After some website delays, you can now listen to the audio on the Christ Church website, or read along here.
Do you remember the first time you heard the Good News that God loves you? Having basically grown up in the church, I can’t identify the precise moment when I first heard those words, but I do have early memories. I remember one Vacation Bible School: the theme was some sort of undersea adventure, and inside a giant blown up plastic tube that was painted to look like the ocean, we sang “Jesus loves me, this I know.” I remember another VBS, sitting the pews at St. Thomas Episcopal Church singing, “If I were a butterfly,” and thanking God for “making me me.” I remember Sunday school classes and sermons and confirmation classes that all, in their own way, showed me the love of God. I also remember those stories, sermons, and lessons that reminded me of God’s judgment as well. I remember the story of Adam and Eve: how they had eaten of the tree of good and evil and were punished. I remember hearing the story of Noah: how God had become so disappointed with the world that God decided to start over by flooding it, killing nearly every living thing. Some of those stories are difficult for us adults to understand, let alone children, but they, like the numerous stories of God’s love, are important for us to hear. The fullness of God’s story is a story of God’s hope for a full and perfect relationship with humankind, our ongoing ability to screw that up spectacularly, the repercussions of broken relationship, and God’s loving work to restore the hope of a full and perfect relationship.
It is right in the middle of that ongoing pattern that we find ourselves in the lesson from the Acts of the Apostles this Third Sunday of Easter. Each Easter season, instead of reading from the Hebrew Bible, we read selections from Acts. In Year A, we spend three weeks on Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Last week, it was a pretty in-depth exegetical study of the prophet Joel. This week we hear a summation of Peter’s sermon and the crux of salvation history. Because of God’s passionate desire for right relationship, God the Father sent God the Son in the person of Jesus. Although humanity killed Jesus, God raised him to his rightful place as Lord and Messiah. Peter preached this sermon to a fairly significant crowd. It was the Day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival that occurs fifty days after the Passover during which they remember the gift of the Law and offer God the first fruits of the grain harvest. Jerusalem was teeming with spiritual tourists. Jews from around the known world were gathered to offer their first fruits in hopes of a successful harvest when the city was brought into confusion by a loud noise like a rushing wind, and a cacophony of voices, each speaking in a different language. Every visitor for blocks heard the Good News of God’s mighty acts in their own native tongue. Thousands packed in tightly around the disciples’ house to see what was happening.
There, amidst an increasingly raucous crowd, Peter shared the Good News of God’s love. They were cut to the heart by his message. They had never heard such preaching. Sure, like many generations before them, the crowd gathered had hoped for the Messiah. They had prayed that God would restore the fortunes of Zion. They longed to find right relationship with God, but few of them really expected anything to change. Yet here, on this Pentecost Day, something was different. This word from Peter was like a word straight from God’s own lips. This word was both judgment and love. It cut them to the very core, and they pleaded with Peter and the rest, “Brothers, what should we do?”
As it turns out, the proper response to God’s love is actually quite simple: “repent and be baptized.” Repent is a ten-cent church word that has lost much of its meaning over time. After years of only hearing it from television preachers and street corner evangelists, repentance has come to mean something like “feeling guilty because you’re a wretched mess of a sinner,” but that isn’t exactly what Peter meant when he told the crowd to metanoio. The first step toward right relationship with God is to change your mind, to change your direction, to change your focus, and ultimately, to change your actions. That’s what repentance is all about. It has very little to do with feeling guilty or sad, and everything to do with turning away from the old life of sin and turning toward life eternal in right relationship with God. You can feel sorry for doing something, and go right on doing it. What God desires is a transformed life. “After that,” Peter says, “then you should be baptized in the name of Jesus so that your sins can be washed away and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.” That’s it. Repent and be baptized. Eventually, this two fold action of repentance and baptism was made symbolic in the baptismal liturgy itself. Immediately before being immersed, the new Christians would face west, the direction of the sunset and gathering darkness, and be asked three times to renounce Satan and the forces of evil. They would then turn to face east, the direction of the sun rise and the return of the light of the world, and three times would proclaim their faith in Jesus Christ. To this day, the liturgy for Holy Baptism mirrors that ancient rite, which makes today is a perfect day for a baptism.
Our newest Christian is Christopher James Chaffin [who will be baptized at 10 o’clock this morning]. He isn’t even two months old yet, but I’d be willing to bet that he has already heard the Good News that God loves him more times than we can count. He’s experienced the love of God through the care of his parents, Justin and Jamie, and his siblings Meredith and Benjamin, his extended family, and the people of Christ Church. In a few minutes, [it’ll happen at the later service, but you still have a part in this] we will join with his parents and Godparents in promising that we will do all in our power to support Christopher in his life in Christ. We, the people of Christ Church, on behalf of all Christians, will promise to make sure Christopher knows that God loves him both in word and action.
There isn’t much that a less than two-month old baby gets to decide on his own. His days are basically made up of automatic bodily functions and being carried from one place to another. He is not in need of repentance… yet. Likewise, there isn’t much sin that needs to be washed away from Christopher… yet. But it will come. When Christopher does begin trying to walk in his own path, it’ll be his family: nuclear, extended, and church that will be here to remind him of the right pathway to God.
What will come true today is the final promise of Peter to the crowd gathered to hear that Pentecost sermon. Christopher James Chaffin will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit this morning. The Spirit will work alongside the rest of us to remind him of God’s unending love. The Spirit will convict him when he begins to stray the wrong way. The Spirit will help him to repent by making right choices and walking toward God’s love. And the Spirit will do the work of fulfilling our prayer for Christopher this day, that he might be given “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love [God], and the gift of joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”
Some of us are blessed to remember the first time we heard the Good News that God loves us, but for many of us, that news has been a part of our lives since before we ever existed. Christopher Chaffin is blessed in knowing God’s love every day of his life, and we are blessed to be a part of sharing that love with him. He won’t always do the right thing. God’s redemption story will be just as true for him as it is for me and you, but in the end, the only truth that really matters is that God loves him, God loves you, and God wants to be in perfect relationship with all of us. So, repent, remember your baptism, receive the forgiveness of sins, and lean into the gift of the Spirit for discernment, courage, love, joy, and wonder. Amen.