I’ve been thinking these past couple of weeks of the nature of community in the twenty-first century. I did weddings on consecutive Saturdays for members of Grace and the only person besides me in attendance at both was Grace member Carol Carlson. She’s a violinist and had been hired to play at both weddings. At the funeral yesterday of longtime Grace member Clark McMillen, the small congregation was made up of friends and family, and Grace members were present primarily because they were assisting in some way with the service.
So in some strange sense, all three of those congregations were gatherings of Grace Church—something made evident perhaps only in the fact that all three of those gatherings, like our services today, are recorded in our service books, recorded in our registers of marriages, and burials, and yes, baptisms. Funerals and weddings may be extreme examples, but even our Sunday morning gatherings, whether at 8 or 10 o’clock, are to some degree gatherings of strangers, for each week at both services, we welcome visitors who have never been with us before and may never join us again.
But we are bound together, not just by the fact that we are all here in one place. We are bound together as witnesses to the baptisms that will take place later today. We are bound together by the promises we made at our own baptisms, and the promise we make at every baptism. There’s a moment in the marriage service that is quite like a moment in the baptismal service. Today, I will ask you the following question: Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?
I hope you will answer with a resounding, “We will!” And I hope you will remember that promise in the years to come. I hope you will remember all of the promises you make, or re-make today, the promises of the baptismal covenant that helps to shape us as Christians and as disciples of Jesus Christ. When we baptize someone, we are baptizing them into the body of Christ. Yes, they are joined to Christ, but they are also joined to us; they become our brothers and sisters in Christ and as brothers and sisters, we are committed to help, encourage, admonish, and teach them. We are committed to love them, as Christ loves all of us.
These promises, these words, these relationships, may seem empty at times, meaningless, especially in light of the fact that we will never come together in quite this way ever again. The people who are present here today will probably never gather together again. Some of us may never again enter this building; some of us may never again cast our eyes on the babies we baptize, the babies whom we have promised to support in their lives in Christ.
As I was writing this, I began to think about all those who I have baptized over the years. Now, granted that’s not a particularly large number—I’ve been a priest less than ten years. And I’ve come to regret the fact that I didn’t keep a record of everyone I’ve baptized. Each church keeps such records so I could go back to the places I’ve served before and recreate that list. And probably, if I made the effort, I could create a list of almost everyone. But what I want to point out is that it’s likely I will never see most of them again. And that’s OK, because what’s important is not that I baptized them, but that they have been baptized, marked as Christ’s own forever.
So too here. What’s important is not that I am baptizing Colin and Tomas. It’s not even important that they are being baptized at Grace Church, however we might enjoy baptisms. What’s important is that they are being baptized into the body of Christ and that we are making promises, but especially parents and godparents are making promises to help them grow into the full stature of Christ. We may not be witnesses to that growth; I hope we will, at least for a season, but we are helping them embark on a journey of discovery as they learn what life in Christ means.
Our community, the communion of the saints, is not only about all those who are present among us today. Our community also consists of those of our members who are not with us today. And I would like to believe that the bonds of our community extend further, to those we see only rarely, to those who are tied to us by bonds of affection that they sense but perhaps we do not.
But our community extends even further. In the Christian tradition the communion of saints is understood to extend beyond the grave to embrace and include all of those who have gone before us. The author of the letter to the Hebrews uses a lovely image, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Indeed we are. Many of you recall those who have gone before us at Grace, members who have died in the past year, past decades; members who gave so much of their time, energy, skills, and resources. Others of us, when we hear of “the cloud of witnesses” are reminded of loved ones, family members who have died, those who shaped us in the faith even as we promise to support the newly-baptized.
The communion of saints extends far beyond the history of Grace Church or our own families. It extends across time and space throughout the history of Christianity and beyond, encompassing all the faithful, in every generation, who have looked to God in hope.
And so on this day when we baptize the two newest members of Grace Church, the two newest members of the Body of Christ, we also remember and embrace those we love but see no longer, the faithful departed of the last year and of all past generations. For all of us are knit together in one body, the body of Christ, united by God’s love and redeemed by God’s grace.
Thanks be to God!