Dennis that I got distracted from it. I learned in my UCC Polity and History course recently that we take seriously the Reformation slogan: Reformed and Always Reforming! Thoughts have changed about communion since our last official statement on it, and so we should revisit the issue. But no one here really believes that this first communion class is about fulfilling requirements to receive communion. Communion is about God’s grace, which in essence is always freely given to all. And we’ve never denied anyone communion here. No tokens required. But that doesn’t mean we can’t designate opportunities to deepen our understanding of what we are doing and what our symbols mean when we take communion, and how receiving the bread and juice as the body and blood of Jesus should change our lives.
Unfortunately, as Paul knew, Law has its perils. Whenever we set up an age at which you can properly do something with official approval, we often fall into the delusion that once you have that approval, you are done. You’re good. You’ve learned it all. Once you turn 18 and graduate from high school, you are an adult. / Those of us who have continued to suffer serious lapses of judgment into our 20s, our 30s, our 40s (that’s as far as I can go, I don’t know about you), we “adults” realize how artificial our markers of maturity are. We come to realize that whatever the law says, we never stop being sinners and fools. I don’t know if you make fewer mistakes as you ‘mature,’ or if you just have fewer excuses to make for them. And who is going to claim that once you reach 21, you are not fully competent to responsibly consume alcohol.
So I hate to break it to Liam and Lydia, but in fact you are not done understanding the meaning of communion, and how your lives should change in response to this gift. But that’s not because you didn’t do well in class. It’s because none of us understands communion fully. If we did, we wouldn’t have to do it. Jesus said, “Do this.” He didn’t say, make sure you understand this. Kind of like the old Nike ad, “Just do it,” (in other words, don’t overthink it). Communion is not exhausted by our mental understanding of it, no more than you can replace a meal with just thinking about food. On the other hand, ( because I cannot preach a gospel of Nike, who is a pagan goddess after all), Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me.” It is something we do towards remembering Jesus, towards understanding Jesus anew and keeping him as a part of our lives—a part as essential as food and drink. But we will never be done with the doing. And we will never be done with the symbol, the poetry, of: “This is my body”–certainly not by taking it literally. We will never be able to fully flatten out the poetry of communion into a message, so that we can finally say: it means this. This meal that is food at the same time as it is a covenant, the bread of presence, the blood of the Passover, the blood sprinkled on the people to ratify the covenant, the body broken for us—death, the blood spilled, yet still food and nourishment for life; the body that makes us into the body, we gathered as Christ’s continuing presence even as it was on the night he was betrayed—and are we not also betrayers? You have to learn to love the poetry, the symbol in all its ambiguity and disown the desire to flatten it out into something you can grasp and hold.
And is that not the message of the Road to Emmaus story in Luke? Jesus did teach his disciples on the road and made everything clear, although we aren’t given the details of that part, and the disciples do not recognize Jesus in his stunningly clear and useful—but still not short!—sermon. They recognize him not by what he says but by what he does. “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” And then he vanishes from their midst, leaving them with the bread. Recall that the risen Christ told Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” It is not for us to hold on to the Jesus who walked and talked with his disciples. It is not for us to grasp Jesus and have him in our minds, with nice clear words. Even his own disciples understood him only poorly. / In Bible study Tuesday, we had a fascinating conversation about whether it would be good if we had Jesus’ own writings, the way Muslims have the mostly reliable words of Mohammed, for instance. I thought no. Jesus is a living presence who cannot be grasped and fixed mentally in word by any fundamentalist. We must always actively—“do this”—seek him through the poetry of symbol as the created, limited bodies that we are. So even if this is your 500th communion—as it may indeed be for our 50 year members—it is still something we can all do as our first communion.