Normally the subject of these baptismal practice runs is Eva, who's a real doll. I mean that literally; "Eva" is a doll. Fortunately, however, a friend of ours (associate pastor at the church we've been attending) was incredibly kind/gracious/brave/crazy to allow me to "baptize" her four-month-year-old son. The nature of the exercise required a very short sermon (hence the term "homily"), five to seven minutes only.
Here's what I came up with, on Romans 6:1-11. Having real people to include seemed to me to be very helpful, though you might disagree. Make of it what you will.
John Howell McGuire wouldn’t stand a chance.
I know, I know. That’s a horrible thing to say. After all, look at him. He’s soooo cute. Especially when he gets that happy little gurgling smile going that he does…how could you think anything like that, pastor?
Well, it’s true. He is cute.
But still, he wouldn’t stand a chance. Not any more than any of us ever would have stood a chance.
Somehow or another, whether we know it or not, we would all fall into it. We wouldn’t be able to escape it. No matter if, like Paul later in Romans, we found ourselves doing wrong at the very time we most want to do right, or if we slipped into it unawares, we’d all fall into that condition called sin. We’d be caught in its snare, entangled in its web, and we wouldn’t stand a chance. John Howell, as cute as he is, is no different from any of us in this regard. One of these days, he too would be caught up in that snare and be imprisoned in that condition of sin. He wouldn’t stand a chance.
A beautiful word, in this case, “except.” Except for the love of God, for the unrelenting persistence of Jesus, except for that beautiful and mystifying and totally undeserved and unexpected thing called grace. Grace, that beautiful and lovely thing that took that terrible turn through a cross into a grave, where it was sealed up and shut away and supposed to be dead forever, only to burst out of that tomb and obliterate any bond that death and sin ever could claim on us.
Because of that grace we don’t live in sin. It’s true, we do fall, at times. John Howell will fall, too, at times, just like we all do. But just as for us, that fall will not be John Howell’s doom. It won’t condemn him forever to bondage to sin and death, just as it does not do so for us.
Because of that grace we live in Christ. Living in Christ means that we live through that awful cross-death and tomb and burst out of that tomb and live into new life, resurrection-tested and resurrection-approved life. It may not stand that sin is completely dead to us, but living in Christ means being dead to sin, no longer bossed about by its power over us, no longer enslaved to the passions and miseries of that old self that Paul reminds us was crucified with Christ in that awful cross-death. That self is destroyed; we live new selves now.
It gets a little twisty as Paul explains it in our text. Talk of being united with Christ in a death like Christ’s and united with Christ in a resurrection like Christ’s, dying and rising and being dead to sin and living to God, in Christ; it can begin to feel like a theological tongue-twister.
Fortunately, the tongue-twister comes to us in a package we can perhaps begin to understand a little better, with a little more clarity. That thorny business about dying and rising is imparted to us, displayed to us in the act of grace called baptism. When an adult stands before us at this font, or a parent like Elizabeth brings a child like John Howell before this congregation, we are taught again, reminded again of the unbelievable act of grace that Christ enacted for us, dying for us so that we could die with him, rising for us so that we could rise with him into that new resurrected life, bondage to sin no longer included. We are graced by being reminded of God’s grace to all of us in the act of baptizing John Howell here.
It’s not a magic act. The water came from the tap. There isn’t a magic spell that turns it into anything else but ordinary water. And yet in that ordinary water, and words that are very human words even as they speak of thoroughly superhuman grace, God shows to us yet again how God has loved us beyond our capacity to measure or comprehend.
This act of baptizing also seals John Howell into this little corner of the body of Christ. It seals us, this congregation, to the task of nurturing and supporting this little man as he grows up into someone who will understand these things, even the ones that are thorny at times, because he sees them demonstrated not just in the waters of baptism but also in the bread and cup of the Eucharist, in the Sunday school lessons we teach him, in Sunday night pizza and choir and youth group, in the grace and goodwill and forbearance we show to each other, in the ways we minister to those inside and outside the walls of this chapel.
One of these days, God willing, John Howell will come before us as a young man taking these things onto himself, being confirmed in his faith. For now we seal to ourselves the task of nurturing him in this grace, of upholding Elizabeth in her task of raising him in this grace, this beautiful and strange and mysterious and undeserved and maybe even a little frightening thing, this thing that means that he, like all of us, stands a chance.