Soon after Star and I moved to Eastville, I found myself up highway 13 in Onley, to drop off some clothing for dry cleaning. With nothing else pressing, I was set to return home, and made a U-turn at the light there where the road leads to Onancock. Minutes later - just before the policeman wrote me a ticket - he asked, “Didn’t you see the sign?”
“The ‘no U-turn’ sign…It’s as plain as day.”
And, sure enough, it was, the ‘no U-turn’ sign posted there as plain as day.
Highway 13 is an abundant source of signs. Most of them not so important…but many very important: speed limits, no U-turns, yield, stop, go, caution, lane ends, headlights on while crossing the bridge; all of them remind us that we live with the government and each other in a legal covenant that’s intended to keep us safe. Hang on to the image of covenant signs for a few minutes, because today, I’m speaking about baptism: as a sign, and as a covenant, because we have a baptism to celebrate today.
In the Book of Common Prayer, Holy Baptism is defined as the rite of full initiation - by water and the Holy Spirit - into Christ’s Body the Church. It goes on to say that the covenant bond created in the act of baptism is indissoluble. That’s all good. But something must be happening for all that to occur; so what is it that happens in Baptism?
In the sacramental act of Baptism, we become members of the Church. But this membership isn’t limited to Hungars Church; or the Episcopal denomination in America. Rather, baptized Christians are members of the Church militant, the entire church that represents, and has represented Christ, since its beginning.
We can also think of baptism as a kind of permanent beginning, for in baptism, we enter into the possibility of a growing relationship with God that does not end, but rather begins anew every day – that working out of salvation St. Paul speaks of - because in the midst of baptism we are marked as Christ’s own, forever.
But something more happens, something sacred, something profoundly mysterious. Outwardly, there are the signs of water and oil. But inwardly, the Holy Spirit is amending life. And the person baptized is set apart to God. In her baptism today, we see the sign that Isabelle - a finite, human child - is an eternal child of the eternal God. And the child’s life, from this day forward - for better or worse - will be a life offered to God.
We take the model for this baptized life from our understanding of Jesus’ baptism. He came to be baptized by John. He had no need of spiritual cleansing or rebirth, and yet he was baptized.
Peter Gomes, an Episcopal preacher of note, suggested that Jesus was baptized as a witness to God’s claim upon him. In other words, the baptism of Jesus is sign to the people who witness the event - either in person, or by reading of it in the Gospels - that everything he does from that point on will be an offering to God.
But more than that, in his baptism, Jesus shows that he fully identifies with humans and human frailty. In his baptism, he becomes a part of our community - a part of our humanity. In our baptism, we recognize God’s claim on us; our lives become an offering to God. And become a part of a community. We think of it as a congregation, but it is a covenant relationship, and a covenant community.
This covenant relationship goes back. Before the new prayer book, or the old prayer book, before the English reformation – before Christ’s incarnation - there was covenant.
Creation - and subsequently, humanity - came into being through covenant. God’s people came into being through covenant. Mercy came into being through covenant. Laws came into being through covenant. Grace came into being through Covenant. And in the water of baptism, we enter into a covenant relationship, we come into a new spiritual state of being.
Far too often, though, people will feel as though this marks the end of the story. We’re done here. Move along - nothing else to see. But we must consider this: Jesus’ ministry didn’t end after his baptism. On the contrary, his ministry was just beginning. And from that point on, all that he did was to the glory of God, and his life became a witness to his vital relationship with the Father. From that point on, he was a sign to the people - and still is - that God is present with us.
So it is with us. Baptism is not solely for our own benefit. Rather it is meant as a sign to others, a sign that through believing in Christ something immense and life changing begins. And even if baptism is a personal, individual event, baptism is nonetheless intended as a covenant sign to all who witness it. And the life of the baptized thereafter should be a sign to others of the power and presence of God in this world.
It’s easy to forget about God in this world. And the world does forget - or ignore - the signs, like a busy priest in Onley in a hurry to head south. So, to us, this day is a sign, that through the waters of baptism, and through lives lived in Covenant with God, we become a sign to others; a sign that God exists, and that we can exist with God.
Today, we thank God for the baptism of Isabelle. Through baptism, she becomes a part the family of Christ Jesus, and begins a new life marked by incredible spiritual potential.
And we thank God for this sign: the water of baptism…in it we are buried with Christ in his death.
By it, we share in his resurrection. Through it, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.