A sermon preached at the 9:00am and 11:15am masses for the Feast of All Saints at Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver
According to Christian tradition, the apostle Thomas stopped by Baghdad on his way to India and gathered the first Christian congregation there. The ministry of the Revd Canon Andrew White at St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad recalls those apostolic foundations, when the first generations of believers were baptized.
The congregation sings praises to Jesus, calling him Yeshua. The Lord’s Prayer is recited in Aramaic, the language in which Jesus gave it to his disciples. Canon White is called abouna, related to the New Testament word abba, by his parishioners.
Canon White has faced circumstances as the Anglican leader in Iraq that stagger the mind and shock the soul. With the rise of the ISIS terrorist militia in Syria and Iraq he is witnessing, firsthand, the elimination of worshiping Christian communities that have literally gathered from the earliest days of the Church’s ministry.
What does the Church do in the face of such pressure – surrounded by such menace?
What do we do? We baptize saints.
We baptize the poor and those who mourn. We baptize the meek and those who hunger after righteousness. We baptize the merciful and the pure. We baptize the persecuted and those who will be reviled. We baptize saints.
Earlier in October, despite threats, a family of five was baptized. Canon White said, “I have baptized five people today. One of the Christian politicians came to me and pleaded with me to Baptize a mother and her four children, I listened to them and it was clear they all loved Jesus. I therefore baptized them all. Despite the tragedy all around us we are so aware of the presence a glory of God, What a joy it was when the 10-year-old came up to me after the Baptism and said ‘I feel all new now, I am all different’ and he was.”
‘I feel all new now I am all different’ and he was.” We baptize saints.
Hearing the Canon White’s story about these five Baptisms reminded me of Peter in Acts 10 when he says, “can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people..?” I think it is telling that the most essential element of human life – water – is that which is needed for Baptism.
The Holy Spirit moves over this most common substance to make of common people something new and holy – something which shines a light in the world that darkness cannot overcome.
It is easy to be either too supernatural about Baptism or to be a little blasé about it – to treat it as we think of any other rite of membership. Let me be clear though – Christian Baptism is not like getting your membership card at Costco. It is also though not a magic act that somehow, invisibly, grants perks for the next life alone – it changes this one.
Baptism is the anointing of Christians into Christ’s own ministry. It is forgiveness, healing, death, and life given in an instant. We rise from the water dripping with promise – soaked in the life of Christ. We are changed in ways that defy explanation and escape mere words.
Sometimes, we all struggle with prayers – we wonder what really happens on the other side of them.
I certainly have. I’ll use the Eucharistic Prayer as an example. Have you ever wondered why Christ says that bread and wine become his Body and Blood? I have. What is happening here?
I remember watching intently as a 10 year old. I held my breath as the words were said. “This is my Body…” … and I waited … for something … to happen. On the surface nothing seemed changed – yet we have Christ’s promise that everything is changed. Everything is new. Everything is different.
All of the Sacraments work like this.
When we say, “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”
When, in Confession, we say, “I absolve you from all your sins.”
When, in Healing, we say, “I lay my hands upon you that you may know the healing power of his love.”
When we say, in Ordination, “…give your Holy Spirit to your servant; fill him with grace and power, and make him a priest in your Church.”
When we, the Church, say these things we do it with pregnant expectation that something is different on the other side of those words – that change is there, beating around us, on the wings of a dove.
But we do not see it, so how can we be sure? One proof is the lives of the Saints we commemorate today on All Saints Day.
One proof of the truth of the power of the Spirit is that some people live in such a way that all of the promise of those Sacramental moments, those moments of the Church’s deepest prayers, is revealed in holy living and faithful dying.
In the face of death we baptize into new life. We baptize saints. In the face of shame and guilt we forgive sins. In the face of a culture starving for God we consecrate Living Bread. In the face of mortal illness we anoint with healing oil.
We do all of this because we know, as deeply as it can be known, that Christ is changing us – challenging us – holding us – and watching us.
He’s watching and holding his breath because he knows. He knows. A change is happening. He knows that common people are becoming saints today.