Baptismal Identity

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam Connecticut on January 16, 2011.

A few years ago I teamed up with a Lutheran pastor to produce a book called  “A Year With American Saints” and that created two problems we had to resolve: what is an American and what is a saint. Somehow these questions get bigger every year.  On the subject of “What is an American?” it seems to get bigger every two years.  One election seems to define it one way and the next election another. Christianity, similarly, gets defined one way in some churches and a very different way in others.

And the root of the problem is that I think I know what an American is and what a Christian is, but finally I don’t make that decision.  And therefore I won’t always be comfortable with the definitions that are made by others.  But that’s part of being human. You can’t be human alone.  Therefore I don’t get to make the decisions alone.  There are, unfortunately, people who don’t see it my way. Some of them say, “I’m a church of one,” but I think that’s not a church, it’s an ego trip. I call myself an American and I may define that in terms that are very different from yours but whether one way or another what we think of ourselves may matter a lot less than what others think of us. To some degree it’s not how we define ourselves as Americans or Christians. To some degree we are defined by others and some of those others aren’t even Americans or Christians. Some of them live in Afghanistan or North Korea or even England and France and Mexico. And like it or not, sometimes others see us more clearly than we see ourselves.  Who are we as Americans?  Generous, or mean-spirited;  domineering or friendly? Who defines us?  Is it the people you meet at the annual community picnic or the soldiers patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan or the President or Sarah Palin or Bill Gates or Rush Limbaugh or the clerk at the checkout counter? The answer is probably all of the above – and many more.

What is a Christian?  That’s a question that’s been raised in new ways in every election cycle also.  Is it someone who thinks morality is about sex and family or someone who thinks it’s about justice and peace? Episcopalians are having that question tossed at them in new ways these days. Can we be a world-wide communion if we don’t agree about exactly how to read the Bible, or if we can’t see a way to live out our faith differently in different cultures?

One thing the older Christians churches are agreeing on more and more in recent years is the need to re-emphasize baptism. Archbishop Cranmer, who gave us the first English Prayer Book, believed that we need to remember our baptisms a lot more often than we tend to. Cranmer said baptisms should only be held on Sundays and festivals when the most people can be there so that we would be reminded often of our own baptism. Why?  Because that’s the secret of our identity as Christians.  Just as what it means to be an American is defined by others – an election result or the opinions of others around the world – so what defines us as Christians is not my opinion or yours or a confessional statement or a pattern of ministry or any of the things that divide us but baptism, citizenship in the kingdom of God, given at the font, given to most of us long before we even knew it, something we grow up with, that we value sometimes and neglect sometimes and maybe reject sometimes, but something we can always come back to, that’s always there: an identity, an identity not provided by election returns or opinion polls or education or frequency of church attendance or size of pledge or sincerity or emotions.  But God.

God gives us this new identity and calls on us to grow into it.  But whether we do or not,  it’s still there.  It’s a fact, a given, an identification with Jesus Christ.

I had a discussion once with some Jewish friends about what it means to be Jewish and they said it seemed to them different from what it is to be a Christian because you can talk about good Christians and bad Christians but a Jew is a Jew regardless. And there’s something to that but it loses sight of that basic identity that makes every baptized person a Christian good or bad. “Christian” is an identity first of all.

They say that in the next few years the Episcopal Church might get excommunicated from the Anglican communion and I realized suddenly one day recently that that doesn’t worry me near as much as it did once.  Yes, I care, and it would make me very unhappy, but there’s something more important than being an Episcopalian and it’s being a Christian and they can’t take that away.  I am who I am: a member of Christ.  That’s who I am and whether I know that or not, it remains my truest and most basic identity. No one can change that in the slightest. I am a baptized Christian, a member of Christ.  You are a baptized Christian, a member of Christ.  That’s who you are: redeemed, forgiven, loved.  Start from that.  We will reaffirm that in a few minutes, reaffirm our identity, remind ourselves of who we are, as we often need to do.  But first last and always remember it as a fact. Not a feeling.  A fact.

I think there’s a mood abroad that identifies Christianity as feelings and asks, “Do you feel good after church? Do we have enough feel-good music?  Does the preaching make you feel good? Does worship make you feel good?”  Well, maybe it does. Maybe it does fairly often. Maybe it doesn’t do it often at all.  But my feelings measure nothing useful.  How I feel about the last election isn’t very important.  It happened, and one side or another may not like it but I’m still here and still a citizen and still entitled to have my say.  What matters is not how I feel, what matters is the given fact of my identity which is Christian and American in that order.

I was watching a political program recently on television and the speaker was telling us that a recent poll showed that the great majority of American Muslims identify themselves as Muslims first and Americans second and he thought that was terrible.  I found his email address and wrote to ask whether he considered himself an American first and a Christian second. I haven’t had an answer. The problem, of course, is that we all have many identities: I’m a husband and father and priest and Vicar and reader of books and snow blower operator and some of these are more important than others and some are indelible and some are not.   I could choose not be an American.  I hope I never would, but it’s a possibility, remote but real. But I can’t cease to be a baptized Christian. There’s no way to be unbaptized.  God gives us that identity in baptism and unites me with Jesus Christ for ever and surely that comes first.

When we know who we are, then, I think, we can go on to ask what is the difference between who I am and who Jesus is and what’s happening in me to reduce that difference as much as possible.  Here’s what matters: because I am identified with Jesus Christ in baptism, God begins to work in my life.  On my more rational days I know that gives God a lot of work to do, but I also know that God is able. I’m not, but God is. God is able to make a difference. Slowly, sometimes painfully, but surely, and on God’s timetable not mine, God is at work. If I try to measure it or feel it or understand it, I’m in big trouble.  If I try to force it, jazz myself up somehow to create an illusion of progress, I’m also in big trouble. That’s second-guessing God.  It won’t work.  I need to relax and let God work.  Pray, yes. Study the Bible, yes. Be here, yes. Come to communion, yes.  Look for ways to respond more often, more generously, to human need, yes. All of that.  But, you know, I can fake all that; I can even fool myself; really believe I’m making progress, feeling more the way a Christian ought to feel, but maybe it’s really just that second cup of coffee, just that new pressure system working across western Connecticut. It’s irrelevant.  But I remain a baptized Christian; first, last, and always; that’s all I can really know; all that really matters. Loved, forgiven, God’s own forever.  That’s what matters.  That’s what we affirm today.

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