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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Basics of Faith 5 - Sacraments 1 - Baptism

Sacraments 1 - Baptism
Basics of Faith 5 – July 23, 2017
 A Sermon by Rev. M. Gayle MacDonald

Lessons read on July 23, 2017:   Responsive Reading:  Wisdom 7, VU #891,
Gospel 1:  Mark 1:4-8, Gospel 2:  Matthew 28:16-20

Sacrament’ – ‘A sacred or a holy action’.  The sacraments are visible signs of God’s invisible grace.  The sacraments are visible actions pointing to the invisible action of God.   The word ‘sacrament’ has slipped into everyday language to describe any ritual or action a person or group may consider to be a sacred ritual or action; but the church reserves the word for those actions which are sacred to the people of God within its denomination.

In the Reformed and Methodist traditions, we celebrate two sacraments as gifts of Christ:  baptism and holy communion.
In these sacraments the ordinary things of life –water, bread, wine—point beyond themselves to God and God’s love, teaching us to be alert to the sacred in the midst of life.  (A Song of Faith, UCC)

We celebrate these two because they are instituted or instructed by Jesus in the Gospels.  The instruction for baptism, is found in Matthew 28 and is given to us by the risen Christ: 
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and 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.“

The second sacrament, communion, which will be the topic of the sermon on July 30, is instituted or instructed in the story of the last supper. This story is repeated each time communion is served as we repeat the story of the breaking of bread and the passing of the cup, each part usually ending with the words “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Denominations differ in what they designate as sacraments or sacred acts, but all denominations which belong to the World Council of Churches recognize at least these two.  And the sacrament on which the Canadian Council of Churches has been able to come to the most agreement is baptism.  The member churches agreed to recognize each other’s baptism, provided there is visible pouring of water, and the words in the act of baptism include, “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  

So what happens in baptism?  That is a good question which cannot be fully answered because part of what takes place is an inward thing.  We believe that God is present at baptism, whether as infants or as adults; and that the grace of God, by the Spirit is at work in us. 

In its infancy, in the very beginning, baptism was often a family event.  If the father of a household was baptized, then his whole family was baptized.  This was a matter of declaring their faith in Christ and becoming part of the followers of Christ.  Whereas, the baptism Jesus received and that John performed had to do with repentance, which meant turning around one’s life and going in a different direction – renouncing the wrongs of the past and pledging to live a new life. 

Tying baptism to a new life was not a unique idea.  In the Jewish faith, religious proselytes, when they are accepted fully in Judaism, are both circumcised and immersed in a ritual bath.  The act of immersion in water was a sign of beginning a new religious identity.

As already stated, John’s baptism, which we read about in the Gospels was specifically related to repentance – of committing to turning one’s life around and living a new way.  The washing in water was a sign of an inner washing, a change from the old sinful ways to the new ways of Godly living.

When it comes to the baptism of Jesus, in the Gospel of Matthew, John has  a problem with baptising Jesus and asks a question which has been asked by many through the ages.  Why should Jesus be baptized if Jesus has done no wrong?  And yet Jesus insists on it. 

John’s question and Jesus’ answer read like this:
3:14 John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
3:15 But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”
Jesus does not set himself apart from the rest of humanity and does not require of us anything that he himself has not experienced -- and so he his baptized. 
. . . .  And then something significant happens.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
3:17 And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."

Baptism in the Christian tradition, as we understand it, is about two things: (1) a new beginning and (2) belonging, being declared as one loved by God and who is now recognized as part of the community of God’s people.

Now in the time of Constantine (272-337 C.E.), when Christianity was moving from being a marginalized religion to being accepted in the mainstream of that era, the general feeling was that the worst sin that one could commit was to “go back on their baptismal promises”.  To abandon or go back on one’s faith was to be an apostate; and apostasy was considered the gravest of sins.  Apostasy presented the emperor, Constantine a dilemma, since as emperor he was also head of a pagan cult.  His mother became a Christian early on, but Constantine waited until his death bed to be baptized so that he could not be accused of apostasy. 

Fortunately, we do not have any such dilemmas to deal with today, for we welcome all who have turned away from their faith and have come back – we welcome them with joy and acceptance as we imagine Christ would do.  And we welcome all who are curious, who are uncertain, who are simply looking for community.  There is no reason to turn anyone away.

When someone who has turned away from their faith and returned again, it may be appropriate to renew the vows made at baptism as a sign of their re-commitment, but we don’t require it; trusting in the Spirit’s work and in God’s love.  Though it is not required, we know it can be a very meaningful thing to do.

In our tradition, that is the United Church, once people are baptized they belong, whether as infants or adults.  But we do make a distinction and recognize the importance of making one’s own choice and commitment of belonging.  Baptism is an entry into the universal Church of Christ. 

Renewing those vows for one’s self, when old enough to understand and make the choice, we call confirmation or “renewal of baptismal vows”.  Because the choice of adult baptism or confirmation is a conscious one, this act then is made within a particular denomination and, in the United Church, one then becomes a “full member” of a Congregation and of the denomination.  All activities of the Church in the United Church of Canada are open to all people without any questions asked, but a few privileges are reserved for full members. 

Becoming a full member through adult baptism or confirmation (if baptism occurred as an infant or in a denomination radically different) is a declaration of a desire and intent to participate fully in life of that particular community of faith.  The action is recorded in our Church Register and the ‘confirmed’ person is extended further privileges in the life of the Congregation.  At the present, this includes voting on spiritual matters, becoming an elder, becoming a representative to higher courts of the church and voting on and participating in activities which lead to the choosing of new clergy.  A recent remit has given congregations the right to allow, by motion, those who are present, whether full members or not, to voting privileges on all matters concerning the Congregation.  However, there may still be certain positions within the Church structure which require the person holding them to be in full membership.   

In summary, at baptism we are accepted as members of the whole body of Christ, the Holy Catholic or universal church of Christ, and therefore are members of the denomination – no matter our age.  In adult baptism or at the renewal of our baptismal vows (also known as confirmation), we accept the commitment and expectations of living and growing in faith in the Christian church and we make a conscience choice about how and where we want to live out that commitment.  It is a public profession of faith; a statement that acts out an inner transformation. 

Baptism is about belonging and believing and is a visible sign of an invisible and inward act of the Spirit.

            A renewal of Baptismal Faith is always appropriate and from time to time, the congregation as a whole may be invited to remember their baptismal faith.  Today is one such day.  Those who are visiting with us today may choose to participate with us, or merely to follow along.  This is not a sacrament, but a remembering.  The words, which follow in content the general questions in most denominations, are based on the New Creed which was repeated just prior to our service. 
Let us stand and remember our baptism. 
(The worship service continued with a renewal of baptismal faith by the Congregation – insert for that part of the service is printed below)
Remembering Our Baptism
            Baptism celebrates God’s initiative and our response. It is God’s “Yes” to us, and our “Yes” to God. It is a sign of the Divine-human covenant. Baptism flows from God’s unmerited grace and pours out in lives of gratitude and commitment. As initiation into the Church, the Body of Christ, it is an act of welcoming, blessing, and belonging.
            Our baptismal identity is both individual and communal. Baptism honours the diversity of individuals and challenges us to be a community of equals.
            Baptism does not need to be repeated. However, it is appropriate, both for individuals and congregations, to renew the faith expressed in the baptismal covenant from time to time.
~excerpt from Celebrate God’s Presence (UCC Service Book)

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
~Galatians 3:27-28 NRSV

Let us stand and remember our baptism:

Congregational Renewal of Baptismal Faith
One:   Do you believe in God, who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Spirit? 
All:     I do, by the grace of God.
One:   Desiring the freedom of new life in Christ, do you seek to resist evil, and to live in love and justice?
All:     I will, God being my helper.
One:   Will you proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, in your words and actions?
All:     I will, God being my helper.
One:   Will you join with your brothers and sisters in this community of faith to celebrate God’s presence, live with respect in creation, and love and serve others?
All:     I will, God being my helper.
One:   As a baptized and baptizing church, will you continue to support and nurture each other within a community which worships God, resists evil, and seeks justice?
All:     We will, God being our helper.

A New Creed

(Pouring of Water)
One:   Remember your baptism and be thankful.
All:     Amen.

United Church of Canada Statements and Creeds on Baptism
1925 – Basis of Union
Article XVI. Of the Sacraments.
We acknowledge two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which were instituted by Christ, to be of perpetual obligation as signs and seals of the covenant ratified in His precious blood, as a means of grace, by which, working in us, He doth not only quicken but also strengthen and comfort our faith in Him, and as ordinances through the observance of which His Church is to confess her Lord and be visibly distinguished from the rest of the world.
Baptism with water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is the sacrament by which are signified and sealed our union to Christ and participation in the blessings of the new covenant. The proper subjects of baptism are believers and infants presented by their parents or guardians in the Christian faith. In the latter case the parents or guardians should train up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord and should expect that their children will, by the operation of the Holy Spirit, receive the benefits which the sacrament is designed and fitted to convey. The Church is under the most solemn obligation to provide for their Christian instruction.
The Lord’s Supper is the sacrament of communion with Christ and with His people, in which bread and wine are given and received in thankful remembrance of Him and His sacrifice on the Cross; and they who in faith receive the same do, after a spiritual manner, partake of the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ to their comfort, nourishment, and growth in grace. All may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper who make a credible profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus and of obedience to His law.

1940 – Statement of Faith:
X. The Sacraments.
We believe that the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are effectual means through which, by common things and simple acts, the saving love of God is exhibited and communicated to His people, who receive them in faith.
We believe that in Baptism men are made members of the Christian society. Washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit signifies God’s cleansing from sin and an initial participation in the gifts and graces of the new life. The children of believing parents are baptized and nurtured in the family of God so that they may in due time take upon themselves the yoke of Christ.
 We believe that the Lord’s Supper perpetuates the fellowship between Christ and His disciples sealed in the upper room, that at His table He is always present, and His people are nourished, confirmed, and renewed. The giving and receiving of bread and wine accompanied by His own words signifies the gracious self-giving of Christ as suffering and living Lord in such wise that His faithful people live in Him and He in them.
So we acknowledge Baptism as God’s appointed means of grace at initiation into the Christian fellowship; and the Lord’s Supper as His appointed means of maintaining the fellowship in health and strength, and as the act of worship in which the whole soul of man goes out to God and God’s grace comes freely to man.

1968 (Rev. 1980, 1995) - A New Creed – baptism not specifically mentioned

2013 – A Song of Faith
In grateful response to God’s abundant love,
we bear in mind our integral connection
to the earth and one another;
we participate in God’s work of healing and mending creation.
To point to the presence of the holy in the world,
the church receives, consecrates, and shares
visible signs of the grace of God.
In company with the churches
of the Reformed and Methodist traditions,
we celebrate two sacraments as gifts of Christ:
baptism and holy communion.
In these sacraments the ordinary things of life
—water, bread, wine—
point beyond themselves to God and God’s love,
teaching us to be alert
to the sacred in the midst of life.

Before conscious thought or action on our part,
we are born into the brokenness of this world.
Before conscious thought or action on our part,
we are surrounded by God’s redeeming love.
Baptism by water in the name of the Holy Trinity
is the means by which we are received, at any age,
into the covenanted community of the church.
It is the ritual that signifies our rebirth in faith
and cleansing by the power of God.
Baptism signifies the nurturing, sustaining,
and transforming power of God’s love
and our grateful response to that grace.

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