Audio for today’s sermon is found here: The Font–Entering the Christian Story
Over the last two Sundays we were introduced, or re-introduced to a story with a Cosmic Scope and a Cross-Shape. It is the story of a God who, out of sheer desire to love another, created the universe. The creation story in Genesis chapter 1 delights in affirming the beauty and order of each stage of creation as God builds a Temple, creates women and men to be priests in that Temple, and then rests. Which is to say, takes up residence in that Temple.
It is also the story of God’s refusal to let that Temple be torn down. It is the story of a creating love that is also a redeeming love. A love that takes up the priesthood of all humanity in one great high priest, and completes it. That priesthood, we said, took the form of self-emptying love that was fully displayed on the cross, where the priest himself became a victim. His is a power that looks like weakness, a victory that looks like loss, wisdom that resembles foolishness, a love that has been rejected. But appearances can be deceiving. The love that was embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, the God who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, did in fact declare the cross to be a victory by walking out of his grave, showing himself to the twelve, and ascending to the right hand of God the Father. To take his rightful place as the King and Priest of God’s creation. It is in the Easter-list of resurrection that St. Paul could see that , as he wrote in our NT lesson last week, “The Cross is the wisdom and power of God.”
What a wonderful story! Creation is the object of God’s love, a love so passionate that it will stoop to the gates of hell, to the threshold of “unbeing” to restore it. But it’s still a story outside of us. It is about something that happens to us, and to the world around us.
What if it’s also a story that happens in us? A story that works itself out in the actual lives of women and men in the present? What if it leaves room for improvised chapters, weaving our life-stories into its grand one, and filling them with even greater meaning all the while? What if it’s a story that, if we let it narrate us, doesn’t overwrite us but invites us to become more fully ourselves? OK. Those last two questions were for the English professors. What if the Christian story has the power to draw us into it? To make us a part of it? To become not just a story, but a lived reality in this world? Those are the questions that will drive us for the remainder of our series.
For now, let’s begin with this one: where do we enter? Where do we become a part of the story? And that place is the font. Now, fonts can be found in various places within a church—under a baptism window (as our smaller font is sometimes found), or in the midst of the nave symbolizing the welcome of the newly baptized into the family of God, or even up at the front for the simple reason so that no one has an obstructed view. There is no one right place for a font. Still, many churches from ancient times have placed their fonts right at the entrance to the nave. And that’s where our old marble font is. Now I must confess, I don’t know if our font is there for symbolic reasons or just because it is incredibly heavy and the movers didn’t want to take it elsewhere. But I am glad it is at the entrance to the nave. Because it reminds us by its placement there that baptism is about beginnings.
Have you ever noticed the place of water in the great story that we have been telling? Wherever things begin, water seems to be there. In the beginning, when the earth was formless and empty, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. When the hearts of men and women were turned entirely to evil, the Spirit of God withdrew the restraints and allowed the waters to cover creation again so that God could renew, rebegin, creation after the Flood. When the LORD laid bare his mighty arm to rescue his people from slavery in Egypt, the waters of the Red Sea parted so that Israel could pass through on dry land. Those same waters closed on the Egyptian army so that Israel could begin their journey to the land of Promise freed from Egypt’s domination forever. When the people came to the threshold of the promised land, the waters of the Jordan river parted in front of the priests carrying the Ark of God so that the people could begin to move in to the land.
Centuries later, the Lord Jesus stood waist deep in the same river arguing with his cousin John about who should baptize whom. Finally, it was decided that the waters should in fact receive him who knew no sin in order to fulfill all righteousness. This baptism began the mission that we spoke of last week. The mission that was the victory of God over God’s enemies, God’s judgment on sin, God’s cleansing sacrifice that cleans all of us inside and out.
Water, water, everywhere. And everywhere a new beginning
And when we come to the font, the echoes of all those stories surround us. They are all events in the great story of the Gospel, the story that we learn through song and scripture, symbol and sight.
Here at the font, our individual stories are taken up into the great story and they are begun again. Here at the font Christ’s story becomes ours and ours becomes Christ’s. Here, our destinies are intertwined with his. Here’s how St. Paul puts it:
“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.”
There are three points here I want to make.
First, at the font, my story is taken up, by the Spirit, into the cosmic, cross-shaped story that is the story of Jesus Christ. The story of God’s love enacted in this world. The Spirit that hovered over the waters at creation, that parted the Red Sea and the Jordan River, that descended upon the man Jesus of Nazareth to begin his mission as Messiah, that same Spirit hovers over the waters of baptism, ready again to do his re-creating and rescuing work. Here is where the Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ. So it is that we pray over the waters, these words:
“Now sanctify this water by the power of your Holy Spirit, that whose who are cleansed from sin and born again, may continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.”
Do you see the intersecting images in that prayer? Here is where we are cleansed from sin. Our sin—that which has torn us away from God’s loving embrace, that which enslaves us, and to which we are willingly enthralled, that is washed away. Here is where we are born again—born of water and the Spirit as Jesus told Nicodemus in John 3—here is where the prisonhouse of sin whose sacrament is death is broken.
Why? Why are we cleansed from sin and born again? So that we may continue forever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior. So that, in other words, we might be united to him. So that his density might become ours and ours might be united to him.
At the font, my story is taken up, by the Spirit into the cosmic, cross-shaped story that is the story of Jesus Christ. My story, if you like, is begun again. Re-told in a new and better way.
Here’s the second point.
At the font, where my sins are washed away, where I am born again, where I am united with Christ, where his destiny becomes mine, where my story is caught up into the great story of the Gospel, I am not obliterated. I become more fully myself. I become the me God intends me to be. “The glory of God is the human being fully alive,” said the great second century theologian and bishop, Irenaeus. And at the font we are made fully alive.
That is a point that seems so lost sometimes when people think about Christian faith. The New Testament language of being born again, or becoming a new creation, or putting on the new person, as Paul describes it elsewhere, is sometimes presented in such a way that it’s heard as “you won’t be you anymore.” But that is not what the language of new birth and new creation mean.
They mean, instead, a putting of creation back on the rails. Where sin had derailed God’s good creation, had frustrated its purpose and prevented it from fulfilling its destiny as God’s temple, God sent his Son to be the one faithful priest who, by giving himself fully and completely for the healing of that world, would right everything. Would get things back on course. And baptism is the spot where we are incorporated into that once-for-all act of making right. We are made right. We become the people God intended us to be when he thought of us before we were made. The destiny God intended for us—a destiny once frustrated by sin—has by Christ been opened to us again. And that destiny to take our place as God’s image, God’s Viceroy, God’s priests in a new creation. Our story begins again, to be sure, and it begins as our true story.
Which brings me to my third point.
Baptism marks the beginning of that union with Christ, that transformation in which I become more fully myself, more fully the creature God intends, more fully alive.
So at every baptism we—all of us, the newly baptized and the long-time baptized–renew our baptismal covenant. Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship? Will your persevere in resisting evil? Will you proclaim the good news? Will you serve Christ in all persons? Will you strive for justice?
It would be great wouldn’t it if, as soon as the waters hit our heads, it was once and done, and all the work God needed to do in us was accomplished.
But that is not how God works. God works in us, all the while keeping us, us. Working at one point here, another there, as the calendar pages pass. It is good, John Calvin once said, if today is better than yesterday. So it is that the story into which we are drawn in our baptisms is one we need to hear over and over and over again. One we need to take into ourselves regularly. So that the promises made by the Spirit of God to us at the font have the time they need to mature, to come true.
Baptism is the place where the adventure begins. Where the cosmic story of cross-shaped love becomes mine in order that I might, even as I listen to it and take it into myself, become me, to the glory of God.