Sermon Text: Matthew 6:13b (as found in KJV)
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The following is my original manuscript. When the sermon was finished, I transitioned into the liturgy for the reaffirmation of our baptismal covenant.
Later in the service we’re going to have a special liturgy from our United Methodist and Christian tradition known as the reaffirmation of our baptismal covenant. I’ll say more about that later. To help us prepare for it, I want us to think about what baptisms meant for people living in the first few centuries after Jesus’ resurrection and the birth of the Church—before Christianity became the official religion of the empire. During this time period, Christianity was a minority religion, and a persecuted religion. Becoming a Christian was risky, and it meant actively rejecting the pagan gods that a person grew up with—the gods of their parents, grandparents, and ancestors.
These gods, it was believed, divinely sanctioned the brutal and oppressive world of the Roman Empire. These gods established the world order and were always only on the side of the powerful and rich, regardless how brutal they were. These gods sanctioned and celebrated spectacles of death—like gladiatorial contests and other rituals of public murder. These gods endorsed slavery. They endorsed human sacrifice for their appeasement. These gods permitted the paranoid Herods of the world to kill dozens or hundreds of infants with impunity.
More than anything, the religion of these gods said, “This is the way life is. This is the way things are, and the way things will always be. If you don’t like it because you think it’s wrong and it’s evil, then that’s too bad.” The most sophisticated and compassionate Greek and Roman philosophers taught that the best that you could do is to resign yourself to your fate. Nothing will change. And the Roman emperor and his minions, whom the gods favored, will see to that. 
With this context in mind, consider what one’s Christian baptism meant: It was the single most important event in the life of a Christian convert. To say the least, the early Church did not take baptism lightly. The Church required catechesis, or training, of all new believers—similar to confirmation class, except that it could last for years before the catechumen was ready to be baptized.
After they were able to sufficiently articulate the meaning of the Christian faith and demonstrate their ability to live in a Christian way, they were baptized by the bishop, usually on the night before Easter morning. These candidates for baptism were taken in the dark to a baptismal pool or stream. The first part of the baptism liturgy was the renunciation of the devil, sin, and evil. We continue this tradition in our baptisms today. We renounce “the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of our sin.”
Back then, however, it was even more explicit: You see, Christians then were literally repudiating the gods that they had previously worshiped. They now acknowledged the one triune God—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They acknowledged that the old gods were not gods at all, but—and this is important—they were not nothing. They believed, in other words, that there were evil and deceptive spiritual forces at work behind the gods that they formally worshiped. When Paul talks about whether or not it’s O.K. to eat meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians, he says the same thing. These idols are not really gods, of course, but there is a satanic power behind them, seeking to lead us astray and destroy our faith. As I said last week, it may be difficult for us modern and post-modern people to accept the reality of evil spiritual forces. If you are skeptical, I would ask you to be skeptical of your skepticism. Surely if there are these evil spiritual forces, they would want you not to know it!
The baptism candidate’s renunciation of sin and evil was more than words. The bishop would turn the candidate to the west—in the direction of the setting sun, which symbolized these forces of darkness and evil. The candidate would literally spit in the direction of the west—a sign of utmost disrespect. Its modern-day equivalent would be giving the old gods the finger! The bishop would then ritually blow on the candidate, which was a kind of exorcism—the Holy Spirit symbolically driving away these evil forces. Not that they believed that the candidate was possessed by the devil, but that they had previously been held captive by them, as Paul discusses in Ephesians 2 and elsewhere.
After this renunciation of sin and evil, the bishop would turn the candidate toward the east, the direction of the rising sun, to symbolize Christ, the Light of the World, who was now shining into this person’s life. The person would confess Jesus Christ as their savior and affirm the faith of the Church by reciting the Apostles’ Creed. They were then lowered down into the water, naked, symbolizing their new birth. And the bishop would immerse them three times in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When the newly baptized Christian emerged from the water he or she was given a white garment symbolizing God’s forgiveness and the washing away of sin. And they would also be given a cup of milk mixed with honey to drink—symbolizing their new life in God’s Promised Land.
My point is that newly baptized Christians emerged from the baptismal waters very aware of their new life in Christ. They were also very conscious of having made some important choices: not only choosing to follow Jesus but also rejecting the old ways of life that lead to death; saying “no” to the old gods, the evil spiritual forces that held them captive. Living in a hostile, non-Christian world, they would be reminded daily of these choices—what they gained and what they willingly gave up—and their faith would be tested constantly. Would their new faith stand the test of time?
So much has changed both in our world and in our practice of baptism, but the basic meaning is the same: we choose the life-giving way of Christ and we reject the death-dealing ways of the world. We reject the old gods. [Introduce text responses to the question, “What are the idols in our lives today?”] When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, including this doxology—“Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Amen.”—we affirm the meaning of our baptism all over again, in a very concise way.
We affirm that we are in God’s kingdom now, under his rule—which means choosing to follow Jesus by loving as he loved, freely submitting ourselves to God our Father. We respect the world’s kingdoms and governments but put them in proper perspective. As Don Martin says every Patriotic Sunday service, “We salute the flag but kneel at the cross.” Perhaps in some ways this was easier to do when the kingdom in question was the Roman Empire and the king was brutal Caesar. Our democratic system, as preferable as it is to alternatives, has a dangerous way of reinforcing the idea that we are all little kings unto ourselves. When we pray, “Thine is the kingdom,” we are relinquishing our crowns.
When we pray, “Thine is the power,” we remember the kind of power that Jesus demonstrated, expressed most beautifully on the cross when he looked at the people who put him there and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Living a life of self-sacrificial love and forgiveness is true power. Think about this: when we hold onto our grudges against each other; when we keep track of wrongs; we give the person who wronged us power over us: power to hurt us all over again; power to stir up those raw emotions; power to wound those tender places in our hearts. God doesn’t want that for us. God wants to heal us. When we accept that true power belongs to God, we learn the power to let go.
When we pray, “Thine is the glory,” we give up on the pursuit of our own glory. I heard an interview with New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, in the wake of last week’s heartbreaking victory over the Indianapolis Colts. I’m afraid I’m too much of a Falcons fan to root for the Saints. When I was a kid back in the ’70s and early ’80s, no matter how bad the Falcons were, I could always count on the Saints being worse! I’m not sure how to handle their newfound prosperity. Anyway, Coach Payton said that he took the Lombardi Trophy—the Super Bowl trophy—back to his hotel that night and slept with it; it lay beside him in bed. I would have done the same thing! Payton, to his credit, said that when he got to the hotel, he prayed a prayer of thanks, not simply for his team’s victory but for the ability to enjoy and celebrate the good things in life, which are God’s gifts to us.
I want so desperately to hold onto my little trophies; I want so desperately to bask in my own glory; I want so desperately for others to recognize me, praise me, glorify me. This prayer reminds us that while we can celebrate our life’s victories, we keep them in perspective. To God alone belongs true glory.
Finally, we say, “Amen,” in this prayer. Saying, “Amen,” is an invitation to action. It says, “What I’ve just said is the truth. I agree with it.” And if we agree with it, it changes our lives. If we agree with it, we do some things that look crazy in the eyes of the world: We take a week of vacation, and pay our own way to go to places like Honduras, where we install concrete floors, tin roofs, and latrines for the poor living there—and teach children the love of Jesus. We offer 154 crates of food and 560 lbs. of rice to North Fulton Community Charities. We make 1,700 prayer blankets for the sick in 2009. We give over $1,000 last week to Trinity Mission last week. We give up our Saturday afternoons to renovate the Vaughn House, a prime piece of Alpharetta real estate, which we freely make available to recovering alcoholics in our community.
Why do we do it? Because we say, “Amen.” We say that this good news of God’s saving work in his Son Jesus is the truth. We say it through our words; we say it through our actions; we say it through our prayers and in our thoughts. Amen!
We’re now going to say, “Amen,” in these moments ahead to our baptism…
1. Most of my information on baptisms in the first few centuries of Church history comes from David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 111-128.