“Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” So begins the section entitled “Concerning the Service” before the liturgy of Holy Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer. The page goes on to describe many of the particulars of this sacrament in our church. For example, Holy Baptism is most appropriately administered during a Mass, and by a bishop, if possible, or if not, by a priest. Baptizands, whether they are adults or children, should have Sponsors who promise to pray for them and bear witness to the life of discipleship. On a later page, the prayer book lists the days that are particularly appropriate for baptism – Pentecost, the Baptism of our Lord, All Saints’ Day, and, of course, the Easter Vigil. Here you can also find answer to some specific liturgical questions: can you sing the Gloria during a baptism? Yes, you can. Should you say the Nicene Creed during a baptism? No, you don’t need to. And so on and so on.
The prayer book provides a number of important details about the sacrament of baptism, particularly about the how and the who and the when. What it does not provide is any instruction about what the baptizand needs to do in order to be baptized. There is no mention of a pre-baptismal exam or a denominational statement of faith that needs to be memorized and affirmed. There is no mention of the baptizand’s frame of mind or quality of life as a prerequisite for receiving this sacrament. In the catechism, those eighteen pages at the back of the prayer book that present an outline of the faith, the only requirements listed for those to be baptized are that we renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. So, quite simply, if you show up, and renounce, repent, and accept, you can be baptized.
Here at Saint Mark’s we make it abundantly easy for people to be baptized. You don’t have to be a member of the parish to be baptized here. We offer baptisms on Saturdays as well as Sundays. And, apart from the season of Lent, we do baptisms all year round, including on those four Sundays the prayer book mentions. We are quite happy to baptize those who ask, at almost any time. This is not to imply that we take the sacrament of baptism for granted, or that we treat it casually. Quite the contrary: it is because we have such great reverence for the sacrament and a deep understanding of its fundamental importance that we are so free with it. It is because we understand how baptism strengthens all of us and the whole Church, whenever and however it is accomplished, that we make baptism so available, so easy, for all of those who desire it.
So when we hear this man from Ethiopia ask Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” it’s easy for us to imagine the answer. Nothing. In our context, there is really nothing to prevent you from being baptized. Maybe you’ll have to wait a few weeks until Lent is over, or until your godparents can come to town or the baptismal gown is delivered, but that’s it. Look, here is water! There is nothing to prevent anyone from being baptized.
But this Ethiopian does not live in our context, and when he asks Philip what might prevent him from being baptized, he is not being rhetorical. This is a real question, expressing a real doubt, that while there might be room for him in the body of these faithful, there might just as well be something about him that would keep him outside forever. For in his context, there was plenty that could have prevented his baptism. In the Jewish community that surrounded and gave birth to the early Church, this man would have been decidedly on the outside. He was an Ethiopian, not an Israelite; more problematically, he was a eunuch, and according to the Law of Moses, he was placed permanently on the margins, forever forbidden to enter the holiest places of his faith.
This man’s question is real, and in his context, the answer is far from obvious. To him. For Philip, filled with the Holy Spirit, the answer is ringing loud and clear. Nothing. There is nothing to prevent this baptism. There is no study, no cleansing, no identification necessary. The man asks, What is there to prevent me from being baptized, and Philip says…well, we don’t know what he says, but something he says, or some look in his eye, makes the eunuch suddenly call out for his chariot to stop – stop! I wouldn’t be surprised if the two men were on their way down to the water before the wheels even stopped spinning.
This story makes me profoundly grateful to be a part of a Church that has done the work of study and prayer to come to an understanding of a truly open baptism. Thank God we don’t have to be a part of the in-crowd to receive it, or that we don’t have to try to earn it somehow. Thank God that baptism in the Episcopal Church is not something we hold tightly as a sacrament too precious to be given away but is instead something we offer freely as a sacrament too precious to be contained. Thank God that we, too, answer the question “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” with a holy “Nothing.” But part of this story also nags at me a bit. Part of this story raises another, deeper question for me, for us. For when we like the Ethiopian went away from our baptisms rejoicing, how long did the rejoicing last? How long did the holy feeling of our baptisms linger? The truth is that in our context, while there may not have been much to prevent us from being baptized, there is plenty to prevent us from living baptized.
There is plenty in this world to prevent us from living the promises of our baptism. Think about it – springtime Sunday morning activities or summer travel gets in the way of continuing in the apostles’ teaching and in the breaking of the bread. Fatigue or feelings of inadequacy gets in the way of our prayers. Resisting evil is harder than it sounds when we find ourselves tempted by a particularly delicious morsel of gossip, or a substance that promises to take all of our pain away, or an opportunity to cast out fear by securing our own power even if it means casting out others along the way. Social niceties get in the way of proclaiming the Gospel; human frailty makes seeking and serving Christ in all persons messy and frustrating, and the world’s seemingly intractable systems of abuse and inequality make striving for justice and peace exhausting. This world is quite content to throw up roadblocks before our baptismal promises; there is plenty in this life to prevent us from living baptized.
The Church knows this, of course. Why else do you think we have stoops of holy water stationed at every single door in and out of this place? Why else would the font be kept open and filled during Eastertide, a holy prompt that will be even easier to recognize when the font is moved to the center of the church later this spring? Everything about this building, everything about our liturgy, is carefully crafted to help us live baptized. The world will continue to throw up its roadblocks, and the Church will continue to knock them down by showing us the power of worship and prayer, of repentance and proclamation, of love and service. The Church will always continue to remind us of the joy and the truth of our baptism.
The greatest truth of our baptism, of course, is that we never live them alone. The Spirit of the Lord remained with us after our baptism, and that Spirit is with us every moment of every day. In our baptism we abide deeply in Christ, and Christ abides deeply in us. While we may have moments, weeks, or years when we forget the joy of our baptism, Christ never forgets the moment that he marked us as his own forever. Whether we realize it out not, we are protected and healed, called and challenged, comforted and fed every day by the fruits of our baptism. How much richer would our lives be if we stopped to notice this, if we saw the stream of living water that runs through our hearts, stopped the chariot of this whirlwind of a life, and asked, What is to prevent me from living baptized? For there is nothing – no worldly worry or temptation, no inconvenience or frustration or fear – that can stop Christ from claiming you as his own. There is nothing that can prevent you from being his. And if you ever need a reminder, just turn to the pages of the Book of Common Prayer: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” The bond of your baptism is indissoluble. This is your true context. So why not go out and live it? Live baptized, and go your way rejoicing.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
22 April 2018
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia