Dying into Life

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul”s Church Bantam Connecticut on the Feast of the Epiphany – The Baptism of Christ – celebrated in most parishes on January 8 but, at St. Paul’s Bantam, for local reasons, celebrated one week late on January 15, 2012

I think it was my birthday party ten days ago that started me thinking about milestones and remembering how life can go through dramatic and unexpected changes.  I think sometimes we hardly realize until long afterwards how something we once took for granted has just disappeared, no longer part of our lives.  Here’s an example: When Peg and I first met and were getting engaged we ate out a lot. We lived in Manhattan and there were all sorts of options available – good restaurants of all sorts. They weren’t expensive so even though neither of us had much money we could eat out maybe even every week – I remember an Armenian restaurant on the lower east side and a French restaurant on the west side and a Japanese restaurant uptown.  It was a wonderful education. We got to know each other and at the same time we got to know something about culinary variety, international cuisine.

Then we got married, then there was a baby, and we were no longer in Manhattan and if we ever ate out, I don’t remember it.  We began a whole new life and the old life died, it just disappeared without any real decision. Well, yes, we had made a decision: we decided to create a life together and a family and there wasn’t room or time or money to maintain the former life. So a new life was created and the old life died.

Now, I tell you that story because it just happened to be on my mind with my birthday celebration and the reminiscing that went with it and because today we celebrate the baptism of Christ. I think there is a connection.  The story I told is a story about life and death and in the biggest terms, of course, so is the story of Jesus; from his birth in Bethlehem to his death at Calvary we can’t help reading the gospel between those two events: life and death. But if you zero in just on the baptism itself, that, too, is about life and death. Every baptism is.

I usually point it out to parents when I meet with them to plan a baptism. We read through the service and suddenly there’s a prayer that talks about being baptized into the death of Christ. So we bring this child to the font and everything is about new life and great joy and suddenly we are told it’s about dying, about sharing Jesus’ death. I don’t think that’s what we usually have in mind when we come to a baptism. Is it?  Do we think “baptism: dying”?

Maybe part of the problem is the size of the font.  The ordinary church font isn’t very big. More and more these days when a church is built or renovated they put in a font big enough to make Baptists happy, big enough for an adult to be immersed, because only then do you see what’s happening. The little fonts that became popular somewhere along the line won’t really do if you want to see what baptism is all about. Not even a small baby can be immersed in our font.  But without immersion you don’t see the point, which is death and resurrection, submersion in the water, burial in the water, and emergence to resurrection life.  The point is that you can’t have a new life without dying to the old one. You can only live one life at a time and if you cling to the old one you can’t really get into the new one.

There really wasn’t any way that Peg and I could have continued to go back to restaurants in Manhattan. Add to the cost of the restaurant the cost of the train and the baby sitter and just the time it would have taken into Manhattan and back and there was no way.  But we had chosen another life and the old one was dead. It ought to be like that at baptism:  If we choose to live in Christ our old life has to go.  That’s a hard decision to make and I don’t know that we ever really do fully let go of the old life. How many people do you know whose life is – as St. Paul put it once – “hidden with Christ in God”? But if we aren’t serious about baptism, why do we bother? If we’re not serious about life in Christ, what are we doing here? If we don’t expect life to be changed, what are we thinking?

I think there are people who get married without any idea of changing their lives. You see the stories on television all the time. We talk about “Hollywood weddings” but they happen in Connecticut too. People make a life-changing commitment – they go to the altar and say “I will” with no idea of changing their life and so it doesn’t change. The one who remains committed first to self never discovers a true marriage, dying to self and discovering a new life with and in someone else. And that also takes a lifetime.  An English theologian, Helen Oppenheimer, once wrote, “Call no one married until they are dead.” It takes a lifetime and there always new challenges. But marriage also is about dying: it’s about dying to self to find your life in someone else.  And that’s an excellent way of understanding baptism and Christian commitment:

Baptism, like marriage, is about dying to self in order to live in another, it’s about dying to self to live in Christ. And it takes a lifetime.  We can always find parts of ourselves that are not yet converted, not yet given to Christ.  I think the evangelicals have it easy.  For many of them conversion is about a dramatic change: yesterday I was a sinner and today I found Christ and gave him my life.  Good; what about tomorrow? It’s great to stop drinking or gambling or beating your wife or lying or stealing or whatever it was.  You can do that and that’s a whole lot better.  But what about tomorrow? It’s great to start reading the Bible and saying your prayers but what are you doing with the rest of your time? Yes, volunteer for the soup kitchen, serve on a committee, start to tithe. But that’s still the easy part.  Those are specific, concrete decisions you can take about specific, concrete things. But how will you vote in the primary?  Is it right to eat out in a world where millions are hungry?

I remember reading once about a 20th century industrialist who would check his watch every fifteen minutes to see whether his mind had been on God in that time. Now that seems a bit obsessive, but how often during the day do we remember that we are in God’s world, in God’s presence, in God’s hands, that God has a purpose for us and we may not be serving it?  They tell about the European tribes in the early days of Christian missionary expansion who became Christians because the king was converted and ordered them all to be baptized.  And the story is told that some of the warriors would go down to the river or lake to be baptized and hold their weapons, their sword of bow and arrow, up over the water so it would not be baptized and could continue to kill as before.

Well, what part of our lives are we holding above the water? What part of our work or spending or recreation or time is somehow unrelated to our faith?  You know, these are questions I ask myself almost every day: when was I last aware of God’s presence with me and God’s guidance? I think we need to be asking ourselves that on a regular basis in order to carry out our baptismal commitment, in order to continue to grow as we move from death into life.

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