Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sermon for August 22nd 10:30 service: Matthew 28:16-20

Baptism and Discipleship

Today as we gather to celebrate the baptism of Neveah and Noah, I’d like to begin by asking you a question. This is a real question, which is to say that I’d like some people to answer it out loud for all to hear! Many of you here have brought children to be baptized – some of you fairly recently, some of you a very long time ago. What were some of your reasons for doing so?

There are many different reasons why people bring children for baptism. Baptism is like a diamond with many facets; as we hold it up and turn it around, the light strikes different surfaces and we see different aspects of it. Even in the Bible there are a number of different images used for baptism. We’re told that being baptized is like dying on the cross with Jesus and rising again with him on Easter Day. We’re told that it’s like being adopted into God’s family as sons and daughters of God. We’re told that just as God made a covenant with his Old Testament people and gave them circumcision as the sign and seal of it, so baptism is a sign and seal to us of God’s new covenant with us. And we’re told that being baptised is like being born again.

Some of these images of baptism make more sense in the New Testament setting where most people coming to be baptized were adults who were consciously leaving an old way of life behind and starting a new life with Jesus. But Neveah and Noah are not in that category, and so I want to share with you this morning a way of looking at baptism that makes more sense for those of us who are bringing children to be baptized. And I want to start with a story from the end of Matthew’s gospel, from the time after the resurrection of Jesus but before he ascended into heaven. Listen to what Matthew says:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).

In this passage I want to briefly point out to you three things: a statement about Jesus, a statement about us, and a statement about baptism.

First, a statement about Jesus. One of the big questions that the gospel answers is the question, “Who’s really in charge around here?” So often in the modern world it seems as if the wrong people are in charge. So many political leaders seem to be there for the love of power and glory rather than out of a desire to serve people. So many of the faceless leaders of multinational corporations make decisions that effect the lives of millions of people, not on the basis of the greatest good for all, but on the basis of what will bring the most profit to their shareholders. So many people around the world suffer and die at the hands of terrorists and tyrants, and their murderers seem to get away with it.

But the Christian gospel tells us that evil will not have the last word. God has given us free will, yes, and this means that we have the ability to use that freedom for evil as well as for good. But there are consequences to our actions, because the God of love will not allow un-love to triumph in the end. In Acts 17 Paul is explaining the Christian message to a bunch of Greeks in Athens, and at the end of his talk he says, “(God) has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). So the good news is that evil and hate will not have the last word, because the true Lord of the universe is not Caesar or Hitler or Stalin, but the one who loved us and gave himself for us, Jesus the Messiah, the Lord of all.

This is what Jesus means at the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, where we read these words:

Now after John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14-15).

The kingdom of God means God at work in the world to heal it and transform it, not through the love of power but through the power of love. And if the kingdom is at hand, then Jesus knew himself to be the king who was inaugurating it. We call him ‘Jesus Christ’, and the word ‘Christ’ is the Greek word for ‘Messiah’, a Hebrew word that means ‘King’. So to say ‘Jesus Christ’ is the same as saying ‘King Jesus’. And this king calls everyone to give their allegiance to him, to become his followers and to learn the new way of life of his kingdom.

And this leads us to the second statement, a statement about us. In our theme passage, Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus says,

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (vv.19-20a).

This is what we Christians are – first and foremost, we are disciples of Jesus.

What is a disciple? In the ancient world, if you wanted to learn something, you didn’t usually go away to a university or college to take an academic course. You found yourself a teacher and you went and lived with that teacher. And the learning was what we would call today ‘holistic’. You didn’t just listen to what your teacher said and then write academic papers about it. No, you watched the way your teacher lived – you observed his wisdom in practice, not just in theory – and then you did your best to imitate his way of life. Because the goal of discipleship wasn’t just to learn information from the teacher – it was to become like the teacher.

And we all know how powerful this is. I remember as a teenager when I was trying to learn how to play guitar, and how difficult it was just to follow instruction books and try to do what they said. It was so much easier when I started to play with other musicians. I didn’t take formal lessons from them, I just hung around with them, watched what they did, and tried to imitate it myself. Having a living role model made it so much easier to learn the skills I needed to be a better musician.

God in his goodness has given us not just a law book, but a role model who has walked this road before us. And so we Christians are called to put the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our daily lives. Jesus not only shows us what God is like, he also shows us what we are called to be like. As we read about him in the gospels we notice his devotion to God, his simple faith, his disregard for possessions, his care for the poor and needy, his love for his enemies and so on. His life is our blueprint; we imitate him, and as we do so, we discover the life of freedom that God created us for in the first place.

And I need to say to Jason and Michelle, and to Sarah and Lynn, and to those who are standing as godparents to Neveah and Noah today, that there’s an important role for you here too. Jesus is our primary role model, but our kids won’t be able to read about him for a long time yet. But they will be watching and imitating what they see in you. That’s why we ask you to stand up and make commitments this morning about your faith and your way of life. If your kids see you trusting God and following his ways, they will learn to do so too. If they see you living a life in which people come first and possessions aren’t important, they will learn that too. If they see you loving your enemies, they will learn that too. If they see you making church attendance a priority on Sundays, they will learn that too. Like it or not, we are role models for our kids. Bringing a child for baptism involves a commitment to model for our kids what it means to follow Jesus as part of his Church.

It’s important to say from the outset that this life of discipleship will not always be easy or pleasant. After all, Jesus warned us as his followers to be prepared to carry our crosses and follow him. In the ancient world, people who were carrying crosses were on their way out to be crucified by the Roman empire. Jesus was warning us that not everyone will be jumping for joy because we’ve decided to follow him. There will be a price to pay: as a very wise priest once said, “If you don’t love, you’re dead, but if you do, they’ll kill you!” Jesus walked this road himself, trusting that his Father would make it all right in the end, and he calls us to walk it after him. That’s part of the commitment we make in baptism.

And so we come to the third statement, a statement about baptism. Back to our theme passage, where Jesus says,

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (vv.19-20a).

What’s the primary meaning of a wedding? A wedding is the beginning of a marriage, a life of commitment to each other on the part of two people who promise to love each other forever. What’s the primary meaning of a baptism? This passage tells us that the primary meaning of a baptism is that it is the beginning of a life of being a disciple, learning to follow Jesus and obey all the things he commanded us in the gospels. It’s not primarily a cultural rite of passage, or having a family celebration or giving a child a name. It’s enrolment in kindergarten in the school of Jesus, a school that we will belong to for the rest of our lives, a school that has the goal of transforming us so that we become more and more like Jesus.

And this is not something that we’re able to do all by ourselves. That’s why Jesus says at the end of the passage, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (v.20b). That’s why he gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit, the power of God himself, coming to live in us and strengthen us so that we are able to do things we couldn’t do in our own strength. God never asks us to do something without giving us the strength to do it. And so in baptism the gift of the Holy Spirit is promised to us, and as we grow in our Christian lives we’re called to pray daily that the Holy Spirit will fill us and empower us to follow Jesus.

Today is a very special day for Neveah and Noah and their families. But it’s also a special day for all of us who are baptized followers of Jesus. In the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer, after a child had been baptized the minister said to the parents and godparents, ‘Remember always that Baptism represents unto us our profession, which is to follow our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him’. And so for us who witness these baptisms today, this is a good reminder. The service reminds us of the promises that were made at our own baptism, and the commitments we have as baptized Christians. We can say those words again, hopefully saying them from the heart, and pray that the Holy Spirit will help us too as we learn to ‘follow our Saviour Christ and be made like unto him’.

So today as we celebrate with Neveah and Noah and their families and godparents, let’s pray for them, that they would know more and more of the joy of following Jesus together. And let’s pray for ourselves, too, that we would remember the gift that God gave us in our own baptism, and press on day by day to be more like our Lord Jesus Christ, who came to save us and to show us the way.

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