September 27, 2009, 17th Sunday after Pentecost

September 27, 2009
The Rev. Natasha Brubaker Garrison
Year B, 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

It’s pretty hard to make a connection between the portion of Mark’s Gospel we hear today and baptism. The closest we get at first glance is the mention of the cup of water. But actually there is quite a bit, for baptism is both a sacred, mysterious and complete event and a moment along the path of conversion into a Christian—a follower of Jesus. At the heart of this is the notion of illumination. This is an old and orthodox understanding of baptism: it is about illuminating our hearts and minds with the knowledge, the wisdom, of Jesus. The process of illumination transforms us and turns us more and more into the image of Jesus. It’s a risky road. It might lead to being cast out, called naïve or impractical or unpatriotic or heretical. It might lead us to suffer or die for the love and life of others who are ground down by the ways of the world. We can forget how serious this process is. And serious it is once we really open ourselves up to it.

It is that power, that seriousness, that perhaps we see a hint of in Jesus’ comments about cutting off limbs. I think it describes the paradoxically painful and life-giving process of opening ourselves up to the God of all creation that created us for goodness, for love, for mutual interdependence. We discover attitudes, beliefs, stances, behaviors and such that we realize can no longer live in us as a follower of the Anointed One. And it is often a radical act of will, a hard act of will, to give them up. As we are illuminated in our hearts we see what we are stumbling over. The cost of not removing the stumbling blocks is nothing less then the loss of our very soul. Perhaps that is what is meant by being thrown into hell—living a life with a lost soul.

The act of receiving the Sacrament of Baptism is a profound and intentional act of claiming our souls. It is an act of naming that our souls fully live when brought into the life of Jesus and under the shining light of God’s glory. We become little ones, children of God, beginning to be grow again in a new life marked by Jesus’ life. The hope, I think, is that when people see a Christian it is somehow apparent in how they live, how they speak, and how they love.

The reason that I am going on about Baptism is that today we are, as a community, going to celebrate the preparation of a member of this congregation for this holy Sacrament. One of our parish will be admitted to the catechumenate, the preparation process for baptism, as soon as this sermon is over. It is a beautiful and powerful act and by having the community mark and honor this step we take seriously the importance of baptism. It is not just something we do; it is utterly and completely life-changing.

The early Church took the preparation for baptism very seriously. Rites and courses of instruction varied from Jerusalem to Byzantium to Rome, but what they all had in common was that it was a lengthy process and the baptismal rite itself was elaborate and complex. In the Byzantium rite people were enrolled at the third week of Lent and had to take instruction during the week. Each candidate underwent three exorcisms after which he or she was now a catechumen. It is important to realize that these exorcisms weren’t in the vein we understand them now: a radical cure for possession. Rather, it was a cleansing and a purifying from the contamination of the world. Along with this the celebrant said a prayer over the candidate, breathed on her three times and sealed her three times with oil—on the forehead, the mouth and the breast. Lovely litanies for those to be enlightened (as they were called) were prayed by the community. On Good Friday there was the Rite of Renunciation and Allegiance. At the Easter Vigil the font is blessed with breath and signing and incense. Lengthy prayers were made. The oil of gladness was blessed. The catechumen was anointed with oil before baptism and heard these words: Blessed be God, who enlightens and sanctifies everyone who comes into the world, now and forever and unto the ages of ages. Then the person was submerged three times (and one was naked for this) and then anointed again afterwards, as well as being dressed in a new white robe.

In early Rome the rite was similar. Upon admission the catechumen was given a morsel of blessed salt upon the tongue as a sign of wisdom and God’s favor. Then in the coming weeks, the catechumen underwent instruction and a series of scrutinies. Again, an exorcism was performed. The Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were handed over and these were to be memorized. Before baptism there was a final exorcism and something called the Effeta and Anointing before Baptism wherein the priest touched the ears and nostrils of the catechecum with spit saying Effeta, that is, be opened, unto an odor of sweetness. But thou, O devil, take flight, for the judgment of God has drawn near. After submersion, there was a custom of blessing water, honey and milk. Water was the spirit of truth and the milk and honey was a reminder of the promised land flowing with milk and honey. The mixture of the milk and honey signified the union of heavenly and earthly substance in Christ. The newly baptized were given this mixture at the time of communion, their first communion.

In looking at our history we see how tame our baptismal rites have become in comparison. In many places people are reclaiming some of the lost ritual. More and more people ask for full immersion, for example. I think much of this is to help us remember through the action the profound, the life-altering nature, that Baptism is for those of us who seek it. The language of the early prayers invokes that earth-shattering significance of what was taking place. They are full of the language of being born, of emerging anew from the womb of the Church, the enlightening of the heart and the mind, the seeing ourselves as infants, little children, children in Christ, leaving the old world and its ways behind once and for all to join into this new reality, this new life. This language was woven throughout the entire liturgy not just the time right before baptism. There was a deep symbol being enacted through stripping of clothes, prayers, anointing, etc. that pointed to one’s death, indeed were the very actions done to a person’s body at death, and then the symbol of being born through the submersion and coming out of the water naked, the dressing and blessing of the person by the priest, deacons and deaconesses—spiritual midwives—and the reception into the new family by being fed and given drink. Life is transformed into new life through this act that recalls the death and resurrection of Christ. What we are after is what we were, yet so much more than that. We are different; we are part of another reality that exists within this world, yet is not the same as it. This is a bold and audacious claim! And it is the one we make at baptism.

Clement of Alexandria, one of the great figures of the early Church, wrote extensively on the centrality of baptism. To him we are the children, we the baptized. Our life is now intimately involved in God, Christ, Spirit, resurrection, forgiveness and hope. We are a new people—our first task is to grow as disciples. Here is a little summation of Clement’s main understandings of baptism as distilled by Richard Norris, a contemporary church historian:

The first [theme] is that Christian initiation, with the formation and discipline it involves, marks, for Clement, a definite boundary: a boundary in people’s relation to God, a boundary in their inner sense of who they are, and a social boundary that marks out a “new people”—a people who live out the human enterprise in a new way. The second theme can be summed up in the two words “child” and paideia (training). Clement will not allow that Baptism needs supplementation of any sort; it sets people in the way of salvation firmly and surely. The baptized are “children of God”. Nevertheless they are children, and the living out of the new life is therefore, in his eyes, an affair of continuous learning and growing. To put the matter briskly, what Baptism creates is a collection of disciples, apprentices of the divine Word, whose common life is, in every sense of the term, a practice.

Now on this picture we need to reflect—carefully and, for that matter, critically. The baptismal community as Clement pictures it is not, when one peers closely at it, a phenomenon that we find very familiar. In spite of the fact that he was, in his time and place, a notorious liberal, and quite possible suspect in some circles for just that reason, he is clear in his mind that the Church is not a religious institution in the service of its society; it is another society, living a new and different sort of life, which one enters only through a personal revolution and which for that reason is inevitably set apart in its world. It is a collection of people whose business it is constantly to rehearse a divinely authored play whose first actual, full performance will occur in the Age to Come. What its member are presently engaged in is the enterprise of learning their parts; …a continuing process of paideia. Christ “is to us a spotless image; to him we are to try with all our might to assimilate our souls.”

As we prepare and baptize new little ones we too are reminded that as part of this other society we also are children growing into the stature of Christ. Baptism isn’t the end; it is just the beginning. We are to look at our baptismal vows and see what makes us stumble in living them out. We are to look and see at how we are growing as a community and as individuals in prayer, worship, love, forgiveness and resembling Jesus. We pray together, confess together, walk together following Jesus in peace. After all, that is the community we have joined and it is our God-given task. We are assured of salvation, but we are simultaneously charged to live into that salvation actively here and now. We are to retell and retell the story and see how it is being told today in our world. A holy task for we, holy children, a holy people, of God.