Texts: Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) • Psalm 30 • Revelation 5:11-14 • John 21:1-19
If you were here for the Easter Vigil, you’re recall that right before the Litany of the Saints I announced to the congregation that we’d forgotten to do the asperges – the thanksgiving for baptism that involves casting drops of baptismal water over the congregation as a remembrance of our baptism. We’ve made up for that lapse in memory doubly this morning, beginning with the Thanksgiving for Baptism that opened our worship, and continuing to the baptisms of Matthew and Tyler Havlicek coming up in a few minutes. Easter is the season of baptisms for obvious reasons – baptism marks our dying and rising with Christ, as Paul writes in the sixth chapter of Romans,
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
It sometimes strikes us as odd to hear talk of death during the Easter season. We tend to think we left all that behind, back in the season of Lent, sandwiched between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It shouldn’t surprise us though. The church has long affirmed that the resurrection does not signal the denial of death, but rather its defeat. Death has not departed from us, but it has lost its power to rule our lives.
We are joined in worship this morning by the families of Matthew and Tyler Havlicek, by their mothers and father, aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents, and even a great-grandparent – right Kay? We’re also joined by one of St. Luke’s former pastors, Frank Showers, who is here to assist with these baptisms. Frank and Kay and Peggy remember another baptism, many years ago, when death and new life lived so closely next to one another it was difficult to know which would claim the day.
That was the year Shana was born. It was a complicated delivery, and as Kay and her family waited outside the delivery room, they were told that it might come down to a choice between saving the mother – her daughter Peggy – or the child, her grand-daughter Shana. Those long hours of waiting were filled with prayer, and when the labor was finally over, both mother and daughter had miraculously come through.
It was fall, and the baptism was scheduled for Thanksgiving, so the Deacons and the rest of St. Luke’s ended up celebrating with Episcopal Church of the Advent, since we’ve held our Thanksgiving services with them for decades. Pastor Frank and Father Orpin and the assembled communities of both congregations were on hand as we sprinkled water on Shana’s head and gave thanks not only for the gift of baptism, but for the unlikely new life that had come out of terrifying circumstances.
Not all of us have such dramatic stories about our own births or our own baptisms, but scripture is full of stories of unlikely new life, terrifying circumstances, and baptisms. We hear two this morning.
The passage from Acts begins with an account of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul had been terrifying the early Christian church by capturing the followers of Jesus, who met in secret, and bringing them back to Jerusalem to be tried and executed. We think of Paul as an apostle zealous for the Lord, but he was zealous long before he became righteous, and he was feared by the early Christians because of the passion he showed for hunting them down.
But while he was on his journey to Damascus, he hears a voice that convicts him of his sin. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He is confused. He thinks he knows the will of God. He believes that what he does is necessary and called for, that he is maintaining purity among the people, but on the way, he discovers something different. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” He is struck blind and taken to Damascus where he encounters Ananias, a faithful disciple who finds a way through fear to obey the Lord’s call to baptize all people – even our enemies – so that we can be reconciled to God and to one another. Saul is baptized and takes on a new name, Paul, and from that moment on his life is changed. He follows Jesus.
In John we hear a different kind of story, but one still filled with unlikely new life coming out of terrifying circumstances. This time it is Jesus’ own friends, gathered back along the Sea of Tiberias, doing what they knew how to do best, fishing. Peter and the rest of the disciples are out on the boat, when an unrecognizable man with a familiar message tells them after a long night of pointless fishing to cast the nets one more time. Their nets fill with fish, and the disciple whom Jesus loved recognizes that abundance as evidence that the Lord is with them.
Peter does something we rarely see in our sanctuary, he jumps naked into the water. But in plenty of places around the world that’s much closer to what a baptism looks like. Mostly naked, save maybe a simple white robe, grown men and women and their children plunge into the water, dying and rising as new people in that moment. Peter needed a new birth. After following Jesus in ministry throughout his life, Peter denies even knowing Jesus three times on the night of his death. Peter, who always rushes ahead, plunging into each new moment, lives trapped in the memory of his failure of nerve, his betrayal of friendship. He needs to be set free from his past, and as he rises from the waters and reaches the shoreline, Jesus gives him what he needs. He erases those three betrayals with three requests, “feed my lambs… tend my sheep… feed my sheep.” Be transformed. Forget your past failures and betrayals and take up the work to which I gave my life. Follow me. And he follows Jesus.
In the baptisms we are about to celebrate, you will hear me ask the parents and sponsors to renounce all the forces of sin and death that fill the world and try to have the last word on our lives. You will be invited to join with them in making their response. We ask the questions three times, like Jesus talking to Peter at the shore, because we know that we have all been a part of humanity’s failure to follow Jesus’ new commandment, to love one another as we have been loved by God. And, even though it is Tyler and Matthew who are being baptized, we all participate in affirming the faith into which they are baptized, because we know that baptism is a life-long journey.
Each of us has a baptismal story. Maybe we were baptized as children, or maybe it was later as adults. Each of us is on a baptismal journey. Maybe, like Paul, we have lost our way, and have become obsessed with policing one another, instead of sharing the gifts of God’s grace; or maybe, like Peter, we have become consumed by our past failures and betrayals, and need a chance to renew our faith in loving discipleship; maybe we are like Ananias, incredulous that God would call us to be in community with people like Saul, people we would never choose to share a meal with, much less a body. But that’s what we are called in baptism to be, the body of Christ, a new body livi
ng a new life. Dying to our old ways of life, and being transformed, living the resurrection life together. Come, together let’s follow Jesus.