Last night, we baptized Becky Breshears in the waters of the Chickahominy River. When most of us think of baptism, we imagine the baptism of an infant or child, someone for whom godparents make promises to raise in the life of the faith, much like we did with baby Olivia a few weeks ago. The sacrament of baptism for a child is certainly considered being fully initiated into the family of Christ, but we make pronouncements and promises on behalf of the baptized. And as the baptized grows up, we continue to shepherd and guide her, answer her questions, and help her claim her faith as her own. There is an endearing, almost romantic, notion to baptism, full of idealism and hope.
At least, that seems to be true in Episcopal Churches, where we quite primly and gently pour water from beautiful fonts over the heads of babies – the messiest part being if the water accidently runs into the baby’s eyes. Of course, adult baptism is totally normal in our tradition too, we just do not do adult baptism as frequently. When we do adult baptism, we become much more like other denominations, who have always understood baptism to be a mature proclamation of one’s own faith. In some ways an adult baptism is more exciting because an adult baptism is not about something we hope and pray will develop into a faithful life, but adult baptism is the fully developed proclamation now – a set of pronouncements and promises on one’s own behalf. An adult baptism is bold, dramatic, and, especially in instances like last night, much messier!
But adult baptism, especially in the Episcopal Church, are not about proclaiming one has her faith life all figured out – that she has some sense of earned clarity and certainty that has led her to baptism, as if baptism is the end of a journey of discernment. Quite the opposite; baptism is a beginning for Episcopalians. The baptized does not proclaim she knows all there is to know about faith and salvation. Instead, the baptized claims that she is starting a new journey with Jesus, with a community of faith who walks with her. And part of the act of baptism is giving the newly baptized tools to walk that journey.
That’s why I love the lesson from Isaiah today. Instead of scripture capturing a moment (like a baptism), scripture today tells us what the baptized journey will be like. Isaiah describes five things that are critical to the life of baptism. First, the faithful will “remove the yoke from among you” – or in modern language, be an agent of economic liberation for the oppressed, not taking advantage of others. Second, the faithful will refrain from “pointing the finger,” or take responsibility for one’s own actions, not accusing others but acting to change the self. Third, the faithful will “refrain from speaking evil,” because “speech, when it is careless or deceitful, can be destructive and injurious.”[i] Our words have power and are to be used for good. Fourth, the faithful are to “offer food to the hungry.” The life of the faithful is a life of self-sacrifice and sharing what we have learned to call our own. And finally, we are to “satisfy the needs of the afflicted” – not just helping others or solving their problems but letting the disadvantaged “define their own needs and letting them set the criteria for deciding whether our help is effective.”[ii]
What the prophet Isaiah tells us is that as the faithful, we structure our lives differently than the secular, self-interested world might have us live. That includes honoring even the sabbath – this holy day, not as just a day to go to church (though I hope you all will regularly – either in person or online), but also to be a day of honoring God through letting go of the self and focusing on the Lord and on the cares of those in need. That’s why in our gospel lesson Jesus’ actions of healing others on the sabbath is so controversial – because Jesus reminds us the sabbath is a day of selflessness, healing, and giving glory to God.
Last night, Becky committed herself to that life, and we, as fellow baptized recommit ourselves this very day, to a life lived differently – a life lived in the light of Christ. The prophet Isaiah tells us that when we live faithful lives, our light shall rise in the darkness, the Lord will guide us continually, will satisfy our needs in parched places, make our bones strong, and we shall be like a watered garden – a spring – whose waters never fail. We shall be repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets to live in.
Earlier I used the language of self-sacrifice. What the Holy Spirit does in baptism and what the Church tries to continue to do on every sabbath is relocate the self from the center of our universe and place us firmly within a community of faith who cares for one another while placing God in the center of our universe. When we take that step in baptism or renew the step our parents took for us, and in gathering in weekly worship (whether gathering in person or gathering virtually), we commit not to having this faith thing figured out – but just that we want to live a life where our parched places are always quenched through the living waters of baptism, and where our lives become bigger than they have ever been – where our lives shine the light of Christ in the darkness. Amen.
[i] Jon L. Berquist, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3, Supplement for P16 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 4.
[ii] Berquist, 4.