Sunday, April 27, 2014

Faith and Promise

A sermon preached on Sunday, April 27 (Easter II) at St. Augustine's, Wiesbaden
Acts 2:14a, 22-32, 1 Peter 1:3-9, John 20:19 – 31, Psalm 16

Today we celebrate a Baptism, our first one this year at this church. Through Baptism by water and the Holy Spirit Carla June Cross will become a member of Christ’s body the Church and we will welcome her into our even larger family, one that stretches way beyond these walls! And the themes I picked up from today’s readings, especially from the Gospel, seem very appropriate for this occasion: they are the themes of promise, gift, mission, and faith.

One thing happening when Jesus appears to the disciples in the locked room is that he is fulfilling a number of promises he had made to them before his death. He brings peace: “Peace be with you” are his first words to the disciples, recalling his earlier promise. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” (John 14:27) This word peace or in Hebrew shalom means more than the absence of conflict. It stands for God’s blessing, for the promise of wholeness, for the peace of reconciliation, and for the absence of fear. The promise of Baptism is similar. It is a blessing from God and it imparts forgiveness and new life in God. For all we really have to fear is God’s absence.

Jesus promised the disciples joy: “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you,” (John 16:22) and they are filled with joy at the sight of him. This is the joy of Jesus’ presence and in Baptism we promise that the candidate will be Christ’s own for ever. This is as much an occasion for  joy, as the fact that we celebrate a new member and a new witness and I will pray later that Carla receives the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

We find the biggest promise of all in the First Letter of Peter, it is the promise of an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading,” so nothing material like land or buildings, but God’s kingdom. Holy Baptism is, to quote from the Catechism, “the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.”[1]

But in Baptism the promises are not one way, we also make promises, or for most of us today, we repeat and reaffirm promises we have made before: to renounce evil, to turn to Christ, to follow and obey him, to proclaim God’s word, and to serve Christ. We do this knowing that these are promises we cannot keep on our own, but only with God’s help, in particular with the help of God’s Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is one of the two gifts Jesus gives the disciples in that locked room on that first Resurrection Day. He breathes it on or into them, recalling God’s gift of life to humankind in the second Creation story: “then the Lord God … breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)  They have been given Jesus’ own life by the Spirit, for without it we would not be capable of manifesting God's presence and doing God's will as Jesus did. The second gift is forgiveness, both the power and the responsibility to forgive. Forgiveness is part of our calling as Christians, not just the formal forgiveness of sins that I can grant in the absolution, but the everyday forgiveness of the other – the forgiveness without which reconciliation, between God and humanity and between one another is not possible. Carla will be baptized by water and the Holy Spirit. She will receive the forgiveness of sin – which is for her as for us both a gift and a mandate.

Jesus commissions the disciples, they are sent into the world just as the Father has sent him – they have a mission, from the Latin missio, meaning I sent. The disciples are sent to bear witness to Jesus and to be the presence of Jesus in the world and to be God’s agents of change of the world. Their mission is to carry on Christ's work, not to begin a new one. This is the same mission we accepted at our Baptism, as we will affirm later in the Baptismal Covenant. We promise to continue in the apostles’ footsteps to proclaim God’s Good News, not our own, and to serve Christ, not the church, not ourselves, not our own group or party. How we live and act is itself a major part of our witness to the world, especially how we live and act with one another – in unity with God and with one another.

Faith, and Thomas’ supposed lack of it, are of course at the centre of the Gospel story. I’ve always found it a bit unfair to call Thomas ‘doubting Thomas.’ For one thing, the other disciples clearly also had their doubts too. As we heard last week, Mary Magdalene was sent by Jesus to tell them: ‘I have seen the Lord.’ (20:18) But as the disciples have locked themselves in a room out of fear, they clearly were not convinced until they saw him and the marks in his hands and side. Which is all that Thomas really wanted: just to see the same evidence his friends had seen. I also think that Thomas was more disappointed and sad than in doubt. He wanted to be able to share in the same joy and see his risen Master in person. He had that chance, we don’t of course, but that does not make our faith in Christ any less important.
Last week I went to see the film/movie Philomena, which I really recommend it’s a very moving story. The cynical journalist, played by Steve Coogan, is very critical about the line from our Gospel, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” He wants evidence, he wants proof and he does not want to be told what to think. But that is not really what this line means. It is the confirmation that the faith of those who come after the disciples, who see Christ ‘only’ in their hearts or who ‘only’ experience him in the Eucharist, that their faith is as blessed and as valid as the faith of the first witnesses.

In the end Thomas gets to say one of the most important lines in the Gospel when he acclaims Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” This is what all the signs and events and the long, long discourses in John’s Gospel have been leading up to – to the realization that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God.
A very similar confession is part of the Rite of Baptism when, in Carla’s case her parents and godparents on her behalf, will promise to accept Jesus Christ as their savior and follow and obey him as Lord. There are a number of reasons why we retain infant Baptism in the Anglican tradition. For one thing, why should children be excluded from membership in Christ’s body? I seem to recall Christ having specifically commanded, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Mathew 19:4) And I also think that it helps remind us of how children believe. As those of us who have read bedtime stories to our children know very well, children have no problem at all in believing things based on words, on what someone they trust tells them.

And that is the faith we need to recall from time to time. A faith built on relationship and on trust, based on the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus, as witnessed by the disciples and passed on to us in Scripture. It is a faith sustained by the gift of the Holy Spirit that was not just given to the disciples two thousand years ago, but to us all. So with no more delay let us baptize Carla into her new life in Christ by water and the Holy Spirit.

[1] BCP, 858

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