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Today we celebrate Philip, a deacon and evangelist of the early church. His actions issue an uncomfortable challenge to us liturgy-loving Episcopalians. In fact, Philip is rather strange to us. He takes off into the wilderness after a word from an angel, jumps into the chariot of an Ethiopian eunuch and preaches, I mean preaches, the good news. Then, apparently ignoring the eunuch’s perfectly valid question about what’s preventing him from being baptized (oh, I don’t know -- a nine-month catechumenate class, a sponsor, an alb, the examination and baptismal covenant, a blessing of the water, some chrism, the Paschal candle, definitely a priest to preside), they both plunge into a nearby waterhole for a bath. (I’m not sure there was a Trinitarian formula in there, either.)
Sure, sure. That was the early church. They did crazy stuff back then. We can’t just go around baptizing whomever at whichever body of water we happen across, making disciples of all nations, teaching them about Jesus’ commandments . . . Oh yeah: the Great Commission. That pesky Great Commission.
What prevents me from being baptized? None of us wants to answer, “The church.” Yet sometimes that seems to be how we respond.
Gabi and Jorge are Mexican immigrants living outside Portland, Oregon. They didn’t carry their marriage certificate north, which means they couldn’t prove that they were married to the local Roman Catholic priest when it came time to baptize their daughter Ana. This was a problem without a solution for all involved, and so Gabi and Jorge knocked on the nearby Episcopal church’s door instead, distraught. All seemed to be going well until it became obvious that the couple expected a private baptism on a Saturday a couple weeks away, on Ana’s first birthday. The prayer book expects all baptisms to be public and ideally to be performed on five particular Sundays a year. The next date fell some months away. What would you do? What would Philip do? Philip’s fearless evangelism serves an active, even uncontrollable Spirit at work in the world around us.
A master teacher was nearing death. Her students were very concerned. One finally asked her, “What will we do once you’re gone? To whom will we turn?” The teacher looked about her, taking in the anxious stares of her pupils. Behind them she could see the far bank and hear the coursing current of their valley’s river. “All I’ve been doing these many years was sitting on the riverbank handing you river water. When I die, I hope you will notice the river.”
I wonder if as a priest some day I’ll ever feel like I’m sitting beside a river of God’s grace handing out the sacraments to a polite line of Episcopalians but we’re all forgetting to notice the river? I think at times I’ll feel, probably because some of my parishioners will feel, that my primary job is to service the church’s liturgy before I serve God and the Trinity’s unpredictable Spirit. I’m going to pass by some baptisms if I fall into that sort of thinking, because I’ll be forgetting to notice the source of love from which we all, as a church, quench our thirst.
Of course, God’s grace is all around us, not tied up in a lonely river coursing through the spiritual landscape of our lives. But if that’s the case, we people of God ought not be tied up in our churches alone. There’s plenty of gas-guzzling chariots full of confused passengers out there. We just need more of us out in the wilderness pointing out to folks the refreshing, saving waters around them. Noticing font after font and after font that God provides for us inside and outside church doors.
The Episcopal Church offers candidates a beautiful, powerful baptismal ceremony filled with covenantal words to live by. We have structured our very Christian identity around the sacrament of Holy Baptism. We’re talking about an indissoluble bond that God is establishing. This is serious stuff, which is why it’s a great idea to run a 9-month catechumenate program.
But a funny thing happens when we consider more closely what a high view of baptism entails: two opposing approaches emerge. One makes us comfortable: it involves careful preparation of the candidate and attention to detail while planning the liturgy. But a high view of baptism also suggests we don’t wait another minute to baptize someone who asks for it and understands its meaning, at least as much as any of us can understand the mystery of God’s impossible grace. What prevents me from being baptized? Heck if I know! Let’s do this! Who am I, Lord, to do otherwise?
Let’s say you’ve spent weeks planning a baptismal service. You finish baptizing the folks who have been preparing months for this moment, and then you ask the congregation: Who else feels called to be baptized right now in the cool waters of God’s grace? When in return you hear a Spirit-filled “Baptize me!,” and you start getting worried about the propriety of your question, lean on the promise of an indissoluble bond established by God and let the Spirit do the rest. (Then tell your bishop.)
All of us, not just future priests, are called by Jesus Christ to get out there, I mean out there in the wilderness bringing the stranger to baptism, pointing out the wonders of God’s love like there’s no tomorrow. This is the good news: God’s love is a ridiculous, all-in, always surprising kind of love, and God loves everybody, including you. What is your salvation to you? Where is its joy? 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 Jesus has commanded you. And remember, Jesus is with you always. His river is ever-flowing, and it will cleanse us, every one.