Acts 2:42-47, Psalm 23, 1 Peter 2:19-25, John 10:1-10
On the baptism of Evelyn Elizabeth Cribbs
Our Epistle lesson, from First Peter, was particularly addressed to the slaves who belonged to the early Christian congregations. They were usually house slaves, not field slaves, and not abused as badly as our slaves in America, and they did not suffer the added cruelty of racism, but they still were slaves, and they had no right to their own lives. They could be punished by their masters with impunity, with no regard for innocence or guilt. They had no rights at all, and loving Jesus gave them not advantages but extra disadvantages. So how should they carry their suffering?
The problem extends to all of us. All of us have to carry suffering. Some of our suffering comes from doing right, when the right thing is not welcome in the world. Some of our suffering comes from doing wrong. Sometimes the difference is irrelevant, and our suffering just comes, it comes from having bodies and bones and skin and blood, and living on a watery planet with seismic activity. So much of our lives is out of our control, even if we are not slaves. The problem is for all of us.
First Peter calls us to follow Christ as an example. The Christ who was willing to go all the way to his death on the cross. We should not walk away from suffering, but enter into it with love. Because if you walk in love you will get extra suffering. Not only from the opposition of the powers of the world, which fear the law of love as a threat to their equilibrium, but because living in love will develop in you extra sensitivities, and the suffering of others will touch you too. The call of First Peter is a call to action, not passivity. But you can’t free others from suffering without having to suffer some yourself. You can’t free others from abuse without it costing you. I believe you know this, and yet you want to live this way.
But Christ is more than an example. The cross leads to the resurrection, and he lives. He’s also actively the shepherd and guardian of your souls. What First Peter means by “soul” is not some disembodied spirit, but your personality, your mind, your emotions, your breath, your life itself. He is the living guardian of all that. As your shepherd and guardian he does not spare you from suffering, but he gets you through each next valley of the shadow of death. He doesn’t say you don’t have enemies, but he sets a table before you in the presence of your enemies. Because he is our guardian, our enemies have no power to compel us not to love. Death is real, but his love is stronger than death, because he is the shepherd who has beaten death.
Last week I said that we are not given proofs of the resurrection, but signs of it. I said that a proof is the ending of a process of an argument, and it settles things, but a sign keeps things moving because it points to something else. A proof concludes and a sign suggests. You have to work a sign. The more you work a sign the more you it tells you.
Last week we saw that Our Lord designed the “breaking the bread” to be the chief sign of his resurrection. We work this sign each week in Holy Communion. I said it isn’t obvious what breaking bread might have to do with his resurrection, but the more we work the sign the more we get from it. We need to embrace the sign with our hearts and minds and our imaginations.
We have to wonder at the sign. Our Lord designed the sign to appeal to our sense of wonder. We should call it wonder bread! The sign suggests so many things. It means his broken body and his poured out blood. It means his presence among us as the true host at the table. It means that he feeds us with his risen body just as certainly as we eat the bread. It means that he pours his life into us just as certainly as we drink the cup. It is a wonder and a miracle, a small and weekly miracle. We do miracles in church. Or I should say that God does miracles among us, in the signs and wonders that we do each week by his design.
We have another wonder today, another sign of his design, and that is Holy Baptism. He told us to do it, and so we do it. He told us to do it in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, so that is what we say when we do it. It is a sign of something which God does real in us, and we work the sign by wondering at all God does in us. You are baptized just once, but as certainly as you were washed with that water, so the Holy Spirit works in you your whole life long, and you can embrace the sign of your baptism with your life, your heart, your mind and your imagination.
To our eyes it looks so simple. So un-miraculous. Just water on the skin. What people do everywhere, since time immemorial. It’s a sign so ordinary, so basic, as basic as bread. The signs make use of actions as common as eating and washing. We have to wonder at Our Lord’s design. We have to wonder at the world God made, we have to wonder at our lives, with a wonder that is not just free fantasy, but of obedience and humility, reading the signs as God designed them, working the signs to get from them the wonders of God’s love, the wonders of God’s love, a love so basic and natural that even a child can know this love.
This morning you will see that second sign. You will see me putting water on a baby. You will hear me say her name: “Evelyn Elizabeth,” and then you’ll hear me say the name of God: “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Now, she’s certainly been washed before, and called by name before, but today for the first time we will do those two very ordinary things together before the congregation, and under the name of God. So simple, but the more you see in it the more it opens up. That has to be true for Evelyn herself as well. As she opens up her life in coming years, she can open up the promise in her baptism. She can apply it to her needs in all the stages of her life, she can apply it to the calling of her life, the work she does, the words she speaks, all that her name will come to stand for in the world, for all of her life she can work the sign of her own baptism.
The Christian community is charged to give her what she needs to work that sign. For the first few years, her parents are the agents of the church, but early on the rest of us have obligations too. In just three year’s time she will be welcomed into our program we call Godly Play. She will hear the story of the Good Shepherd. She will play with that story.
We tell that story several ways. We tell it flat, with paper characters on felt, and we tell it three-dimensional, with little wooden figures, as you see right there. It’s the central story of our program, and we tell it to the children several times, and they can play with it as often as they like, in order to inspire their imaginations. So it will be with Evelyn. She will imagine herself as a sheep in the shepherd’s care. She will imagine living in the sheepfold, where the shepherd keeps her safe. She will imagine going out and coming in. She will imagine going out to pasture where the shepherd watches over her to keep her safe. She will imagine him calling her by her name, because he knows her name and likes to say her name. We will teach her this and she will play with it, and we will invite her to wonder at what all it means.
We want to help her get this deep in her. She’ll need to remember it when her sufferings come. She’ll need to remember this when she has to face a choice of doing the right thing or the easy thing, the costly choice or the safe choice, the loving choice or the self-preserving choice. I think you cannot really love your neighbor, it is too risky and difficult, unless you can believe that you have a loving shepherd and a powerful guardian into whose care you can place your life. But she can remember that she is baptized, that she belongs to him, that she’s marked with a brand on her forehead which even after it evaporates he can still see.
God will help her remember. The Holy Spirit will remind her. The Holy Spirit is the one who is most active here today, doing signs and wonders. You cannot see the Holy Spirit, not directly, but you can see the Spirit’s sign and seal. And you can see the signs of love, which is the chief work of the Spirit. All the love that you see going on here today among us is a sign which points to the love of God.
Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.