Friday, January 11, 2008
baptism and identity (a short sermon)
Last Easter our dear friend Shani Kilasi from the Oasis Madrid community was baptized. Each time I perform a baptism, I try to tailor the significance of baptism to the person's particular experience. In Shani's instance, we felt the theme of identity suited. What follows is the text of my homily. I hope that reading it will enrich your understanding of the meaning of baptism.
Baptism and Identity
a short sermon by Troy Cady
Life is a search for definition. It’s easy to see that a thing is; it’s another matter to tell what a thing is.
And, keep in mind, existence and essence both matter. Take, for example, the day my daughter was born. It wasn’t enough for me to hear the doctor say, “It lives!” I wanted to know what “it” was that was born that day. There is profound meaning in the words: “Congratulations! It’s a girl.”
Those are what you call “life’s defining moments”. We use that phrase often as a mere figure of speech, but, when you stop to think about it, those moments are quite literally “defining”. Those are moments when we discover the essence, the meaning of our existence; those are moments when something that had been a potential in us becomes actual, real. Those are the moments that define us, that shape us, quite literally. And, out of those “defining moments” action proceeds. What we do flows out of who we are. More accurately, we act a certain way based on our understanding of who we are. Because of that, our search for definition really does stand at the core of our existence.
So, the question we are all asking ourselves, whether we realize it or not, is this: “Who am I?” But, you know what? That is not a very easy question to answer, is it? It’s one thing to know that you are here; it’s another thing to answer the question, “What am I?” Or, we should say, “Who am I?”
(And that is our first clue to the question of our essence: we are not “what’s”; we are “who’s”. We are not things; we are living beings.)
But, setting that general observation aside, I wonder why it is so difficult for us to answer the “Who am I” question?
Perhaps it’s because, oddly enough, we live on the other side of a point in history where the world’s supposedly smartest people have told us that, in fact, we can’t tell what a thing is. Modern philosophers have given up all hope of discovering the essence of a thing and have merely contented themselves with the mere existence of a thing. In fact, they have told us, “being” is all that matters. In so many words, the world today says: “It doesn’t matter what you do or who you are, so long as you are doing something, anything, because through action—any kind of action—we demonstrate existence. And that is all that matters.”
Now, since it is Easter Sunday, I’d like to phrase my response to that philosophy as delicately as possible. So, here goes: THAT IS THE LARGEST LOAD OF CRAP THAT I HAVE EVER HEARD! IT DOES MATTER WHO WE ARE! I know this because we all act as though it matters. Think about it: it matters to us that we each have a name. And we all want others to know our name. We want friends and family members to remember us on birthdays, to take notice when we do something good because we want them to see who we are, not just that we are. See, we all have an intuitive drive for definition, meaning, essence, identity. We know that the kind of creatures we become matters. We know that in definition we discover true, lasting meaning and purpose.
And just as dates of birth and the giving of names go down in the record books as just two of life’s many defining moments, so today goes down as yet another.
See, today is the day we remember that death no longer defines us. For on this day nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ rose again from the dead. And, because of that, the Bible tells those who believe in Jesus: “Death shall not be your master.”
You know, often (if not always) defining a thing involves stating what a thing is not, clarifying the boundary lines, so to speak, the limits of an idea. So, we define cold as something that is not hot. We say that evil is not good. And darkness is not light.
So, when the Bible tells us that those who place their faith in Jesus Christ shall not have death as their master, it is God’s way of saying that the life of a Christ-follower is defined as “that which does not cease”. The Christian life is boundless, eternal, free from slavery to darkness. The Christian life is life, not death.
That’s why Christ’s resurrection goes down in the books as history’s most profound defining moment.
But today is a defining moment for another reason...
Today is the day that Shani publicly proclaims her desire to identify her life with Christ’s life. And Christ’s life, of course, is defined by his death and resurrection.
And today’s baptism is a way of picturing that. Listen to what a Christian in the ancient church (named Irenaeus) says about the meaning of baptism; how, through baptism, we identify with Christ and thus share in his essence, that which defines him. He describes baptism this way:
“Each of you was asked whether he believed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You made that saving confession and three times went down into the water and rose up out of it again. This was another symbolic action, one which represented the three days’ burial of Christ. For just as our Saviour spent three days and three nights in the heart of the earth, so you too, the first time that you rose from the water, were imitating Christ’s first day in the earth, and when you went down into it you were imitating his night there. At night one can no longer see, but by day one lives in the light. In the same way when you went down it was like night and you could see nothing; but when you came up again, it was like finding yourselves in the day. That one moment was your death and your birth; that saving water was both your grave and your mother.”
Talk about “defining moments”! Baptism is like birth! In receiving baptism, a new thing is being birthed within Shani this day. Irenaeus continues:
“What a strange and wonderful occurrence! We did not really die, we were not really buried; we were not really crucified and raised again. But though those imitative acts are figurative, the salvation is real. Christ was actually crucified, actually buried, really rose again. All these things he has given us freely, so that by imitatively sharing in his sufferings we may win salvation in reality. What surpassing love! Christ received in his undefiled hands the agony of the nails, and now through this imitative sharing he gives me salvation without any agony or pain…
“In Christ’s case it was a real death; his soul was parted from his body. It was also a real burial; his holy body was wrapped in a pure linen shroud. With him everything happened in reality. But in your case it was a likeness of death and of sufferings—yet your salvation is not a likeness but a reality.”
The “imitation” that Irenaeus speaks of here can also be called an “identification.” In imitating the death and resurrection of Christ through the symbol of baptism, it is Shani’s way of identifying her life with the life of Jesus.
We use that word “identification” nowadays in a way that’s interesting. We ask for someone’s identification when we want to verify who a person is, when we want to make certain of an individual’s essence, identity.
In the same way, Shani’s identification today with the work of Christ is her way of saying, “This is who I am. This is my essence. This is my identity. I have died to the sin that killed my Savior. As I go under the water, I leave that sin buried in the grave, in the same way that Jesus left our sins buried in the grave. And, as I come up out of the water, I rise to a new life in the same way that Jesus rose again. I rise to a life of faith in Jesus Christ. And, by that faith, Jesus supernaturally gives me a new capacity for life, victory over death (and all the things that cause death and come along with death)."
Shani, in identifying with Jesus Christ through the rite of baptism, this is who you are now. Your life is not defined by death. It is defined by life. Your life is not defined by condemnation. It is defined by grace.
Who are you? Yes, you are the daughter of parents that represent two different cultures. You are Africa and Europe. That makes who you are complex and interesting. It also makes you ask, “Who am I, really?” And you may justifiably feel caught between two worlds. On top of that, you live in Spain and you are keenly aware that you are not yet doing what you hope to be doing some day: caring for those less fortunate, loving the troubled and hurting, reaching out to the poor in body and spirit. That also is what makes you uniquely “you”. And, you have seen things that others have not seen. Before you decided to follow Jesus, your life followed a particular trajectory of brokenness. This too is what sets you apart from being “just anybody”. This tells us you are not just a generic face in the crowd. You are you. And that is good. But, who are you?
Yes, like all of us, this is the question that has been a tough one for you to answer, Shani. “Who am I?”
Though your life is defined by all of those things that are particular to you, there are even greater things that define you. And the wonder of it all is: these are the things that truly ground you. These are the things that you will take with you no matter where you go. Because you have chosen to hide your life in Christ’s life, they are things like this:
Shani, your life is defined by forgiveness. No matter how many times you mess up (and you will mess up), you can rest assured knowing that Jesus’ forgiveness is limitless. You are “the forgiven one.” You are free.
And your life is defined by hope. No matter where you go, you can know that Jesus goes with you in a very special way, because you have hidden your life in Christ’s. See, regardless of whether you feel “hopeful”, you have hope. That’s reality. You are free.
And your life is defined by family. Because you have placed your faith in Christ you are now a part of this little, strange family gathered here. You are a special part of us and we are a part of you. And, no matter what happens, that will always be true.
And if you ever doubt that you are defined by forgiveness, hope and family, then just take a look in the mirror. Take a closer look at who Jesus says you are, for remember: now that your life is hidden in Christ, Jesus is the new face you see when you want to take a look at yourself. And this is what Jesus sees:
"Shani, you are good because I have made you good. I have given you a servant’s heart. And others see that in you, too, by the way. That’s not just something I see. That’s something your friends see in you. They see that because that’s what I’ve made you. That’s who you are.
"And, Shani, remember, you are not pushy and flashy. You are gentle, willing to help behind the scenes, giving space for others to speak and lead and serve. This is who you are because I’ve made you this way.
"And, don’t forget, you are a person of compassion. You care for those nobody else cares for. And guess what? That’s me in you. I made you that way. That’s who you are.
"I mention all this because I want you to remember. And I want you to remember because, from time to time, you’ll hear a voice saying, 'Your life is defined by darkness. You’re just a no-good, worthless sinner. When are you ever going to get it right?'
"But, that voice is not mine. My voice says, 'Run from the darkness. Flee the devil. Pursue righteousness. Hold my hand. Walk with me, here in the light of life. That is what defines you now. Sin shall no longer be your master, nor death. That’s how I’ve made you. And no matter where you go or what you do, that’s what you will take with you. After all, that’s who you are.'
"And just think, that’s just the beginning! Yes, I’ve only just begun forming you. Truth is, we’ll spend an eternity together, becoming. Becoming. Becoming.
"Welcome to your life. This is who you are, Shani."