Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Collect (Prayer) for the First Sunday after the Epiphany (BCP)
If you would, close your eyes with me. Let’s take one big, deep breath in through our noses together–as much air as your lungs can hold; then let’s all exhale at the same time, with our mouths wide open, a big “ha” sound… Let’s do it once more, a big, long, deep breath through our noses, and a loud, long breath out through our mouths.
Thank you. I just thought we could all use a little more oxygen. Now, on with the sermon!
In a break with many other Protestant churches, our Anglican tradition is to baptize babies. As you’re probably aware, many churches choose to wait till a person can speak for themselves and decide on their own whether or not they really want to be Christians before they submit to the Christian ritual of baptism. We side with the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches on this count, and in doing so, we’re making a significant statement about who we believe God to be.
During the first centuries of Christianity, before there were so many denominations as such, they were ironing out some of the import sacraments–what it meant for humans to take up common physical items, water, bread, wine, and to ask God to enter those things, so that we could better understand how it is that God enters each of us. One of the questions that came up was: what if the priest who prayed that God would bless the water for Baptism, or enter the bread and wine for Eucharist later on turned out to be a fraud? They used a word worse than fraud, but the question they were getting at was how much human effort and righteousness affected God’s potency. Who was responsible for how things turned out, humans, or God?
As you can probably guess, the answer our ancestors in the faith came to is that what matters is God. Even if the priest who baptized you, or officiated your wedding, or buried your grandma turns out to be an embezzler, or worse, the Christian church throughout the ages has agreed that we all trust that God takes care of and protects and is the one thing that matters in whether or not a sacrament does the job.
Let me tell you what a relief that is! So perhaps we should all just go home now. God’s got it all under control, he can zap us with grace any time he likes–why bother with saying a creed and praying prayers and having this strange meal together?
Did you know that our respiratory system is the only system in our bodies that is both voluntary and involuntary? We can’t stop our stomachs from digesting just by thinking about it, and if everything’s working right, our limbs don’t fly about on their own. But at the beginning of the sermon, we all concentrated and made ourselves breathe. Since then, I’ll bet that no one has kept thinking “breathe in, breathe out” every moment while I’ve been up here preaching. But none of us has passed out, we’ve all kept breathing just as we always do, without thinking about it.
Whether we’re paying attention or not, God is at work. When we concentrate on it, when we look for what God’s up to around us and in us, we start to see more clearly how God is active all the time. Our lungs are passive, in a way; they can’t control how much oxygen is in the air, or how they function in different levels of pressure. God is like the oxygen in the air–he’s present everywhere, and we breathe him in without noticing sometimes, though the greatest benefit comes when we pay attention to what we’re taking in and what we’re letting back out.
We come to church because this is where we learn to breathe. We learn how to take God in, and how to let him fill us up. In our modern society, spending lots of time sitting behind desks and hunched over computers, we are not breathing as well as some of our forebears did who spent their days outside in the fresh air, working the soil and making their own food. Our lung capacity shrinks when we don’t use the full range of our breath, just like our ability to notice and listen and respond to God shrinks when we don’t make a habit of spending time seeking and noticing him with others as we worship.
We baptize babies because we believe that in the end, it’s about more than any decision or declaration one person makes; it’s about the God made known in Jesus Christ coming to be with us in the Holy Spirit, that we would never be alone, and that the love manifest in the Trinity is stronger than death. That kind of love takes a community, and it is the Christian community, throughout time and space, that commits for us at our baptism, and with us throughout our lives, to continue to help us learn how to breathe.