Easter Sermon, March 31

This morning we get to celebrate the baptism of two of our members! Any day is a good day to get baptized. But Easter is a really special time to be baptized, because there are such close connections between Easter and baptism.

Jesus was baptized, by his cousin John, but in the Gospels he talks about his death as another baptism – something he has to go through, to immerse himself in. The word baptism comes from a Greek word that just means “to dunk in water.” So Jesus immerses himself in the waters of death – just like someone going down into the baptismal waters – and comes out, renewed. 

A lot about baptism is mysterious. It’s one of the things we do because Jesus told us to do it, so we ultimately just don’t know what it means or what it does. But that connection with Jesus’ death and resurrection is part of the Church’s understanding: that in baptism we die with Jesus, and rise to new life in Jesus. 

For the first Christians, Easter was when they baptized people – they’d prepare for baptism in Lent, like Kai and Safa have, and then be baptized at Easter, as part of a big celebration of resurrection and new life and joy. So Easter is a very special time for baptism! 

I read something recently about how Easter is kind of like baptism for the whole church. Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann wrote, “Even though we are baptized, what we constantly lose and betray is precisely that which we received at baptism. Therefore Easter is our return every year to our own baptism, [and] Lent is our preparation for that return… Every Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.” 

So Schmemann is saying that over time, our commitment to living in God’s ways, our clarity about our belonging and belovedness as part of God’s family, gets dented and dimmed by life. 

And Lent and Easter offer us an opportunity to come back to those things, to recover and rediscover, every year. We can’t get baptized again, but we can immerse ourselves in the heavy days of Holy Week and arrive at the fulfillment of Easter. I love that idea – that today isn’t just Kai and Safa’s baptismal day, but it’s a baptism day for all of us who are Kai and Safa’s baptismal community. 

One of the ways we act that out is by joining our baptismal candidates in recommitting ourselves to life as God’s people. Every time there’s a baptism and sometimes when there isn’t, we reaffirm the Baptismal Covenant – a responsive version of the Creed, and then those five questions where we respond, I will with God’s help! Those five questions were written for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and have become very beloved and important to people. They offer a good list of practices that will help us stay close to God and each other and ourselves, and be the people God calls us to be for the world. 

But there’s another part of the service we might not know as well, because it goes by fast, and because only the candidates and their families and sponsors say it, not the whole congregation. That’s the Three Renunciations and the Three Affirmations. You can see them on your Sunday supplement – in the first part of the baptismal liturgy. A bunch of questions that start with “Do you”! 

The Renunciations and Affirmations are very old; they seem to go back to pretty early in the Christian practice of baptism. Basically, before you step up to be baptized, somebody speaking for the church asks you: Do you RENOUNCE evil? … RENOUNCE is a fancy word that means, I’m done with this! I won’t have anything to do with it anymore, ever! 

And then they ask: Do you choose to follow Christ? Are you turning away from this one thing, and turning towards this other thing? … 

I want to talk a little more about those Renunciations. There have been many versions, over 1800 years or so. In the version in our prayer book the renunciations move from the cosmic, to the world we live in, to our own interior life: 

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? 

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?… 

Sometime about 300 years after the time of Jesus, a church leader named Cyril of Jerusalem described what happens at a baptism – kind of explaining what it meant to somebody who has been recently baptized. Here’s part of what he said: 

“Then they told you to you raise your hand, and you renounced Satan, as if he were actually present…. This shameless, impudent demon, the source of all evil, chases you as far as the fountain of salvation. But the demon disappears in the waters of salvation.

That is why you were ordered to raise your hand and say to Satan, as if he were actually present: “I renounce you, Satan,  wicked and cruel tyrant!” … 

And you asserted: “Henceforth, I am no longer in your power. For Christ destroyed that power by sharing with me a nature of flesh and blood. He destroyed death by dying; never again shall I be enslaved to you. I renounce you, crafty serpent full of deceit! I renounce you who lurk in ambush, who pretend friendship but have been the cause of every sin! I renounce you, Satan, author and helper of every evil!”

I think we should consider adding all that! It’s pretty exciting. 

Now, listen: I don’t know if I believe in Satan – the Devil – or not. But there is sure lot of badness in the world. People who do hurtful things – and not just by accident but on purpose. 

There are bad thoughts and ideas and words and forces and systems. Things that shape people’s lives; things that get into our hearts and minds, that hurt us and hurt other people and hurt the world. There’s not really any question that there’s a lot that’s bad and hurtful – a lot that is evil – in the world. 

That’s one thing people mean when they talk about Satan or the Devil: a way to put a name on all that badness and the ways it causes pain and suffering. 

That is what we’re renouncing, when we renounce Satan. 

Schmemann writes, “To renounce Satan thus is not to reject a mythological being in whose existence one [may] not even believe. It is to reject an entire worldview made up of pride and self-affirmation… which has truly taken human life from God and made it into darkness, death and hell. And one can be sure that Satan will not forget this renunciation, this rejection, this challenge…  A war is declared!”

Cyril of Jerusalem says, “When you renounce Satan, you break off every agreement you have entered into with him, every covenant you have established with Hell…. Draw strength from the words you have spoken, and be watchful. For your adversary, the Devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” 

In baptism, we choose sides. We state our intention to be people who are for good, and against evil. 

I saw a wonderful Facebook post earlier this week about how it’s OK to go to church even if you don’t believe. Alex Griffin, a Canadian Anglican priest, wrote, ”As a society, we are grieving and afraid as our world breaks before our eyes, but there is so much pressure to keep going and pretend that everything is fine. The rituals of church—and especially the rituals at church over the [days of Holy Week]—hold space for that grief…. 

If you’re looking for a space to grieve and be comforted, it’s okay to come… It probably won’t change your life, but you may just find the moment of solace that you need.” 

I know that for folks outside of church or on the edges of church, it can seem like all those people in the pews must have something rock-solid and clear inside of them that they call Faith. And getting from here to there might seem impossible.

The reality is, of course, that for folks who show up at church regularly, faith can be messy and murky. There are plenty of people in any congregation who are here because they feel drawn to something they don’t feel they really understand – because they’re looking for comfort and connection in community – because they want to believe, even if they feel unable to make the leap. 

There are also people here with a strong, clear faith – but even for folks like that, it’s kind of like the weather, you know? The sun is always shining, but there are plenty of hours and days when we can’t see it. And even when we can: sometimes its light creates great beauty; sometimes it feels harsh or glaring…. or faint and inadequate. 

But one of the things we can be clear about, together, even in seasons when it’s hard to see the sun, is being a community that is for good and against evil. Haphazardly, imperfectly, always learning more about our own complicity and ignorance, always working to build our capacity to show up for what matters in our community and the world… 

But: Striving to be on the side of hope, wholeness, and delight. 

Years ago, a member of our congregation – long since moved away – told me that that’s what’s important about St. Dunstan’s for him. That when the world gets heavy – politics, climate, human pain, there’s so much – when it all really starts to weigh him down, one of the things that eases the burden is knowing that he is part of this group of people that are trying to be helpers. 

I think that’s one of the most important things about church. And that’s not a step away from God at all. Right from the very first covenant between God and Abraham and Sarah, God says that God’s people are blessed to be a blessing. Called, chosen, set apart to be for the good of others, and the world. 

Wait, one more thing: Mark’s Gospel has a really strange ending. You might see some more stuff tacked onto the end of Mark’s Gospel in some Bibles, but this is how Mark ends his telling of the good news of Jesus Christ: “And they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” The women who come to tend Jesus’ body receive the good news of the resurrection – and they run away. Of course! How strange! How terrifying! Nobody’s going to believe them! 

And yet: We know that’s not how the story ends. We know, because the Gospel of Mark exists. So, the story got told.  

I really love this kind of open-ended, paradoxical ending. Because it invites us to wonder: How did these women, Mary and Salome and Mary, find their way through fear and confusion and grief, to being able to believe that love is stronger than death? And then to sharing that news, even if a lot of people thought they were stupid or delusional? 

And that question very quickly becomes a question that isn’t just about these women in Mark’s Gospel, but about me. About us. 

And about whether those spiritual forces of wickedness, those powers that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, are going to hold us bound by fear, by what’s sensible and rational and normal, or whether we can find the boldness to claim mystery and possibility and joy. 

[In just a moment/Later this morning] we’re going to baptize Safa and Kai. But first, let’s take just a moment to do what the prayer book doesn’t invite us to do: To say the renunciations together. Because there is something very powerful about not just claiming our positive intentions – as we will in the Baptismal Covenant – but also reminding ourselves of what we turn away from, what we reject and resist. 

It’s traditional in many places to face West for the renunciations – and to hold out your hand. You can try that out if you like! … 

When a baptismal candidate answers these questions they say, “I renounce them!” Because it’s their day to make that choice. But let’s say “We renounce them!” Right now – because this is work we continue together. 

Beloved of God! Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?

We renounce them! 

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

We renounce them! 

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

We renounce them! 

May God sustain us in these intentions, and bless, console, and empower us, as a people of courage, love, and joy, today and always. Amen.