Sunday, August 12, 2018

'I Believe' (a sermon for a baptism service)

Today we celebrate the baptisms of Everett William McCallum and Kingston Hendrix Haekel, and we rejoice with their families as these two little guys begin their journey of faith. As they grow and get older, they’re going to be asking questions about who created God, and why God created mosquitos, and how God can hear the prayers of so many people at the same time. Eventually they’ll get to the big issues like ‘Why does God let bad things happen to good people?’ and ‘Why is there evil in the world?’ and ‘Why is Jesus important?’ Hopefully their parents and the other people in their lives won’t be scared by this process; they’ll understand that asking questions and trying to find answers is one of the ways we grow in the life of faith.

Rowan Williams used to be the Archbishop of Canterbury. He’s written a beautiful book called ‘Tokens of Trust’, and the thing I remember most of all in that book is where he says that perhaps the most important and fundamental question we can ask is ‘Can God be trusted?’ After all, that point is not self-evident! A lot of strange things happen in the world, and many Christians struggle to reconcile them with the idea of a trustworthy God. Thoughtful Christians don’t just dismiss those things; we face them head on, but somehow in facing them we don’t give up on God. We go through the trials of life, and the times when God seems a million miles away from us, but we don’t let go of him – or rather, we realize eventually that he doesn’t let go of us. And so we continue to say “Yes, Lord – I believe in you”.

In a few minutes we’re all going to say those words together, as part of our baptismal service. As far as we can tell, the Apostles’ Creed was originally a baptismal creed, created in the early days in Rome to be used when new Christians were welcomed into the Body of Christ through baptism. In those early days most of those new Christians would have been adults making a conscious decision to turn away from their old way of life and commit themselves to Christ in faith. Everett and Kingston can’t do that today – they’re too young – but we baptize them anyway on the strength of their parents’ faith. Bill and Aimée, Dustin and Monika are professing their faith in Christ and their desire for their children to be brought up as part of the community that follows Christ; that’s what baptism means. And as those kids grow, the most important thing for them to learn is that yes, God can indeed be trusted.

Because that’s what ‘I believe in God’ means. Statistics Canada might not give it that meaning. When census takers ask ‘Do you believe in God?’ what they usually mean is ‘Do you believe that God exists?’ But that’s not what it means to believe in someone. If I was to say to you “I believe in Marci”, you would know I didn’t just mean “I believe that Marci exists”. I would mean “I trust her, I know she’s not going to let me down. I know she won’t withdraw her love for me”. So to say “I believe in God” is a statement of faith – in other words, a statement of trust.

What sort of God do we trust? 

We say “I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth”. Nowadays when we say those words ‘heaven and earth’, we know they cover a lot more space than those early Christians could have guessed! They probably thought the world was a huge plate standing on pillars in the primeval ocean, with the sky as a huge dish over it and the waters above the earth just waiting for the windows of heaven to be opened so they could be poured down in floods! But we know today that ‘the heavens and the earth’ are a vastly different place. We know all about ‘the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies and suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’. We know about the big bang that took place over fourteen billion years ago, and how the universe has been expanding at incredible speeds since then, so that to get to some parts of it from here would take millions of years, even if we could travel at the speed of light.

And behind all this is God. What can we say about a God who could think up something like that, and set it in motion, and continue to guide it and care for it?

We know about the billions of years this planet has existed. We know about the many millions of species that have come and gone in that time, leading up eventually to us humans, who arrived at three seconds to midnight! If there is a creator God, as the creed suggests, then God is intensely interested in many different forms of life, from microbes to mammoths, from ancient mountains to vast oceans. God loves purple martins and woodland caribou and lodgepole pine trees and the rocks of the Cambrian Shield. 

A United Church minister once told me that the first article of his personal creed was ‘God is big!’ I resonate with that! And if God is so big, it shouldn’t surprise us that there are many things about God that our tiny human brains can’t understand. In fact, to say “I don’t know” might be a profound statement of trust. “This is too big for me, but I believe it’s not too big for God, so I’ll leave it for God to figure out”.

The God we trust is the amazing God who created everything that exists in this universe, and any other universes there may be; he sustains it all by his powerful word. But the creed also says that he’s ‘The Father almighty’. This is counter-intuitive; if God is so big and I’m so small, how can God possibly be concerned with me? And yet he is; that’s what Jesus told us. When we look at the prayer life of Jesus, the name he almost always used for God was ‘Father’. When we look at how he taught us to pray, he told us to begin ‘Our Father’. By this he didn’t mean that God is a male as opposed to a female God. He meant that if you take the love of the best parents you’ve ever met and multiply it by infinity, you might just be getting close to the incredible love that the Creator of the universe has for us and for everything he has made.

We know this because of Jesus, and of course this brings us to the second statement the creed makes about the God we trust: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord’.

What you believe about God matters. Some people believe in a God who loves violence. Some people believe in a God who isn’t really the creator of everything – he’s just a part of the story, albeit a very big and powerful part. Some people believe in a God who notices every single slip we make and punishes us for it.

But Christians believe that God came among us in Jesus. Somehow, in a way we can’t really understand, the God who created the universe continued to rule the universe while at the same time writing himself into its story, in the person of Jesus. John’s Gospel talks about Jesus as the Word of God, through whom God created all things. But then, John says, ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

A few weeks ago Andrew Asbil was elected as the new bishop of Toronto. He will be a second generation bishop: his dad, Walter Asbil, was also an Anglican bishop. And if you stood the two of them beside each other you’d notice that they bear a remarkable resemblance to each other, even for a father and a son. I once heard someone introduce Andrew to an audience with these words: “I now know what Jesus meant when he said, ‘He who has seen the Son has seen the Father’!”

‘Like father, like son’ - it’s an old saying. And we Christians believe it to be true of Jesus. If we want to know what God is like, we look at the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus is hard on hypocrites but gentle with the weak. He refuses to hate the people society tells him to hate. He does the things his Father tells him to do, whether people like it or not. He loves his enemies and prays for those who hate him. And when the leaders of his world respond to his love by nailing him to the cross, he doesn’t do what any self-respecting god in the ancient world would have done – destroy them with lightning bolts out of revenge for their audacity. No, he says “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”.

But Jesus is also victorious over evil. Death isn’t the last word for him. Because of him, we know that love really is stronger than death. The Bible says that he has been declared Son of God with power through his resurrection from the dead. After all, anyone can claim to be the Son of God – but if the person who makes the claim is seen to die, and then three days later rises from the dead – well, you might want to take that claim seriously!

So this is the God we trust, the God we want Everett and Kingston to come to know and trust. The God who dreamed up the big bang, loves the whole universe, and cares for us like the best parent we could ever imagine. The God who loved us so much that he decided to get even closer to us by becoming a human being to show us what he is like.

But there’s more. We also trust God the Holy Spirit. In Hebrew and Greek the word ‘spirit’ is the same as the word for ‘wind’ and ‘breath’. In the Old Testament the spirit of God was like the breath of God, breathed into prophets and kings so they could do God’s work. But in the New Testament the holy breath is promised to every believer. On the day of Pentecost Peter says to the crowd “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” (Acts 2:38).

So this is what it means to become a Christian. It means that God comes closer to us than breathing. God breathes his own life into us, his Holy Spirit. Breath gives us life, and the Holy Spirit gives us spiritual life. And the Holy Spirit is promised to each of us, and to all of us together. When we gather for worship, he is among us. When we go out to serve God, he gives us strength and wisdom to do it, and do it well. When we tell others about Jesus, he works through our words. When we feel too small to serve Jesus, he fills up what’s lacking in our service.

“Come, Holy Spirit” – that’s an ancient Christian prayer. Jesus encourages us to pray that God will give us this gift every day. He says “You parents know how to give good gifts to your children. How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” So as Everett and Kingston grow, their parents are going to want to pray that God will fill these boys with his Holy Spirit. And as they get older, they’re going to want to teach them to pray that for themselves: “Come, Holy Spirit – fill me with your love”.

So this is the life that Everett and Kingston are going to be baptized into this morning: a life of trusting God the Creator and Father – trusting God the Son, Jesus Christ – trusting God the Holy Spirit, the breath of God who gives us life.

But we’re not done yet – there’s one more thing to be said. The Creed also talks about believing in the Church: it says “I believe in the Holy Spirit”, and then adds “the holy catholic church”.

Don’t get distracted by that word ‘catholic’ – it’s a lot older than the Pope! It means ‘the whole Church taking the whole Gospel to the whole world’. But what the Creed is telling us is that this journey of faith isn’t something we do as isolated individuals. It’s a community thing.

We see this in the gospels. Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples, but they don’t follow him as individuals – they join a community. It’s not a perfect community; it’s made up of imperfect individuals and sometimes they rub each other up the wrong way! But they also help one another grow as followers of Jesus, and eventually they go out and start new communities of faith all over the Mediterranean world.

And that continues to today. St. Margaret’s is a community of followers of Jesus. In a few minutes, this community will make a serious promise, a promise to do everything in its power to support Everett and Kingston in their life in Christ. I know the members of this community and I know they take that promise seriously.

But of course, for that to be possible, baptized children need to continue to be part of the community. That’s why the parents and godparents make a promise to that effect: ‘Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is nurtured in the faith and life of the Christian community?’ ‘I will, with God’s help’. It’s in this community of faith that new disciples can best learn to trust God and follow Jesus.

So this is who we are. We are a community of faith, learning to trust our Creator and Father day by day. We’re learning to know God as God is revealed to us in his Son Jesus. We’re learning to follow Jesus and put his teachings into practice in our daily lives. And we’re not doing this alone; we’re doing it with the help of the Spirit, the breath of God in us. And we’re doing it in the family of God, the Christian community that gathers here each week to worship and learn together, and then scatters to spread the love of Jesus everywhere we go. We’re baptized into this community. This community is our family of faith. And today we’re delighted to welcome Everett and Kingston into this community of disciples of Jesus. 

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