September 29, 2013 Mark 1: 1-8 Matthew 28: 16-20
Rev. Catherine Purves
I’m sure that none of you have ever lost sleep over how we arrange our liturgical furniture in the church. The precise positioning of the Communion Table, where we have placed the Pulpit, and the spot where the Baptismal Font stands may not strike you as crucial or even particularly notable. Perhaps we could rearrange the furniture. What do you think? It’s not as if we have had a whole lot of baptisms in recent years. Maybe the Font could just be stored in a broom closet and be brought out as needed. Then, at least, we wouldn’t have to vacuum around it or avoid bumping into it when our Children’s Messages get a little rowdy. And then when we did haul it out, people would know that this was going to be a special worship service, a day when someone was going to be baptized. While that may make some sense to you (because who like vacuuming around Baptismal Fonts?), I’d like to suggest that this would be a very bad idea, and I’d like to share with you what is now all the rage in church decorating circles.
Recently, the Chapel at Pittsburgh Seminary was redecorated. That’s how I know about liturgical furniture arranging and what’s ‘in’ and what’s ‘out’. Of course, there are different schools of thought, but we don’t need to talk about those who want theatre-seating (with cup holders for coffee), virtually no windows, and a giant screen for projecting song words and movie clips. They will reap their rewards, and I’m sure the audience will be well-entertained. No, I’m thinking about the serious architects and worship space decorators who realize what we are here to do. Word and Sacrament must be central, and everything must be arranged so that we are focused on that centrality and what it means for our life and our salvation.
Now here is the idea that Pittsburgh Seminary latched onto, which is not actually all that new, but it keeps the Baptismal Font out of the broom closet and also focuses the worshipers’ attention on the importance of Baptism for our lives. The powers that be at the Seminary have moved the Baptismal Font from the front of the church to the back of the church. It is the first thing that you see when you walk in and the last thing that you see when you walk out. So, at the Seminary Chapel you enter worship very much aware of your Baptism and you leave worship in the strength of your Baptism.
Of course, there have been a number of complaints about this change. Some people have resented having to negotiate the rather large Font which stands just inside the doorway. Apparently it’s a challenge to keep from bumping into it. But this placement of the liturgical furniture achieves what was intended: coming and going you are reminded of your Baptism and its importance for your life.
This is a pattern which was also reflected in the life of Christ. Baptism marked the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it became a crucial part of the ongoing work of Christ in the church at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This bookending by Baptism was evident in our Scripture readings for this morning from the beginning of Mark and the end of Matthew.
As you saw when we read from the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Mark did not concern himself with narrating the story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke provide those stories for us. Instead, Mark began his Gospel with the sudden appearance of John the Baptist who was out in the wilderness baptizing people and preparing the way for Jesus. John was fulfilling the role of the last great prophet, as he announced, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The next thing that happened in Mark’s rapid-fire Gospel was that Jesus was baptized by John and the Holy Spirit descended upon him, declaring him to be God’s Son. As we enter into the story of Jesus, the first thing we bump into is Baptism. We can’t avoid it; there is no way around it; Baptism is our starting point.
This early emphasis on Baptism has its mirror image in Matthew’s Gospel at the very end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. This is the very end, because Jesus has already died and been resurrected. According to Matthew, these were the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples. We can hardly overemphasize the importance of these last words, because they are not just spoken to the eleven remaining disciples; they are spoken to us.
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Just as then, even now, we cannot leave Christ’s presence without bumping into Baptism. We are people who came into Christ’s church and were united with Jesus in our Baptism. And we are people who are sent forth to baptize and to make disciples. Baptized and baptizing – that is who we are and what we are about.
We bump into Baptism coming and going, so you can see the logic in placing the Font by the door so that you will have to pass by it when you enter for worship and again when you go forth to live and to serve Jesus in the world. Baptized and baptizing in the name of the triune God and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Obviously, then, it is totally wrong to think of Baptism as simply a rite that marks the beginning of the Christian life. If that was all that it was, then we could store the Baptismal Font in a broom closet and just drag it out on the occasion of a Baptism. The Sacrament of Baptism puts a claim on your life that will last forever. As John the Baptist realized, it was not just a symbolic act involving water, meaningful for a moment because of what we do and how we do it. When Jesus told his followers to baptize, this was to be a sacramental act, that is, an act of God in which we take part. Remember, John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Baptism changes everything, because in that Sacrament we are united with Christ in the power of the Spirit, we share in Jesus’ relationship with God the Father, and we are named as Christ’s own forever. This is what, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” means. Baptism is a God event that has lifelong repercussions. And so we should be reminded of our Baptism, we should bump into our Baptism, each and every Sunday as we gather for worship and as we are sent forth to serve.
On this day when we celebrate our Baptism through the Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant, let us remember the promises of God on which our Baptism rests. From beginning to end the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that God has acted in him to restore all that was broken by sin. In Jesus, death was defeated and our relationship with God was restored. Our Baptism doesn’t just symbolize all of that, it draws us into the heart of it and makes it the driving force that animates our lives, from beginning to end. So, it is not surprising that in our funeral service when we give thanks for the life of the one who has died, we announce that her baptism or his baptism is now complete in death. We were united with Christ in his life and his death, and in our life and our death. And we are now confident that we will be united with Christ in his resurrection. This too is the promise of God that we celebrate in the Sacrament of Baptism.
Let us then pledge and covenant to remember our Baptism and all that it means. Whether we rearrange our liturgical furniture or not – and it might be tricky putting the Font on a floor that slopes – nevertheless, let us joyfully recall, each time we enter the Sanctuary and each time we leave, that we gather as the beloved and baptized children of God and we go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to serve, to teach, to baptize, and to bless. Baptized and baptizing – that is who we are. And from the beginning to the end of our Christian lives, let us never forget Jesus’ unshakable promise that is at the heart of our Baptism:
“I am with you always, to the end of the age.”