Lives Worthy of the Gospel – a sermon

Yesterday’s sermon is now available on the Saint Paul’s Website, or you can read it below.

I love everything about baptism Sundays.  I think the white hangings we have here at Saint Paul’s are particularly beautiful.  I love this baptismal stole that was given to me by my friends at Saint James’ in Potomac, Maryland, where I worked while I was in seminary.  I love cute babies in frilly white dresses and parents and grandparents beaming with pride. I especially love those rare times when we’re baptizing an older child or an adult who has recently come to realize the power of God in their lives.  I love the pageantry of the ancient rite.  I love the hymns.  I really love it all, but if I were forced to pick my favorite part of baptism Sunday it would have to be the baptismal covenant.  A covenant is a special kind of contract that is designed to create an ongoing relationship between two people or groups.  The terms of the contract are important, but it is the relationship that really matters. We talk about marriage as being a covenant.  A bride and a groom make vows to one another and become a husband and a wife, creating a new thing called a family.

In the baptism service, a relationship is established between the newly baptized person and the family of God.  The five  promises of the Baptismal Covenant mark the special starting place in our relationship with God and with his Church.  As a reminder of our membership in the family, on baptism Sundays we all join in and renew our own Baptismal Covenant.  Even though we are only baptizing little Webb Davis at the nine o’clock service this morning, every one of us has the chance today to be reminded of the what it means to be a part of the family of God.

Sometimes I forget how much I love the baptismal covenant.  This week, amidst all of the stuff I was trying to get done, I almost forgot it completely.  It wasn’t until Thursday morning, as I sat at my desk asking God to give me something, anything, to preach about today, that I remembered the Baptismal Covenant at all.  It came to me in a very unexpected sort of way.  I had planned to preach on Jesus’ Parable of the Generous Landowner.  I was going to talk about how God loves all of us.  Whether we are baptized at 5 hours, 5 days, 5 months, 5 years, or 105 years old, God welcomes us into the family with open arms and a loving embrace.

What got me on Thursday morning, however, were the words of Paul to the Church in Philippi, a church that was very young.  The Philippian church was struggling to understand how to be Christians without Paul there to teach them.  Paul, writing from prison, encourages the new Christians with a deceptively simple sentence, “Live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”  It got me thinking, “How do we live our lives in way that is worthy of the gospel?”  I came up with at least three different answers.

The first answer I thought of was that a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that is as far removed from the “things of this world” as possible. I grew up in Amish Country, complete with horse and buggies, straight pins instead of buttons on their clothing, and no power lines running to their homes.  The Amish have decided that a life worthy of the gospel means choosing the technology of the 18th century and eschewing new advancements such as 120 volt electricity as being too worldly.  Of course, they are an extreme example, but they are certainly not alone.  Some Southern Baptists have attempted to remove themselves from the things of this world by choosing to abstain from alcohol, card playing, and even dancing.  Some Episcopalians have tried to remove themselves from the things of this world by stubbornly maintaining a preference for vestments, gothic architecture, and organ music.  Since the definition of “things of this world” is so broad, I’m not convinced this is actually what Paul had in mind.

Then I thought that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel might mean a life wholly devoted to prayer.  The Church has a long tradition of special people called “ascetics” who have taken this way of living a life worthy of the Gospel very seriously.  Some have lived in caves in the desert, some have stood atop a pole for years and years, many sold all they had and gave it to the poor, while still others took to living in communities of prayer and service to the poor.  I admire the ascetics and monastics of our tradition, but if we were all to live that way, the church would have died out pretty quickly. At least a few Christians have to be engaged in society in order to share the Good News and propagate the faith.  I suspect that Paul might have had this extreme form of discipleship in mind for some, but probably not most of the Christians in Philippi.  There has to be a way for the regular Jane to live a life worthy of the Gospel.

Eventually, I began to think that maybe a life worthy of the Gospel means living a life that follows the teachings of Jesus and becoming “Red Letter Christians” by following the words of Jesus that were often printed in red in older translations of the Bible.  Jesus summed up how we should live our lives with two commandments.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  In The Episcopal Church, we’ve been so bold as to try to spell out what that looks like in the Baptismal Covenant in which we promise, with God’s help, to do our best to “keep God’s holy will and commandments” (1662 BCP).

In just a minute, we will all stand and once again promise that with God’s help, we’ll take our part as members of the family of God through study, prayer, and fellowship.  With God’s help, we’ll work to stay away from those things we shouldn’t be doing, and when we fall into sin, we’ll do our best to find our way back to God.  With God’s help, we’ll tell and show people about God’s love for them.  With God’s help, we’ll serve those in need in our neighborhoods, in our city, and in the wider world.  With God’s help, we’ll look at everyone we meet as a child of God who is worthy of God’s love and our love.

It is through the living out of the promises made in the Baptismal Covenant that we are able to pattern our lives after the Gospel, to work to establish the kingdom of heaven on earth, and to fulfill Jesus’ commandments to love God and love our neighbor.  And it is through our example that little Webb and the children of God of all ages will learn how to be disciples of Jesus.  I love baptism Sundays because they remind me that no matter how old we are and no matter how long we’ve been at it, following Jesus isn’t easy and we shouldn’t try to go it alone.  Living our lives in a manner worthy of the Gospel is all but impossible, but with God’s help, and the support of our church family, anything and everything is possible.  Amen.

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