“Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For, if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:4a, 5)
In many ways tonight is all about Baptism! We don’t actually have a baptism tonight, but we have just received some folks who wish to be even more deeply a part of this church. And whenever we do that, we ask them, and ourselves, to renew the baptismal vows — the promises that we made, or were made on our behalf, when we were baptized.
Oh, we do other things tonight. We light the new fire of Easter and the Paschal candle. We ground ourselves in our history by rehearsing the stories of our salvation. We celebrate the first Eucharist of Easter. But the way you and I became part of it all – rather than mere spectators — was through our Baptism. And so whenever we are privileged to participate in the baptism of new Christians or the confirmation or reception of others, we are reminded of how important it is that it happened to us as well.
Why is it so important? Tons of ink have been spilled, and millions of sermons preached in attempts to answer that question. I’ve spilled a little and preached a few myself over the years. But this year I was struck by the richness of our Epistle tonight, this classic Pauline text on Baptism. And particularly the common reference to being “buried with (Christ) by baptism into his death.” What can this strange sentence mean?
The most common explanation is that of the early Church’s custom of total immersion, of submerging – burying — the baptismal candidate completely under the water. Some churches have retained that practice today; in fact I have immersed a few folks who felt strongly about that practice in my years as a priest. It really is a beautiful and rich way to celebrate Baptism! But, it is not the only way. And for most of the Church’s history baptisms have been done by sprinkling, or by affusion (the pouring of water), and in a number of other ways.
But I think there is something else, and much more, going on in St. Paul’s description of Baptism as dying and rising with Christ than just baptismal ceremonial. Jesus himself had spoken of his death as a “baptism,” hadn’t he? In answer to his disciples’ impertinent request to sit at his right and left hand when he became king, Jesus says,
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant…” (Mark 10:38-40a)
Ever since Jesus had submitted to baptism at the hands of John the Baptizer, and thereby associated himself with John’s prophetic message of radical change, he knew that he was in danger. When John himself was eliminated at the hands of King Herod, Jesus must have become even clearer about his own fate. And by the time he rode into Jerusalem to confront the religious establishment in the very precincts of the Temple, he knew it was only a matter of time. He would soon drink the cup of suffering and be baptized in blood.
So, what can it mean for us to be “baptized into his death?” Well, by associating ourselves with Jesus’ baptism and undergoing our own, we are promising – it seems to me – that we are prepared to join all those who, throughout history, have been willing to drink the same cup that he drank and be baptized – if need be – with a baptism of blood. Why? Because the message he brought and the life he lived made it clear that God is in charge of this world and that we are not! And the powers that be (secular or religious) are scared to death of a message like that, and a life like that. And sometimes they try to snuff it out…or at least silence it.
We sketched out what such a life looks like in very general terms in the Covenant we renew at every Baptism and which we renewed here tonight: to trust the Triune God in all things, to continue in the apostles’ teaching and to participate in this fellowship Meal we call Eucharist… to pray, to resist doing evil in our own lives and to be willing to change when we fail, to be willing to talk about Jesus and to walk our talk, to love other people as we love ourselves (because Christ died for them too), to strive for justice and peace in this world and to respect the dignity of absolutely, every, without exception human being we ever run across!
Those words roll trippingly off our tongues in the confines of our nice, safe liturgy, but when we go back outside these doors most of us know that it is not easy to trust God no matter what. It’s not even easy to get to church every Sunday and to pray every day. It is certainly not easy to change our ways when we mess up. It’s hard to be open and to witness to our faith (in fact, it’s sometimes positively embarrassing to be identified as a Christian)! It’s not easy to love our neighbors. And it’s sometimes downright dangerous to stand up for justice and peace, and to show our respect publicly for those whom society manifestly does not respect!
But that, dear friends, is what some people are signing on to do here tonight! It’s what you and I have already signed on to. And we need each other if we expect to get it right. Even more, we need the help of that God whom Jesus served…and we serve. That’s why we said, at the end of each baptismal promise – “I will, with God’s help.” We need God’s help to do it! Fortunately, we know something about what that help looks like. It looks like the story of our salvation we heard read tonight:
It looks like God creating this universe out of nothing…it looks like God delivering the Chosen People from slavery…it looks like God renewing the Covenant with a rebellious people time and time again, and breathing life into dry bones. Most of all, it looks like God the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit, raising Jesus Christ from the dead, breaking the powers of death and hell for ever. For us!
Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed. Alleluia!