Come To The Water

The nature of a sacrament, and its effectiveness in doing what it says: a sermon for Easter 6b

SJF • Easter 6b 2012 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” So he ordered them to be baptized.

Last week and this we’ve heard paired passages from the earliest period of the church, both of them concerning the water of baptism. Last week, Philip opened the Scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch, who accepted Jesus in his heart, and cried out, “Look, here is water. What is to prevent my being baptized.” And this week, after they heard the good news at Peter’s proclamation, the Holy Spirit blessed the household of Cornelius the Centurion, and they began to speak in miraculous tongues. Whereupon Peter cried out, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people?”

In both cases the baptism that followed these exclamations was an extraordinary step — for both the Ethiopian and the Roman and his family were foreigners and Gentiles. These events marked the next great stage in the expansion of the mission, committed to the church by its Lord: to baptize all nations.

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So it is from the very beginning that baptism has been seen as central to what it means to be a Christian. Even after the Ethiopian accepted Jesus in his heart, even after the miraculous descent of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius and his family, still the apostles understood the water of baptism to be an essential element in the process of entering into full fellowship with Christ and his church.

And part of the reason for this is the public and objective nature of baptism. What goes on in ones heart, even what one says with ones mouth, is essentially personal — and only you and God will know if what you do in your heart or say with your mouth is true. But baptism is a public and external act that happens outside a person, and more than that, between persons — more than one person is involved: baptism is a sacrament.

How many of you remember from your Catechism or Confirmation Class the answer to that question, “What is a sacrament?” I won’t put you on the spot. The language most of us grew up with put it this way: it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us; ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive this grace, and a pledge to assure us thereof.” If that sounds a little too much — particularly the “whereby” and the “thereof” — if that sounds a little too much like something you’d find in fine print in pale blue ink at the bottom of a mobile-phone contract, our present Prayer Book puts it in somewhat more up to date language, declaring that the sacraments are “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”

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That’s a bit of a mouthful, too, I admit, though I think it is a little easier to understand. Let’s look at it bit by bit, as it applies to baptism. First of all there’s that objective, external element I referred to: baptism is an outward and visible sign. You’ve all been to baptisms — at least your own, though you may not remember it — but you surely know that baptism includes words that are publicly spoken and water that is poured, and that it takes place in the presence of witnesses. Even so-called “private baptism” — just involving the family and godparents — does involve the family and the godparents, as well as the minister who performs the rite. Baptism is not something you can do on your own; it requires the presence of the church. Baptism isn’t just something going on in your head, or in your heart. It is something that happens which others can see and participate in.

In fact, I’m reminded of the old joke of the Anglican bishop who was once challenged by a non-conformist Anabaptist asking, “Do you believe in infant baptism?” The bishop responded, “Believe in it? Why, man, I’ve seen it!”

The second thing to note about sacraments is that they are given by Christ. Jesus told his disciples both to baptize all nations with water in the name of the Trinity, and to celebrate the Holy Eucharist, when he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” The other things that are sometimes called sacraments, the “sacramental rites” like marriage, confirmation, ordination, confession and anointing don’t rest on the authority of Jesus, but on that of the apostles. This doesn’t mean they are unimportant, and they do form important steps in the Christian life — but unlike baptism and the eucharist they fall into that category of “all may, none must, some should.”

The final thing to note about baptism — and this is true of the eucharist as well — is that it is productive of an inward and spiritual grace. As I said last week, it is not something that goes forth empty; it goes forth to bear fruit. There is grace that comes about because of the act of baptism, because of the act of receiving the eucharist. And more importantly, perhaps, this grace is certain and the sacrament is the means by which the grace is conferred. The outward and visible sacrament both certifies and conveys that inner and spiritual grace for which it serves as both sign and means.

Most things in our common experience don’t work that way. Take, for example, a driver’s license. It is a public and physical affirmation that you are allowed to drive a car, but it doesn’t buy you a car or teach you how to drive. It may certify — indeed I hope it certifies — that you know how to drive and have shown you can by passing a driving test. But the license does not convey any inward change in you — it merely permits you to do something.

But there is in our daily experience something that is a bit more like a sacrament — I mentioned it earlier in talking about the fine print on a contract or a lease. The thing to note about signing a contract is that it is your signing it that also makes the contract take effect. It is not merely a symbol of something, a sign, but it actually has an effect; and it is in one and the same action: when you sign the contract, the contract comes into effect. The outward and visible signing actually conveys what the contract represents, in some cases, as in real estate, actually “conveying” the property in question into your ownership.

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Now, perhaps all this reference to leases and contracts seems, again, like dry legalism. So let me try one more analogy — one that actually speaks to the central aspect of baptism. And that is the fact that baptism is what makes us children of God — baptism is, in effect, our adoption papers, testified to by the Holy Spirit, no less. Perhaps it is fitting, on this Mothers’ Day, as we recall our biological mothers, also to recall our spiritual mother, the church, through whom we are all adopted, by baptism, into God’s household. It is true that John says, we become children of God by loving God and obeying his commandments — emphasizing as John always does that commandment to love. But we dare not neglect the witness of the other evangelists, who affirm that Jesus also commanded his disciples to baptize, and to celebrate the feast of the Holy Eucharist. Thus God comes to us not in water only, but with the water and the blood — and let me add, with the bread that comes down heaven, to give life to the world.

All of these physical, outward and visible signs point us to and impart to us the marvelous and spiritual grace that God gives us so abundantly. Who would dare withhold these gifts from anyone, seeing that God has provided them with such abundance. So let us, brothers and sisters in the faith, rejoice in our own baptism, and call others to the water, and celebrate the communion we share in the Body and Blood of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, joining with our newfound family of faith — all of us adopted as God’s children through water and the Holy Spirit — let us gather as the new family of God and celebrate together this heavenly feast.+