From Death to Life (15th Pentecost, Proper 17B, Baptism)
“From Death to New Life”
By Fr. Guillermo A. Arboleda
15th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 17B)
Baptism of Cory Taylor
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
Today we have the joyful opportunity to baptize another child into the Church. Cory Taylor will be “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever” (BCP, p. 308). It is always a privilege for us to witness this happy occasion in someone’s life of faith. It is also a privilege to take a few moments before performing this sacrament to reflect on the meaning of Baptism.
Baptism is the Christian rite of initiation. With it, we become full members (i.e. body parts) of the Body of Christ and full members of St. Matthew’s Church. It is so important to our common life in the Church that it’s good to continue meditating on it together, especially when we -- the already baptized in the room -- are about to “renew our own baptismal covenant” (BCP, p. 303).
This is the first of three Sundays this fall when we’ll hold baptisms here at St. Matthew’s, so on each occasion we’ll reflect on the meaning of this sacrament through the lens of the Scriptures appointed for that day. Baptism is rich enough and deep enough that we can keep turning it over and over and connecting it with nearly any set of Bible readings. And that will be our task today.
Baptism is a movement from death to new life that is at once actual and symbolic. It is actual in the sense that God is uniting us to the death and resurrection of Jesus. We participate with Jesus in his dying and rising again and the bond we form with God through baptism is unbreakable (BCP, p. 298). So we are baptized once in our lifetime because Jesus doesn’t need to keep dying for us. He has already accomplished victory over sin and death and baptism is us arriving at the party.
But this movement from death to new life is symbolic in the sense that it shows us the pattern of the Christian life. Cory and his godparents are about to publicly renounce all kinds of evil and then publicly accept Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. But that doesn’t mean that their faith won’t waver from now until the day they die. We fully expect there to be bumps on the road, ups and downs in their faith journeys. That’s why all of us who are already baptized join with them in repeating the baptismal covenant. Nobody is perfect, maybe especially not the baptized.
God is always inviting us to repeat the movement from death to sin to the new life of grace. Everyday we live on this earth we will face the need to reject selfishness and sin and turn back to love, peace, and fairness, which we can only achieve by God’s gift of grace. To be a baptized Christian is to embrace our imperfections and God’s desire to forgive us for them. To be a baptized Christian is to live in the ongoing cycle of death to sin and resurrection to new life, until Jesus returns in glory and makes our New Life perfect and permanent.
Later in the service we’ll hear Cory and his godparents renounce three different types of evil. These things must be rejected because they (1) “rebel against God”; (2) “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God;” and (3) they “draw you from the love of God” (BCP, p. 302).
We make renunciations to protect ourselves (and to accept God’s protection). They are there to help us attain to the abundant life of God. If we’re stuck with these evil forces, we cannot accept and live in God’s grace. The point is simply that saying yes to Jesus forces us to say no to other things that will hurt us, destroy us, or prevent us from loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
Since we can never be perfect in this life, we, the baptized, need to think of rejecting or renouncing evil as normal and regular, not a one-off event. This is what Jesus and James are getting at in our last two readings.
Jesus affirms that evil intentions come from within the human heart (Mark 7:22-23). That is to say that we are fundamentally self-centered. That self-centeredness is the root of all sins. That’s the kind of sinful desire that we are constantly called to reject so that we can love God more fully. We can’t love our neighbors if we are constantly looking out for our own interests. To grow in godliness means to love others as much as we love ourselves, to the best of our ability.
So then, James gives some practical advice for how love others as ourselves in our daily life. It’s a guide for dying to sin and living the resurrected new life of grace.
For instance, James 1:19-20 say, “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God's righteousness.” A lot of problems with sin would be smoothed out if each of us were a little more dedicated to listening. It’s a lot easier said than done. But cutting off other people’s voices is key tool of oppression. We can empower our hurting neighbors and restore dignity by listening, even when we disagree. This requires some humility and some checks on our individual pride. It doesn’t mean we need to be convinced or manipulated by others, but it does mean we ought to show respect and honor where it is due, rather than blow up in anger (as easy as that can be).
As another insight, take verses 26-27: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Real religion is more than just attending worship and receiving sacraments. We are like cups filled with God’s love and grace. God calls us to pour those out to others through works of compassion.
So we must die to self-congratulation and self-satisfaction. Showing up in worship is great, but that doesn’t make us good on its own. We gather to witness and perform sacraments so that we can live as Christ’s hands and feet in the world.
Like the rest of us, Cory is embarking on a lifelong journey of faith. He will hear the story of God’s love for him and the whole world. He will listen to the needs of others and try not to be angry when he sees that he is wrong. And he’ll look out for oppressed and lowly, to whom he can show compassion and mercy (just like God has shown him). And along the way, he’ll mess up, just like we all do. But then he can turn back to God and receive forgiveness and a fresh start. New life is always available. He’ll continue to reject evil so that he can accept good. With him, we will repeatedly die to sin in order to gain new life in God’s grace. Amen.