Franklin Golden: A great day, an eternal day, the day of your baptism

The day of your baptism is the loveliest day of your life, a Durham pastor says. It is the day you get a new family called church.

Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached on March 10, 2013, at Durham Church in Durham, N.C., on the occasion of the baptism of James Andrew Diekman, the son of Amanda and Brian Diekman of Durham.

Deuteronomy 14:1a
Galatians 3:27-29; 4:6-7
Romans 6:3-5, 8; 8:39
John 12:24

Dear James,

I want to let you in on a little secret about me. Perhaps you’ve picked up on it already. I am overly fond of superlatives. I think they are the best. But I’m not exaggerating when I say, “Today is the loveliest day of your life.” Today is an eternal day. It is a great, great day -- the day of your baptism.

A few months from now, your parents are going to sit you down in a highchair, in a room filled with family and friends. They might put a little hat on your head. They will sing a song as they bring out a piece of food that looks like it’s on fire. It’s called cake. It is delicious.

You will put it all over your face. Enjoy it. In that moment, surrounded by people who love you, high on sugar, you might think, “This is the greatest day of my life.” But don’t forget today. I hope this is the day you cherish above all other days of your life -- the day of your baptism.

The scripture we read this morning is from Deuteronomy 14: “You are the Lord’s children” (CEB).

James, I want you to notice what this verse doesn’t say. It does not say, “You are the Lord’s child,” though you certainly are. It is addressed to a group of people, a family. This little detail might be the most important clue in learning to read the Bible faithfully. From the very beginning, you are lumped in the story of God with other people -- people not of your own choosing but God’s.

This morning you are getting a new family we call church. We also call it the body of Christ. Being baptized means you belong to the body of Christ as much as you belong to your parents or grandparents or any brothers and sisters who come your way. When my cousin Cole was baptized, the pastor asked his family to come to the baptismal font. When they all looked back out, there wasn’t a single person left in the pews. I hope that’s the kind of love and belonging you always feel from Durham Church.

“You are the Lord’s children.”

There’s only one way to hear this: together. Of course, there are some people the Lord calls by name, people who are singled out for special work for the family. They inevitably find it a horrifying experience. It changes them forever.

The story you are now part of really got going when God called a man named Abram. God told him to leave his parents and his home and set off for a land God would show him. God promised Abram that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him, and then God changed Abram’s name to Abraham.

God loved nothing more than making Abraham all sorts of crazy promises. Once God told Abraham that he would have more children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren and great-great-great-grandchildren than there are stars in the sky. Abraham could not know it at that moment, but God did -- you are one of those children, James.

You have always been part of this story that began so long ago. In fact, the promises Abraham received weren’t perfect without you. Abraham and all the others who’ve gone before you have been waiting for you -- for this moment. How does that feel? To know you are absolutely essential to God’s design and aim for human history.

Another person God called by name was Paul. Paul is great at explaining how all this works. A long time ago he wrote a group of his friends and he said:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. … And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (NRSV).

Did you hear that, James? Those crazy promises God made Abraham are for you, too. That’s what your baptism is really all about. Nothing magical happened when the water fell over your head. It’s a reminder of the promises. It’s one of the ways God says, “Remember, James: I love you, and I am not going anywhere. Remember, Durham Church: You are the Lord’s children.”

How does it feel? To know you are that precious. To know you were chosen so long ago.

Another one of Abraham’s children was a guy named Moses. Moses is also one of the people God called by name and set aside for special work, all for the sake of God’s family. He’s the one telling us today, “You are the Lord’s children.”

He put that in the middle of a long list of rules. Right now you are enjoying the precious few months of life where no one really asks much from you. But already your mom and dad are starting to put expectations around how you live. There’s a time for sleeping and a time for eating. There’s a time for playing. Your mom and dad know you’ll flourish when you live according to certain rules and rhythms.

That’s all God is trying to do with the rules he gave Moses. The rules are a precious gift. They help the Lord’s children know how to live. We are expected to behave in ways that please God, because we belong to the Lord in the most intimate, personal way possible.

As soon as you are old enough to start paying attention to these rules and rhythms of life, you’ll learn that it’s not easy. It’s like learning to walk. No sooner do you stand up on your own two feet and take a few steps than you totter and fall. Sometimes the most faithful thing we can ever do is stand back up and try again.

OK, enough about rules. Following them is important, but what’s special about your life is not that you become a certain kind of rule follower. The rules aren’t going anywhere, but what will make your life lovely is that you will be following a person. His name is Jesus.

I know you’ve heard this name before. I’m sure you heard it plenty even before you were born, listening as the rest of us talked to Jesus and about Jesus. In fact, I bet from the time you came out of the womb you’ve been looking around and wondering, “Which one of you is Jesus?”

We see Jesus in each other, in the family God calls together. We find Jesus when we gather together.

It’s only fair for me to warn you right now, James, that following Jesus will mark you as odd. You will grow up in a time when many or most of the people around you don’t share our beliefs. They will tell you that Jesus was nothing more than a teacher who lived and died a long time ago. But we believe something else -- we believe Jesus is the way God fulfilled all those promises made to Abraham so long ago.

Following Jesus will set you apart. It won’t make you better than other people -- you must never think that -- but it will make you different. When your parents decided to have you baptized, in a way, they were saying, “Our deepest prayer for you, James, is that you be strange. Our great hope is that you will believe crazy things like this: an unspeakably good man was killed 2,000 years ago, but the God of Israel raised him from death … and he is alive now. We pray that before you hear our voices or the voices of friends you will hear the voice of the one who tells you to take up your own cross. And love your enemies. And never resist evil with violence. We don’t want you to be an admirer of Jesus; we want you to be a follower, whatever the cost. We want you to know that you can only live, really live, fully live, by dying.”

That’s not easy for parents to say, James. But you kind of scored in the parent department. Your parents know what it is to live, because they’ve read all those words Paul wrote to his friends.

Here are some more:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. … If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.”

James, you might be thinking to yourself right about now, “This is some heavy stuff to lay on a little fella like me.” I get that, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, the only way to know real joy and love and purpose is to learn that following Jesus is less a way of living and more a way of dying -- a daily dying to ourselves and our fears and grudges and self-absorption in order to live for God and other people.

Baptism is a reminder that God’s love is costly. Our task and call is to assume Christ’s form of life. To live in the way Jesus did. Some churches have a funny way of baptizing. The person holding the baby will take a cross from his neck, and before baptizing the baby, he smacks him on the chest with the cross -- hard enough to leave a mark. It’s a way of saying you are marked as Christ’s own forever. It’s also a reminder that the way of the cross can hurt.

There may be times when you say, “Hold on, now. Jesus died … so I don’t have to.” But really, it’s the opposite: being a follower of Jesus is as much about the death and resurrection of us as it is of Jesus. Jesus died so we could share in his life with God, not when our bodily lives end, but now. This is really good news, James. It means that in our baptism we are all drawn so deeply into the life of God that we can say we become the flesh and blood of God in the world.

This is how Jesus talked about it:

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

James, there’s no way to live without dying. Let’s help each other remember that. There will be times when we will want to understand ourselves as anything other than the Lord’s children. We will want to be free from the covenant that binds us to the Lord and a lifetime of giving ourselves away in love.

In those moments, let us both pray for each other that we would return in our hearts to the waters of our baptism. And like a grain of wheat -- small, buried deep in the darkness of the earth -- die.

And in that darkness, trust that God brings life from death. And from that darkness, emerge again and remember who we are -- those who are called into being by God’s choosing us. We are, all of us, the Lord’s children, by God’s love and nothing else.

No one knows what’s ahead for you, James. The uncertainty of life can be all but unbearable for those who love you and want to keep you safe. We don’t know what the future holds for any of us, but we know what we have promised to you today.

We will walk with you and your parents as long as we are able. We will walk with you as we all learn to love each other and the one whose image we bear. Most importantly, we know what God has promised today: nothing in life or death will ever be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A few days ago I went to my computer to put this day on my calendar. I wanted to set it up so the computer would automatically put your baptism on my calendar every year. I love what it said:

“Repeat: Yearly. End: Never.”

This is an eternal moment.

May you remember March 10th every year of your life, and light your baptismal faith in the hearts of all who come to know you, James Andrew, child of the covenant, heir according to the promise, bearer of beauty and joy.

Much love always,

Franklin