Marked as Christ's Own Forever
A Sermon on the Feast of the Baptism of Christ
All Saints' is a baptizing church! Today we will baptize two more children, Evelyn and Abigail, bringing our total to fifteen, in just two months. For the 8:00 folks, today is the third baptism Sunday in a row. All this baptizing makes me think of one of my favorite baptism stories.
"Can you see the cross? On my forehead?" Eleanor, age 5, kept asking her priest. Week after week, she would come up to that priest, who had baptized her, and ask, "Can you see the cross on my forehead? Eleanor was talking about being chrismated. We make the sign of the cross on the forehead of the newly baptized with chrism, a special oil blended just for baptism. After baptizing with water, we take the oil, blessed by a bishop, and we chrismate, saying, "Eleanor, Abigail, Evelyn, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism, and marked as Christ's own forever." "Yes, I see the cross," her priest would answer. Eleanor was able to sniff and smell that holy chrism on her Baptismal day, right up until bedtime. The next morning, she couldn't smell it any more. No one could. So she kept on asking, Can you see the cross on my forehead?
Kirk Kubicek, Eleanor's priest, told this story to some of us at a parish stewardship supper some time ago. "Yes, I see the cross," Kirk kept telling Eleanor. And Eleanor would walk away, still wondering about it all. After we baptize someone, we pray, "Give them . . . the gift of joy and wonder in all your works." Clearly, Eleanor received that gift of joy and wonder. Even now, Kirk told us, in adulthood, long after the chrism has worn off and washed away, Eleanor still wonders. And I wonder: Is that true for us? Can you see the cross on my forehead? What does it mean to be "marked as Christ's own, forever"?
It is as if all the questions asked at Eleanor's baptism gave her permission to wonder, to ask her own question. Some of us come here today with our own questions, questions we've been wondering about. Questions like, "How will I survive financially in this new year?" Or "What should I do about this pain that won't go away?" Or "Why won't my children just call me?" And yet, instead of answers to those questions, we are given other questions today, ones like: "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?" Generally, questions are good for the soul. They show we are still able to wonder. The questions we may have arrived with, here, today, are important. But there are other questions, questions about what we believe and how we live, questions God is asking us, now that we're here. Questions that can help us wonder. Questions like Eleanor's.
Christians believe that God became incarnate, or human, in the birth of Jesus, at Christmas, what the church also calls the Feast of the Incarnation. Jesus, we say, is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Jesus is also God's beloved son, all grown up in today's Gospel story about his baptism. And like Jesus, we are God's sons and daughters, God's beloveds, forever.
But can people see the cross – on our foreheads, in our hearts? Do we actually behave like we believe? Do we show others how we are marked as Christ's own? And do we truly belong to Christ, or just to a church? Later this week, you might tell someone about the baptisms here, and they might ask you which church you attended. You might say you belong to All Saints' or some other church or to no church. Regardless of your answer, being marked as Christ's own means belonging to Christ, first and foremost. Not just to a particular congregation. Not just to a denomination. You may call All Saints' Episcopal Church your home and be an official member here, but you and I, in baptism, belong to an even bigger body. As our Book of Common Prayer puts it, "Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body, the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble" (p. 298).
No matter what church we were baptized in or never darkened the door of. No matter what we have done or left undone. No matter how good or bad we are at loving our neighbors. When the oil and the water are long gone, that bond, Christ's mark on us and in us, simply cannot be worn off, washed away or dissolved. Whether or not others can see it on our foreheads or in our hearts, we are still marked as Christ's own, forever. We are still God's beloveds, forever.
Now there's a catch. The catch is about our grown-up relationship with God in Christ Jesus. As we grow up in Christ, we get caught, like fish. We discover that it's not enough to be loved by God. God loves us unconditionally, and God wants us to love others and God in return. And Jesus wants us to love in this way: not as we would prefer to love, but as Jesus loves, with arms outstretched. And we find that, when we love like Jesus, we want to pass that love along. When we become more and more like Jesus, when we are more like the adult sisters and brothers God wants us to be, we learn, paradoxically, to be more childlike, to wonder again. We learn to live with a few more questions.
Our Book of Common Prayer, published over thirty years ago, added more than chrism to Baptism. At the end of the Baptismal Covenant, we are given five questions to ponder, questions that help us understand what it means to be "marked as Christ's own forever." As we answer them, these questions get harder and harder. Thankfully, we also have been given the answer to these questions: "I will, with God's help." Let's rehearse them now. They're on page 292 of the Prayer Book (or on page 8 of your bulletin).
Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers? We could ask this another way: Will you come to church as often as you can and try to bring your friends and family?
Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you sin, repent and return to the Lord? This one is harder. It asks, will you be rigorously honest about your mistakes? Will you ask to be forgiven? Will you change your life?
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? This doesn't mean everyone needs to stand on the street and hand things out to people. It does mean: Might you be the only Bible someone ever reads?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Just how welcoming and hospitable are you ready, willing and able to be? Is the seat you're sitting in YOUR seat, or one you're saving for a guest?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? In light of this weekend's events in Arizona, this question becomes even more important for us. Will you be more and more like the servant of God in Isaiah's prophecy today? Will you look for injustice and do something about the things or people that disrespect or destroy the children of God?
It was the establishing of justice that got Jesus into trouble. It was the loving of all his neighbors that caused Jesus to be despised. It was the living out of the Gospel, being God's light to all who needed Good News – opening the eyes of the blind, bringing out prisoners from their dungeons – that nailed Jesus to a cross of love, a cross larger than one you can draw with your thumb, a love larger than arms can reach. In Christ, that love, that peace, that justice is yours and mine. For we belong to Christ. Like Jesus, we are God's beloveds.
But . . . do you really believe you are God's beloved? Kirk Kubicek puts it this way: "As we come up from the waters of our baptism, these words are meant for us: You are my Beloved; I am well pleased with you. What would it be like to accept our belovedness? How might that feel? How does it feel to know, to really know deep inside, in the most secret places of your being, that God is well pleased with you?" (sermon, January 8, 2006)
When he was here that night, sharing the gift of his story about Eleanor, Kirk also gave us bookmarks with words about God's love. Those words are God's words, found in the Bible and woven together by the great Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, in his book called Life of the Beloved. God says, "I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my beloved, on you my favor rests . . . .I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you, with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger, and drink that will satisfy all your thirst. I will not hide my face from you. You know me as your own, as I know you as my own. You belong to me. I am (in) your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your (partner), your spouse, (your friend) . . . even your child. Wherever you are, I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one" (p. 30 ff.).
Let us pray. Ever living, ever loving God, help us to become more like Jesus, to be one in Christ. Help us lift high the cross, both on our foreheads and in our lives. Help us remember we are marked as Christ's own, your beloved, forever. In the name of Jesus, the Baptized Christ, and in the power of your Holy Spirit, who descends like a dove and seals Evelyn and Abigail in Baptism today.