Thursday, December 20, 2007

Baptismal Homily

At the Baptism of Mary Mirembe Louise Bartels
Uganda Christian University Chapel
20 December 2007

Today we gather for a special event in the life of the Bartels and Noll families: the baptism of Mary Mirembe Louise Bartels. A baptism is always on occasion of wonder and joy, sealing the wonder and joy of childbirth. Today there is special significance in having both sets of grandparents present, along with their son and daughter, the father and mother of Mary Mirembe Louise. There is a special sense of the grandness of God’s desire for the nations in holding this ceremony in the Bishop Tucker Chapel, in Uganda, with a child of Biblical and African and English names.

I should add that there is an additional dimension for our family and my wife Peggy in particular. Today is the anniversary of the death of her only sister Mary last Christmastime. We miss her. “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord!”

Last night at our carol sing, I noticed that this sleeping child was passed around from person to person and rocked lovingly by each. Indeed when I held her earlier, I could not help thinking, “Who would not love a child like this?”

“Who would not love a child like this?” I want now to be brutally honest: God! God would not love a child like this. God is not a sentimentalist about babies. God sees into even the infant heart and finds the seeds of rebellion, the seeds of sin and death that is our lot as children of Adam. God created man and woman in his image and he commanded them to increase and multiply, but he never promised to love them, even as a human parent might love his children. After all, parental love includes a great deal of self-love as well, doesn’t it?

Baptism is not a ceremony of child-worship, even though it often seems that way. I should know. I was baptized as a college student along with a cute little black baby, who got just about all the attention. Maybe I have never recovered, and hence this sermon! It is perhaps clearer in adult baptism that a person is dying to the old self and putting on the new Man in Christ! One can see in the adult convert the dark past and the intention to walk in the light. But the same is true of the baby being baptized. She is a sinner of Christ’s redeeming.

Having started on this hard note, let me change direction and state that God is a loving Father, only that His love is lavished not on our children but on His Son. In God this love is not selfishness, at least not in the human sense. It is the eternal welling up of the being of the Triune Nature, the reciprocal indwelling of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. This is a love we humans can barely comprehend, and we have no natural claim on it.

It is this eternal love that was poured out by grace on the world in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary. A contemporary carol captures something of the mystery inherent in Mary’s reply to the Angel: “How then can this be, seeing I am a Virgin?”

Oh, Mary, did you know that your baby boy
is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy
will one day rule the nations?

Did you know that your baby boy
was heaven’s perfect Lamb?
And the sleeping child you’re holding
is the Great I Am!

In adult baptism and in confirmation, we may put emphasis on the confession of faith: “Do you promise to follow Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” “I do.” In infant baptism, we recall the precedent act of God in pouring his grace into our hearts. “We love, because he first loved us?” The basis of this grace is nothing less than the unmerited love of God through Jesus Christ.

God’s love is not a particular love, not favoritism toward this or that child or this or that family, although he does grant baptism as a sign for the children of believers. No, it is a cosmic love, a love for the world. In the Gospel today, it says: “God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” There is an implicit call to mission, if you will, when a child is signed in baptism, a call that others, indeed the whole world, might come to know the Father’s love.

Of course, that love is also cruciform, cross-shaped, as the world will stop its ears to the Good News. John goes on to say: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him (1 John 3:1). So the baptized person will also have to live a different way, as salt in the earth. As she grows, she will need to learn not only the sweetness of parental and brotherly love, but the harshness of sin and injustice and tragedy.

Well, we’ll save those lessons for later, though they surely must come. Today we stand in awe before the mystery of God’s love. I believe the name “Mirembe” means more than “peace,” as in the Juba peace talks. I think it also has the sense of “miracle” and “marvel.” As we stand before the mystery of Christmas, we recognize that it is the same mystery as that signed in baptism: how God in his infinite Triune Love could lavish that love upon us, his miserable creatures.

Yet the mystery and miracle are true, especially to the eyes of faith, and today we sign and seal them in the life of this child.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Stephen Noll

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