Baptism is the beginning of a spiritual adventure: A Sermon for June 29, 2014

I had a series of conversations this week that had a common theme—the spiritual journeys we are on in our lives. My conversation partners differed in many respects. Some were members or friends of Grace, some were newcomers, seekers, one was a woman I met at a gathering at the university. Of all of them, the most interesting journey was that of Peter Reinhart, the bread baker, teacher and writer who visited UW this week. Peter was raised Jewish, encountered yoga and eastern religions in the sixties and early seventies, found his way into an intentional community that combined aspects of new thought, eastern religions, and Christianity and eventually with that community joined the tradition of Eastern Orthodoxy.

My own journey is hardly as long or as interesting as that of Peter’s, but as I said to someone this week, thirty years ago I couldn’t have imagined that one day I would be an Episcopal priest in Madison, Wisconsin and I very much doubt that many people who knew me then would have imagined it either. I love listening to people’s stories and it doesn’t matter whether their journeys have taken them across the world or from Judaism, to yoga, to Eastern Orthodoxy, or whether they have pretty much lived in the same place all of their lives and have been a part of the same religious tradition, the same congregation. Outward signs of stability and same-ness can very often disguise a wide-ranging internal life full of exploration and discovery, and above all, of spiritual adventure.

The word “journey” has been used so much to describe our religious lives that it some times can seem trite or meaningless, but at the same time, it’s richly evocative of the biblical tradition—the wilderness wanderings of the Hebrew people on their flight from Egypt to the Promised Land, the long journey of the Jewish exiles as they returned to Jerusalem after 50 years or more of Babylon, and the importance that the notion of pilgrimage has had in the Christian tradition as a way for us to reflect on our lives and religious experience.

While the word “journey” doesn’t appear in any of our texts today, it’s not too far-fetched to use it with reference to the experience of Nicodemus in the gospel of John. We encounter him here, as he comes to Jesus by night. He’s identified as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews. We can say a little bit more about Nicodemus. He approaches Jesus early in Jesus’ public ministry; the chronology of the gospel of John has Jesus visiting Jerusalem several times, and this first occasion comes very early. Nicodemus already has heard something about Jesus; perhaps he’s listened to him teach. When he comes to Jesus, Nicodemus wants to know more. He’s intrigued. He calls him a rabbi; he’s already concluded that Jesus is connected with God; he’s heard about the miracles Jesus works. So he asks for more; he wants to learn who Jesus is and what he has to say.

We are given only part of their dialogue. It’s a puzzling encounter. For after Nicodemus approaches Jesus, it seems that Jesus doesn’t respond to his question or wonderment. Instead, as Jesus does so often, he goes off on a tangent, speaking of things that don’t seem to be directly related to Nicodemus’ query, and saying things that don’t quite make sense or are open to interpretation. So here, Jesus replies “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” In fact, most of us know Jesus’ words better in an alternative version, “you must be born again.” The Greek can be translated either way.

Whichever was intended, Nicodemus interprets Jesus’ words literally, and asks sarcastically, how can someone go back into his mother’s womb? Of course Jesus had something else in mind and shifts gears to speak being born of the water and the Spirit. In a verse not read this morning, he says, the wind (or spirit, it’s the same word in Greek), blows wherever it chooses. We can hear its sound, but don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going. And then Jesus says, the same thing is true of everyone who is born of the spirit.

We didn’t hear the rest of the story. Today’s gospel reading is meant to help us reflect on the sacrament of baptism, not to examine the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus. Still, Jesus’ words are a product of that encounter. In fact, Nicodemus goes away empty-handed. He doesn’t understand what Jesus is saying; he doesn’t open himself up to the possibility that Jesus’ words might blow him in a direction he hadn’t imagined. But that’s not the end of Nicodemus’ story in the gospel of John. He reappears at the very end, after Jesus’ death. He helps Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus. Nicodemus provided the embalming spices. Whatever else happened in Nicodemus’ life in the interim; by the end of the gospel, we can assume he was a follower of Jesus. His journey had taken him from the inner circles of the Jewish religious elite to the inner circle of Jesus’ companions and friends.

Last Sunday as I spoke about Paul’s discussion of baptism in Romans 6, I pointed out that for him, baptism is about participating in Christ’s death and resurrection and that baptism makes us new. It’s not unlike the language of being born anew or being born again that we see in today’s gospel. There’s another parallel. In both, we see an emphasis on the role of the spirit–it blows wherever it wants in John 3. In today’s reading from Romans, the Spirit is the power bringing about the new creation in us. If we’re led by the Spirit, we’re children of God. Paul uses as proof of that the fact that we address God as Father, or even more intimately, Daddy, “Abba” in Aramaic. In other words, wherever our journeys may lead, wherever the Spirit may blow us, we can always be certain of that intimate relationship with God, that we are children of God.

It used to be the custom in the Episcopal Church that baptisms were performed privately. They were family events to which the larger Christian community were not invited. That changed with the revised Book of Common Prayer. Now, baptisms are to occur during the principal Sunday service. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, whatever significance a child’s baptism has for a particular family, that baptism is equally significant in the life of the Christian community. When I baptize Taylor, he will become a member of Grace Church and of the church universal. The second reason for baptizing in the presence of the gathered community is that baptism is a reminder to all of us of our own baptisms. We renew our baptismal vows, we remember the promises of salvation, and to use Paul’s language, we hear again that we are God’s beloved children.

Taylor embarks today on a spiritual journey that will take him places none of us can imagine. Even as we rejoice with him and his family, our prayer is that wherever his journey takes him, the Spirit will guide him. All of us are here today at particular moments in our own journeys. Looking back, we may see the Spirit guiding us, or we may not. Even now, some of us may not sense the Spirit’s presence or direction in our lives. Some of us may be in very dark places right now. But wherever we are, like Taylor, we can know that when we cry “Abba, Father” we are, all of us, God’s beloved children.

 

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