Death by Baptism, but
"Christ's Own Forever"
Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest and a professor of religion at Piedmont College in Georgia. She sometimes preaches here in the Calvary Lenten Preaching Series. Time magazine and U.S. News and World Report consider her to be one of the ten outstanding preachers in America.
In one of her books of sermons titled, "Seeds of Heaven," Barbara tells a story that makes me uneasy. The story goes something like this: A woman is worshiping in her parish church on a particular Sunday morning, and it's a very inspiring experience for her. She leaves her church and walks out the front doors onto a main street in the downtown area of one of our major cities. She's met there by a man who is looking in the church's glass doors. He stops her and says, "Ma'am, excuse me. I'm sorry to interrupt you, but can you tell me what it is that you believe in that church from which you've just come?" The woman pauses and stutters and stammers, and pauses again, and finally the man turns away from her, saying, "I'm sorry I bothered you, ma'am," and he continues down the street.
That story troubles me. It makes me wonder how much stammering and stuttering I would have done if I had been stopped by that man. Would he have said, "I'm sorry I bothered you," and gone on? I wonder what you would say if, when you leave Calvary Church today and walk out onto Second Street, somebody would stop you and say, "Excuse me. What is it that those of you in Calvary Episcopal Church believe?" Or, if you're not a member of Calvary Church, "What is it that you believe in your faith?" If that were a test, I wonder how you would score. It's a great question for a Baptism day.
That question occurs in the Bible. In fact it occurs in the Gospel lesson read today from the 16th chapter of Matthew. The setting for that question is this: Jesus and his closest companions are away on a kind of retreat experience. They are in the north country, outside of Galilee, in a town called Caesarea Philippi. Go with me now in your imagination, because this is the way it might have happened.
A number of years ago, Carolyn and I were in Israel/Palestine. We left the Sea of Galilee and traveled approximately 25 miles north into the green, lush northern Galilee territory, almost to the border of the modern-day country of Lebanon. We spent the night in a Jewish Kibbutz, and during the night, we could hear the mortar fire of the war in lower Lebanon.
In this territory, you are in the shadows of the towering snow-capped Mount Hermon, the tallest peak in the Middle East, which has snow on it almost year-round. When the snow melts, the water flows underground at the base of the mountain and surfaces near the area of the Biblical town of Caesarea Philippi.
You are in the ancient territory of Panyas, which is named for the Greek god Pan, the God of all religions, from which we get the word pantheism. Today it's called the Arab or Palestinian word, Banais; in Jesus' day, it's Caesarea Philippi, because the city was rebuilt by Philip, the Roman tetrarch or ruler of Galilee. Philip named the rebuilt Roman town after his two favorite people: Augustus Caesar and himself. It is into that district of Caesarea Philippi that Jesus comes on a retreat experience, to get away from the demands of the people. According to Matthew's Gospel, he has just experienced those three great miracles of the feeding of the 5,000, the walking on water, and the healing of the Phoenician woman's child.
The crowds are big, and He needs his rest. So Jesus goes off to this north country, away from Galilee. I imagine it happened something like this: It's evening, and maybe they're around the fire. Jesus rises and says, "I have some questions for you. Who do the people out there, the masses -- who do they say I am?" Maybe a voice from around the fire says, "Some say that you're the resurrected John the Baptizer." Another voice says, "Some say you are the resurrected Elijah, the great prophet." Still another voice says, "Some say you're the resurrected Jeremiah, the great prophet of social justice." And another voice says, "Some say you're the greatest prophet ever in God's history." There's a pause, and then Jesus says, "What do you believe about me? Who do you say I am?"
There was no doubt some stammering and some silence, and then I think it might have happened like this: Peter, who seemingly always is the one to speak first and therefore often takes great risks and finds himself often saying the wrong thing, Peter stands and says, "I don't know about all the rest of these friends of mine, but I'll speak for me. Jesus, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. I believe that you are the Messiah. I believe that you are the long-awaited, God-appointed, God-anointed Savior of the world."
Now, for a Jew to say that, it was absolutely awesome. Probably the words stuck in his throat when he said, "I believe that you are the Christ." Jesus looks at him and says, "Peter, blessed are you because flesh and blood did not reveal that to you, but the Spirit of God revealed that to you; it's on that kind of profession of faith that I will build my church as long as the planet spins on its axis."
What do you believe? Who do you say that the Son of Man is? It's a great question for parents and godparents and family and extended family and congregation on a baptism day. What do you believe about your baptism?
Last February Carolyn and I traveled to Atlanta where our daughter and son-in-law, Margie and Dan Sutton, used to live. They have just recently moved to Minneapolis, but at the time they were celebrating the baptism of their son, and our grandson, Dawes Bailey Sutton, in All Saints Episcopal Church in downtown Atlanta. It's from All Saints Church that we borrow the tradition of a baptismal banner. We have a parishioner, Cindi Marshall, who transferred to Calvary Church from All Saints, and Cindi now makes these banners for all the children who are baptized here at Calvary. All Saints uses the full name rather than just the baptism name on their banners. So at the top of our grandson's banner it said, Dawes Bailey Sutton, in the middle was the date of the baptism, and then at the bottom were the words, "Christ's Own Forever." That is the prayer we pray at the end of the baptismal liturgy: The people baptized are "Christ's Own Forever."
I had the privilege of presiding at Dawes' baptism. After the baptism liturgy was over, our family, extended family and friends went to a baptismal party at Margie and Dan's home. What an event! Margie took the baptismal banner and put it on a tack outside the front door of their home.
That same afternoon, some of their friends who live nearby and who had been away from Atlanta drove by and saw the banner: "Dawes Bailey Sutton: Christ's Own Forever!" They didn't know what to think. They paused and said their prayers. Then the phone rang in the middle of our party; their friends were on the line. "This is the hardest phone call I've ever had to make," this friend said to Margie, "but has something terrible happened to Dawes? Has Dawes died?" as if that banner were announcing "Dawes Bailey Sutton: Christ's Own Forever!" as his death.
Margie immediately shared that story with us. I was so deeply struck and galvanized by it that I get chills even as I tell you about it now. You see, in a very real sense, that's what happened to Dawes that day. Dawes Bailey died. And, Dawes Bailey (Christian) Sutton came to life in the Sacrament of Baptism, just as each of these three children (who will be baptized) will die today and symbolically go under the waters of death with Christ, and be lifted out of the waters to a new, sacramental, powerful life in Christ. They are alive in Christ.
What do you believe about baptism? What do you believe about Jesus Christ? What do you believe in that church, Calvary Episcopal? Most sermons I hear, particularly those from other faith traditions, tend to try to answer that question for you before you leave church. But I'm not going to do that. As I read the text in today's scripture, Jesus doesn't answer it for his Apostles. He leaves the question with them, which I think is a powerful teaching tool. So I'm going to leave it with you.
What do you believe about baptism? What do you believe about your faith? What does that community of faith called Calvary Episcopal Church believe? I offer this very important question to you, and I have offered these words in the name of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.
Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church.
Matthew 16: 13-20