Today, on this dual celebration of Baptism and the Feast of All Saints, we gather together as the beloved people of God here at St Mary and St Martha, to witness a profound mystery: the mystery of three people dying and rising again into a new, different life.
On this day we gather as a people of thanksgiving in gratitude for new life among us.
On this day we gather as a people on a journey up a mountain, ascending the hill of the Lord.
On this day we catch a glimpse of the vast multitude that we are gathered with, a people stretching out over all time and all places of the earth.
And on this day we get an appetizer of the feast that the Lord is preparing for this great multitude of people.
This, my friends, is an auspicious day. It’s so good to be here with you all, as we offer thanksgiving for the gift of Romira to her parents, Chemere and Robert, and as we celebrate the baptism of Nyota, Peyton, and Raphael.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, wrote this about baptism:
“Perhaps baptism really ought to have some health warnings attached to it: ‘If you take this step, if you go into these depths, it will be transfiguring, exhilarating, life-giving and very, very dangerous.’”
Today Raphael, and Peyton, and Nyota are embarking on a journey that will lead them places they never imagined. It will be more difficult in some ways than they could possibly guess. And it will be more fulfilling than they could ever dream.
So what is baptism? What does it mean? Well, for answers for that, we can look to our Psalm for the day, Psalm 24.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” the Psalmist asks, and what is the answer? “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false.”
The person who wrote this psalm was King David, the most beloved king of Israel, a man of deep faith and prayer. David was called a man after God’s own heart, and his psalms and songs of praise are some of the most beautiful and profound ever written. And yet David, more than anyone, knew that he did not have clean hands and a pure heart. In another psalm he wrote, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me… indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Ps 51:3,5)
Does David mean that he committed some sin in his mother’s womb? No, no more than Peyton or Nyota or Raphael did. But David knew the deep truth about humanity – that each of us is infected with sin as a disease, that it has become part of the human condition, and that at some point early in life the symptoms will begin to show. Maybe not in the first year of life, maybe not even in the second, but certainly by the third or fourth year of life, we are beginning to make choices that demonstrate that we, too, have “fallen short of the glory of God” as Paul writes.
So who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place? Those with clean hands and pure hearts… meaning none of us.
No one… except the only perfect, sinless human being that ever lived, Jesus. One commentator writes this,
“Since that first day of creation, when God lifted land out of water and gave order to chaos,
only one being – Christ, the Word made Flesh – fulfilled the requirements to
‘stand in the holy place’ of God, completely and perfectly undefiled.”
(Michael Morgan, “Feasting on the Word”)
Only Christ lived a perfectly sinless life. Only Christ lived his life with entirely clean hands and a pure heart, and only Christ, in the whole history of humankind, has therefore ever deserved to ascend the holy hill of the Lord.
Only Christ… except that God in his deep, deep love for us has made a way for us to approach that holy place, to approach him, through his Son Jesus Christ.
And this invitation to come near extends to every single person on earth. It’s the most exciting and worthwhile journey a person can ever take, and each person is Jesus’ chosen and desired travel companion. The only requirement for being on this journey with Jesus is relinquishment – letting go, and letting him be the travel guide, as it were.
And the beginning of that journey is marked with a single step – the step of baptism.
When Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, his famous words were “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Baptism in a way is one small step – just a moment in time – but it is also a giant leap, because it embarks a person on a journey of becoming truly human, being clothed in Christ’s humanity, for the first time. And because of this, like the quote from Williams warned just a few minutes ago, “it [is] very, very dangerous.” The author CS Lewis in his wonderful book Mere Christianity says this:
“The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says, “Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there. I want to have the whole tree down… Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked – the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” (p164)
And when we rise up out of the tomb of the waters of baptism, it is in leaving our own efforts behind, and holding fast to Christ as a new creation in him – clothed in his humanity, humanity as it was intended to be.
My friends, baptism is a giant, amazing leap – it is putting to death our sinful nature, dying with Christ, and being reborn in his image, taking on his perfect humanity, and living life forever accepting our reliance on him. And clothed in Christ’s humanity and holiness, we are free to join him ascending the hill of the Lord and standing in that holy place.
Baptism is traditionally held on a few particular days of the Church year, and today is one of them, as we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. In taking this step, in dying to self and rising again to new life in Christ, Peyton and Nyota and Raphael will be joining in a great throng of believers, stretching back through time and all around the world. They’re joining all of the saints from every age including St Mary and St Martha, two of Jesus’ best friends, and including all the beloved saints that we have known and loved and who have gone ahead of us on this journey, and including all of the beloved saints who are sitting here this morning. Peyton and Nyota and Raphael are being welcomed and gathered into the family of God, together ascending the hill of the Lord, together standing in his holy place. It’s the perfect day for baptism, as we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses cheering us on, and dancing for joy as these little ones embark on this journey.
And on this hill, as our scripture readings for today tell us, there will someday be a joyful reunion. The prophet Isaiah paints a glorious picture of the end of the journey, and it’s worth dwelling on the whole passage but I’ll quote only the first bit:
“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25:6)
Friends, a feast is being prepared for us, and for all the saints of God, and no eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no heart has conceived of how glorious that day will be. But we have a glimpse today, a foretaste, an appetizer of that great feast, as we come to the table of the Lord in the Eucharist in just a little while. In this wine and in this bread we are given food for our journey, and a reminder that above all, no matter how hard this journey sometimes feels, we are always, always, held secure in the grace of God.
So come. Come be baptised, Nyota and Peyton and Raphael, come die to yourselves and rise to new and wonderful life in Christ, and join in the family of God.
And come, beloved saints in the Lord; come, all who are hungry, come to the table of the Lord, and be fed.
“For this is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”