The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
In this morning’s gospel from St. John, we hear Jesus say these remarkable words,
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (John 14:8-16, 25-27)I hope you remember these words, Henry. Well, of course, I don’t expect you to remember, exactly. You are only eight months old today.
I hope your parents save this baptismal love letter for you – along with your baptismal certificate and candle – and when you are of an age to confirm the vows made for you today, I hope you’ll take this letter out and find this gospel passage, and read it for yourself.
Yours is the 70th baptism I've done in the eight years I've been privileged to be rector here. Number 71 is coming up in about three weeks.
The thing of it is, Henry, is that being a Christian is not a destination. It’s a journey. Today, you are baptized into the membership of the church. It’s the first step – a baby step of sorts – on the life-long journey to becoming a Christian.
It takes a lot of years of work to be a Christian – to understand the teaching of Jesus so that you can become a better person. A more compassionate person. A forgiving person. A person who cares for himself the way he cares for others, and cares for others the way he cares for himself.
If you study the teachings of Jesus, you’ll find that, like the Buddha and many of the prophets of the world’s religions, He is very big on compassion and forgiveness.
For Jesus, compassion and forgiveness actually walk hand in hand. Now, compassion and forgiveness sound easy enough, but if you ask anyone in this church today – people who have been Christian for most of their lives – they will tell you that true compassion and real forgiveness are not easy states to achieve.
I’m not talking about empathy or sympathy. Those are not difficult emotions in the human experience. Compassion is difficult because it means that you have to open your heart to the sufferings of others. You have to not only see and feel the pain of others, but you need to be moved to do something about it – to change it, or stop it, or transform it.
Compassion leads us, naturally, to the mission of Jesus, the mission of The Church, which the Catechism in the BCP tells us is “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” (p. 855) Which brings us from compassion to forgiveness.
Of the two, forgiveness is the more difficult – at least in my experience. It’s much easier to ask for forgiveness than to bestow it – especially when someone has hurt you deeply. And, trust me, Henry, at some point in your life, someone will hurt you. Deeply.
I know it's hard to imagine because you are so cute and cuddly today, but, here’s the even more shocking thing: In your lifetime, you will hurt someone just as deeply. Not intentionally, of course, but you will do it just the same. It doesn’t seem possible, now, but when you grow up, it will be unavoidable.
It’s the way of being human. We make mistakes. We mess things up. Indeed, we sometimes make a mess of things – of our lives and sometimes, in the process, the lives of others.
We seem to forget everything we’ve learned and everything we’ve been taught and we even hurt the very people we love. Indeed, sometimes it seems that we hurt most the people we love best. And, no one can hurt you like someone who loves you, someone you love in return.
Today, you are being baptized by water and the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus. Jesus says,
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom God will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all I have said to you.”So, not to worry. The same Holy Spirit that was the gift of the Resurrection of Jesus is here with you today.
And, the same Holy Spirit with which you are baptized today will be with you in your journey to become a Christian. To be your Companion and Guide. Your Teacher and Advocate. So that you can learn about compassion and forgiveness, by learning about the Love – fully Incarnate and fully Divine – that is Jesus.
That can’t possibly happen here today, in this one sacramental act. But, what happens here today is the beginning of the journey into a hundred thousand questions about life and death, love and hate, trust and betrayal, tears and joy, anxiety and peace.
A great philosopher once encouraged a young person to “live fully into the questions, so that one day, long into the future, you may live into the answer.”
That is never an easy journey, Henry. Indeed, living into questions can be a very fearful thing. Some religions, some churches, will want to give you answers. Indeed, they will even give you the questions along with the answers and ask you to memorize both.
If churches are true to their founder, Jesus Christ, they will help you with those questions – not by giving you answers, but by opening up a path where you can live into the questions of your life and find the Truth.
Some churches – some denominations – have given Jesus a bad name. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed, in some churches, to find a real Christian. It grieves my heart to see what is often associated with Christianity – the cruelty that is often done in the name of Jesus.
Not all churches are like that, Henry. I promise you.
Please promise me that you will not settle for that kind of Church or that kind of Christian. It may take you a while, to find a church were the people are marked by compassion and forgiveness, but they do exist.
You’ll know them because they – and their people – will be filled with the Holy Spirit and alive in the mission and ministry of Christ’s church.
Let me close by giving you an image of the church – and the Holy Spirit who dwells here – that I love.
It’s from an interview with Apollo Astronaut James Lovell, who was asked, “Is there a specific instance in an airplane emergency when you can recall fear”?
“Uh well, I'll tell ya, I remember this one time - I'm in a Banshee (aircraft) at night in combat conditions, so there's no running lights on the carrier. It was the Shrangri-La, and we were in the Sea of Japan and my radar had jammed, and my homing signal was gone... because somebody in Japan was actually using the same frequency. And so it was - it was leading me away from where I was supposed to be. And I'm lookin' down at a big, black ocean, so I flip on my map light, and then suddenly: zap. Everything shorts out right there in my cockpit. All my instruments are gone. My lights are gone. And I can't even tell now what my altitude is. I know I'm running out of fuel, so I'm thinking about ditching in the ocean. And I, I look down there, and then in the darkness there's this uh, there's this green trail. It's like a long carpet that's just laid out right beneath me. And it was the algae, right? It was that phosphorescent stuff that gets churned up in the wake of a big ship. And it was - it was - it was leading me home. You know? If my cockpit lights hadn't shorted out, there's no way I'd ever been able to see that. So uh, you, uh, never know... what... what events are to transpire to get you home.”Sometimes, when it’s at its best, the church, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, is that long, phosphorescent light that shines in times when things are darkest and you are most afraid, and helps to lead you home.
I’m so pleased that, even though you can’t yet walk, you have taken your first steps on the journey in faith in the church. May the Holy Spirit who led you and your parents here, stay with you and guide you, and always lead you, in all truth, to your home.