A Sermon preached on Sunday, August 12, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; John 6:35, 41-51
Once again, God delivers. We are celebrating a Baptism this morning, of Hannah Lore Klöckner. The readings we heard this morning are not specially chosen for baptisms, and yet they fit perfectly, at least one does. Which one do I mean? Absalom’s death in 2 Samuel, putting away falsehood in Ephesians, or Jesus’ bread of life sermon in John? I’m thinking of Ephesians, but the other two also have something to say to the occasion. If we blend out all the gruesome details of Absalom’s defeat by the army of his father, then one thing remains: the unconditional love of a parent for their child. I just hope that Hannah does not get up to quite so much mischief as Absalom did. And the passage from John’s gospel is all about the Eucharist, the second great sacrament. Baptism brings us into relationship with God through Jesus. The Eucharist sustains and grows that relationship. To receive Jesus, the bread of life, helps us become like him.
But it is the passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians that I want to focus on. This is Paul teaching them, and us, what it means to be a baptized person. According to Paul, in verse 24, so just before the section we heard earlier, in Baptism we “clothe ourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” And what we heard this morning is what that new self should do or not do. These are the rules for anyone and everyone who calls themselves “Christian.” They are not about that person’s individual relationship with God. They are all about our relationship with one another.
We started our service this morning with the special baptismal acclamation, also taken from this chapter of Ephesians, that there is one Body and one Spirit; one hope in God's call to us; one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all. All of Paul’s advice is focused on the one body. Anything that builds up the body, the community of all believers, is good. Anything that threatens or impairs that body is bad.
Paul begins by highlighting the importance of speaking the truth. We belong to one another, we owe the truth – always tempered by love – to one another. Lies and deceit are like poison for the body of Christ. Our message is always good news, not fake news.
Then he turns to dealing with anger and we heard that lovely phrase “do not let the sun go down on your anger.” (Eph. 4:26) When we discussed this passage at our Bible study on Wednesday, one member of the group said that this had always been something she and her husband practice, always to make up after an argument and before the day is over. And they have been married for a long time, so it works! It is necessary too within the Christian community. We will disagree, often passionately, and may even get angry in the course of an argument. Paul actually says, “be angry.” He knows we can’t avoid it at times. Jesus demonstrated righteous anger too – just ask the Temple traders! But when we are angry, we are often driven to say and do things that we regret. We must put them away before they grow and take on a life of their own. That is what Paul means by, “but do not sin.”
In Mark’s gospel, when Jesus is being attacked for not strictly adhering to the dietary rules, he famously says, “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15) And he goes on to explain, “for it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come,” (7:21) deceit, envy, and slander. I hear echoes of this in Paul’s teaching: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up …. so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” (Eph. 4:29) We build up with words of praise and thanks, and we build up with words of constructive criticism.
We must simply always behave as those on who have been marked with the seal of the Holy Spirit, as I will do to Hannah later in the Baptismal ceremony. This mark indicates who we belong to – God in Christ – and is a constant reminder to behave in a manner appropriate to that calling.
After all the negatives, don’t do this and don’t do that, Paul finishes off with some positive statements about being a baptized Christian: “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (4:32) Kindness and mutual forgiveness are the very essence of Christian community, in fact according to the theologian Tom Wright in his commentary on this passage “kindness is one of the purest forms of the imitation of God.“ And that is Paul’s final piece of advice. In all you do, imitate God as you have experienced God in Jesus. In Paul’s words, “live in love, as Christ loved us.” (5:2)
We want Hannah to speak the truth, to be angry when it is justified, but to still stay in relationship, to speak only what is useful for building up others, what we call the good news, to practice kindness and forgiveness, and to live in love. How will she learn these things? I’m sure she has been listening very attentively to all I have said this morning, but that will not be enough. She will learn through imitation. And that is where you all come in. First and foremost, the parents and godparents who will promise, “by your prayers and witness to help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ.” But not just. Everyone here will promise to do all in your power to support Hannah in her life in Christ. If we want Hannah to behave as one marked as Christ’s own forever, and if we want to bring others to Christ, then we have to show her and them the way. Christianity is about practice, about putting faith into action. The Baptismal service and the promises we will shortly say together in the Baptismal Covenant are just that: first they describe what we believe in, and then they cover the actions that must result from our faith and as we follow Paul’s call to be imitators of God and God’s beloved children.