Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Sermon for All Saints' Day (10.30 service)

Baptism, Confirmation, and Conversion

My baptism certificate tells me that I was baptized on December 28th 1958, when I would have been about eight weeks old. I was baptized in St. Barnabas’ Church, Leicester, the church where my parents were married. My Mum and Dad were Christians and they wanted to raise me as a follower of Jesus, and so they made the baptismal promises on their behalf and on my behalf as well.

I was confirmed at the age of 12 in St. Leonard’s Church, Southminster, in southeast Essex. I have absolutely no recollection of whose idea this was – whether it was my initiative, or whether my Mum and Dad just decided that it was time for me to be confirmed, I can’t honestly remember. In retrospect I’m inclined to think that I was a bit too young for it – it wasn’t really my considered ‘adult commitment’ to Jesus, it was more of a hoop to jump through to be able to receive communion – because, as many of you will remember, in those days we didn’t admit children to communion before they were confirmed.

Something really significant for me happened a year or so later. My Dad had been lending me religious books for quite a while, but I didn’t usually pay much attention to them. However, early in 1972 he lent me Dennis Bennett’s book Nine O’Clock in the Morning, and I was so captivated by it that I read it all the way through in one sitting. It was a story of a man who had encountered the power of the Holy Spirit in a remarkable way, and had seen God work dramatically through healings and miracles. I had never thought of God as being that close – as I often put it, ‘A real God who does real things in the real lives of real people’. I was on a search for that God after I read that book, and the search came to a head in March when, under my Dad’s guidance, I sat on my bed in my room and prayed a prayer ‘giving my life to Jesus’. For me, that was the moment when I really made my own commitment to Jesus – and that commitment changed the course of the rest of my life.

Why am I telling you these stories today? Well, today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints’, and we also celebrate the baptisms of Amy, Sebastian, and Sydney. I want to remind you that the way we often use the word ‘saint’ today is very different from the way it’s used in the Bible. Today we usually use it to refer to people like Mother Teresa, and the rest of us usually protest, “I’m no saint!” But in the Bible the word just means ‘someone who belongs to God’. When Paul sends letters to New Testament churches and addresses them to ‘the saints in Philippi’, he doesn’t mean, ‘the especially good ones’, but ‘the believers’, ‘the Christians’, ‘the followers of Jesus’. In the New Testament, if you’re a Christian, then you’re a saint – you’re a part of God’s people, called by God to fulfil his special purposes in the world.

But the question I want to address with you this morning is the question of the process by which we become saints. In a few moments we’re going to baptize Amy, Sebastian, and Sydney. They don’t know anything about that, except that when it happens they’re going to get very wet. But how will their baptism as little babies be connected to the New Testament stories of Jesus calling people to follow him? And how will it be connected to the stories we read in the book of Acts, in which adults hear the gospel message, believe it, and choose to be baptized as a sign of beginning a new life as followers of Jesus?

One of those stories is found in Acts 2:37-41; let’s look at it together.

Now when the crowd heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone who the Lord our God calls to him’. And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’. So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.

I want to point out three things in this passage.

First, baptism comes in response to the Gospel message. The clearest example I can think of in this respect is the story of my good friend Steve. His family were not churchgoers and had not had him baptized as a child. He and I became friends in our teens, and we learned to play the guitar together. Somehow he got involved in playing music at our church, and eventually he not only joined our youth group, but also sat in on a confirmation class. There he heard the gospel, and decided he wanted to become a believer. I vividly remember standing with my best friend a week or two later as he was baptized at the age of sixteen, making his adult commitment to Christ.

Steve’s experience follows the classic New Testament pattern – someone hears the gospel, they believe it, and they are baptized as the beginning of a new life as a follower of Jesus. This is the pattern we see in Acts 2:37: ‘Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said…, “Brothers, what should we do?”’ When they ‘heard’ what? When they heard Peter preaching the gospel message. This story takes place on the Day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus had ascended into heaven. The Christians were gathered in one place to pray, and suddenly the Holy Spirit fell on them; they started speaking in other languages and praising God, and when a crowd gathered to see what was going on Peter preached an impromptu sermon to them. He told them that this was what all the prophets had foretold; God had sent Jesus as his Messiah or anointed king, the people had rejected and killed him, but God had raised him from the dead. ‘What you’re seeing today’, he said, ‘is all done by his power’. He concluded his message by saying, ‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’ (v.36).

Jesus is the Messiah, the Lord. By his life and death and resurrection he’s defeated the power of evil and set in motion a new kingdom, the kingdom of God. The true Lord of earth is not Julius Caesar or Barack Obama or Osama Bin Laden. No – the true Lord of the universe is Jesus, God’s anointed king, who gave his life for us.

This is the message that the crowd heard from Peter. It touched them powerfully, and they asked what they should do. Peter told them to repent and be baptized so that their sins could be forgiven and they could receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Three thousand of them responded to his message and were baptized on that day.

Now how does my baptism fit into this story? I was eight weeks old, and I certainly hadn’t heard the gospel and responded to it with repentance and faith. And I suspect that Amy and Sebastian and Sydney aren’t really repenting of their sins this morning either! The answer is that when it comes to the baptism of babies and small children, the ones who hear the message and decide to follow Jesus are the parents; “Our family”, they are saying, “is going to follow Jesus together”. That’s why we ask parents to make the baptismal promises on behalf of themselves and of their children. What we’re asking is their clear statement that this isn’t just a civic birth rite they’re going through; this is not just a ‘christening’ in the sense of ‘giving a child a name’. “No”, they’re saying, “We’ve heard the gospel message, we want to follow Jesus, and we want to take our kids with us on that journey of discipleship. Of course, we understand that the time will come when they choose for themselves either to continue as followers of Jesus or to reject the Christian way – but while they’re growing and learning, we’ll teach them to follow Jesus”.

So baptism comes in response to the gospel message. Secondly, baptism is seen as conferring tremendous blessings. We sometimes speak of baptism as a symbol, and some people have a pretty low view of symbols; “They don’t mean anything”, they say. I think they’re wrong. Because of my job, I often get to watch the faces of brides and grooms as they are placing the wedding rings on their spouses’ fingers, and I can tell that this is not ‘just a meaningless symbol’ to them; something real and powerful is happening there.

Baptism also is seen in our reading as conferring real and powerful blessings. Two in particular are mentioned in our passage. The first is the forgiveness of sins: Peter says, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven’ (v.38). Sin is seen as a sort of dirt that soils our souls, and washing with water is an obvious symbol of the deeper washing of forgiveness of sins. Obviously, that meaning is more easily applicable when it’s an adult being baptized – perhaps with a real sense of guilt, and a longing for assurance of forgiveness. But for those who have been baptized as infants, too, it can be a real assurance of God’s pardon in later years. The great 16th century Protestant reformer Martin Luther struggled with depression a lot, and he often wondered if he really was saved. He put a lot of emphasis on faith, but when he was depressed and looked inside his soul, he wasn’t sure if he could really find any faith. But He knew he had been baptized; that was something objective he could appeal to: “I have been baptized”. That gave him the assurance he needed of God’s forgiveness.

The second blessing Peter mentions is the Holy Spirit: ‘you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’ (v.38). This gift makes each of us a living temple of God. In the Old Testament God is seen as living in special places like the temple in Jerusalem, but in the New Testament there is no mention of this at all. Rather, Paul says, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. God lives in us by his Spirit, and he gives us wisdom and strength to do his will, and a deep assurance that we belong to him.

So baptism comes in response to the gospel message, and baptism is seen as conferring the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, repentance is seen as a part of the baptismal process. Peter says, “Repent, and be baptized…” (v.38). In the New Testament, repentance means turning around and living a different sort of life - turning away from the previous focus of my life, acknowledging Jesus as Lord of all, and as my Lord, and committing myself to learning the new way of life he teaches. This is the focus of the first set of promises that the parents of our baptismal children will make in a few minutes – promises to turn away from all that is evil, to trust in Jesus as their Saviour, and to follow him as their Lord.

Adults who are baptized make these promises publicly, at the front of the church, with their fellow believers watching and supporting them by their prayers. But those who are baptized as babies need an opportunity to do that as well, when they come to the years of maturity and make their own decision to continue to follow Jesus. Why do they need to do it publicly? Why not just do what I did – pray a private prayer committing their lives to Jesus? The answer is that in the gospels everyone who Jesus called, he called publicly. It wasn’t just ‘something between me and God’. The act of becoming a Christian is the act of pledging your allegiance to a new king, and that isn’t something that happens in private. That’s why Jesus said, “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but everyone who denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

The way we do this in the Anglican church, and many other churches too, is by the service of confirmation. At a confirmation service, people who have been baptized as infants stand up before the bishop and the whole congregation and take for themselves the promises that their parents and godparents made for them at their baptism. They then kneel before the bishop, and the bishop prays for them that the Holy Spirit will fill them and strengthen them to keep the promises they have made.

I need to stress that, for young people, this really does need to be something they want to do for themselves. If parents or grandparents put pressure on kids and say, “Come on, it’s time to be confirmed”, that removes the whole point of making your own public decision to follow Christ.

A couple of people have approached me about having confirmation classes at St. Margaret’s again, and this is probably something we will consider doing in the new year. I’d be very interested in talking to anyone – whether adults or teenagers – who wants to make this public commitment to Christ.

Meanwhile, back to today, All Saints’ Day, the day we celebrate the baptisms of Amy, Sebastian, and Sydney, and also remember our own baptism. We are God’s saints, called by God to be a part of his people, busy doing his work in the world. As we go through this baptismal service, let’s recommit ourselves to this life as God’s saints, as followers of Jesus. And let’s pray that the Holy Spirit will fill us and strengthen us to keep the promises of our baptism.

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